The United States Must Pay the United Nations What It Owes
There are few better ways for the country to reclaim its credibility and moral authority.
Few administrations have had to do so much so quickly to restore U.S. leadership on the world stage. In its first 60 days, the Biden administration has rejoined the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement, lifted the ban on travelers from some Muslim-majority countries, reestablished funding for programs that support the health of women and girls around the world, and extended a treaty on nuclear stability with Russia. This month, the United States served as president of United Nations Security Council, and on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is chairing a meeting of the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria. After four long and painful years, the United States is starting to look like the America its allies recognize.
There remains, however, a critical part of the U.S. foreign-policy equation left unaddressed: paying the dues the country owes to the U.N. peacekeeping budget. These dues have been accruing for four years and total more than $1 billion.
We have been here before. In 1999, the United States’ vote at the U.N. General Assembly was threatened because of lack of payment. At the time, the United Nations was working closely with the United States in Kosovo and throughout Africa, areas critical to U.S. foreign-policy objectives. Meanwhile, U.S. credibility was on the line; it appeared hypocritical to advocate for robust multilateral action while also withholding the dues to support such activities. It made no sense, and the United States began the process of repaying the world what it owed.
In 2009, even in the midst of dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession, the Obama administration agreed to quickly pay all U.S. arrears. On a bipartisan basis, Congress agreed.
In 2021, the challenges facing the world have grown in size and complexity. A deadly pandemic has killed more than 2.5 million people. Global GDP growth dropped by an estimated 3.5 percent last year, the worst recession in nearly a century. Some estimate that 100 million people could enter extreme poverty as a result. And poverty increases the likelihood of conflict.
Against this backdrop of instability, China has increased its global profile. It has used its growing economic might to shape the world in its image, becoming the leading global exporter of authoritarianism. When the Trump administration downgraded U.S. engagement at the U.N., China stepped up, assuming leadership at four of 15 U.N. agencies. Even the Trump administration eventually took notice, appointing a State Department envoy specifically to counter Chinese influence at the U.N.
China is now among the top 10 contributors of personnel to U.N. peacekeeping and the second-biggest contributor of dues, behind the United States. China has used these facts as leverage at the U.N. Security Council. In 2018, it successfully lobbied a range of other countries—as the United States remained silent—to dismantle the Human Rights Up Front initiative, meant to prioritize human rights in U.N. field operations.
U.S. President Joe Biden recognized the challenge of growing Chinese influence in his first foreign-policy address, when he vowed to “meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism.”
The Biden administration will undoubtedly offer the world a vision starkly different from China, built on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. It doesn’t help that cause, however, when China is able to accurately refer to the United States as “the largest debtor,” while stressing that Beijing has paid its U.N. obligations in full.
Nor does it enhance U.S. standing with the top troop-contributing countries, including India, Pakistan, and Ethiopia, that are not being fully reimbursed for their peacekeeping personnel and equipment. These countries have been forced to withstand shortfalls in the tens of millions of dollars. When countries risking the most troops bear the burden of U.S. arrears, it should challenge the United States’ notion of fair play.
Mounting evidence over two decades shows that U.N. peacekeeping is effective at saving lives and ending wars in areas critical to U.S. national security. With 12 active missions around the world and 90,000 peacekeepers deployed, U.N. peacekeeping acts as a force multiplier for the United States at a fraction of the cost of a U.S. military intervention, and without risking American lives.
U.N. peacekeeping isn’t perfect. The Biden administration should continue to support the reforms led by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in his Action for Peacekeeping initiative, addressing exploitation and abuse, peacekeeper performance, gender parity, and conflict prevention. The United States’ ability to advocate effectively for such reforms directly correlates to upholding its own end of the bargain. As U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield rightly noted at her Senate confirmation hearing, “We need to pay our bills to have a seat at the table.” Or as the British foreign secretary once chided: “No representation without taxation.”
Paying U.S. arrears was the right thing to do in 1999 and in 2009, and it is the right thing to do now. And to avoid a recurrence of this unfortunate ritual, Congress should lift the arbitrary statutory cap on peacekeeping dues that continually puts the United States at odds with its treaty obligations and undercuts its global standing.
As Biden said, it is time to compete from a position of strength by “renewing our role in international institutions and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority.” There are few better ways for the United States to reclaim its credibility and moral authority on the world stage than by paying the dues it owes.
Madeleine K. Albright served as the U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.
John D. Negroponte was U.S. deputy secretary of state from 2007 to 2009.