The Trump administration has spent the weeks since the inauguration gnawing at the foundations of America’s traditional international commitments. Speculation swirls around its next potential move: a significant cut to America’s contribution to the UN. But in many ways, the US needs the UN just as much as the UN needs the US.
For most of the world’s peoples and countries, the United Nations lies at the crossroads of Interdependence Avenue and Multilateral Cooperation Street. For many Republican politicians, it should be relocated at the intersection of Indifference Avenue and Non-cooperation Street. With President Donald Trump, it would appear to be in the crosshairs of outright contempt and hostility. He tweeted that the organisation is “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time“.
At present, all we have are rumours and speculation about just what steps against the UN are being contemplated. Some reports suggest that draft executive orders have been prepared to cut funding to the entire UN system by 40 per cent. On 3 January Alabama congressman Mike Rogers introduced a bill to terminate US membership of the UN that was co-sponsored by conservative-leaning representatives. Although unlikely to pass, the bill reinforces the Trump narrative of opposition to multilateral institutions and disengagement from global leadership roles.
Encouragingly, the early response of the new UN Secretary-General has been anything but obsequious. On 27 January, President Trump announced a 120-day travel ban on all refugees and a 90-day ban on those from seven Muslim-majority countries as a means of filtering out potential terrorists. On 1 February UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency for a decade, said resettlement is often “the only possible solution” for people fleeing conflict and persecution. The US ban “should be removed sooner rather than later” because it violates basic UN principles and also because it is not the most effective way to prevent terrorist attacks on the US homeland.
This is probably the only example of a secretary-general publicly rebuking the president of the UN’s most important member state just one month after being sworn in. Another perennial irritant in UN–US relations is Israel. The adoption of Security Council Resolution 2334 was the first international diplomatic setback for Trump as president-elect, Trump made his unflattering views of the UN known in characteristically blunt tweets.
Mugged by reality
Given Trump’s open disdain for staunch allies in Australia and Europe, his hostility to the UN is hardly surprising. We are already well and truly into the era of post-truth alternative facts—the old aphorism that everyone is entitled to form their own opinions but not their own facts is clearly obsolete. This may last some time in domestic US politics, but in world affairs the administration may find itself mugged by reality sooner rather than later. This includes the fact that US allies are critical to the pursuit of global American interests; they are not just consumers of beneficent US security.
The UN too is critical to key US goals and interests. The US may still be the indispensable power but the UN is no less an indispensable international organisation. As the march of folly into Iraq in 2003 proved, US power is rendered less effective without UN approval. Overall, the UN has been responsive, not inattentive to US concerns, interests and preferences. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, the UN quickly and effectively backed and continues to support the fight against international terrorism
The UN Charter proclaims Western liberal values as guiding UN principles. No other country had as much influence on designing the international organisation nor on its operations once established as the US; no other will have as critical a role in determining its agenda and actions nor as devastating an impact on its fortunes by withholding support.
The UN system was the forum and instrument for externalising American values and virtues like democracy, human rights, rule of law and the market economy, and embedding them in international institutions. US structural dominance in the UN is embedded in its primary organs and voting procedures. The crucial executive decision-making body is the Security Council, which has often bent to US will and can never act against US vital interests owing to the veto clause.
The US has global power and reach but, when acting unilaterally, lacks international authority. The UN has international authority but not global power and, as such, practises only part of its charter. Its authority would be weakened if it were to become a mere handmaiden to US power. Falling victim to hubris and triumphalism after victory in the Cold War, US assaults on UN-centred law undermined the norm of a world of laws, the efficacy of international law and the legitimacy of the UN as the authoritative validator of international behaviour.
The UN is and will remain relevant for setting international standards and norms to regulate interstate behaviour. Norms, laws and treaties for governing the global commons will either be negotiated in UN forums, or ratified by the UN machinery. Its humanitarian service delivery functions are widely appreciated. Studies by US scholars and think tanks show how UN peace operations offer the best crossover between cost efficiency and effectiveness.
There is no foreseeable substitute for the UN’s institutional and political legitimacy such that if it did not exist, we would have to invent it albeit differently structured to reflect today’s geopolitical and economic realities. If international consensus exists, the UN can provide the most authoritative forum for translating that into new norms, treaties, policies and operations. But the UN cannot manufacture international consensus where none exists, when the divisions are too deep to be papered over by diplomacy and disputes are too intractable to be resolved around the negotiating table. But even here it can point the way to resolving disputes peacefully, if not amicably.
Consider the early statements from the Trump administration on China’s contested territorial claims and ship movements in the South China Sea. Washington can rely purely on brute force to impose its will on Beijing. That can only end in disaster for the two conflict parties and all others. A better strategy surely for Washington is to mobilise international sentiment inside and outside the UN to persuade China to abide by the provisions and dispute resolution clauses of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But in turn this task is made more difficult—first, if the US itself stays outside UNCLOS and second, if Washington practises open hostility to all things UN.
In other words the UN helps the US to mute the costs and spread the risks of international engagement. The US defence budget is around US$600 billion (AU$782 billion). At a cost of under US$8 billion, the UN maintains 16 peacekeeping operations with personnel from over 100 countries in conflict-riven regions where otherwise Washington would face pressures to intervene at the cost of American blood and treasure.
Thus, the UN offers the US is a means of mediating the choice between isolationism and unilateralism; between inaction through refusing to be a cop and permanent interventions through being the world’s only cop. But in order to maximise these benefits, Washington needs to instil the principle of multilateralism itself as a norm in its own right; states must do x because the UN has called for x, and good states do what the UN asks them to do—including honouring the obligations of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention until such time as it is either amended or repealed.
Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations assistant secretary-general, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.