Trump Administration Takes Down Biden’s Legacy—at the U.N.

Quietly, the administration has been undermining the former vice president’s legislative fix to the perennial issue of U.S. dues.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Sens. Joe Biden (right) and Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chat with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 7, 1999.
Sens. Joe Biden (right) and Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chat with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 7, 1999. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has pulled out all the stops to thwart former Vice President Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic nomination, from the deployment of demeaning nicknames—remember “Sleepy Joe”?—to his reported efforts to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter in Ukraine or lose U.S. aid.

But the Trump administration has also quietly chipped away at one of Biden’s most important, albeit little-known, foreign-policy legacies: The 1999 Helms-Biden Act, which resulted in the payment of nearly $1 billion in unpaid arrears to the United Nations and restored Washington’s standing in the world body as it sought to rally international support for its post-9/11 campaign against al Qaeda.

Two decades ago, Biden, the then-Delaware senator, brokered a deal with Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, the ultra-conservative chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that marked the beginning of arduous international negotiations about U.S. payments to the U.N. The talks resulted in the elimination of most of a $1.1 billion debt and ended Washington’s reputation as the world’s biggest deadbeat U.N. funder.

“This was never seen as just a budget issue for all of the other countries of the world,” said Robert Orr, who served as the Washington point man for the late Richard Holbrooke, the diplomatic troubleshooter who helped persuade foreign governments to accept the conditions contained in the bipartisan legislation. “This was about the U.S. commitment to the international system and the U.S. following through on its pledged and responsibilities under the U.N. Charter.

“The U.S. relationship to the world and to the U.N. was really at stake, and it is at stake again in this period of time,” he added.

Today, Biden’s singular diplomatic achievement is in tatters. In the past three years, the Trump administration has quietly stopped paying hundreds of millions of dollars in peacekeeping dues, allowing U.S. arrears to the United Nations to approach a level not seen since the late 1990s, before the Helms-Biden Act passed. In January 2020, U.S. peacekeeping arrears are set to surpass the $1 billion mark and will continue to increase by more than $200 million each year after that.

The swelling U.S. debt may prove to be Trump’s most enduring legacy at the United Nations—though the blame is not entirely his. The debt has been fueled by a long-standing congressional cap that limits U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations to 25 percent of the overall cost, making the United States the world’s largest contributor. The U.N., which charges countries on the basis of their relative wealth, bills the United States for nearly 28 percent of overall peacekeeping costs, leaving a discrepancy that can amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. Previous administrations have found a variety of measures to pay down a significant portion of that debt. But Trump has allowed the debt to grow.

The dispute comes at a time of growing White House reluctance to fund U.N. activities. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House budget office, has proposed slashing U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping missions even further, along with most other forms of foreign assistance. But the White House has repeatedly backed down in the face of bipartisan opposition from Congress.

Still, the U.S. debt—combined with Washington’s long-standing practice of paying its dues at the end of the year, which began during the Reagan administration—has saddled poor countries that supply peacekeepers with shouldering the financial burden throughout the year. These countries, such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Nepal, have to pay the costs of deployments up front, relying for reimbursement on an increasingly cash-strapped U.N. secretariat.

“We are facing the deepest regular budget deficit in a decade, easily surpassing the $488 million deficit faced last October, with no solution in sight,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in an Aug. 2 letter to U.N. member states.

“Repeated financial crises take a heavy toll on the United Nations and our lifesaving work,” Guterres added. “Delays in expenditures caused by insufficient cash undermine the ability to meet our mandates … and deliver results.”

In a June report, the State Department also raised concerns about the impact of the growing arrears. “Accumulation of new UN peacekeeping arrears due to application of the 25 percent cap on U.S. peacekeeping contributions could impact U.S. influence and credibility at the UN, and further strain UN peacekeeping capacity at a time when the UN is engaged in a number of critical missions,” the report warned.

Republican and Democratic administrations have complained since the founding of the United Nations that the United States—which was obligated to pay nearly 40 percent of the U.N. budget in the 1940s—is responsible for too large of a share. Countries are assessed on the basis of their capacity to pay, based on per capita income, with premiums charged to permanent members for peacekeeping missions and discounts disbursed to developing countries.

“From the beginning, the U.S. argued that relying too heavily on one country would distort incentives for accountability within the organization and undermine the ‘sovereign equality of nations,’” Brett Schaefer, a U.N. expert at the Heritage Foundation, wrote to Foreign Policy in an email.

“The rationale remains sound and the U.S. is correct to insist on a maximum peacekeeping assessment of 25 percent,” he added. “For reasons of accountability and sovereign equality, no one nation should pay more than a quarter of the budget.”

Biden’s early involvement in the dues debate began in the 1990s, against a backdrop of growing disillusionment with the U.N., which had administered ambitious, costly, and deeply flawed efforts to contain mass atrocities in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia. The peacekeeping budget began to soar during the 1990s, as Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton backed a massive increase in peacekeeping missions. Between 1989 and 1994, the U.N. Security Council established 20 new missions, increasing the number of U.N. peacekeepers from about 11,000 to nearly 75,000.

After Clinton came into office, Republicans and Democrats began pushing back. In an effort to contain the rising cost of peacekeeping, a Democratic-led Congress passed the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1994-1995, capping the U.S. contribution to U.N. peacekeeping at 25 percent. It was signed into law by Clinton, who also mounted a campaign to scale back U.N. peacekeeping operations and the deployment of U.S. troops in such missions. At the time, the U.S. assessed share of the peacekeeping budget—calculated on the basis of gross national income plus a premium charged to the five permanent members of the Security Council—was more than 30 percent.

Helms—a strident critic of foreign aid, the United Nations, and international entanglements—assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1995. During two decades in the Senate, he had gained a reputation as “Senator No,” a hard-line conservative who fiercely opposed an expansion of rights for African Americans, women, and LGBT people.

Biden, the ranking Democrat on the committee at the time, approached Helms to do a deal. Biden’s outreach on U.N. debt gives insights into his approach to governing with political archrivals across the aisle as the country weighs whether to elect him president in what will be a hyperpartisan election in 2020.

In June, Sen. Kamala Harris sharply criticized Biden during a debate with Democratic presidential candidates for his positions on busing. In the 1970s and 1980s, Biden made fellow cause with Southern segregationists, emerging as the leading Democratic opponent in the Senate to court-ordered busing.

The final pact required a series of U.N. reforms, including a willingness to reduce the U.S. share of the U.N. administrative and peacekeeping budgets. The U.S. share of the $1.1 billion U.N. administrative budget would have to drop to 22 percent from 25 percent. America’s contribution to the $3 billion peacekeeping budget would have to be reduced from about 31 percent to the congressionally mandated 25 percent.

At the time, Biden faced criticism from his own party for signing on to what it saw as an unfair arrangement designed to extort U.N. members into paying part of the U.S. share of the budget.

The job of selling the deal was left to Clinton’s new U.N. ambassador, Holbrooke, who had already gained fame for leading the negotiations that ended the war in Bosnia. He led a multiphased campaign—badgering more than a hundred delegates one by one, seducing Helms with a high-profile invitation to address the Security Council, and calling in U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Clinton to apply pressure on reluctant states to accept the deal.

In the end, Holbrooke was able to reduce the U.S. share of the regular budget to 22 percent, but he fell short of the 25 percent target for the peacekeeping budget, which hovered around 27 percent at the time but has since inched back up to nearly 28 percent.

“Holbrooke approached us and said, ‘Try to take a partial yes for an answer,’ and Helms agreed,” said Mark Lagon, a former Helms staffer who handled U.N. matters. The remaining Republican members of the Senate felt that if Helms was OK with the deal, they were too, Lagon added.

The final deal, Lagon said, removed an annoying “irritant” in U.S. relations with other countries, “advanced the U.S. interest,” and denied the country’s rivals the opportunity of portraying the United States as a “deadbeat.”

Biden’s most important contribution, Orr said, was convincing Helms to agree to support the repayment of dues to an institution he had long disparaged. “Biden did really bring Helms to the table for those discussions and was ultimately instrumental in getting Helms to sign on to this reform-for-arrears deal,” he said.

“At the time, the sense was that the United States had learned its lesson,” said Suzanne Nossel, a former U.S. diplomat who helped fashion the U.S. strategy. “We can’t afford to be at odds with the rest of the world and seen as a deadbeat. Eventually we are going to have to pay this.”

In February 2001, the U.S. Senate, with Biden and Helms’s blessing, voted 99 to 0 to immediately restore nearly $600 million with more to come, putting an end to a festering dispute between the United States and the rest of the world just months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

“When it came to 9/11, the arrears issues seemed to be behind us, and we were in a stronger position to rally the world for the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban,” Nossel said. “It’s distressing to realize here we are almost two decades later and that lesson hasn’t been learned.”

But there was a flaw.

“The expectation was that the new peacekeeping formula would, as Ambassador Holbrooke testified, result in the U.S. assessment falling to the 25 percent range as called for by 2004. That never happened,” Schaefer noted. “The U.S. should have demanded that a maximum assessment be adopted.”

Holbrooke succeeded in saving the United States hundreds of millions of dollars. But he was not able to align the U.S. peacekeeping obligation, which is currently nearly 28 percent, to the 25 percent cap imposed by Congress.

But tensions persisted in Congress between U.N. supporters, who felt that the United States should pay the entirety of its U.N. bills, and those who believed it shouldn’t pay more than what U.S. law required. In 2005, Congress reached a compromise: It would pay 27.1 percent of the share of U.N. peacekeeping. During the Bush administration, the United States allowed the arrears to creep up—but at a more sustainable rate than today. The Obama administration paid back the arrears accrued during the Bush administration and met the continuing gap through the use of credits from overpayments to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

But shortly after taking office, Trump’s first U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, struck a deal with Congress’s Republican appropriators to restore the 25 percent ceiling and to end efforts to cover the balance, laying the groundwork for a potential future financial crisis.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch