Written by: Cormac O’Harrow
Since helping charter the United Nations in 1945, the United States has refused to pay its dues only a handful of times, most notably during the 1980’s when President Reagan boycotted the addition of newly formed nations after centuries of colonization. Now, President Trump, in line with his ‘American First’ nationalist foreign policy, is refusing to pay the United States’ share of UN dues at a pivotal time where the United Nations is facing a budget shortfall.
With a regular budget of more than $2.84 billion and more than 37,000 full time employees this year, the UN budget is necessary for more than just peacekeeping. It also pays the salaries of thousands of bureaucrats who keep the machinery of the UN operating, generally in the interest of the United States. Nations contribute to the UN budget based on their wealth and their population — typically calculated by the Gross National Product of each nation.
Seemingly, Trump wants to underscore his outsider status on the world stage and send a message about his skepticism of the existing world order. However, his refusal to honor international norms could come with a high cost to many nations, the US in particular.
In October, the Trump administration announced their withholding of more than $1.3 billion in payments — on top of the $2.6 billion in peacekeeping costs from previous missions still owed by the US. In a tweet after the UN’s budget crisis this past month, President Trump said the UN should “make all Member Countries pay, not just the United States!”. This sentiment put forth by Trump is echoed in the US. Many America first supporters agree, noting that the United States is responsible for more than 22% of the regular budget of the UN and more than 28% of its peacekeeping budget.
As we know, reality is not so simple. The United States is a hegemony unlike any the world has ever seen. With an ever growing GDP, a powerful military, and being a key producer of goods, the US has been atop the global world order since World War II. At one point in time, there was a bi-polar world order, dominated by the Soviet Union and the US. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the now unipolar world order system is led by the US and maintaining this status is an expensive endeavor. The US spends more every year on the military than the next seven countries combined — with this extreme spending, the United States can exert influence anywhere in the world, at a moment’s notice. However, power is relative, and in times of relative peace, military influence can mean less than having a seat at one of the world’s most important tables of negotiation. In this case, that seat is a permanent one in the UN security council — one of only five.
The United Nations has 193 member countries. As a consequence, the influence that any one nation can exert is limited, unless the nation is a member of the Security Council; the council that decides and directs the use of UN military force during times of conflict. Due to its dual status as both a founding and permanent member of the UN, the United States has the power to act in its best interest a great majority of the time. According to UN structure, there is no balance of powers held by those permanent members of the Security Council. In short, the ideas of the few must be accepted by the many. “The Security Council is not subject to any judicial control that can be invoked at the instance of a party against which it directs its political reaction,” says Sergio Lima, a political scientist and foreign policy analyst at the Institute of Research on International Relations in Lisbon. “In fact, under international law, no institution has a formal power of judicial review over an action of the political organ of the United Nations, not even the International Court of Justice.”
This powerful position within the UN system is not important only for US interests, but also for the maintenance of US hegemony — the idea of which is under attack from other nations, including China. China is currently experiencing almost unprecedented growth across its vast territory. This issue is particularly important because of what political scientists call the Thucydides Trap. The theory contends that rival hegemonic states are destined for war when the growth of one approaches the growth of the other. In this case, China’s growth will soon rival that of the US. A war between two nuclear states would endanger the lives of millions, as was seen during the Cold War.
Of the many outlets through which the United States exerts its power, the United Nations is one of the least expensive. American leaders should not put that outlet at risk of failure by refusing to pay its dues.
Making up far less than a percent of the US GDP, this expenditure means little to the White House. To put this in perspective, the planned US contribution of $2.8 billion this year was only 0.2% of the national GDP, while the $945 billion annually spent on Social Security made up more than 24% of the federal budget in 2017. But it looms large for the United Nation and threatens to destabilize a key institution in American foreign policy. The threat to US foreign interests and the loss of power relative to China at an important seat of negotiation and world politics in an ever globalizing world is not a detail to overlook. To protect against geopolitical threats across the globe, the US cannot diminish its role on the world stage. Rather, they need to continue to contribute to the UN.