The United Nations is a way for countries, including the United States, to burden-share global challenges—be they related to diplomacy, development, or security—that are too big for a single country to handle alone. As a leading world power, the United States must contribute a significant financial share, but it also receives benefits from distributing the burden on many issues.
At the same time, the United Nations creates several challenges for the United States, both in terms of its operations and specific “pain points.” Ultimately, the United States needs to pay its membership dues and arrears, increase its personnel appointments, and strategically deploy the United Nations as a vehicle for achieving its foreign policy goals. Quitting the United Nations is not an option, and crippling our engagement by holding back money or ignoring key staffing issues is not only short-sighted but against our interests in the long run.
Today, the United Nation’s role in the international system is under debate. The United Nations has come under criticism for its perceived inefficiency and passivity, opaque processes, and lack of accountability. However, the United States should not distance itself from the organization but rather push for positive reforms and use the United Nations as a vector to carry out U.S. foreign policy objectives. Recent polls show that 83 percent of Americans support U.S. engagement in the United Nations, and 88 percent think that the United States should play an active role. Overall, 66 percent of respondents believe the United Nations plays a necessary role in the world today, although only 34 percent think the institution is doing a good job.
The Importance of the UN System
The United States has been a driving force in UN affairs since the body’s inception. Recognizing the need for a capable multilateral institution, the United States hosted several crucial meetings in SanFrancisco and Washington, D.C., before the official establishment of the United Nations on October 24, 1945. The United Nations Charter was ratified by key founding states such as the United States, China, France, and the former Soviet Union. Domestically, U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s successful efforts to foster bipartisan congressional support for its ratification pushed the treaty into law.
For the 193 countries within the UN system, belonging to the United Nations “club” has its benefits. An important advantage of UN membership is the explicit acknowledgement that all member nations are sovereign states. The United Nations also supports countries in several important sectors such as humanitarian assistance, economic development, global health, and human rights on four key fronts: maintaining peace throughout the world, developing friendly relations among nations, helping nations work together to improve the lives of people, and serving as a forum to discuss the actions of nations to achieve global goals.
The UN system consists of six main organs, 27 departments and offices, 15 specialized agencies, and other funds, programs, and bodies (Box 1). The Security Council is the most powerful body and has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security by responding to crises around the world and overseeing ongoing UN peacekeeping operations.
The council is composed of 15 members: 5 permanent members (the P5—France, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, and the United States) and 10 non-permanent rotating members. The P5 were determined at the time of the United Nations’ founding after World War II. The other 10 members are non-permanent and are elected for two-year terms by the UN General Assembly.1 For a council resolution to be approved, it must secure at least nine “YES” votes and avoid a veto by any of the P5. Each council member has one vote, and a P5 veto kills the resolution.
Many people equate the United Nations with the Security Council, forgetting that it is a complex web of agencies and institutions that carry out important work beyond just security and peace issues. For example, the United Nations provides food to 80 million people, assists 70 million refugees, and vaccinates 45 percent of the children in the world. Globally recognized agencies such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are also part of the UN system. Many people are also unaware that the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are also UN specialized agencies but operate independently.
The World Health Organization (WHO) works with 194 member states to combat communicable and non-communicable diseases. The WHO is currently headed by Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian national who was elected for a five-year term beginning in May 2017. The WHO and its director-general have come under increasing criticism due to their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which critics deem as too trusting of the Chinese government’s dubious reports of the virus and the slow reaction to declare Covid-19 a global health emergency.
U.S. Engagement in the United Nations
The United Nations’ history and legacy has been shaped by U.S. ideals and foreign policy interests. As the leading proponent for a successor to the League of Nations, the United States spearheaded the creation of the United Nations. Since 1945, the United States has leveraged the United Nations as an important tool to further its foreign policy objectives and forge international consensus. The United States is also a major financial contributor (Figure 1). In 2019, it provided 22 percent of the UN regular budget and paid 27.9 percent of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations’ budget.3 In terms of peacekeeping forces, the United States contributes about 70 personnel, on par with Russia.
China provided the second highest percentage at approximately 12 percent; in contrast, China provided less than 1 percent of the UN budget in 2000. While China’s voluntary contributions have been rising, China has not increased its volun-tary contributions to specialized organizations at the same rate. In some instances, however, China is gaining great influence through strategic investments in specialized UN agencies. China is the only contributor to the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund, enabling China to fill four of its five committee seats. China is also investing in UN agencies that have upcoming elections. For example, China invested $2.5 million in UNESCO in 2019, while the United States did not contribute at all. China provided $18 million in 2019 to UNIDO, nearly equal to the U.S. contribution of $21.3 million.
During U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s tenure, the Trump administration had several accomplishments at the United Nations. The United States continued to put forth well-respected agency heads specifically at the WFP and UNICEF. Additionally, Ambassador Haley gained China’s and Russia’s support to pass Security Council Resolution 2397, which imposed harsh sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions included a complete ban on top North Korean exports such as iron and coal and a ban on the sale of natural gas, which ultimately reduced the country’s revenue by about $1 billion.
Ambassador Haley was also a vocal proponent of human rights, calling out Myanmar for denying that there was an ethnic cleansing campaign against its Rohingya minority and pressing State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to acknowledge that the military had committed these atrocities. Ambassador Haley has also called out Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua for committing or supporting human rights abuses.
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