Obama Comes Around on U.N. Reform

by Brett D. Schaefer

Ambassador Joseph Torsella, the U.S. Representative for Management and Reform to the United Nations, has laid out an extensive reform agenda for the world body. The agenda centers around four themes (“economy,” “accountability,” “integrity,” and “excellence”) and starts off with a remarkably conservative perspective on the U.N.:

Controlling that spending, especially in this time of fiscal challenges, is our obligation. Every dollar sent to the UN represents the hard work of a taxpayer somewhere, and any dollar wasted at the UN is a wasted opportunity to build a better, freer, and more prosperous world.

Weird, huh? You’d expect that from a John Bolton, a Jesse Helms or House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has emphasized the need to be “responsible stewards of American taxpayer dollars” going to Turtle Bay and insisted that the “fact that the U.S. continues to contribute billions of taxpayer dollars every year to an unaccountable, unreformed U.N. is no laughing matter.”

Yet that was indeed an Obama administration official proudly announcing how the U.S. has led efforts to cut the U.N. budget, expressing concern about wasting U.S. taxpayer dollars and, gasp, baldly stating that the U.N. might waste those dollars. Quite a difference from a year ago, when Ambassador Susan Rice dismissed such efforts as “miss[ing] the forest for the trees. We’re far better off working to strengthen the UN than trying to starve it.”

The reform agenda should interest conservatives because a large part of the proposals in it have previously been either (1) advocated by the George W. Bush administration, (2) proposed by various conservative members of Congress in amendments or legislation, or (3) proposed by conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation.

An incomplete list of ideas proposed or strongly supported by conservatives that the administration included in its U.N. reform agenda includes:

— Opposing the exorbitant growth in the U.N. regular budget over the past decade and committing the U.S. to cutting the budget further and shrinking the U.N. bureaucracy.

— Seeking sunset clauses for all mandates and trimming those that are “obsolete and redundant.”

— Criticizing the “disproportionate influence on U.N. budgets” exerted by countries that “do not pay most of the bills” and demanding that the General Assembly abide by its 1986 commitment to adopt budgets by consensus.

— Stating that “legitimate assessments on member states only proceed from truly consensual budgetary decisions” and a budget adopted “over the objections of major contributors” does not meet that standard, which could be interpreted as an argument that the U.S. is under no obligation to pay assessments adopted over U.S. objections.

— Enhancing U.N. transparency and accountability through an effort coined UNTAI II modeled on a Bush administration initiative.

— Making U.N. audits and other reports, including those from the funds and programs, publicly available.

— Improving U.N. ethics enforcement, whistleblower protections, and public financial disclosure of U.N. officials.

— Making U.N. oversight more robust and independent.

— Preventing fraud and corruption in U.N. procurement, including barring vendors found to be “engaging in corrupt and fraudulent practices with one U.N. agency” from doing business with any U.N. agency.

— Publicly posting “existing but hard-to-find” information about U.S. financial contributions to the U.N.

— Calling for competitive elections for seats on the Human Rights Council.

— Establishing minimum standards for states to be eligible for leadership positions on U.N. committees, funds, programs, and other bodies.

— Combating bias against Israel and seeking Israeli membership in U.N. groups.

No doubt the Obama administration is putting this agenda out, at least in part, to blunt conservative criticism of its record at the U.N. and diffuse congressional reform efforts in an election year.

But that does not undermine its potential usefulness in advancing U.N. reform. Most of the reforms are reasonable, constructive, long overdue, and based on conservative proposals. Sure there are key elements missing — a call for shifting more U.N. activities toward voluntary funding would be a big improvement. But conservatives should seize this opportunity and draft legislation supporting the administration’s reform agenda along with benchmarks for implementation backed by financial consequences.

The Obama administration will be hard pressed to oppose its own U.N. reform agenda, and the same goes for the liberal supporters of the U.N. who quickly lined up to issue statements and comments in support of the agenda. They will oppose financial withholding, of course, but let the White House argue why it is a good idea to keep sending American taxpayer dollars unchecked to an organization that it has now, in great detail, acknowledged is bloated, lacking transparency and accountability, and falling short of its founding principles.

—  Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation, and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives.

The Corner

The one and only.