April 2, 2012 | Backgrounder on United Nations
Abstract: The 2012–2013 U.N. regular budget is historic because it marks the end of a decade of unprecedented growth of the U.N. budget. However, the U.N. budget process suggests that this will likely be an aberration and that irresponsible budget growth will resume shortly. Until the disconnect between financial obligations and influence over the U.N. budget process is overcome, the U.N. budget will likely continue to grow unchecked. The U.S. should seek to adjust the U.N. scale of assessment to more equitably distribute the costs of the organization among the member states, grant large contributors more influence in budgetary decisions, promote U.N. budgetary restraint by coordinating with other large contributors and, whenever necessary, enforce budget restraint by withholding U.S. contributions..”
Analysis of the history of the United Nations regular budget unequivocally confirms that the growth in the U.N. budget over the past decade has been truly extraordinary, outstripping the previous period of rapid growth in the U.N. regular budget during the mid-1970s and early 1980s. In a welcome development, the sharp increases in the regular budget over the past decade have been arrested, even slightly reversed in the 2012–2013 biennial budget. Regrettably, this does not necessarily indicate a fundamental shift in U.N. budgetary practices. On the contrary, the conditions contributing to budgetary constraint are likely to be transitory. Congress and the Administration should work together to strengthen U.S. influence and secure further U.N. budget reductions.
Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced that the initial U.N. regular budget for 2012–2013 of $5.15 billion is $263 million lower than the final expenditures for the 2010–2011 budget and nearly $44 million lower than the 2012–2013 budget originally proposed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The U.S. Mission to the U.N. claimed in December that this was “only the second time in the last 50 years that the General Assembly has approved a regular budget level below the previous biennia’s final appropriation.”
Although U.N. budgetary information is posted in the organization’s document system, it is difficult to find and its format is not user-friendly. The lack of comprehensive budget data presented in a consistent format in one place has inhibited research and informed policymaking. This paper rectifies this problem by presenting comprehensive data on the U.N. regular budget, compiled by the U.S. Mission to the U.N., in nominal and real terms for the entire history of the organization.
Based on U.N. regular budget data since 1946, the recently adopted 2012–2013 biennial budget is the third initial U.N. regular budget since 1960 that was lower than the final appropriation for the previous budget.
The regular budget is only one of many U.N. budgets to which the U.S. contributes on a yearly basis. Indeed, it is not even the largest budget. The U.S. is assessed 22 percent of the U.N. regular budget and more than 27.1 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget. The U.S. also provides additional billions in assessed and voluntary contributions to other organizations in the U.N. system each year. In FY 2010, total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system reached record levels for the third year in a row, exceeding $7.691 billion. This is $1.3 billion more than the previous record of $6.347 billion in FY 2009 and $1.6 billion more than the U.S. contributed in FY 2008.
Nonetheless, instilling some budgetary constraint at the U.N., even if only on one budget, is no small feat, especially considering that the U.N. regular budget grew by an astounding 114 percent from the final appropriation of the 2000–2001 budget ($2.53 billion) to the final appropriation of the 2010–2011 budget ($5.42 billion). The rate of budget growth over this period was truly extraordinary, rivaled in the biennial budget era (since 1974) by only the 166 percent increase from the final 1974–1975 appropriation of $606 million to the final 1984–1985 appropriation of $1.61 billion.
However, measuring the U.N. budget in constant dollars reveals its truly extraordinary growth over the past decade. In constant 2005 dollars, the budget grew by 72 percent from 2000–2001 to 2010–2011. By comparison, the budget grew by only 36 percent from the 1974–1975 budget to the final appropriation for the 1984–1985 budget. In other words, inflation accounted for roughly three-quarters of the growth in the regular budget from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s. By contrast, the budget grew by more than 70 percent in real terms from the final 2000–2001 appropriation budget to the final 2010–2011 appropriation budget.
Thus, the increases in the regular budget over the past decade are unprecedented since the U.N. moved to a two-year regular budget in 1974–1975. In fact, when inflation is taken into account, recent increases basically double any previous budgetary decade since the U.N. moved to a biennial regular budget.
As Chart 1 illustrates, the U.N. regular budget has grown rapidly since the adoption of the two-year budget in 1974, especially from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s and since the early 2000s. The relatively flat growth from the mid-1980s through the 1990s was precipitated by the U.S. policy of insisting on zero growth in the regular budget and an agreement among the U.N. member states in 1986 to approve the budget by consensus. This agreement was driven by America’s adoption of the 1985 Kassebaum–Solomon Amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for fiscal years 1986 and 1987, which withheld a portion of U.S. funding to the U.N. regular budget unless major contributors were granted increased influence over budgetary decisions.
The post-2000 budget surge was facilitated by the U.S. abandoning its zero-growth policy and, later, abrogation of the consensus budget agreement. The U.S. insistence on zero growth in the U.N. regular budget broke down in the early 2000s when the U.S. sought U.N. political missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The missions were expensive and opened the door to other increases in the U.N. regular budget sought by other U.N. member states in return for their support. Contrary to some claims, the Afghanistan and Iraq missions did not drive the increase in the budget over the past decade. As noted by the U.S. Mission to the U.N., the increases to other parts of the regular budget were substantial and, in dollar terms, outstripped the costs of the political missions:
In 2000–2001 the regular, two-year budget—not counting special political missions, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan—was $2.4 billion. In 2010–2011, it was $4.2 billion. That is a 75 percent increase, over a period that included a major post-9/11 economic contraction and a global recession.
The cut in the U.N. regular budget for 2012–2013 is a welcome check on the unprecedented growth of the past decade. However, unless significant changes are made, the U.N. budget will likely resume growing for several reasons:
With these factors in mind, the Obama Administration and Congress should work together to place America’s diplomats in a stronger position to hold firm on U.N. budgetary restraint and reform. Specifically, the U.S. should establish a stronger relationship between budget decisions and financial contributions by:
For decades the U.S. has fought a difficult battle for U.N. budgetary restraint and management reform in an effort to ensure that American taxpayer dollars are not wasted. The U.S. and other major contributors deserve credit for halting the trend of unprecedented increases in the U.N. regular budget over the past decade and adopting a budget for 2012–2013 that is lower than the previous budget. However, the circumstances that led to the current climate of budget restraint are not likely to be repeated. History shows that diplomatic efforts often fall short in U.N. budget discussions unless Congress supports the efforts. The U.S. should promote U.N. budgetary restraint by coordinating with other large contributors and, when necessary, supporting its diplomatic efforts to enforce budget restraint by withholding U.S. contributions.
—Brett D. Schaefer is 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. He is editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).
 U.S. Mission to the United Nations, “Fact Sheet: Passage of the Fifth Committee Regular Budget for the 2012–2013 Biennium,” December 29, 2011, at http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/2011/179785.htm (March 22, 2012).
 The discrepancy between the Administration’s claim and the data in the table is likely due to a rounding error arising from a tiny $400 decrease—which was probably calculated as zero—from the final appropriation 1994–1995 budget to the initial 1996–1997 budget.
 Brett D. Schaefer, “Congress Should Renew the Report Requirement on U.S. Contributions to the U.N. and Reverse Record-Setting Contributions to the U.N.,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3324, July 22, 2011, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/07/congress-should-renew-the-report-requirement-on-us-contributions-to-the-un.
 Brett D. Schaefer, “U.S. Must Ensure That U.N. Accounting Gimmicks Result in Real Cuts to Bloated U.N. Budget,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2642, January 20, 2012, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/01/us-must-ensure-that-un-accounting-gimmicks-result-in-real-cuts-to-bloated-un-budget.
 The GDP Price Index was chained to 2005. For the biennial budgets beginning in 1974-1975, the GDP Price Index for the two years covered by the budget were averaged. U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2012: Historical Tables (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011), pp. 211–212, Table 10.1, at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BUDGET-2012-TAB/pdf/BUDGET-2012-TAB.pdf (March 22, 2012).
 The 1985 Kassebaum–Solomon amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for fiscal year (FY) 1986 and FY 1987 withheld 20 percent of U.S. assessed contributions to the U.N. regular budget and specialized agencies until weighted voting on budgetary matters was adopted. Weighted voting was not adopted, but the U.N. did agree in 1986 to the consensus-based budgeting process—giving, in effect, each country an informal veto over the budget—as an informal rule, which helped greatly to constrain budget growth. Congress and the Reagan Administration agreed that the consensus-based budget agreement, while not explicitly meeting the requirements of Kassebaum–Solomon, was sufficient to allow full payment of U.S. assessed contributions to the regular budget.
 Brett D. Schaefer, “Time to Rein in the U.N.’s Budget,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2368, February 3, 2010, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/02/time-to-rein-in-the-uns-budget.
 Joseph M. Torsella, remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2011, at http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/182321.htm (March 22, 2012).
 Brett D. Schaefer, “Congress Should Withhold Funding for Spendthrift U.N.,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1786, January 29, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2008/01/congress-should-withhold-funding-for-spendthrift-un.
 Schaefer, “U.S. Must Ensure that U.N. Accounting Gimmicks Result in Real Cuts to Bloated U.N. Budget.”
 Joseph M. Torsella, remarks on the proposed UN program budget for 2012–13 before the Fifth Committee, U.N. General Assembly, October 27, 2011, at http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/2011/176325.htm (March 22, 2012).
 The Geneva Group, co-chaired by the U.S. and the U.K., consists of 16 U.N. member states that contribute at least 1 percent of the budgets of the U.N. and its largest affiliated agencies and share similar concerns on administrative and financial matters. Current members of the Geneva Group are Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America.
 “The Fifth Committee, before submitting its recommendations on the outline of the program budget to the General Assembly in accordance with the provisions of the Charter and the rules of procedures of the Assembly, should continue to make all possible efforts with a view to establishing the broadest possible agreement.” U.N. General Assembly, Resolution 41/213, December 19, 1986. The functional result of this decision was an informal agreement that budgetary decisions should be made by consensus. For a detailed discussion, see Charles M. Lichenstein, “United Nations Reform: Where’s the Beef?” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 567, March 10, 1987, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1987/03/united-nations-reform-wheres-the-beef.
 Brett D. Schaefer, “The U.S. Should Push for Adjustment in U.N. Dues,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2735, December 15, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/12/the-us-should-push-for-adjustment-in-un-dues.