Ambassador Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gave the first of a series of scheduled speeches last week in Portland, Oregon. The focus of the speeches is “Why America Needs the UN” and was inspired, apparently, by congressional efforts to include U.S. payments to the U.N. among efforts to cut the U.S. budget deficit.
Her speech was dominated by unstinting praise for the U.N. and arguments intended to instill that viewpoint in her audience. Describing it as hagiographic would be going too far, perhaps, but not by much. Rice acknowledged some of the problems of the U.N., including its poor management, its anti-Israel bias, and its inability to punish peacekeepers who commit rape or other criminal acts. She argued that the U.S. is tirelessly trying to address these problems and provided a few tepid examples of the Administration’s successes. But throughout the speech was an unambiguous message that the U.N.’s foibles were an acceptable cost in exchange for the good done by the organization:
Main Street America needs the United Nations, and so do you and I, especially in these tough economic times. America can’t police every conflict, end every crisis, and shelter every refugee. The UN provides a real return on our tax dollars by bringing 192 countries together to share the cost of providing stability, vital aid, and hope in the world’s most broken places. Because of the UN, the world doesn’t look to America to solve every problem alone. And the UN offers our troops in places like Afghanistan the international legitimacy and support that comes only from a Security Council mandate—which, in turn, is a force multiplier for our soldiers on the frontlines.
It is all too easy to find cases where the UN could be more efficient and effective. I spend plenty of time pointing them out and trying to fix them—and not always diplomatically. But judging the UN solely by isolated cases of mismanagement or corruption misses the forest for the trees. We’re far better off working to strengthen the UN than trying to starve it—and then having to choose between filling the void ourselves or leaving real threats untended.
This line of defense is bizarre. Few people judge the U.N. solely by its foibles, but even fewer would seriously argue that the good works done by the U.N. should shield it from legitimate criticism or inoculate it from congressional efforts to use its power of the purse to leverage support for specific reforms to “strengthen” the U.N.
Nor is starving the U.N. on the table. In fact, the budgetary proposals put forward by the House involve small cuts to U.S. contributions to the U.N. For fiscal year (FY) 2011, the House majority is essentially proposing to reduce U.S. contributions to the two main accounts for U.S. contributions to the U.N. and other international programs (Contributions to International Organizations and International Organizations and Programs) back to the level they were at in FY 2008. How much money does the crash diet come to? About $120 million or about 6 percent less than the President’s FY 2011 request.
According to the Office of Management and Budget, total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system were more than $6.347 billion in FY 2009 (the latest figure for which we have data). So, when compared to all U.S. contributions to the U.N. system, the current cuts proposed in the House work out to about a 2 percent reduction.
By comparison, President Obama’s own National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommended reducing U.S. voluntary contributions to the U.N. and other international organizations by 10 percent, or about $350 million.
So let me get this straight: Ambassador Rice is seriously suggesting that cutting U.S. contributions to the U.N. by 6 percent is tantamount to starving the U.N. of funds? Was the U.N. starving in 2008? Is there no fat to by cut from the U.N. budget that would allow key activities to be funded despite reduced funding by the U.S.? Of course not. The Ambassador apparently likes knocking down straw men.
The speech took a nasty turn toward the end:
[T]hose who push to curtail U.S. support to the United Nations owe it to U.S. soldiers to explain why they should perform missions now handled by United Nations peacekeepers, and they owe it to parents around the world to explain why their children should suffer without the medicine, food, and shelter that only the United Nations provides.
True, many Members of Congress would like to further cut U.S. contributions to the U.N., and more proposals to withhold money from U.S. contributions to the U.N. are likely to be proposed. But in nearly every case, those withholdings are tied to specific reforms that would enhance U.N. oversight, accountability, management, or fiscal discipline. The point of these efforts is to improve the U.N. and make it more accountable, not to destroy it. Nor is the effort based on a desire to cause suffering or shirk our responsibilities. Ambassador Rice does a disservice to Congress by suggesting otherwise.
The fact of the matter is that the U.N. budget is “utterly opaque, untransparent and completely in the shadow,” in the words of former U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown. Tens of millions of U.N. dollars, perhaps hundreds of millions, are wasted, mismanaged, and stolen outright. How many lives are lost due to this mismanagement, opacity, and unaccountability? Should Congress ignore these problems because the U.N. has noble aims?
Perhaps Congress would feel less need to use financial leverage to press for U.N. reform if Ambassador Rice had been more successful in actually advancing the stalled U.N. reform agenda over the past few years. But that would entail actually attending meetings in Turtle Bay and would preclude Ambassador Rice’s whistle stop tour to enlighten America.
Which raises a final point: Why, when the U.N. has its own Department of Public Information funded to the tune of $43 million courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, is Ambassador Rice barnstorming the U.S. to defend the U.N. from congressional cuts? Her job is to convince the U.N. to adopt America’s agenda, not convince Americans to adopt the U.N.’s agenda.
As noted by former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in his book Surrender Is Not an Option, the State Department bureaucrats can fall victim to a “clientitis” problem. They begin—consciously or unconsciously—to see the countries, regions or organizations under their diplomatic tent as clients whose interests they feel compelled to defend inside the State Department or to the U.S. in general. Instead of scheduling a speaking tour to defend the U.N., Ambassador Rice might have been better served to arrange a listening tour of her real clients—the American taxpayers.