Elephants in the Room
Can Nikki Haley Deliver One Last Time?
It’s not too late for Trump’s departing U.N. ambassador to cut Washington’s peacekeeping costs.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced earlier this month that she would leave the post at the end of the year. She is known for staking out clear positions—condemning violence and the use of chemical weapons in Syria, urging countries to think differently about Middle East peace, and calling for tougher sanctions, especially on North Korea.
Yet before she departs, Haley’s diplomatic chops will be tested by whether she can deliver on her promise to cut the U.S. share of U.N. peacekeeping costs and stop the growing U.S. arrears.
Today, the United States is obligated to pay about 28 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget—but Congress has capped U.S. funding at 25 percent. That gap has led to a growing debt and fewer resources for the more than 100,000 personnel in tough peacekeeping missions mandated to contain violence and protect civilians, which take tasks off the U.S. military’s plate in Mali, Somalia, and elsewhere.
In March, Haley boldly declared that she would strike a new deal with other countries so that the United States would only pay 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget. Nations pay different rates for U.N. peacekeeping, based chiefly on their share of the world economy. If successful, that accomplishment would align U.S. declared policy with U.S. legal obligations. The debt would not grow. Allies and other governments would respect the U.S. posture with no grounds to complain. Missions the U.S. votes for would be funded, and budgets would be better balanced.
But it is a heavy lift. Rates will be renegotiated this fall. Haley must now swing into action and persuade others to pay more—even if the U.S. economy is the strongest.
We know how difficult that task is. We first met during high-stakes negotiations on the U.N. assessment rate in 2000, on opposite sides of the aisle, working for then-Sen. Jesse Helms, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and for Richard Holbrooke, President Bill Clinton’s U.N. ambassador at the time. Then, the U.S. rate was more than 30 percent. We wanted 25 percent. Both Helms and Holbrooke saw the value in aligning what the U.S. paid with what it owed—but it was still an enormous challenge. Winning over other countries took months, with a full-time team and U.S. cabinet members pitching in. We got a new rate near 27 percent. Led by Helms, Congress rewarded Holbrooke’s progress and agreed to fund that amount.
The results were meaningful, opened the way for U.N. modernization, and strengthened U.S. standing.
Earlier this year, the State Department, the White House, and Haley’s team launched a diplomatic effort to line up other countries. Yet they do not seem to be making an aggressive push, including in capitals. To observers at home and overseas, it looks as though the United States may be dropping the diplomatic ball.
It’s not too late to get this right, however.
First, this is a big test for burden-sharing. It’s a focus for President Donald Trump, who has pressed NATO allies to ante up, and for Congress, which wants to defray international costs and leverage other donors’ contributions—which is one reason Congress steadfastly supports the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as a public-private partnership.
Second, the arrears are growing fast—about $250 million annually—building up new debt. That sends the wrong message that we don’t support the missions (even as we push to make them more effective), weakens operations, and empowers opponents of U.S. reform priorities. The administration’s delay in paying its current peacekeeping share also hinders missions and the U.S. case.
Third, aligning U.S. policy and payments removes the criticism that the United States is not meeting its obligations or supporting missions it votes for on the Security Council. We saw this happen 18 years ago—an unnecessary, painful distraction from the U.S. reform and security agenda.
Fourth, diplomacy works, but it requires arguing the case. Holbrooke hosted special events, including with Nelson Mandela, to highlight issues important to other countries. He engaged critics, including Helms, inviting him to address the Security Council. Helms recognized the hard work and progress, pressed other nations, and supported the deal in the end.
Haley is a prodigious political talent. She should get help from the administration, Congress, and outside advocates to lead a campaign to deliver for the United States in the next few months.
Last month, when world leaders met in New York, Trump declared that the United States would not pay more than 25 percent. When the peacekeeping rate is renegotiated in December, we will see if the country was able to mount a successful campaign to align U.S. words and deeds, and put U.S. policy on the right track to avert arrears and win burden-sharing.
Victoria Holt is a distinguished fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.