Congress Is Critical to U.N. Reform
The U.S. should withhold funding if the U.N. doesn’t shape up.


Brett D. Schaefer

Even before Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) introduced the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011 (H.R. 2829), the usual suspects had lined up to attack the bill.

Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation, a former board member of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, stated, “After two years of the closest and most productive cooperation in decades at the UN between Washington and the rest of the international community, it is hard to understand why Republicans in the House of Representatives are determined to poison the well.” Peter Yeo, executive director of the United Nations Foundation, said that the bill would “severely erode America’s leadership role at the United Nations and undermine our nation’s security.” And an unnamed administration source told Politico, “This draft legislation is dated, tired, and frankly unresponsive to the positive role being played by the U.N.”

Essentially, these critics claim that U.S. policy priorities are being advanced at the U.N., and that using America’s financial contributions to press for reforms undermines those efforts. Neither assertion is consistent with the facts.

First, the U.S. is often on the losing side at the U.N. Over the 28-year period that the State Department has reported the statistic, only 31.7 percent of non-consensus votes at the U.N. have gone our way. On resolutions the State Department identified as important to U.S. interests, voting coincidence with the U.S. has averaged 38 percent since 2000. This ratio has improved since 2009, simply because the Obama administration agrees with the U.N. consensus on some issues that the Bush administration did not (such as global warming and disarmament). But the U.S. has still been in the minority on most General Assembly votes.

This lack of support is jarring, considering that the United States has been the largest financial supporter of the United Nations since the organization’s founding in 1945. Currently we are assessed 22 percent of the U.N. regular budget and more than 27 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget. Indeed, U.S. contributions to the U.N. system reached a record level of $7.692 billion in fiscal year 2010 — a staggering 21 percent increase over the previous year. It was the third consecutive year in which U.S. contributions set records.

By contrast, most countries pay so little to the U.N. that they cannot get exercised about its inefficiency, waste, and corruption. For instance, Sierra Leone is assessed 0.001 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget and 0.0001 percent of the peacekeeping budget. While it and dozens of other countries pay less than $35,000 per year to these budgets, the U.S. pays billions. The 129 least-assessed countries together pay about 1 percent of the U.N. budget, and yet constitute a two-thirds majority of member nations. They can pass the U.N. budget over the objection of the U.S.

The disconnect between influence and budgetary responsibilities is pernicious. The U.N. budget has more than doubled over the past decade, as U.S. reform efforts have been ignored, undermined, or reversed. For instance, the U.N. Ethics Office’s authority was challenged early and remains under assault; the Procurement Task Force was eliminated; many U.N. organizations steadfastly refuse to provide the U.S. unfettered access to their audits or other internal documents; and the Mandate Review was abandoned because it provided a basis and methodology for eliminating mandates.

It is not a coincidence that this backsliding on and resistance to reform has coincided with the removal of the credible threat of congressional withholding over the past five years. Most notable U.N.-reform successes have one thing in common: congressional involvement backed by the threat of financial withholding. Congressional intervention led to U.N. budgetary restraint in the 1980s and 1990s. It led the U.N. to create the Office of Internal Oversight Services in 1994. It led the U.N. to reduce U.S. assessments earlier this decade. Fear of congressional action helped spur the U.N. to adopt new rules for U.N. peacekeepers and to establish the Volcker Commission to investigate the Iraqi Oil-for-Food program.

The Obama administration came into office with the mistaken belief that the lack of support for the U.S. in the U.N. was due solely to the Bush administration’s policies. They believed that paying U.S. arrears to the U.N. and adopting a new, conciliatory diplomatic approach would change things for the better.