The Key to Changing the United Nations System

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No. 2, October 2010

In recent years, there has perhaps been more commentary in the United States that is critical of the United Nations (UN) than ever before. Criticism has grown for many reasons: the Security Council's failure to take its own resolutions seriously, especially in the face of Saddam Hussein's defiance; the Oil-for-Food scandal; the endless efforts to "norm" the United States into compliance with a liberal agenda that could not achieve a majority within our own democratic system; and international officials who seem to think that UN member governments work for them instead of the other way around. Whatever the reasons, and they are many, the growing criticism has raised the attendant question: what do we plan to do about it? This Outlook describes the sad, and largely unsuccessful, history of UN reform efforts in the past thirty years and proposes a revolutionary change that might actually produce a different result: moving toward voluntary funding of the UN and its activities. In addition, it provides complementary information about the culture of the UN and its member states that any subsequent American reform efforts will have to take into account.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • Criticism of the UN has grown, as the United States continues to pay a large portion of the UN budget but wield remarkably little influence.
  • Repeated attempts at UN reform have failed, from “consensus-based” budgeting to the new Human Rights Council.
  • To improve transparency, accountability, and performance, the UN should move toward a system of voluntary funding.

Core funding for most UN agencies ("regular budget") and nearly all peacekeeping activities typically comes from "assessed," or "mandatory," contributions, a system under which members' shares are calculated based on a so-called capacity-to-pay formula that is adjusted periodically to take into account changes in per-capita gross national income and other factors.[1] Significantly, however, decisions on budgets and programs by the General Assembly and the governing bodies of the galaxy of specialized UN agencies are made on the basis of "one country, one vote" no matter what share of the assessments any member government pays.[2] Not surprisingly, governments that pay comparatively low assessments but receive comparatively high benefits have combined repeatedly to create and fund programs that inure to their benefit.

Under this system, the United States was "assessed" 22 percent of UN regular budgets in 2007 and just over 26 percent in the case of peacekeeping.[3] Each of the UN's 191 other member governments pays a far lower rate of assessment than the United States. Japan was the second-largest contributor to the UN regular budget in 2007, paying 16.6 percent, followed by Germany at 8.6 percent. Permanent UN Security Council member Britain was the fourth-largest contributor at 6.6 percent, followed by fellow European permanent Security Council member France at 6.3 percent. The other two permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia, paid 2.7 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively. Thus, the United States paid 25 percent more in regular-budget assessments than the combined totals of the other four permanent members of the Security Council. The forty-three lowest-paying UN member governments, each assessed 0.001 percent for the regular budget in 2007, together pay a whopping 0.043 percent of the total UN regular budget. The 128 lowest-paying governments pay a combined 1.064 percent of the budget. By contrast, the sixteen countries that each pay annual, regular-budget assessments of over 1 percent contributed, in the aggregate, 85.4 percent of the UN's budget in 2007.

Each of the UN's 191 other member governments pays a far lower rate of assessment than the United States.

Yet, under UN rules, each of those countries has equal say in adopting the budget. That means that two-thirds of the General Assembly membership (128 out of 192 total member states)--that pays, in the aggregate, less than 5 percent of the amount that the United States alone is assessed--can, under UN rules, approve the UN budget over the objections of the United States and the fifteen other countries that foot over 85 percent of the bill. Thus, despite the UN Charter's requirement that budgetary questions be decided by a two-thirds majority of the assembly,[4] in practice the two-thirds provision has provided little protection to the largest contributors. Instead, the system of assessed contributions, combined with one-country, one-vote decision making, has created a kind of entitlement mentality within the UN system as governments and Secretariats routinely expect that budgets will be funded without regard to agency performance, effectiveness, transparency, or accountability.

The UN's strongest supporters often chide its critics for blaming the Secretariat or the UN itself for its failures rather than blaming the member governments--a criticism that is often deserved. In the matter of UN reform, this analysis is true in spades, and even support from former secretary-general Kofi Annan was not enough to persuade Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Group of 77 (G-77) countries to go along with his reform proposals. Of course, the NAM and G-77 should have seen that their real long-term self-interest lies in a more effective UN, a point that the United States has made time and again. Unfortunately, the view among third-world countries was largely "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," which certainly suited their short-term interest.

But the real failure was not the unwillingness of the third world, but the failure of will among many of the UN's largest contributing countries to support the reform effort, not just on financing issues but on so many others as well. This occurred despite their own manifest interest in keeping UN costs under control and justifying to their public, as we in the United States have to do--and legitimately so--that UN assessments were actually being used for worthwhile purposes.

Here is where the great divide between the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada, and a few others on the one hand and most of the member states of the European Union (EU) on the other was most clearly exposed. More skeptical Americans (and citizens from a few other countries) actually want to know whether their tax dollars are being used effectively. But many European diplomats from countries with relatively large assessed contributions simply did not care as much about reform as their public rhetoric, and that of their political masters back in their capitals, suggested. Perhaps because their assessed contributions were nowhere near as high as those of the United States, or perhaps because the UN contributions could be sold to leftist constituents as helping the developing countries, or perhaps because they were more concerned about measuring inputs to the UN system than they were about measuring outputs, their commitment to reform usually failed in the crunch.

In fact, because of their domestic government decision-making mechanisms, almost all EU members simply do not have the burden of justifying the rate or amount of UN assessments as much as the United States and a small number of other countries do. Domestic political support for the UN in EU countries, often generated by government-funded "nongovernmental organizations" (a true oxymoron if ever there were one), largely takes criticism of the UN off the table in their internal budget deliberations. EU governments simply point to the amount of their respective assessments, explain that payment is "mandatory" under international law, and have their parliamentary majorities approve that amount.

Indeed, very few UN member governments scrutinize agency budgets intensively, and only a handful have more than one or two full-time civil servants whose assigned responsibility is UN-system budget issues. Most UN ambassadors, not to mention foreign ministers, disdain to engage in "bean counting," thus ensuring that budget issues do not receive anything like adequate attention. Inevitably, this lack of member-government oversight, combined with the theory and practice of assessed contributions, leads to inefficiency and corruption in the implementation of UN programs, especially in the area of procurement. Moreover, since the bulk of UN funding in, for example, the Secretariat in New York goes to salaries and related expenses, positions in the Secretariat are highly prized by diplomats and politicians from many member governments, forming yet another kind of entitlement.

The system of assessed contributions, combined with one-country, one-vote decision making, has created a kind of entitlement mentality within the UN system.

More skeptical Americans (and a few others, as noted above) actually want to know whether their tax dollars are being used effectively, so there is a true cultural gap across the Atlantic. There are, of course, skeptical Europeans who also like to think their tax dollars are well spent, and there are Americans who disdain to question UN assessments, but the cultural gap is nonetheless real.

Thus, in the real moments of decision at the UN, it is often late at night when the media have departed, or in closed sessions where they were never permitted entry, that the Europeans break ranks on reform and budget issues. Shrinking from open voting, devoted to the concept of "consensus" that provides cover for the timid and almost guarantees the triumph of the lowest common denominator, EU governments consistently support "compromises" with the NAM and the G-77 that look like third-world victories to naïve Americans.

The resulting ineffectiveness, fraud, and mismanagement have led to increased attention from the U.S. public and policymakers, and episodic efforts to address those failings through various reform efforts. The following three examples illustrate different tactics but achieved similarly dismal results.

Withholdings and the "Consensus-Based" Budget

In the 1980s, faced with repeated U.S. losses in the General Assembly on program and budget issues and general anti-Americanism within the UN system, reflected in vote after vote, the U.S. Congress revolted against the "mandatory" nature of assessed contributions and began to withhold substantial amounts of funding from the UN system. Congress had previously withheld limited amounts of assessments targeted at particular UN programs or practices, such as those intended to aid the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But the across-the-board withholdings of the mid-1980s represented large cuts in the congressional appropriations accounts for international organizations and, after several years of withholdings, amounted to substantial sums.

Congress tried other approaches as well, such as the Kassebaum-Solomon Amendment to the Department of State Authorization Act for 1986 and 1987, which withheld 20 percent of U.S. assessed contributions to the UN regular budget and specialized agencies. It called for the UN either to adopt a system of weighted voting based on assessment levels rather than one nation, one vote, or to see even steeper cuts in American contributions. At the same time, the Reagan administration announced that the United States (later joined by the United Kingdom and Singapore) was withdrawing from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) effective December 31, 1984, largely because of gross mismanagement and the politicization of the agency's supposedly educational programs. The three withdrawals from UNESCO meant a loss of almost one-third of the total assessments from member governments (the U.S. share at that point was 25 percent).

These losses--and the potential that more were coming--caused major trauma in the UN system. The entitlement system seemed broken, and indeed it was. By withholding substantial sums of money and actually withdrawing from a UN specialized agency, the Reagan administration and Congress had demonstrated that American patience was not unlimited. Although the United States received strong international criticism for what many foreign governments saw as an excessively blunt response, the moves generated wide bipartisan support at home.

If for no other reason than to turn the U.S. spigots back on, the UN and its specialized agencies moved toward "consensus-based" budgeting, a system under which all budget decisions were to be taken unanimously (the proper definition of "consensus"). Under such a system, it was argued, the United States in effect would have a veto over budgets, programs, and assessments it did not like, since it could withhold its support for such measures and "block consensus." Thus protected against being routinely outvoted, or so it was argued, the United States could resist mismanagement, fraud and abuse, bloated budgets, and unproductive programs. Moreover, the major contributors--finally worried about the reliability of the U.S. assessed contribution and working through their loose association known as the Geneva Group--developed a position known as Zero Real Growth in UN budgets, a technique to eliminate the seemingly inevitable upward creep in UN budget levels.

At the end of the Reagan administration and into the new Bush administration, convinced that things had really changed at the UN, and in large part to take advantage of "new thinking" in Soviet foreign policy, the United States began a program to repay the arrears that had accumulated over the 1980s. Consensus-based budgeting was deemed an acceptable compromise, and President Ronald Reagan exercised his waiver under Kassebaum-Solomon so that the United States could pay its assessment in full. In the early 1990s, the Kassebaum-Solomon legislation was not reauthorized, thereby removing the financial consequences to the UN of failing to adhere to the consensus-based-budgeting agreement.

As events transpired in the UN system, however, consensus-based budgeting did not live up to expectations. The United States and its program and budget priorities remained highly isolated, and UN budget meetings repeatedly would involve only the U.S. delegation "blocking" a consensus. In most cases, however, the United States would give in, agreeing to join the consensus rather than remain isolated, thus revealing a key cultural flaw in American diplomacy and the central weakness of consensus-based budgeting: American diplomats--and, to be fair, those of many other countries--fear being "isolated."

It is not good form in diplomatic circles to be isolated, even if that means following instructions from your government and adhering to positions your government believes to be in its interest. Other diplomats, friend and foe alike, harp on your isolated position. Even though the overwhelming loss of a General Assembly vote is tangible evidence of isolation, being almost the only country to refuse to join a "consensus" is a near relation. Other delegations--not just those from the G-77 and the NAM, but particularly those from the EU--prey on the fear of isolation.

In short, being isolated is no fun for diplomats, and they strenuously avoid it. Only rarely did the United States stand up against the risk of being isolated, whether on budget or policy issues or at their intersection. One important example--and a lesson about life in the UN--took place during the PLO's 1989-90 campaign to gain admission as a state to UN specialized agencies.[5] Faced with the near certainty that the PLO would succeed in becoming a member of its first target agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), Secretary of State James A. Baker III threatened that the United States would withhold U.S. assessments from any agency that enhanced the status of the PLO in any way, thus preventing the PLO from creating new "facts on the ground" in the Middle East through the pretense of being recognized as a state within the UN system. The threat to defund was, of course, not as profound as withdrawing from UNESCO, but it demonstrated that the U.S. executive branch, as well as Congress, was fully capable of exercising financial leverage within the UN when it served American interests to do so.

Most UN ambassadors, not to mention foreign ministers, disdain to engage in "bean counting," thus ensuring that budget issues do not receive anything like adequate attention.

The critical point, however, is that the protection supposedly afforded to the United States by the requirement of a consensus on budget and program issues broke down in practical terms. The UN resumed making decisions on expenditures without adequate attention to U.S. positions and interests, and Congress again reacted, especially to the huge growth in peacekeeping budgets in the 1990s and the failure of many UN missions.[6] Peacekeeping had never really been subject to the concept of Zero Real Growth, which had always been most applicable to core-agency administrative budgets. A spike in peace-keeping operations drove budgets sharply higher, and Congress responded in the mid-1990s with another wave of general withholdings across the UN system that once again placed its entitlement mentality in jeopardy. This time, the UN responded with a reduction in the level of U.S. assessments, down from 25 percent to 22 percent for general budgets and from about 31 percent to 27 percent for peacekeeping.

The reduction in the U.S. assessment and the commensurate increase in the assessment rates for a number of other countries mollified congressional critics in the short term by reducing upward budget pressures on the United States, even though it did not actually reduce the UN budget. But the reduced assessments did not address the central underlying problem that the United States faced: a continuing decline in its influence. The "consensus" system continued, reflected in continued defeats and concessions by the United States.

During the George W. Bush administration, the policy of seeking Zero Real Growth or even Zero Nominal Growth in UN budgets broke down. Following the successful initial operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States sought greater UN involvement in rebuilding those states and establishing democracies. The United States preferred that these operations be special political missions funded through the regular budget rather than peace-keeping missions (at 22 percent versus over 26 percent). Many UN member states, which resented Bush's decision to sidestep official UN approval of the Iraq war, insisted that funding for these missions be added to existing budg-etary commitments and resisted U.S. efforts to cut other parts of the regular budget to fund them. The falling U.S. dollar also led to increased operational costs for the UN that were built into the UN budget increases. For all these reasons, the United States agreed to increase the budget.

In Bush's second term, budget restraint at the UN all but disappeared. The administration acquiesced to UN budget increases for which a Clinton administration would have been pilloried, and this acquiescence encouraged even higher budgets. In December 2007, the General Assembly voted 142 to 1 to approve a 2008-2009 biennium budget that is projected to reach $5.2 billion, a 25 percent increase over the previous budget; the United States cast the sole "no" vote. This outcome marked the formal demise of the consensus voting process on UN budgets, a two-decade tradition that had given each country a "veto" on budget matters--further demonstrating that UN promises regarding reform are meaningless unless backstopped by the threat of U.S. financial withholdings.

The "Oil for Food" Scandal

Enormous amounts of once-hidden information have come to light because of the exhaustive report on the Oil-for-Food Program prepared by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; the investigative reporting of journalists including Claudia Rosett and Eric Shawn;[7] and congressional investigations led by Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Representative Chris Shays (R-Conn.), and now-deceased congressman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), former chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Many in the United States were stunned by Saddam Hussein's perversion of what was supposed to be a humanitarian assistance program for the Iraqi people into an instrument for reinforcing his Ba'ath regime's power, the level of corruption exposed within the UN system and among governments and businesses gorging on Oil-for-Food revenues, and the inattention of the UN Secretariat and members of the Security Council.

One of Volcker's most important contributions in uncovering the morass within the Oil-for-Food Program was his penetrating insight that its many problems were not unique to the program. On the contrary, Oil for Food emerged out of the existing UN system, relying on existing UN procedures and regulations, employing many longtime UN employees in senior positions, and following well-trodden UN pathways in its operations, including an appalling lack of oversight from top Secretariat officials such as Annan.

Ineluctably, therefore, Volcker concluded that the prescription for avoiding future Oil-for-Food scandals was basic reform of the UN itself--a conclusion quite surprising to top UN management at the time, who had hoped that Volcker's report would confine the attention of the press and member governments to the now-defunct Oil-for-Food Program. Faced instead with a repudiation of the culture of inattention to effectiveness and lack of management oversight that had grown alongside the entitlement mentality in the UN system, even top UN officials recognized that they had to do something to stop the coruscating stream of criticism they now faced, especially in the United States.

Volcker himself recommended a number of reforms, largely calling for greater accountability, stricter auditing procedures with outside oversight, and management techniques that are second nature to publicly held corporations worldwide and accepted practice among most Western governments. Only at the UN could Volcker's suggestions be treated as revolutionary or threatening. Indeed, the U.S. program of reform was far broader; Volcker's proposals were certainly first steps that were worth supporting, but only with the expectation that more sweeping changes would follow.

What finally emerged after a long, confused, and inconclusive struggle in the UN General Assembly, however, were "reforms" that only barely increased the levels of accountability and oversight, rather than the kinds of changes needed to transform the underlying culture of the organization. Related efforts to bring the UN's budget under control through review and reform of the countless "mandates"--programs of work created for the Secretariat over the years by the General Assembly and other UN bodies--similarly went essentially nowhere.

Broader reforms were often buried in the assembly's Fifth Committee, which almost all diplomats in New York recognize as essentially the graveyard of reform efforts. Of course, one reason the nearly impenetrable deliberations of the Fifth Committee had evolved over decades as they had was that ambassadorial-level personnel from major contributing countries, especially those of the EU, rarely graced the committee's deliberations with their attention or presence. The United States and Japan, as the UN's two largest contributors, have been exceptions to this tendency, but their efforts alone rarely sufficed.

By leaving the committee's responsibilities to working-level "experts" for so long, the ambassadors demonstrated how little they cared about its work or decisions. As one Latin American ambassador said to me with no trace of irony, "It's only money." By contrast, the ambassadors and experts from the developing countries of the NAM and the G-77 became truly proficient in the arcane ways of the Fifth Committee, which they had largely helped shape to protect favorite programs and staff positions in the Secretariat. Thus, after one of the most extensive reform efforts in recent UN history, the progress made was limited.

The Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Commission (HRC) was a target for UN reformers for many years because of its prominence as a refuge for human-rights violators, which used their membership to protect themselves against real human-rights scrutiny. Moreover, the HRC was a hotbed of anti-American and anti-Israeli activity, as well as a locus for international leftist interest groups to pursue their own agendas, such as opposition to the death penalty. Over the years, the United States strongly resisted the outrages annually perpetrated in the HRC, starting with Reagan's decision to appoint a refugee from Fidel Castro's tyranny, Armando Valladares, as the U.S. representative to the HRC. Eventually, even Annan called for eliminating the HRC to remove its continuing stain on the UN's reputation and for replacing it with a body that would actually promote human rights internationally rather than serve as a propaganda vehicle for authoritarian regimes.

To that end, the United States, the EU, and several other key UN members laboriously constructed the elements for a new human-rights council that would avoid the errors of the commission it was to replace. Through a series of procedural devices (smaller membership, flat ineligibility for human-rights violators, and election by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly rather than a simple majority), the reformers believed that a new body could actually be constructed that would function differently from the existing HRC.

Unfortunately, faced with determined opposition from Russia, China, and the NAM, the Europeans backed away step by step from almost all the procedural reforms that had been proposed, either watering them down or dropping them entirely. No one concession or compromise in the draft resolution creating the new HRC was dispositive, but the cumulative effect of the European retreat was to guarantee that the new body would be composed much as its predecessor had been and would therefore behave in much the same way.

By withholding substantial sums of money and actually withdrawing from a UN specialized agency, the Reagan administration and Congress had demonstrated that American patience was not unlimited.

All hope had to be abandoned when the Europeans gave up a provision in the draft resolution that would have barred from HRC membership any nation under Security Council sanctions for gross abuses of human rights or support for international terrorism. The NAM argued that the provision was unfair because no permanent member of the Security Council would ever be under sanctions, and therefore no other countries should be precluded from HRC membership simply because they were not permanent council members.

I concluded that the United States should vote against creating the new HRC, arguing within the State Department that bringing into existence a new body that was no better than the existing one would doom real reform for as far as the eye could see. The only hope was to keep the existing HRC in operation for one more year to remind everyone just how bad it was and then try in the following year to take a real run at reform.

That argument was persuasive inside the U.S. government, and we decided to vote no. When made some-what more obliquely to the Europeans, however, the argument failed because they were more determined to declare victory in a "reform" effort than they were to acknowledge that they had been collectively out-negotiated by the NAM. Indeed, the Europeans not only argued that we should vote in favor of the new HRC, but also urged that we seek election to the first session of that body and try to do there precisely what we had failed to do in the General Assembly authorizing resolution.

By the close of negotiations on the draft resolution, the Europeans had turned from trying to fix the resolution to doing anything they could to get the United States to support it, despite its contents, and to commit to run for election. They knew full well that if the United States stood apart from the new HRC, it would delegitimize the body in U.S. eyes and quite likely more broadly.

The Europeans were successful, and the new HRC was created by an overwhelming vote in the General Assembly, with the United States and three close allies truly isolated. The only thing that might have saved the new HRC from infamy would have been a U.S. pledge to withhold financial support from the new body. So eager were the Europeans to have the United States support it and join it--to have our presence give their retreat protective coloration, if nothing else--that the threat to withhold funding might have brought them back to reality. This was the technique that worked for Baker when he used the threat to withhold American contributions from the WHO or other agencies that admitted the PLO as a member government in 1989-90, and it might well have worked again. Given the views within the State Department, however, withholding funds, or even threatening to do so, was never a possibility. As a result, we now have a body that even the New York Times and the Washington Post agree is as bad as or even worse than its predecessor.

The Need to Move to Voluntary Funding

Each of the above examples demonstrates the importance of moving to voluntary contributions and using the withholding of U.S. assessed contributions as a means of achieving that objective. Dogged efforts to reform the UN have stalled or ended inconclusively despite years of struggle: consensus-based budgeting has failed; Zero Nominal (or even Real) Growth is dead as a policy; UN budgets are once again climbing at an alarming rate; high-profile examples of the need for increased oversight and accountability, such as the Oil-for-Food scandal, have led to few substantial improvements; and a widely supported effort to improve the key UN body overseeing human rights resulted in a new body that arguably is worse than its predecessor.

We have essentially reached the end of the line of decades of effort at marginal or incremental UN reform. Every time some small progress is made, a new or different abuse is uncovered. As we worked to resolve the serious issues raised by the Oil-for-Food scandal, we uncovered "Cash for Kim" cash flows from UN agencies or programs that allowed North Korea's dictatorial Kim Jong Il regime to channel resources intended for humanitarian purposes to help keep itself in power. Procedural fixes do not work, costs continue to climb, and the role and influence of the United States continue to diminish.

The shift toward a voluntary payment system would impose a stronger market incentive for UN programs and activities to meet their goals and justify continued funding.

The accumulated evidence of decades proves that only a major shift in attitudes within the UN system can lay the foundation for sustained improvements in UN performance, accountability, and transparency. That shift must entail breaking the grip of one-country, one-vote decision making and the entitlement mentality that have long pervaded the UN system. There is only one reform that can accomplish these objectives: shifting from today's predominant financing system, which relies on assessed contributions to defray the costs of UN agency budgets, to voluntary contributions. Transparency alone cannot succeed, even though the United States and a few other UN members have continued to work to bring greater transparency to the UN system.[8]

Moving to voluntary funding would end the UN practice of charging member states for the expenses of the UN and its activities. Member states would instead determine for themselves how much to provide to the UN and, importantly, the specific tasks and activities that those contributions would support. The shift toward a voluntary payment system would impose a stronger market incentive for UN programs and activities to meet their goals and justify continued funding. After all, if an activity, program, or office could not demonstrate its effectiveness, member states would be reluctant to continue to support it.

Contrary to the claims of those who oppose moving toward voluntary funding, such a system would not necessarily threaten UN activities. Many independent UN-affiliated funds, programs, and specialized agencies currently work well relying on voluntary funding. Such funding has remained fairly stable from year to year, with donor nations consistently and reliably providing money for activities that they support. Indeed, in many cases, voluntary funding has increased sharply. Almost without exception, only voluntarily funded activities that fail to meet donor expectations of performance experience reductions in funding levels. This type of financial accountability is precisely what is needed at the UN.

Such a shift undoubtedly would require even more herculean efforts than past reform movements and would encounter equal if not greater opposition, from both UN member governments and the Secretariat. The difference is that instead of relying on ponderous efforts within the UN system that produce minimal or no results, this reform could be initiated by the United States, acting on its own through the congressional appropriations process--and the rest of the UN system could then react.

Even a serious and extensive discussion of shifting to voluntary contributions would have a profound impact across the UN system, and this impact can be only beneficial. As with the broad withholdings of the 1980s and 1990s, more targeted efforts such as those against PLO-related activities, the withdrawal from UNESCO, and the threat to defund the WHO, anything that so dramatically threatens the status quo has the potential to produce a cultural revolution in the UN system. Moreover, establishing a system of voluntary contributions would be no more difficult--and may perhaps be even more popular--than the system of weighted UN voting contemplated by the Kassebaum-Solomon Amendment of the 1980s, which would have required amending the UN Charter rather than simply having the General Assembly exercise its powers under Article 17.[9]

Evidence that switching to voluntary contributions would have an important positive impact comes from several decades of operations by UN agencies and programs. The World Food Program, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS, and other voluntarily funded programs have typically been more responsive to major contributors, more effective in their work, and more transparent than those funded by assessed contributions. Their leadership has typically recognized that, lacking an entitlement to assessed contributions, they have to demonstrate their utility on a continuing basis or donors will take their scarce resources to other agencies and programs.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it is the pressure of budgets constantly at risk that drives agency managements to superior performance, much as competition in private enterprise drives the necessity to measure outputs and not just inputs. Voluntary funding is not the only important factor, of course; some agencies so funded, such as the UN Development Programme, have often proved to be as uncooperative and intransigent as agencies funded through assessments.

Nonetheless, voluntary funding is at least a necessary condition for the profound improvements we should seek. Many other improvements are needed, to be sure, but the advent of voluntary funding would unquestionably enhance the role and impact of U.S. views and interests. The concern here is not to create a platonically "better" UN, but to create one that more closely advances U.S. interests. If the UN cannot be used more frequently as an effective instrument of American foreign policy, its long-term prospects for success are minimal at best.

Some will respond that such an unambiguous assertion of U.S. national interests will simply encourage other nations to do the same and leave the UN open to often-conflicting national agendas. Those who know the UN well, of course, know that this is already the case and that too often the U.S. agenda does not prevail. If U.S. efforts to move to voluntary funding spur other nations to increase their own funding as a way to retain or enhance their level of influence, so be it. Let those who prefer to channel funds through specific UN programs do so without limit, and let them have influence accordingly. And let those less impressed with this or that UN agency take their money elsewhere in the UN system or out of it entirely.

Others will argue that withholding assessed contributions violates our obligations under the UN Charter and thus international law, crying out, "Pacta sunt servanda" (agreements must be observed). These claims are false. For one thing, compliance with the UN Charter has been inconsistent for almost all members throughout its history, which hardly supports the claim that we are required to pay for programs being repeatedly voted on by Charter violators. Indeed, if legal doctrines matter here, the one that matters most significantly is rebus sic stantibus (the doctrine that changed facts and circumstances render a treaty nonobligatory).

Moreover, and more practically, the level of assessments is an inherently political decision and can be resisted as a matter of legitimate political disagreement. Suppose, for example, that an overwhelming UN majority, desiring to express its displeasure at the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein without express Security Council authorization, decided to make the U.S. assessment 99 percent. There is nothing in the UN Charter to prevent the other UN members from doing this. Would anyone in the U.S. Congress seriously argue that we were legally obligated to pay such an assessment?

At its base, this is not a question of law, but a question of political conflict among UN member states. Undoubtedly, if the United States resumed the withholding of assessed contributions--in our third great wave of such withholdings--there would be political uproar in the General Assembly, and the eventual outcome would be decided in a political fashion, which is exactly the way it should be.

Congress and the Bush administration decided to withhold the proportionate American share of HRC funding from the overall U.S. assessment for the UN. Such a withholding is a relatively small amount of money (in Washington terms), but the decision to withhold sent a powerful political signal throughout the UN system. First, it showed that the United States will withhold assessed contributions if sufficiently motivated, certainly from programs with little or no support in our country. Second, it signaled to other illegitimate and unproductive UN -programs that they could be next. Third, and most significantly, it signaled to the entire group of agencies, funds, and programs at the UN that the prospect of broader, across-the-board withholdings was back on the table.

While broad-based financial withholding has little support on the left, it is a powerful tool to leverage reform in the UN. The Obama administration and the Demo-cratic majorities in Congress should consider their options carefully before deciding to oppose withholding on principle. Those committed to multilateral action through the UN have the most to lose from an ineffective, unresponsive, and unaccountable UN.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI. A version of this Outlook appeared in ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives. Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

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Notes

1. There are significant problems with the "capacity to pay" concept, the calculation of which rests on prevailing exchange rates rather than, for example, "purchasing power parity" calculations and involves various adjustments ("the scale of limits") that have been injected into the calculations over the years. So heated and so complex are the debates over this formula that the periodic reviews of the methodology of its calculation conducted in 2006 did not result in agreement on anything other than extending the longstanding existing methodology despite its widespread flaws.

2. Article 18, Section 1, of the UN Charter provides that "each member of the General Assembly shall have one vote." Section 2 provides that "budgetary questions" are among those considered to be "important," thus requiring "a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting." Article 17, Section 2, of the Charter provides that "the expenses of the Organization shall be borne by the Members as apportioned by the General Assembly."

3. The five permanent members of the Security Council pay larger assessments for peacekeeping because of the political circumstances after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Contrary to the prevailing mythology, there is nothing inevitable about this extra obligation for permanent members. See UN General Assembly, "Scale of Assessments for the Apportionment of the Expenses of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations," A/61/139, July 13, 2006, 17-23, Annex IV.

4. See note 2.

5. The governing documents of most UN agencies limit membership to "states," so the PLO was trying to transform itself into a state in the eyes of the UN system and then use this new "fact" in its negotiations with Israel.

6. See, generally, Frederick H. Fleitz Jr., Peacekeeping Fiascoes of the 1990s: Causes, Solutions, and U.S. Interests (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002).

7. See, generally, Eric Shawn, The U.N. Exposed: How the United Nations Sabotages America's Security and Fails the World (New York: Sentinel, 2006).

8. For example, see Colum Lynch, "U.S. Officials Divulge Reports on Confidential U.N. Audits," Washington Post, February 12, 2008.

9. See note 2. An alternative that would not require an amendment to the Charter would involve the General Assembly adopting an additional requirement through a resolution that the budget must have support from member states paying at least two-thirds of the budget, in addition to the Charter's requirement that it be supported by two-thirds of the member states. In essence, this would create a double hurdle for budget approval and protect the interests of large contributors.

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