The U.N. at 70, time to turn over a new budgetary leaf

This year the United Nations celebrates its 70th birthday. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon believes it’s a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to reflect on the organization’s history. He’s right, but we should also think about its future. And one of the things we should be rethinking, as Americans, is how much we pay for the United Nations.

The U.S. is the largest donor-nation by far, paying 22 percent of the regular U.N. budget and 28.4 percent of its peacekeeping tab. No other country comes close, with Japan being the second-highest paymaster but covering just 10.8 percent of the regular budget. Meanwhile, Security Council permanent members China and Russia, which possess the same veto right as we do, fund only 5.1 and 2.4 percent respectively of the regular budget.

This gap between what we and others spend has only grown in recent years. As poorer countries got more discounts, we got stuck with the bills. As The Heritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer observes, “The U.S. is assessed more than 176 other U.N. member states combined and pays 22,000 times more than the least-assessed countries.”

In dollar amounts, Mr. Schaefer notes, the differences are even more astounding. U.S. assessments will total around $3 billion this year while 20 countries will pay less than $37,000. Edward Luck, a former special adviser to the United Nations, says, “surely it should not cost a nation less to belong to the U.N. than an individual to go to college or to buy a car.”

No wonder it’s so difficult to control U.N. spending: Those who pay little or next to nothing vastly outnumber those who provide most of the funding. The United States and Japan cover almost a third of the U.N. assessed funding for the regular budget and almost 39 percent for peacekeeping. And yet neither has any greater vote than Vanuatu and Tuvalu, each of which is assessed at 0.001 percent of the U.N. budget.

Luckily it’s a good time to rethink U.N. assessments, and not only because it’s the organization’s 70th birthday. This month the U.N. Committee on Contributions, the body of experts tasked with recommending changes to the dues structure, is meeting in New York to make recommendations for adjustments. Mr. Schaefer has a number of ideas on how to make the U.N. system more equitable.

For starters, the lowest assessed countries need to be given a greater stake in financial responsibility. The minimum regular and peacekeeping budget assessments need to be raised. At the same time the 0.01 percent maximum regular budget assessment for least-developed countries should be eliminated. This would affect about 80 countries, and they can afford the modest adjustments. If they have more “skin in the game,” they might join efforts to make the General Assembly act more responsibility in financial matters.

Secondly, the U.S. should insist that minimum assessments be set for permanent members of the Security Council. as the U.S. is currently assessed more than the other four combined. There is no excuse why permanent member Russia funds only 3.1 percent of peacekeeping. Mr. Schaefer thinks that every Perm-Five member should have a minimum peacekeeping assessment of 5 percent.

For these and other changes to stick, the U.N. budgetary decision process would have to be reformed. Currently, the budget must be adopted by a two-thirds majority of members. This means that the 129 countries contributing just over 1.5 percent toward the regular budget can pass a budget over the objection of the top 17 contributors are pay more than 80 percent. To eliminate this inequity, Mr. Schaefer recommends an additional requirement that budgets must also win approval from member states that collectively pay two-thirds of the regular budget assessments.

Not only are these modest changes fair, they would make the United Nations more financially responsible. Frankly, they are long overdue. What better time than a birthday party to turn over a new leaf?

 - A former assistant secretary of state, Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of “Rebound: Getting America Back to Great.”

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The Washington Times