On a peaceful winter day in New England, it’s hard to imagine being terrorized by sniper fire if we venture out to buy food. Yet such is the case for millions of people in Syria, Mali, and other war-torn areas of the world that most of us struggle even to find on the map.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, the US appetite for foreign interventions is about as low as it’s ever been. Many Americans are frustrated that we can’t stop the atrocities and believe that we should just leave other countries to sort themselves out on their own. But before we shrug our shoulders and turn away, let’s consider that there is one thing we can do that is simple, cost-effective, and would help restore some of our battered moral leadership in world affairs — boosting our financial support for international organizations trying to promote peace and help innocent victims. Unfortunately, we are doing just the opposite.
For example, the United Nations Peacekeeping force, or UNPK, deploys 90,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, Darfur, Congo, Liberia, Haiti, and a dozen other hotspots. For 65 years, this organization has sent troops from 116 countries to places where no one else was willing to go — stopping conflicts from escalating and preventing regions from becoming safe havens for terrorists. Not all of its missions have succeeded, but the world would undoubtedly be an even more dangerous place without it. Yet the United States cut its funding by 12 percent.
The UN has deployed 6,000 peacekeepers to prevent terrorists from gaining a stronghold Mali, where an Al Qaeda-led insurgency invaded the country last year, destroying UNESCO world heritage sites and killing three Americans. Congress zeroed out the $350 million that the United States was due to contribute to this mission, even though it would be a far cheaper solution than sending US troops to central Africa.
Another UN agency, the High Commission on Refugees, provides a lifeline for those who are suffering in hellholes around the world. A small UN staff of fewer than 8,000 provides basic necessities such as blankets, food, and water to 26 million displaced people. Last month, the agency announced that it needs $6.5 billion this year to cope with the humanitarian crisis in Syria, where 9 million people — half of them children — have fled their homes to escape the civil war. The United States is contributing just $380 million — about what we spend every 36 hours in Afghanistan.
America has a powerful tradition of charitable giving — ordinary people donate more of their income to worthy causes than in any other country. But we are stingy when it comes to funding diplomacy. Last week, Congress enacted a $1.1 trillion budget, including $86 billion more for Afghanistan and $520 billion for the Pentagon. But Congress cut funding from institutions that help to prevent violence. It slashed $2.4 billion from the State Department and $214 million from the Agency for International Development. It failed to approve a small funds transfer requested by the International Monetary Fund.
Even though the United States is the largest single donor to the UN, we squander this goodwill by failing to pay our dues on time and penny-pinching over what amount to trivial sums of money. True, the UN Security Council has many flaws, and it has failed to stop the violence in Syria. Critics argue that the UN should do a better job of weeding out corruption, citing incidents such as the oil-for-food program in Iraq, in which proceeds were allegedly diverted to UN officials. These troubles, however, are not unique to the UN — we experienced similar challenges in our Iraqi reconstruction effort. America’s contributions to agencies such as the UN peacekeeping force save us many times more money than we contribute — putting boots on the ground in far-flung crises around the world so that US troops don’t have to step in. How can we, in good faith, urge others to deploy to the world’s most dangerous places if the United States won’t shoulder the financial burden?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans strongly support the UN and our role in it. A recent survey finds that 60 percent of American voters hold a favorable view of the UN (as opposed to 28 percent unfavorable). More than 70 percent say we should pay our full UN peacekeeping dues on time. Americans verwhelmingly (88 percent of voters) believe it is important for the United States to maintain an active role within the UN. Even higher majorities believe the United States should support efforts to build peace in countries emerging from conflict, to educate girls, and to alleviate suffering around the world.
The United States is the richest country in the world. Instead of trying to reduce our aid to organizations that help foster peace, we should emulate Bill Gates — striving to be the most generous contributor and to persuade other wealthy countries to do the same.
Linda J. Bilmes is a senior lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School.