How the U.S. can Help Fix the United Nations

Ann Florini
Ann Florini Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Public Policy - School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University

June 14, 2005

The extraordinary energy Congress has put into the fight over whether John Bolton should become the US ambassador to the United Nations may be wasted if a bill now before the House becomes law. The UN Reform Act of 2005, drafted by House International Relations Committee chair Henry Hyde, could ensure that neither Bolton nor any other US ambassador could do much to make the UN an effective instrument for US interests.

The UN undoubtedly needs sweeping reform. Such scandals as the mismanagement and alleged corruption in the UN-administered Oil for Food program in Iraq have highlighted fundamental weaknesses in the way the organization is run. The UN’s systems for oversight, programming, budgeting, and personnel range from marginally effective to surreal. The United States, with interests in every corner of the planet, badly needs a reformed UN that can carry out growing responsibilities for security, human rights, development, and humanitarian assistance around the world.

There has never been a better opportunity for significant, sustainable UN reform. The UN Secretariat, the organization’s staff arm, is groaning under the rapidly expanding mandates being set by the UN’s member states (including the US), at the same time that the organization has been shaken to its core by the drumbeat of scandalous revelations. Secretary General Kofi Annan is finally showing some backbone in his calls for change, developing serious policies on such matters as whistleblower protection and making needed changes in his senior staff. Even the most irresponsible members of New York’s cozy diplomatic community—the official representatives of the UN’s member states—no longer pretend that business as usual can continue. Indeed, some of the most powerful forces for reform are in New York, not Washington, including at the highest levels of the Secretariat and among leading member states.

But the UN is an inter-governmental organization with 191 member countries. The US has a golden opportunity to negotiate significant fixes to long-standing problems, but it will need to negotiate. The other 190 member states, who contribute 78 percent of the core budget, can reasonably expect to have some say in how the UN should change. The Hyde legislation, however, leaves any US ambassador no flexibility at all, and puts forward conditions that ensure the package will be dead on arrival in New York.

The bill has two fatal flaws. One is its enforcement mechanism. Unless the administration certifies that the UN quickly complies with each and every one of the reforms listed in the legislation’s 70 pages of detailed demands, the US will withhold half of its required contributions. Nothing could be better calculated to infuriate the rest of the world and entrench the view that the US is a bully rather than a partner in international efforts to address international problems.

Since the mid-1980s, the US has used the threat, and sometimes the reality, of withholding its share of the UN budget, with only limited success. In the mid-1980s, withholding did bring about an improvement in the budget process, although not the precise change Congress had mandated. But US pro-reform diplomacy has worked at least as well. Without threats, the US negotiated such important changes as step-by-step reductions in its share of UN dues over decades and the establishment of an internal oversight agency in the early 1990s.

And threats to withhold have left a lasting bitterness among the other member countries. Under the UN Charter, assessed dues are an obligation for all member states, not an option for those that feel inclined to pay. Indeed, in Cold War days, when the Soviet Union failed to pay its share the US argued adamantly that member states are legally obliged to pay their assessed dues. The scale of assessments roughly tracks each country’s share of the global economy. On that scale, the US pays well below its “share,” providing 22 percent of the regular budget despite its roughly 30 percent share of global GDP. Other countries, particularly Japan, have picked up the slack. Given this history and this reality, a new threat to withhold US payments will trigger widespread resentment that will vastly complicate US efforts to create an effective coalition for UN reform.

It is understandable that Congress has been frustrated by the historically glacial pace of reform at the United Nations. But times have changed. Instead of wielding a big club—a demand destined to fail—Congress should give any new US ambassador to the UN the chance to seize the current moment of opportunity.

The other provision seemingly designed to make reform politically unachievable is the demand that voting on budgetary matters be “weighted” according to the size of member states’ contributions. Most UN funding already comes from voluntary contributions or the separate peacekeeping budget. The regular assessed budget represents the relatively small piece over which all member states theoretically have an equal say, making it a political prize for the vast majority of governments accustomed to having little voice in international circles. If the US starts the reform negotiations with this demand, it will both fail to change the voting rules and undermine prospects for agreement on more important reforms.

And the call for weighted voting, a long-standing demand from some of the UN’s most virulent opponents who are well aware of its political infeasibility, is a solution in search of a problem. The US already has substantial say over the budget. At US insistence, over a decade ago the UN adopted a consensus process on budgetary decisions to ensure that major contributors could not be forced to pay ever-rising bills. The process has worked. The UN’s budget stayed flat for years in the 1990s and only began to increase more recently in response to demands, largely from the United States, that the UN take on new responsibilities in such areas as counter-terrorism.

Other reforms called for in the Hyde bill are a mixed bag. Some are sensible steps that may well serve US interests, although the bill goes into extraordinary and inappropriate detail about how those steps should be carried out. For example, the bill proposes to clean up the UN in large part by forcing most of its programs to depend entirely on voluntary contributions from member states for their funding, rather than relying on funds from the core budget for which member states are assessed dues. In principle, this makes sense—UN programs that have to satisfy their paymasters are often more efficient and are certainly more responsive to the wishes of the largest contributors, including the US.

But the Hyde legislation names 18 programs that are to be denied any funding from the regular budget, with no analysis of whether those programs are worthwhile and whether it would better serve US interests to have other countries continue to pick up 78 percent of the bill for them. And given that almost all of the 18 are programs of special interest to developing countries, the provision is likely to undermine efforts to bring the majority of UN member states into a meaningful reform coalition.

Congress has two alternatives to consider. First is the proposed “UN Reform and Institutional Strengthening Act” introduced by Tom Lantos. Although it also contains detailed instructions on what the US should demand in the way of UN reform and repeats the call for weighted voting, it does allow some negotiating flexibility that could make it possible to bring about real reform. Most important, it authorizes but does not require the Secretary of State to withhold half of US dues should the UN fail to meet Congressional expectations on reform.

The other and most sensible approach is for Congress to pay attention to the recommendations of the bipartisan task force it created six months ago to analyze just what the US should do with regard to the UN. That task force, co-chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, will come out with a 174-page report on June 15—the day before the House is scheduled to debate the Hyde legislation. The New York Times reports that the task force is making recommendations very different from those in the Hyde bill, notably arguing that real reform is now achievable without any threat of withholding US payments. Given that the task force report represents the consensus views of distinguished Americans from all parts of the political spectrum, who have spent months on an in-depth study of how the UN could be made to better serve US interests, it would seem logical for Congress to consider what the task force has to say.