The budget passed by Congress to avert a shutdown will fund government operations through the end of the fiscal year in October. In general, the budget is close to previous years’ spending on key international and foreign aid accounts, at about $53 billion. Overall foreign aid spending is stable — and global health programs even get a boost, as does UNICEF. US contributions to the UN’s regular budget are also fully funded.
But there is one big cut that could imperil key UN operations around the world: the spending bill would cut about $300 million UN Peacekeeping. To make matters worse, it does so by instating what is known as a 25% “cap” on US contributions to UN Peacekeeping. This could present immense political challenges to the United States at the United Nations.
To understand the significance of that cap, and why it may be such a problematic move by congress you need to know a little something about how the UN funds itself.
The UN a membership organization and members pay dues to belong. The dues they pay come under two different categories: payments for the UN’s regular budget (which pays for things like office supplies, translators, staff salaries and other things needed to run the day-to-day operations of the UN) and payments for peacekeeping operations, which deploys about 100,000 blue helmets to 16 global hotspots.
The precise amount that each country is assessed to pay for the UN and UN peacekeeping operations is negotiated by countries themselves every three years. During the last round of negotiations, the United States agreed to be assessed at 28.57% of the total cost of UN Peacekeeping operations. Despite this negotiated agreement between the United States and other member states in New York, Congress in Washington appropriated an amount equalling just 25%. This leaves a $300 million shortfall.
That is a significant portion of a $7.8 peacekeeping budget and could poise a serious risk to operations around the world. It also presents a diplomatic dilemma for the United States at the UN: while one branch of the US government agreed to be charged one rate, another branch of government is only willing to pay at a separate rate. The credibility of the US in these kinds of negotiations can now be called into question. Also, the United States is now poised to go into arrears at the United Nations for the first time since 2009.
UN Peacekeeping operations already operate on a tight budget. They regularly lack key capacities (like helicopters that can be flown at night) that would be an anathema to any comparable US military deployment. Also, as a veto wielding member of the Security Council the United States gets a final say in whether or not a peacekeeping operation can or should be deployed in the first place.
Still another bargain underlying UN peacekeeping is that while the United States is the single largest funder of UN peacekeeping operations and has an outsized say in where troops are sent, the boots on the ground will be supplied by other countries. (The USA has fewer than 80 peacekeepers deployed).
Now, the US is about to renege on this key commitment. It could have system-wide implications. This may not end well.