Global Policy Forum

Uncle Sam, the UN Deadbeat


By Ian Williams

June 1, 2007

Congress won't pay the UN the money it promised - and wonders why the US loses influence abroad. And the presidential candidates are silent about it. Between John Bolton and Iraq, it is not difficult to find reasons why America's diplomatic currency is plunging along with the dollar. But another reason has nothing to with the White House - but the congressional circus's latest performance.

At a time when the US is proposing and voting for UN peacekeeping operations on a huge scale, and when its new Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is trying to foist more responsibility for Iraq on the organisation, the US is running a tab of almost $1bn in arrears with the UN - and that will increase even more by the end of the year based on the latest amounts budgeted by Congress.

In effect, the Capitol Hill circus has ignored an intricate compromise crafted by the former US Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, under which the other 190 members agreed to accept the unilateral congressional calculations, wink at a substantial amount of arrears, and to reduce the percentage paid by the US in future from 33% to 27%. Ted Turner agreed to sweeten the deal for the General Assembly by paying off some of the US arrears himself, but the clincher was the now-broken promise from the US to pay off the arrears and to pay promptly in future.

But Congress ratted on the deal, and has maintained a 25% cap on contributions, even though the other members agreed to reduce the US assessment again from last year, to 26%, which is why the US is again running up massive arrears - massive that is to the UN. In fact, the sum that Congress is sitting on is the equivalent of two days of Pentagon spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one-tenth of the amount of the UN oil-for-food surplus that the US took for reconstruction in Iraq and still cannot account for.

The US general accounting office studied UN peacekeeping and found it was one-eighth of the cost of using US forces - even if one discounts the Pentagon being otherwise engaged at the moment, surging and losing in Iraq. Partly at the urging of the same Congressional geniuses, the US has pushed the UN into a massive expansion of peacekeepers in Lebanon, and wants an even bigger expansion into Darfur, in addition to supporting new and renewed operations ranging from Haiti to East Timor.

For an interesting contrast in how American politicians look at foreign affairs, one only has to contrast the total agreement of almost every presidential question to contribute to the Jerusalem Post on their (favorable) attitude to Israel with their almost equally total silence on the United Nations on which any successful candidate will have to rely for dealing with foreign countries.

So far, Joe Biden is the honourable (in this instance, at least) exception, who has publicly called for the arrears to be paid. It makes diplomatic sense for a nation to honour its pledges, but sadly the other candidates do not think it makes political sense to talk about it. Presumably they assume that it will get them few extra votes, while getting the assorted America-firsters and Likudniks on their case.

Since the candidates now have half a year of trawling around pressing the flesh, perhaps some of the more far-sighted voters can put them on the spot. For more background on the questions they could ask, the Better World Foundation is attempting to stir up some interest. Perhaps voters could thank the UN for refusing to endorse the invasion of Iraq by telling their representatives to pay up.

More Information on UN Finance
More General Articles on UN Finance
More Information on Peacekeeping


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