More with Less: Why the U.S. Needs a Strong UN

More with Less: Why the U.S. Needs a Strong UN

by Micah Spangler

Everywhere we look, it seems like the world is on fire.

Syria is imploding, forcing millions of refugees to seek asylum in faraway countries. France is on edge, reeling from terrorist attacks that have left 147 people dead. Yemen is under siege, a growing battleground in a fatal proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. South Sudan is on the brink of ruin, as leaders resort to violence to settle age-old political differences.

It’s no wonder that some U.S. voters want to pull up stakes and head home, unsure of what’s to come or how exactly to confront it.

But that’s why America needs to be engaged now more than ever – and leverage our partnership with the United Nations to overcome these daunting obstacles. This is a viewpoint shared by a “huge” number of Americans – to borrow a term from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In fact, a recent bipartisan poll found that 81 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Independents and 98 percent of Democrats believe it is important to “maintain an active role within the United Nations.”

Surprisingly, that’s not a well-known or widely shared notion on Capitol Hill, where the UN is often seen as an inept bureaucracy (at its best) or a looming threat to American sovereignty (at its worst).

This is not an exaggeration, sadly – in 2011, 177 members of the House voted to withdraw from the UN entirely and in 2013, 38 Senators voted to cut all – yes, all – U.S. funding to UN.

To be sure, the UN is not a perfect institution.

Some UN member states use the organization as a platform to criticize America or its allies, papering over abysmal human rights abuses or acts of hostility in the process. Others seek to enhance their participation in the organization as a means to legitimatize failing autocratic regimes.

But we must separate grand politics from the vast day-to-day operations of critical UN bodies such as its children (UNICEF), refugee (UNHCR), and peacekeeping (DPKO) agencies – many of which are literally the last line of rescue for some of the planet’s most vulnerable people. Others provide the technical assistance we need to combat deadly outbreaks and ensure nuclear weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands.

And they do it all for pennies on the dollar.

It’s true that the United States contributes more to the UN system than any other country – but it’s drastically less than most voters (and Members of Congress) think. Overall, the U.S. pays 22 percent of the UN regular budget and 28 percent of the peacekeeping budget. These two figures total approximately $3.2 billion for the most recent fiscal year – not exactly chump change but about $300 million less than Mongolia’s annual budget, to put things in a little perspective.

This means the rest of the international community is responsible for funding around 75 percent of UN operations, stretching U.S. taxpayer dollars in a time when budgets are tight and crises abound.

And with those resources, the UN is responding to some of the globe’s toughest challenges.

Right now, for example, UNHCR is helping feed and shelter millions of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of ISIS’s unrivaled barbarity; the Security Council has imposed sanctions – including asset freezes, travel bans, and arms embargoes – on key members of ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; UN negotiators are working to bridge the wide divide between Yemen’s Houthis and the Hadi-led government; and in South Sudan, nearly 200,000 civilians are being protected by UN peacekeepers.

Still, it’s often hard to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the UN. The vast majority of the work the UN does – the political missions, the vaccine programs, the humanitarian aid – take place in countries most Americans will never visit. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be important to us.

And yes, the UN is in need of reform as it becomes tasked with challenges beyond its original scope or scale.

But if we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it should be that no problem exists in a vacuum. Terrorism, disease, instability – these threats recognize no border or boundary and when left ignored present disastrous, wide-ranging threats to our economy and national security.

Rather than withdrawing from the world, Congress should partner with the UN to confront the immense challenges ahead – and send a strong signal to the tyrants and terrorists that seek to destroy and corrupt the international order – that we will not cede leadership in the international arena.

Image "united nations flag" Courtesy sanjitbakshi / CC BY 2.0

About the Author

Micah Spangler is the United Nations Foundation’s Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs. In his role, Micah helps develop and manage the implementation of the UN Foundation’s legislative agenda, advocacy work, and public communications. Micah joined UNF in 2013 after serving as a Field Director on Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Before that, Micah worked for a DC-based non-profit management firm for four years, specializing in direct lobbying, grassroots advocacy, and constituency-building. Micah graduated magna cum laude from Johns Hopkins University with an M.A. in government, received an honors B.A. in political science and philosophy from Roosevelt University, and studied Mandarin Chinese at National Taiwan University. Micah’s writing has appeared in CNN, The Daily Beast, VICE, Maxim, The Week, and Yahoo Travel, among others.

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