The United Nations General Assembly recently approved its “scale of assessments” for 2013–2015, which sets the share of U.N. regular and peacekeeping budgets that each member state is expected to pay. Although America’s regular budget assessment will remain steady at 22 percent, the U.S. share of the peacekeeping budget will rise from 27.1415 percent in 2012 to 28.3835 percent this year, and to 28.3626 percent in 2014 and 2015, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs for U.S. taxpayers.
In late 2000, the U.N. committed to lowering the U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 25 percent and, encouraged by U.S. law limiting U.S. payments to U.N. peacekeeping at that level, gradually lowered the assessment from 2001 through 2009. Starting in 2010, however, the U.S. assessment has risen sharply. Congress and the Obama Administration have encouraged this reversal through amendments to U.S. law allowing payments above the 25 percent cap. The U.S. should end this practice and restore pressure on the U.N. to fulfill its commitment made a decade ago to reduce the U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 25 percent.
Struggle to Lower U.S. Assessments
The amount that the U.N. asks the U.S. to pay for its budget is a perennial source of contention, dating back to the founding of the organization when the U.S. successfully opposed a proposal to have America pay 49.89 percent of the U.N. budget. The struggle intensifies every three years during negotiations on apportioning the expenses of the U.N. regular budget and the peacekeeping budget through the U.N. scale of assessments, which assigns a specific percentage of the budget to each member state.[1 ]
Reducing the U.S. assessment is contentious because the scale of assessments is often a zero-sum game—if America’s assessment is reduced, other member states must increase their own contributions. Nonetheless, the U.S. succeeded in reducing its assessment for the regular budget in roughly a dozen incremental steps from a high of 39.84 percent in 1947. A maximum contribution level was established at one-third of the budget in the 1950s, and was steadily reduced to 25 percent in 1974.
Peacekeeping expenses were originally paid through the regular budget. However, disputes in the early 1960s over peacekeeping expenses and sharp political differences over two major U.N. peacekeeping operations—the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF I) established in 1956, and the United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) established in 1960—led a number of countries to withhold U.N. funding, and instigated an ad hoc peacekeeping-funding arrangement with discounts for developing countries subsidized through higher assessments for permanent Security Council members.[3 ]
When a peacekeeping surge in the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in unprecedented U.S. payments to the U.N., the U.S. demanded that the ad hoc arrangement for peacekeeping be changed to reduce its share of peacekeeping expenses. As President Bill Clinton stated before the General Assembly in 1993, “[T]he U.N.’s operations must not only be adequately funded, but also fairly funded.... [O]ur rates should be reduced to reflect the rise of other nations that can now bear more of the financial burden.”[4 ]
In 1994, President Clinton signed P.L. 103–236, which capped U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping at 25 percent. The discrepancy between this cap and the amount that the U.N. assessed to the U.S. for peacekeeping led to a rapid accumulation of arrears in the 1990s.
This financial stress forced the U.N. and the other member states to agree to lower the maximum contribution level for the regular budget assessment to 22 percent in 2001, which was a condition for U.S. payment of arrears under the 1999 Helms–Biden agreement. This lowered the U.S. regular budget assessment from 25 percent to 22 percent. As part of the agreement, the U.N. also established a formal peacekeeping assessment and agreed to gradually reduce America’s assessment to 25 percent. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the deal, secured an immediate reduction from 30.2816 percent in 2000 to 28.134 percent in January 2001. He testified that “[t]he U.S. rate will continue to progressively decline, and we expect that it will reach 25 percent by roughly 2006 or 2007.”[8 ]
Congress accepted these assurances in good faith and approved payment of the arrears. While Congress maintained the 25 percent cap as an incentive for the U.N. to follow through on its promise, it approved gradually diminishing increases in the cap to avoid accumulating arrears while the U.N. lowered the U.S. assessment to 25 percent. With the threat of the U.S. peacekeeping cap as an incentive, the U.N. began reducing the U.S. peacekeeping assessment, albeit not as rapidly as originally agreed, reaching 25.9624 percent in 2008 and 2009. (See Table.)
An Inadequate Defense
This trend sharply reversed with the 2010–2012 scale—the first negotiated by the Obama Administration—which assessed the U.S. 27.1743 percent in 2010, and 27.1415 percent in 2011 and 2012 for peacekeeping. Congress and the Administration encouraged this assessment hike in 2009 by increasing the cap from 25 percent to 27.1 percent and applying it retroactively through 2005 to allow payment of arrears accumulated during that period. The other U.N. member states interpreted this action as a weakening in U.S. resolve to lower its peacekeeping assessment and, unsurprisingly, increased the U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 27.1743 percent in 2010. The increase from 25.9624 percent in 2009 to more than 27.1 percent from 2010 through 2012 cost U.S. taxpayers roughly $278 million over the past three years.
The U.S. repeated the error by increasing the cap to 27.3 percent for 2010. Subsequent legislation made the situation even worse by failing to identify a specific cap number. Starting in 2011, the U.S. made funds available “up to the amount specified in Annex IV accompanying United Nations General Assembly Resolution 64/220.” In other words, the U.S. increased the cap to the level adopted by the U.N.
Predictably, the other member states have sought to take advantage of this development. In the negotiations on the scale of assessment for 2013–2015, the Group of 77 sought to raise the maximum contribution level to 25 percent, which would have resulted in a 3 percentage point increase in the U.S. assessment.
Thankfully, the U.S. defeated that proposal. Based on the adjusted biennial budget of $5.39 billion for 2012–2013. raising the U.S. regular budget assessment to 25 percent would have cost an additional $81 million per year. Since peacekeeping assessments are based on those for the regular budget, maintaining the 22 percent regular budget assessment for the U.S. prevented a similar 3 percentage point hike in America’s peacekeeping assessment. An additional 3 percentage points in America’s peacekeeping assessment would cost U.S. taxpayers $217 million per year using the current $7.23 billion budget, which runs from July 2012 through June 2013, as a baseline.
Unfortunately, with Congress and the Administration seemingly willing to accommodate increased assessments for peacekeeping, the U.N. is no longer under pressure to fulfill its promise to reduce the U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 25 percent, either by tweaking America’s effective rate of assessment for peacekeeping to lower it below what it would be under the current methodology (as the U.N. did in previous scales), or by adopting a 25 percent maximum assessment for peacekeeping. As a result, the U.S. share of the peacekeeping budget for 2013–2015 will rise to 28.3835 percent in 2013, and 28.3626 percent in 2014 and 2015. Using the current $7.23 billion peacekeeping budget as a baseline:
- Increasing the peacekeeping assessment from the 27.1415 percent in 2012 to 28.3835 percent in 2013 and 28.3626 percent in 2014 and 2015 will cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $267 million over the next three years.
- The U.S. would have saved over $522 million over the next three years if the 2009 assessment of 25.9624 percent had been maintained.
- Had the U.N. fulfilled its promise to lower the U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 25 percent, U.S. taxpayers would have saved over $731 million over the next three years.
Enforce the Cap
The Administration deserves credit for defeating the effort to increase the U.S. regular budget assessment. But it also bears responsibility for the peacekeeping assessment increases since 2010, which were encouraged through unwillingness to enforce the 25 percent cap. To restore incentives for the U.N. to reduce America’s peacekeeping assessment to 25 percent, Congress and the Administration should:
- Reiterate support for the Clinton-era policy of reducing the U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 25 percent;
- Maintain the 25 percent cap on U.S. contributions to peacekeeping in current law; and
- Refuse to adjust the cap upwards as that has only encouraged the U.N. to renege on its commitment to lower the U.S. peacekeeping assessment.
A decade ago, the U.S. fulfilled its part of the Helms–Biden bargain by paying arrears to the U.N. In this era of tight budgets and financial crisis, it is imperative that the U.S. demand that the U.N. fulfill its side of that agreement. The inability of the Obama Administration to convince the U.N. to fulfill that promise, or even keep the U.S. peacekeeping assessment where it was at the end of the second Bush Administration, has cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and will cost even more over the next three years. Congress and the Administration should restore incentives for the U.N. to lower the U.S. peacekeeping assessment by refusing to placate the U.N., and enforcing the 25 percent cap on U.S. contributions to peacekeeping.—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).