President Donald Trump will have a number of high-priority issues on his desk when he enters office. Although the Obama Administration has pursued some laudable goals in the United Nations and its affiliated organizations, a large number of its policies are counterproductive and should be reversed or revised.
Policies to Continue and Strengthen
The Obama Administration has supported and taken steps to implement administrative reforms at the United Nations and its affiliated organizations. For instance, the U.S. sought to rein in excessive salaries for U.N. employees that were 29.9 percent higher than equivalent U.S. civil servant salaries in Washington in 2016. The Obama Administration also opposed increases in the U.N. regular budget, sought revival of a mandatory review of all U.N. mandates, proposed changes to address excessive U.S. assessments, and condemned sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers. In addition, the Obama Administration identified the lack of adequately trained peacekeepers, specialized units, and equipment necessary to fulfill the peacekeeping mandates approved by the Security Council and worked with other nations to secure commitments from existing and new troop-contributing countries to meet existing and future demands.
New Priorities for the Trump Administration
The Trump Administration should expand and continue these efforts, especially higher standards for conduct by U.N. peacekeepers that for the first time have resulted in the nationality of units being publicly identified and units being sent home if they demonstrate repeated patterns of misbehavior.
The Obama Administration, however, has pursued misguided policies or failed to pursue others that would advance U.S. interests. Key policies that the Trump Administration should implement and pursue in its first year include the following:
The Trump Administration should engage Congress to examine past practice on how various subjects have been treated historically (treaty, executive agreement, or congressional–executive agreement) and specify the issues or context that should mandate consideration of international agreements as treaties under Article II. In anticipation of this, the Trump Administration should review the status of all pending international agreements.
Evaluate all peacekeeping operations before supporting establishment or renewal. The U.S. should reevaluate all U.N. operations that date back to the 1990s or earlier (some date back to the 1940s). If an operation is not facilitating resolution of the situation, the U.S. should use its authority in the Security Council to wind them down. If some concerned countries wish to continue U.N. peacekeeping operations that have not resolved the conflicts despite being in place for decades, they should assume the entire financial burden of continuing them.
As demonstrated in South Sudan, where peacekeepers stood aside and refused to protect civilians and aid workers who were being assaulted, a peacekeeping operation is no guarantee of stability or security. Quite simply, a U.N. operation may not be the best option for addressing a crisis, particularly one where there is no peace to keep. The Trump Administration should weigh all options before approving a new operation.
- Enforce the 25 percent cap on funding for U.N. peacekeeping. Fifteen years ago, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke testified to the Senate that he had secured a deal to lower the U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 25 percent as required under U.S. law and as a condition for payment of U.S. arrears under the Helms–Biden agreement. By 2009, the U.S. share had fallen to less than 26 percent. Starting in 2010, however, the U.S. assessment began to rise again. Today, it is 28.5738 percent. The failure to lower the U.S. assessment to 25 percent has cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because Congress has repeatedly approved payments over 25 percent in continuing resolutions and omnibus appropriations bills. The U.S. should withhold the difference between our peacekeeping assessment and the 25 percent cap until the U.N. implements a maximum peacekeeping assessment of 25 percent.
Enforce whistleblower withholding as required by U.S. law. Language enacted in recent appropriations bills requires the U.S. to withhold 15 percent of U.S. contributions unless the Secretary of State certifies that the organization has implemented specified whistleblower protections. To date, the Obama Administration has applied that withholding only to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) despite evidence of non-compliance in other U.N. specialized agencies, funds, and programs. The Trump Administration should hold U.N. organizations to the standard established by Congress.
- Strengthen independent oversight of U.N. organizations. The U.N. and its employees enjoy broad protections and immunities from national and local legal jurisdiction. In practice, U.N. employees cannot be sued in national courts, arrested, or prosecuted for actions related to their official duties unless those immunities are waived. This places an extremely heavy responsibility on the U.N. to scrutinize, self-police, correct, and punish wrongdoing by the organization and its employees. Historically, oversight and accountability at the U.N. have been weak. To improve oversight and accountability, the Trump Administration should establish a dedicated unit within the State Department Office of Inspector General charged with inspecting and auditing use of U.S. funds by international organizations and work with like-minded governments to establish a truly independent U.N. oversight body.
Engage with Congress to clarify the treaty process. Which international agreements constitute treaties requiring Senate advice and consent in accordance with Article II of the Constitution is often subject to dispute. This is demonstrated by the debates over whether the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iran nuclear program constitute treaties. The uncertainty persists despite internal regulations adopted by the State Department, known as the Circular 175 procedure that lays out eight factors for determining whether an international agreement should be negotiated as a treaty, which is subject to Senate advice and consent, or as an “international agreement other than a treaty.”
Withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO’s grant of membership to the Palestinian Authority in 2011 bolsters the Palestinian effort to seek formal recognition absent a negotiated peace with Israel. Under U.S. laws enacted in the 1990s, the U.S. cannot fund U.N. organizations that grant full membership to the Palestinians, and as a result, the U.S. has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears to UNESCO. America’s interest in supporting UNESCO is not critical, as President Ronald Reagan recognized when he decided in 1984 to withdraw from UNESCO. The U.S. rejoined UNESCO in 2003 in recognition of reforms, not because of any perceived damage to U.S. interests. Unfortunately, UNESCO has continued to adopt controversial actions and demonstrate anti-Israel bias.
The benefits of UNESCO membership do not outweigh the downsides, particularly the U.S. interest in having the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a sovereign state and agree to a peace agreement acceptable to both sides. Unless and until this happens, the U.S. should not provide any funding to UNESCO lest it encourage other U.N. organizations to grant membership to the Palestinians. However, it is inappropriate for the U.S. to maintain UNESCO membership while simultaneously refusing to provide any funding. To resolve this, the Trump Administration should send a letter notifying UNESCO of its intention to withdraw, which would become effective after one year.
Withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). To satisfy its commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Obama Administration plans to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels. This would impose higher energy costs on American households and businesses. The Trump Administration should repudiate these commitments. President Obama did not submit the Paris Agreement to the Senate as a treaty and instead asserted that it is binding as a “sole executive agreement” supplementary to the UNFCCC. Other Paris Agreement parties insist that it is binding even though the Senate never consented to it.
Withdrawing from the UNFCCC would resolve this dispute. It would also send a clear signal that the U.S. believes that the widespread international approach to addressing climate change is costly and ineffective. Finally, it would avoid future arrears to the UNFCCC as current law should prohibit U.S. financial contributions after the Palestinian Authority formally acceded to the treaty. Withdrawal would not preclude the U.S. from adopting climate policy deemed appropriate. It would, however, prevent abuse of the UNFCCC as a vehicle for asserting U.S. commitments while avoiding Senate advice and consent in the treaty process. Withdrawal becomes effective one year after the depositary receives that notification.
Reduce U.S. support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). UNRWA was established more than 60 years ago as a temporary initiative to address the needs of Palestinian refugees and facilitate their resettlement and/or repatriation. It has become a permanent institution providing services to multiple generations of Palestinians, a large majority of whom live outside of refugee camps, enjoy citizenship in other countries, or reside in the Palestinian-governed territories. Despite the presence of and activities funded through UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee problem has only grown larger, in part due to UNRWA’s applying refugee status to the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees. UNRWA has also been shown to employ individuals affiliated with the Palestinian Islamist extremist group Hamas.
The U.S. could advance the long-term prospects for peace by shifting U.S. policy to encourage reform and replacement of UNRWA to facilitate its original purpose: ending the refugee status of Palestinians and facilitating their integration as citizens of their host states, where most were born and raised, or resettling them in the West Bank and Gaza where the Palestinian government can assume responsibility for their needs.
Reconsider U.S. support for the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). Created in 2006 to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, the HRC is supposed to be the world’s premier human rights body. Despite U.S. membership under the Obama Administration, the HRC has fallen victim to many of the problems that plagued the commission. In particular, it remains biased against Israel, includes repressive governments among its membership, and fails to condemn many of the world’s worst human rights abusers. The U.S. was elected in October to a three-year term starting in 2017.
The Trump Administration should either announce its desire not to fill this position or appoint a representative willing to unapologetically challenge the HRC on its failings. In the latter case, if the council’s record does not improve, the U.S. should suspend funding and not seek reelection in 2019.
- Launch a cost-benefit analysis of U.S. participation in international organizations. Although a number of organizations provide important contributions to U.S. diplomatic, economic, and security interests, not all do. The Trump Administration should initiate a detailed review to identify those that are most and least vital to U.S. interests and provide the most and least value for the money spent on their activities.
- Instruct the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to compile and release a comprehensive report on all U.S. contributions to the U.N. system. Most U.S. contributions to the U.N. system come from the State Department, but millions of dollars also flow from other parts of the federal government. Relying on State Department data, such as that in State’s annual report to Congress on U.S. contributions to international organizations, presents an incomplete picture. Because the OMB is in charge of overseeing the preparation of the President’s budget, it is able to require all U.S. agencies to report the requested information. The first such report should include data back to 2011 when the last such report was sent to Congress.
Reasserting U.S. Interests
Only the U.S. has the direct incentive to protect America’s interests in the United Nations and its affiliated organizations. These interests are broad and encompass using the organization to bolster international peace and security, challenging the organization to live up to its charge of protecting fundamental human rights and freedoms, blocking efforts to undermine the security and diplomatic interests of America and its allies, and ensuring prudent oversight of the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars. The Trump Administration should seize an opportunity to fulfill these responsibilities to the benefit of our country and our allies.
—Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.