Defend Our United Nations from US Budget Cuts

By Bruce Knotts

The flags of the United Nations and the Unitarian Universalist Association

Donald Trump destroys what he doesn’t have the knowledge to understand nor appreciate. This has been clear since the 1980s, and on numerous occasions he has shown tragic disregard for historical and artistic treasures.

Fast forward to 2017. The President’s proposed budgets last week have aimed this threat of destruction toward the United Nations. The purposed budget cuts the Department of State funding by a third, mostly impacting foreign assistance projects, United Nations projects, and specifically targeting U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Leaders at the UN COP21 Climate Change Conference celebrate the Paris Agreement's adoption

Leaders at U.N. Climate Conference COP21 celebrate the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The role of the United Nations is not well understood in the United States. Americans, by and large, are unfortunately very little informed on how important the U.N. really is to preserve peace, uphold human rights, combat climate change, fight disease, support sustainable development, regulate trade, fight terrorism, establish gender equality, provide funding to end poverty, food to end hunger, and so much more. For example, most Americans know there was an important climate conference in Paris in 2015 which facilitated the strongest climate agreement to date. It is strange that most Americans don’t know that it was organized by the United Nations. It was the U.N., especially its Secretary-General at the time, who lobbied hard to get each country to come to the conference with their very best deal.

It is common knowledge for Americans that there is a deal between the United States and Iran to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons for many years to come. In fact, there was no deal per se between the United States and Iran. The deal in question was brokered by the United Nations with Iran, and brought together the major powers of the United States, Russia, and China to get Iran to stop its nuclear weapons development program. The deal was put into force by the United Nations Security Council. A senior diplomat representing one of the five permanent members of the Security Council told me that if the United States were to renege on its agreed commitments with Iran and with the U.N. Security Council, the USA would be in violation of its commitment to the U.N. Security Council, not just with Iran.

In our work at the United Nations, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) is very active in promoting gender equality, human rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and combatting climate change and its effects. It’s clear that U.N. programs which promote these issues are not high on Trump’s stated priorities. He does however seem obsessively preoccupied about “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” The fact of the matter is that the U.N. is perhaps our strongest bulwark against terrorism of all sorts, including the sort that Donald Trump imagines comes from radical Islam.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres

The new U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, fully subscribes to the necessity to effectively combat terrorism, but believes that it requires more than military spending. The new US administration’s proposed method for combatting terrorism is to increase the already gigantic military budget by $54 billion, meanwhile cutting 28 percent of the budget for diplomacy and foreign aid.

The proposed budget cuts for diplomacy and foreign aid include an unspecified reduction in financial support for the United Nations and its agencies, as well as enforcement of a 25 percent cap on U.S. funding for peacekeeping operations.

The United States is the biggest contributor to the United Nations, paying 22 percent of the $5.4 billion core budget and 28.5 percent of the $7.9 billion peacekeeping budget. These are assessed contributions agreed by the U.N. General Assembly. The United States currently owes the United Nations $896 million for its core budget. In 2016, the United States was the top contributor to the U.N. Development Program’s (UNDP’s) core budget, with an $83 million donation; the leading donor to the U.N. Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF’s) core budget in 2015 with $132 million; and the fourth-largest donor to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), giving $75 million in core budget and earmarked contributions.

While the U.S. is the largest contributor to the U.N., you can see from these numbers that what the U.S. spends on the U.N. is small in proportion to the proposed extra $54 billion budget increase for the U.S. military. A U.N. peacekeeping mission costs about one tenth of what a U.S. military mission costs. Having U.N. peacekeepers on the job is a more valuable use of American lives and taxpayer dollars.

French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said a strong United Nations and a U.S. commitment to world affairs are needed “more than ever.” “America’s retreat and unilateralism, or even the perception of it by other players, would create the risk of coming back to the old ‘spheres of influence’ policy, and history teaches us that it has only led to more instability,” Delattre said. “In foreign policy, as in politics, perception matters,” he said.

Donald Trump and his administration have opted for hard power (which means military power). We have decades of experience with hard power in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It doesn’t work. At least it can’t work without a judicious amount of soft power which is the work of diplomacy and international engagement, such as that which happens at the United Nations. Remember, it wasn’t the military that ended the war in Vietnam; it was diplomats in Paris and the United Nations.

I understand the need for a country to have military power, but I also know its limits. The adage goes, “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” International engagement requires a full tool box so that the right tool can be used at the right time to achieve the best result. Our country has many skilled diplomats, public affairs officers, foreign commercial officers, intelligence officers, and more who have worked with the U.S. military to solve international problems. The Secretary of Defense understands the value of the full tool box approach, which includes working with the United Nations to address global problems such as climate change, refugee crises, epidemics, natural disasters, wars and other military conflicts, terrorism, and more.

What’s true internationally is also true domestically. Keep giving the police and homeland security more money and more powerful equipment and see if that brings peace to our cities. It won’t and never has done so. Yes, you need a professional and competent police force, but you also need good public schools, libraries, and parks; access to good health care, housing, and jobs; and equal treatment and opportunities for everyone. Sacrifices need to be shared and not heaped on the poor and historically marginalized. No police force can keep peace in a city using force alone and we can’t keep peace in the world with force alone. Compassionate diplomacy and community investment will allow our local communities and our world community to thrive and will stop conflict before it begins. This is where the United Nations and its 34 agencies and programs such as UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP, WHO, and so many more, play such a vital role.

The US spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined, illustrated in a graph.

Trump’s foreign policy is just about force and destruction. It won’t solve the problems ahead. We already spend more on our military than the next seven largest militaries combined and what has that bought us? We, the people, can and must use our power as voters and constituents to change Trump’s budget. We can preserve funding for the U.N. and fulfill our pledges at the 2015 Paris U.N. Climate Conference. We can force Congress to keep funding for the arts, for health care, for public broadcasting, and Meals on Wheels for the elderly. We don’t have to throw all our dollars into the military and police budgets.

How about we spend some of that $54 billion on making people’s lives better and supporting the United Nations’ many programs to help refugees, children, the poor, peacekeeping, and combatting climate change. Soft power will prevent the radicalization of youth, by ensuring they get a good education, health care, housing, and jobs.

The assessment for the U.S. share to the U.N. core budget is $1.3 billion which is a tiny fraction of what we spend on the military. The value we get in saved lives and money from our support for the U.N. far outweighs what we donate. The only people who can bring balance and sanity to this administration are you and me through calling our elected representatives, town hall meetings, demonstrations, letters to the editor, and every means we can create to keep our country from falling off the cliff.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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