The White House released its much anticipated budget request to congress today. As expected, it calls for steep cuts to foreign aid and the United Nations in order to pay for a sharp increase to the defense department budget.

The effect of these cuts would be devastating

The budget request calls for about a 30% cut to UN funding across the board. This would be devastating–particularly to emergency relief agencies like UNICEF, the World Food Program and the UN Refugee Agency. Each of those programs are funded through what is known as “voluntary contributions;” that is countries are not treaty-bound to pay them. Rather, they are funded like charity. And, by far, the single biggest contributor is — and has always been — the United States. These agencies are currently stretched more thinly than at anytime in history. Between the global refugee crisis and the prospect of four looming famines striking 20 million people in the near future, these agencies need to be scaling up–not pairing back their work. These cuts could lead to a generation wide catastrophe.

The regular UN budget and the budget for UN peacekeeping are paid as member dues to the UN and are assessed at rates negotiated every two years. The USA is currently the largest single funder of the UN, paying 28% of the peacekeeping budget and 22% of the regular budget. The proposed budget calls for an unspecified reduction to the regular budget and a 3% reduction in US peacekeeping dues which would put the USA in arrears. To be sure, the USA pays more than any other country into the UN system. But the actual amounts are not huge — and for the US is better able to leverage the UN (and the rest of the world) behind US national security interests.

“As President Trump said in his February 28 address to Congress, ‘Our foreign policy calls for direct, robust, and meaningful engagement with the world.’ There is no better place for such engagement than at the United Nations,” Peter Yeo, President of the Better World Campaign said in a statement. “When we pursue our interests through the UN, we share the weight of responding to global crises with other countries. By facilitating burden-sharing, the UN saves American taxpayers the billions of dollars required to solve these issues than if we were to tackle them on our own. The UN, by its very nature, requires other countries to stand up, not stand by. The proposed cuts would result in less burden-sharing and heighten demands for U.S. interventions across the globe.”*

The UN is a tiny fraction of the US budget. The US paid into to the UN regular budget about $630 million last year. This is roughly the budget of the city of Omaha. UN Peacekeeping is funded separately, and for that the US pays $2.4 out of a $8.7 bn budget. (For comparison’s sake, $2.4b is about what Americans consume at Taco Bell each year.)

The point is, these figures are not huge from a budgetary perspective. But it keeps some of the most vulnerable people on the planet alive. It buys US influence around the world. And it ensures that the United States maintains its position as the single most important country on the planet around which other countries set their priorities — a position that it has maintained since World War Two and the advent of the UN.

In other words, it helps keep “America First.” Cutting these budgets in such a drastic way needlessly cedes American global leadership and all the benefits that come with that.

 

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