After a year in office, it’s safe to say that the Biden administration does not adapt quickly. It has failed to adjust its energy policy in the face of rising gas prices, its excessive spending in the face of inflation or its dogged effort to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement despite numerous provocations from Tehran.
And it’s no different with the United Nations.
The administration entered office convinced that American influence in international organizations had declined sharply under then-President Donald Trump. To restore U.S. credibility and influence, it said, Washington needed to repudiate Mr. Trump’s policies, “reengage” and restore U.S. funding of various U.N. entities.
Mr. Biden quickly reversed Mr. Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the World Health Organization and the U.N. Human Rights Council, and he renewed funding without conditions. The administration expected this generosity would spark gratitude and support for needed reforms within those agencies. Things did not go as expected.
Instead, the WHO has resisted efforts to investigate thoroughly the origins of COVID-19 and refuses to condemn China for its lack of cooperation. Additionally, it is on the cusp of adopting a financing and reform plan opposed by the United States. Meanwhile, an unreformed HRC continues its anti-Israel bias unabated.
Undeterred, the Biden administration wants to double down on its failed approach by unconditionally paying approximately $900 million in U.S. arrears to the U.N. peacekeeping budget.
Understanding where these arrears come from may require a short history lesson.
In the early 1990s, the number and scope of U.N. peacekeeping operations greatly increased. While traditional peacekeeping missions generally involved deployments into low-risk situations, these operations frequently dispatched troops into conflict situations requiring significantly more resources. As demonstrated in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia, these missions often exceeded the capabilities of the U.N., resulting in tragedy.
Unsurprisingly, the cost of U.N. peacekeeping increased 10-fold from 1988 to 1994, with the U.N. billing the U.S. for over 30% of those expenses. The soaring costs, combined with evidence of U.N. mismanagement and a general perception of ineffectiveness, led Congress to cap the U.S. share of contributions toward U.N. peacekeeping at 25%.
The gap between billing and payments, which the U.N. called “arrears,” caused significant financial distress at Turtle Bay. Congress was able to use this leverage to convince the U.N. to adopt a number of reforms, including a lower regular budget assessment and a new peacekeeping formula that was projected to lower the U.S. assessment to 25%. In return, the U.S. paid its arrears.
This 1999 payment-for-reforms deal was known as the Helms-Biden agreement, after Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, and a certain Delaware Democrat with higher office in his future.
That agreement was largely successful, but, unfortunately, the U.S. assessment never fell to 25% as projected. Although it fell for nearly a decade, the U.S. peacekeeping assessment began to rise again, starting in 2010. Currently, the assessment stands at 26.94%.
Since 2017, the United States has chosen not to pay any amounts for U.N. peacekeeping over that 25% cap, and arrears have again accumulated.
But the Biden administration believes that paying these arrears would reap dividends in the U.N. by restoring U.S. credibility. As with the WHO and the HRC, these hopes will be disappointed.
Paying peacekeeping arrears and overriding the 25% cap unconditionally will beget neither reform nor increased influence. Other countries will simply pocket these payments and pursue their interests.
How do we know? Because this is what happened under the Obama administration. During that period, the U.S. paid the amounts above the cap, yet America’s influence at the U.N. was not appreciably greater and efforts to advance reforms and other U.S. priorities were routinely rebuffed.
To better advance reform, the U.S. should adopt a new Helms-Biden agreement that links payments to specific, articulated reforms and instructs the administration to report on a strategy and progress in achieving a maximum peacekeeping assessment of 25% in the upcoming scale of assessments.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times