UN-U.S. Relations: It’s Complicated

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Written by Ana C. Rold

For decades, after the end of World War II, the United States was a co-founder and key leader of the world’s preeminent organizations and treaties. Now, the U.S. is rejecting what helped made it dominant in the first place.

Two particular diplomatic moments in late 2017 put the U.S. in a lonely position. First, was President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to leave the Paris Climate Accords, a decision that has caused the U.S. to become the only country not part of the Accords after Syria joined in November.  And second, was President Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. As a result the UN Security Council voted on a draft resolution asking President Trump’s declaration to be withdrawn, an agreement voted in favor for by every member of the Security Council except the United States.

However—and here is where things get complicated—while it may appear that these are policies of an administration unfavorable to internationalism, American public opinion polls regarding the United Nations reveal a growing lack of trust in the organization. A recent Gallup poll reveals that while 37 percent of Americans agree that the United Nations is doing a good job—only a 1 percent decrease from the previous year—60 percent of those polled stated that the United Nations is doing a poor job, a 6 percent increase from 2016, and 3 percent stated they had no opinion—a 5 percent decrease from the previous year. This shows that while the number of supporters for the United Nations has remained about the same, many of those who previously had no opinion have begun to view the UN unfavorably in the past year, leading to an increase in polarizing views regarding the issue.

Despite faltering trust in the United Nations, there are many reasons why continued involvement in the organization is immensely beneficial for the United States. First, the interests of the UN and the interests of the U.S. overlap much more than they diverge, as seen in agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals, which are aimed at eradicating social ills like poverty and inequality and promoting values such as diversity and democracy across the globe. Similarly, international efforts towards peacekeeping, counterterrorism, nonproliferation and economic development are much more successful when the U.S. partners with the United Nations, and oftentimes impossible to accomplish without the help of the UN and allies.

There is also a common misconception that the U.S. spends too much of its budget on the UN, but this notion is ultimately based on a faulty analysis of the United Nations’ budgeting system. While it is true that the U.S. does contribute more than other member states (around 22 percent), contributions to the UN are based on the size of the member state, with the United States remaining as one of the most populous and economically robust countries within the United Nations. Only around 1.4 percent of the federal budget is actually spent on foreign aid, with a microscopic portion (a mere 0.2 percent) being spent on peacekeeping and regular budget dues within the UN—a number that equates to about $1.99 per American per year. Indeed, with many other UN member states often contributing significantly more to specific peacekeeping projects than the United States, the U.S.’s input within the United Nations appears to be much more cost-effective.

Perhaps most important of all, the U.S.’s position both on the world stage and within the United Nations is not only paramount to domestic problems and world issues, but also completely necessary in order to maintain balance in the international community. With the United States’ role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, for example, no peacekeeping missions can be authorized, expanded, or withdrawn without U.S. consent, and more significantly, the U.S.—along with the other four permanent members—have the power to veto all Security Council resolutions, a power which has proved significant throughout history. A diminished presence by the United States in the Security Council, therefore, would not only change the balance of powers within the UN Security Council, but all other countries as well—and a lack of U.S. involvement in the United Nations would ultimately hurt the United States internationally and allow for more unstable powers to potentially rise.

While the general public may be wary of the unstable relationship between the United States and the United Nations in today’s shaky political landscape, the UN’s established prominence and importance in furthering goals of universal peace and prosperity make it an essential organization to belong to—and with the United States acting not only as a permanent member of its Security Council but also as home to the United Nations headquarters in New York, it can be argued that the U.S is its most important member state. Indeed, if the United States were to leave the United Nations, the UN’s likely collapse would also bring about the end to agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals and peacekeeping activities throughout the world, and without an international body to help guide the tides of this increasingly global world, conflict and disorder would be inevitable.

The United States was key to creating and leading not just the UN but most of the world’s multilateral organizations. As is the case with geopolitics, power abhors vacuum. A retreat from the U.S. will give rise to new actors. The question is, does the U.S. truly want to cede the position it helped create, fund, and sustain since 1945?

About the author:  Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier, a Global Affairs Media Network.  She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.