We Must Pay Our U.N. Bills, Obama Administration Insists

By Patrick Goodenough | June 16, 2011 | 5:02 AM EDT

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks to reporters outside the Security Council on March 4, 2010. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

(CNSNews.com) – Amid continuing calls to reduce U.S. funding of the United Nations, two senior Obama administration officials this week gave speeches asserting the importance of full – and fully-paid up – engagement with the world body.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice addressed the United Nations Association of the United States (UNA-USA) on Monday, urging the advocacy group to help the administration make the case to the American people that “the U.N. plays an indispensable role in advancing our interests and defending our values.”

On Wednesday Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, took the message to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, arguing that the administration was successfully countering anti-Israel bias at international forums, particularly the U.N. and its Human Rights Council (HRC).

Both Rice and Brimmer referred to calls by U.N. critics for the U.S. to reduce funding.

Republicans in the House Foreign Affairs Committee want U.S. contributions to be linked to the implementation of reforms at the U.N.

Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is pushing a bill designed to achieve that goal, which among steps calls for the U.S. to withdraw from the HRC.

The continuing resolution passed by Congress in April to fund the federal government through the end of fiscal year 2011 included a $377 million reduction in funding to the U.N. compared to the previous year.

Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer points out that the U.N. regular biennial budget has more than doubled between 2000-2001 and 2010-11 (from $2.49 billion to $5.16 billion), while the separate biennial peacekeeping budget has grown threefold over that same period (from $1.7 billion to $7.2 billion).

The U.S. alone pays 22 percent of the regular budget and more than 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget. The contributions are assessed according to member states’ relative “capacity to pay,” calculated from national economic output.

Apart from these “assessed contributions,” the U.S. contributes considerably more in “voluntary contributions,” which benefit a range of agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

Ros-Lehtinen and others want the U.S. to shift funding from an “assessed” basis to a “voluntary” one, arguing that this will enable it to target programs that are well-run and are in America’s interests.

“We should only pay for U.N. programs and activities that advance our interests and our values,” she told a committee hearing in March. “If other countries want different things to be funded, they can pay for it themselves.”

U.S. share ‘entirely out of proportion’

The next biggest “assessed” contribution to the regular budget comes from Japan, which pays 16 percent. The U.N.’s remaining 190 member states are far behind: Germany contributes 8.5 percent, Britain 6.6 percent, France 6.3 percent, China 2.6 percent and Russia 1.2 percent. Most countries pay well under one percent.

Late last month the non-partisan watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) weighed in, pressing for the U.S. to slash its contribution to the U.N. by one-quarter.

“As the U.S. attempts to grapple with mounting deficits and debt, organizations like the U.N. should not be spared the knife when it comes to trimming budget fat,” said CAGW president Tom Schatz.  “The United States is still the world’s largest economy, but its share of U.N. funding is entirely out of proportion. The ramping up of other members’ contributions is long overdue.”

CAGW calculated that its recommended 25 percent reduction in the U.S. contribution would save American taxpayers $1.6 billion a year and $7.9 billion over five years.

Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 14, 2009, the day the U.S. took its seat on the body for the first time. (U.N. Photo by Gilles Sereni)

In her speech in New York City, Rice noted that some lawmakers were calling on the U.S. “to withhold payment of our legally mandated dues,” and warned that if it did so, other countries would follow the U.S. lead.

“It’s in our interest to ensure that the rest of the world continues to pay almost three-quarters of the cost of the U.N.’s work,” she said. “If we act like our treaty-based financial obligations under the U.N. Charter are somehow optional, others will too – which could leave us paying far more than we do today.”

Rice listed U.N. functions and achievements, including conflict-prevention and peacekeeping; countering nuclear proliferation; combating poverty; undertaking humanitarian missions; strengthening democracy; and advancing human rights.

“You all ‘get’ that,” she told her UNA-USA audience. “But not everybody else does. So we need your voices out there to help make clear the tremendous value that the U.N. offers the American taxpayer, particularly in these tough economic times.”

Rice then cited various areas where she said the administration had made progress at the U.N. “on behalf of the American people.”

Among them were repairing “frayed relations with countries around the world” and ending “needless American isolation on a wide range of issues.”

“As a consequence, we’ve gotten strong cooperation on things that matter most to our national security interest,” she said, pointing to the imposition of “the toughest sanctions that Iran and North Korea have ever faced,” actions to isolate Libya, resolving the violent post-election standoff in Cote d’Ivoire and facilitating the referendum on independence for south Sudan.

Rice also contended that U.S. participation at the HRC had brought “real results” and that under a newly installed ambassador for management and reform “we are pushing real reforms that can enable the U.N. to do more with less.”

She urged her listeners to help the administration “to distinguish fact and fiction about the U.N. [and] help us to counter distortions and misinformation.”

In her Washington Institute for Near East Policy address on Wednesday, Brimmer also confronted the calls to reduce funding.

“If the United States doesn't pay our dues, why would others continue to support their dues going to missions that are great importance to the United States?” she asked.

“How could we have won tough Security Council sanctions on Iran or North Korea if we were continuing to incur arrears?” Brimmer continued. “How would our failure to pay our bills impact the success of Security Council sanctions regimes that have placed global asset freezes and travel bans on terrorists and their supporters? … How would it impact the President’s commitment to a shared security with Israel?”

“The United States cannot afford failed short-term tactics that have long-term implications for our security,” she concluded. “We must be a responsible global leader, and that means paying our bills.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow