Meeting the Moment: The U.S. and the UN in 2023

The United States and the United Nations: A Critical Partnership to Tackle Global Challenges

More than three-quarters of a century ago, in the wake of the deadliest and most destructive conflict the world has ever witnessed, the United States and its allies came together to establish a new intergovernmental body, the United Nations. Tasked with preventing and suppressing threats to international peace and security, encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and facilitating cooperation on a broad suite of international economic, social, and humanitarian issues, the UN became a core component of the international order that the U.S. helped build and maintain after World War II. And while the world has changed significantly since 1945, the UN’s role as a force multiplier for the United States—a key platform for multilateral diplomacy to mitigate conflict, as well as for marshalling the necessary resources and political will to address challenges that no country is capable of resolving alone—remains as vital as ever.

The work of the UN and its large family of affiliated agencies, programs, and initiatives covers a wide set of issues and advances core American national interests in myriad ways. These include:

  • Peacekeeping operations deployed to conflict zones and tasked with ensuring stability, protecting civilians from violence, facilitating humanitarian assistance, supporting democratic elections, and helping to lay the foundation for sustainable long-term peace. As one of five permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, the U.S. effectively has final say over the decision to deploy UN peacekeepers, and U.S. diplomats play a central role in crafting the mandates the peacekeepers are expected to carry out. UN peacekeeping operations have been repeatedly shown to be effective in reducing civilian deaths, preventing conflicts from spreading over borders, and averting the recurrence of large-scale violence once fighting has stopped.
  • Special political missions in Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere that mediate peace talks between warring parties, monitor and investigate human rights violations, train and provide technical assistance to election administrators and other key democratic institutions, and coordinate international humanitarian and development assistance.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO), a UN specialized agency, which works to coordinate the international response to public health threats, including global pandemics.
  • UN humanitarian agencies, which provide lifesaving assistance every year to tens of millions of people around the world impacted by armed conflict, political instability, natural disasters, and other calamities. Through the work of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP), and others, the UN system functions as the world’s 911 service, providing food, shelter, clean water, cash assistance, vaccines, educational support, and reproductive health care to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
  • UN human rights mechanisms, which help investigate and expose human rights violations around the world and provide a tool for pressuring repressive governments and holding abusers accountable.
On April 20, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine, a man places his hand to the window of a train car as he says goodbye to his wife and children before they depart on a special evacuation train.
Photo Credit: Ashley Gilbertson/UNICEF

Over the past year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has violated the foundational principles enshrined in the UN Charter—the treaty that established the UN—and challenged the international security order it sought to create. The UN system has responded forcefully to the war and its fallout: UN humanitarian agencies are on the front lines delivering lifesaving aid to the Ukrainian people; the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have acted to isolate Russia diplomatically and begin the process of investigating and ensuring accountability for war crimes; the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN specialized agency, is working to help avert potential disaster at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants; and the UN has helped negotiate and oversee an international agreement that ended a Russian blockade and has allowed Ukraine to export agricultural products to global markets. Without these and other activities, the situation for people inside Ukraine and for millions more around the world would undoubtedly be far worse.

It is difficult to see how any of these actions would be possible without strong U.S. engagement and support—political, financial, and otherwise. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the UN’s largest financial contributor, and host of UN Headquarters, the U.S. has long played a more powerful role than most other Member States in driving the UN’s agenda. By that same token, the U.S.—as a global economic and military superpower—also depends a great deal on the efforts of the UN and other international organizations to create a more stable, just, healthy, and peaceful world. While Congress and the Administration have recognized this and made significant progress recently in restoring U.S. leadership at the UN, there is still work to be done. For example, the U.S. still carries well over $1 billion in peacekeeping arrears inherited from policy decisions made during the Trump Administration. Failing to meet our financial obligations to the UN not only harms critical programs that advance American interests and values, but also sends a signal to our global competitors, particularly China and other authoritarian governments, that the door is open for them to influence the organization in a way that more closely aligns with their own national interests. To prevent this, the U.S. must persist in concentrating on robust and constructive engagement with the UN and the rest of the international system that it worked so hard to create in the middle of the 20th century.

To underscore the importance of U.S. engagement with the UN, this briefing book provides information on various aspects of the UN’s work and how it advances U.S. interests. It is our hope that this book can serve as a helpful resource—both for policymakers and members of the public—as the U.S.-UN relationship continues to play out over the coming year.