Paying our treaty commitments restores U.S. standing at the UN and demonstrates our seriousness to allies and troop contributing countries, which are prerequisites for diplomatic effectiveness in hot spots around the world.
During her Senate confirmation hearing, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield talked at length about the issue of U.S. credibility at the UN, and how giving up our seat at the table damages it: “Not paying our bills really does diminish our power and it diminishes our leadership. We need to pay our bills to have a seat at the table…We know that when we cede our leadership, others jump in very quickly to fill the void and we need to make sure that we’re there to push back on those who would have malign intentions at the UN.”
President Biden recently argued that the keys to confronting China would be getting our own house in order, working with allies and strengthening multilateralism. Inherent in this effort is ensuring we actually pay the dues we owe our partners and the United Nations, which is in financial crisis due to U.S. shortfalls. As it stands, two‑thirds of all outstanding assessments are from the U.S.
Using COVID-19 as an example, China has seized upon our growing arrears to distract from their role in the virus outbreak and uses our massive shortfalls to portray the United States as uninterested in helping other countries.
With respect to human rights, according to a September 2018 report by Ted Piccone, formerly of the Brookings Institution, China has used its perch on the Human Rights Council to prioritize “state sovereignty” over the rights of the individual and been “both an active participant and a key influencer of other countries’ votes, at a time when its chief protagonist, the United States, has absented itself from the field.” On peacekeeping, Chinese officials are also increasingly active in debates about policy, the country is now among the top ten contributors of personnel to UN peacekeeping, and forecasts indicate that China will–in about six years–match the U.S. share in both the regular and peacekeeping budgets.
China has used our massive arrears, our withdrawal from a range of UN entities, our abandonment of key human rights principles, the exit from the Paris Agreement, to show that we are not reliable. Even though China’s own record is checkered, to say the least, their influence is nevertheless increasing because they are investing more resources at the UN, are fully engaging in UN bodies, and are active in bilateral development through initiatives like Belt and Road. Our absence has meant no effective counterweight to China.
Countering China will only be truly effective if we have partners. In addition, ensuring the UN can actually meet current challenges, whether regarding China or climate change, will require reform and strengthening. As former Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright noted, “The failure to pay our old UN bills thus undermines our international leadership and our ability to meet critical U.S. foreign policy objectives, and also raises costs to American taxpayers. Furthermore, these accumulated arrears have made it particularly difficult to recruit allies for the kind of structural reform that Congress demands as a condition of paying the back dues and other assessments.”
When we fail to pay our dues, we undercut our ability to advance our priorities and reform efforts at the UN. For example, Chinese diplomats have sought to reduce funding for human rights monitoring and civilian protection posts in UN peacekeeping missions–using U.S. budget cuts as a pretext. In addition, in 2018, China and Russia successfully lobbied a range of other countries–while the U.S. was silent–to cut the Human Rights Upfront Initiative. This was a 2014 UN reform effort that the Obama Administration supported, which sought to ensure that all UN entities were prioritizing human rights in their field operations.
Payment of arrears will be essential to lining-up support from other UN member states as the U.S. approaches UN assessment rate negotiations this year and seeks to maintain UN budget discipline and support full implementation of the Secretary-General’s reforms on UN management/peace & security/development.
During the Obama Administration, when our country was caught up on its dues, the U.S. and UN worked together to adopt a number of critical reforms and efficiencies, cutting the cost per peacekeeper by 18 percent and significantly reducing the number of support staff on missions to lower administrative costs.
Outstanding arrears also hamper efforts to increase the number of Americans working within the United Nations.
The pandemic and the resulting economic disruptions have increased instability and conflict in fragile states. COVID-19 has provided opportunities for armed groups–including terrorist organizations–to discredit state institutions, exploit gaps in public services and capitalize on public outrage. These challenges can severely undermine the legitimacy of governments, which is critical for effective mitigation and containment strategies during public health crises.
UN peacekeeping missions, which operate in some of the most intractable conflict zones, are supporting national authorities in their response through capacity-building activities, while also protecting civilians and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance. In addition, they are aiding in the distribution of health, sanitation, and medical equipment, which will take on increased importance as vaccine dissemination ramps up. Further, the missions are using radio and social media to provide facts about the pandemic and counter misinformation about the crisis. Crushing COVID-19 entails combatting it some of the most inhospitable places on the planet and UN peacekeepers will play a vital role in that effort.
While UN peacekeeping missions have maintained critical assistance, funding for peacekeeping is falling because countries must divert resources to address the COVID-19 crisis, which adds to an already precarious financial situation. As a point of reference, the 2008 global financial crisis contracted UN peacekeeping funds by approximately 20 percent–due to nations in financial turmoil underfunding operations–and the COVID-19 pandemic may reduce it by a further 30 to 50 percent. This makes current United States shortfalls even more problematic and the need to pay our dues and pay back our significant arrears even more pressing.