House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced a particularly nonsensical piece of legislation today that would shift the way the United States pays the United Nations from “dues paying” to a system of line-item voluntary contributions.

The way things work now, the USA pays about 22% of the regular UN budget and 27% of the cost of peacekeeping missions, with the rest of the world picking up the other 75% or so. In 2010,that amounted to $516 million for the UN regular budget and $1.887 billion for 16 peacekeeping missions, like Darfur and Haiti.

The House GOP legislation would effectively end this system of dues payments for a system of voluntary payments. Think of it as UN a la carte, with the USA picking and choosing which programs and missions to pay for and which to not.

On the surface, this may seem like a straightforward way of getting the most out of the UN. In the words of John Bolton (who is the intellectual patron of this concept), the USA would be “paying for what it wants, not what it gets.”

The problem is, this scheme would likely cost US taxpayers much more in the long run. If the USA adopts this scheme other countries will follow. When that happens American priorities at the UN will probably get shortchanged.

Take for example, the United Nations Mission in Iraq. You may recall that back in 2003, most of Europe and the rest of the world did not want the United States to invade and occupy Iraq. It happened anyway. And because the most of Europe and the rest of the world are locked into the UN dues paying system they have financed the bulk of the cost of Iraqi reconstruction programs like organizing elections, training Iraqi civil servants, and monitoring human rights abuses.

This year, the UN Mission in Iraq costs UN member states $355 million, making it the second most expensive UN mission after Afghanistan.  The USA only contributed $88 million to it. Even though they may not have supported the decision to go into Iraq, France, Germany and every other country in the world are picking up the remaining three quarters of the tab.

If the USA moves to a voluntary funding mechanism, you can bet that other countries will follow.  When that happens, other countries will likely sharply reduce their contributions. Could you really imagine France and Germany voluntarily chipping in to an Iraq mission?

The whole point of the UN funding system is that it spreads the financial across every member state. To be sure, the USA pays the most — but as a permanent member of the Security Council, the USA also has the ability to veto any missions it finds unnecessary or not worth the cost.

At $3.5 billion, UN funding is not a huge budgetary outlay for the United States. (It amounts to about what the USA spends in Afghanistan in just over one week.) For that sum, the United States gets a Security Council that punishes Libya and sanctions Iran; peacekeeping missions like the one at America’s doorstep in Haiti; de-miners in Laos; human rights monitors; translators; and everything else the United Nations does.

It’s a bargain at $3.5 billion. This new legislation will erode all of these activities and end up costing the USA much, much more in the long run.

 

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