Trump Revives Debate Over Whether U.N. Can Be Salvaged

Conservatives agree global body is mostly ineffectual but remain divided over whether to withdraw

President Donald Trump’s address to the United Nations on Tuesday likely will focus on the major trouble spots facing global security, from North Korea to Iran.

But the address will be playing out against the backdrop of an older debate, one always simmering under the surface, particularly among conservatives — whether meaningful reform of the international agency is even possible given deficiencies in the way it is structured.

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Brett Schaefer, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, noted that former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said reform was a process and not an event.

“Unfortunately, we seldom get either the process or the event,” Schaefer said.

Trump gave a strong indication on Monday that he believes reform is both possible and worth pursuing. In brief remarks, he praised U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. He called for shifting the organization’s emphasis from bureaucracy to people. He said no country should bear a disproportionate share of the burden and added that every peacekeeping mission should have clearly defined goals and specific measurements of success or failure.

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Trump also said management should be held accountable, whistleblowers should be protected, and that results should be emphasized over process.

“Yet in recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement,” he said. “While the United Nations on regular budget has increased by 141 percent and the staff has more than doubled since 2000, we are not seeing the results in line with this investment.”

It is a far cry from the strident anti-U.N. rhetoric Trump deployed on the campaign trail.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said 128 nations had signed on to the U.S.-led reform efforts.

“U.N. reform is a lot like ending waste, fraud and abuse in government. It’s a catchphrase everyone talks about, but [it] never actually happens.”

“And we’re still counting,” she said, adding, “It is a sign that change is not only desperately needed but that it will be achieved. You are the reason change is coming to the U.N.”

Schaefer said those are all worthy goals. He noted that the United States pays about 22 percent of the U.N.’s general budget but 28.5 percent of the much larger budget for peacekeeping operations. Congress long ago passed a law prohibiting the country from paying more than 25 percent of that budget, but lawmakers through most of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations passed annual exemptions allowing the United States to exceed that.

The annual savings to American taxpayers of enforcing the cap would be $250 million to $300 million, Schaefer said.

The enormous contribution gives the United States great leverage, Schaefer said. But he added that it is not unlimited.

“You need to be targeted, and you need to be specific,” he said.

Others expressed skepticism.

“U.N. reform is a lot like ending waste, fraud and abuse in government,” said Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government. “It’s a catchphrase everyone talks about, but [it] never actually happens.”

Manning said the U.N. Security Council gives vetoes to the five permanent members, which includes Russia and China. That ensures that it will be difficult for the organization ever to come up with a workable solution to vexing problems like North Korea’s nuclear program, he said.

“At the very least, they should move the property from New York to Geneva [Switzerland] and free up some parking spaces,” he quipped.

At the same time, Manning acknowledged, the United States also has veto power. That has allowed the nation to block all kinds of odious resolutions, particularly those directed at Israel, he said.

Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst for the Clarion Project, said there are good arguments for staying in the United Nations.

“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look to creative alternatives, such as a league of democratic nations, because the U.N. is fundamentally undemocratic,” he told LifeZette. “It is perplexing how the U.S. has failed to exert its influence in shaking up the U.N.”

Kyle Shideler, director of the threat information office at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, noted that the autocracies outnumber democracies at the United Nations and that human-rights abusers run human-rights commissions. Those are factors to keep in mind when U.S. officials decide how to engage the United Nations, he said.

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“It really depends whether we go into the United Nations looking to protect U.S. interests or whether we are going in looking to play the game,” he said.

Shideler said some presidential administrations have viewed the United Nations as the consensus of the world, which should dictate U.S. foreign policy.

“If you are willing to limit yourself to what can pass the U.N. Security Council, that might not be effective,” he said.

Mauro said the United Nations might prove useful in tackling certain problems.

“That doesn’t require us to fund it at the current level or worship at the altar of the U.N. as this holy organization,” he said.

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