After 70 years, the United Nations has become a vast, sprawling conglomerate, overwhelmed by unsustainable ambitions, inadequate capacities, and plain reality. Characterized by speeches, meetings, reports, resolutions, and endless ways to spend money, the UN has managed to construct a large carbon footprint. What else it actually accomplishes is a different issue.
None of this is new. In his Oct. 22, 1961, diary entry, Arthur Schlesinger, close adviser to President John Kennedy and good friend of then UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, wrote, “I cannot resist the feeling that the UN world is really an immense and picturesque form of make-believe and that its problems and crises are remote from the serious issues of the day.” Although Schlesinger hoped he was mistaken in the long run, that day is not yet in sight.
Undoubtedly, many UN specialized agencies do important work in fields as diverse as maritime affairs, civil air transport, and telecommunications. Almost from their creation, however, the UN’s political decision-making entities — the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the various “human-rights” organizations — have largely been failures.
Many Americans, watching decade after decade of cascading failures and scandals like the oil-for-food program, ask why we simply shouldn’t withdraw. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was once asked this question. After pausing to reflect, she responded, “It’s not worth the trouble.”
Staying in, of course, brings its own share of trouble, thanks to the feckless decisions by one UN governing body after another and the attendant financial consequences for American taxpayers. If UN agencies and councils merely adopted resolutions filled with rhetoric, we would be irritated, but those authorizing treaties, programs, and conferences with budget implications irritate us more tangibly. Given the UN Charter’s “one nation, one vote” principle, we are basically guaranteed to be permanently irritated.
Periodically, Congress has responded to the UN’s sustained inability to control its budget by withholding American funds. Since Washington now pays for 22 percent of most UN activities through “assessed” contributions (26 percent for peacekeeping missions), withholding can be a powerful signal. In the 1980s, for example, Nancy Kassebaum, the Republican senator from Kansas, led a successful legislative effort to withhold one-fifth of US-assessed contributions from any UN agency that did not adequately take heed of the disproportionate American share of UN budget requirements.
Kassebaum’s effort had some effect, but not for long. More sustainably, Washington should announce that, henceforth, all US financial support would be treated as voluntary rather than assessed. Some of the most successful UN agencies, such as the World Food Program, the High Commissioner for Refugees, and UNAIDS, are already funded voluntarily, and very generously, by America. These programs have demonstrated records of good management, and not surprisingly. When international organizations — like businesses or private charities — have to demonstrate competence, efficiency, and effectiveness, they either perform or disappear. This would be an extraordinarily valuable lesson for the entire UN to learn. The United States should also never forget that withdrawal from certain UN agencies is an available option, as Ronald Reagan proved by leaving UNESCO.
Shifting to voluntary contributions means adopting two principles that, at the UN at least, would be profoundly revolutionary. We would pay only for what we want, and we would insist that we get what we pay for — that is, real performance. And, of course, we should vigorously encourage other UN members (especially large contributors like Japan, Germany, Britain, and France) to join us in moving to entirely voluntary contributions.
These revolutionary principles would be like a tsunami unleashed within the UN system. We should seek as much support as possible, engaging in extensive diplomacy, public and private, to counter the inevitable opposition. But howls of outrage from agencies whose budgets will diminish, and from nations that have benefited from America meekly complying with their priorities, should not deter us from really improving this world body.
Opponents will carp that we are violating international law, which is untrue. Yet the consequence, even in the worst-case scenario, is merely losing our vote in the General Assembly. Since that vote is effectively meaningless now, it would be a small inconvenience on the path to true reform. Remember, our Security Council vote — and veto — can never be taken away except by amending the UN Charter, which we would, of course, veto.
The UN’s strongest advocates should not fear criticism of the UN’s performance, pressure for its improvement, or increased accountability. Their propensity to apologize for the UN rather than actually try to fix it, however, helps explain why so many other Americans are ready to take measures far more drastic than that suggested here. Think about it.
John Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the US permanent representative to the United Nations.