Written by Tracy Nelson
On March 16th, President Trump released an initial budget outline for fiscal year (FY) 2018. The outline indicates a $37.6 billion request to fund State Department and USAID operations, including Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. This is a 25% decrease from the $50.1 billion requested by the Obama administration for FY17. While President Trump’s budget outline does not give exact figures on the level of reductions to funding for the United Nations and U.N. peacekeeping efforts, it is apparent that they will be subject to decreases in the final budget proposal expected later this month. United States involvement in and contribution to these programs is controversial and often the target of conservative criticism. However, despite continued conversations about the role and participation of the United States in the United Nations and its programs, funding has remained at a level relatively consistent with international expenditures. As congressional action on FY18 appropriations will begin shortly, the success of President Trump’s proposed funding cuts will likely depend on the international events and security concerns of the next several months.
In the FY18 budget outline, the Trump administration suggests that they will not request funds to contribute to peacekeeping efforts above 25% of total U.N. peacekeeping costs. The proposed cuts to peacekeeping efforts will leave an already lean program further strapped for resources, thereby inhibiting the United Nations from pursuing peacekeeping operations in new regions and potentially hastening the withdrawal of forces from ongoing operations. The cuts may further undermine the future of international cooperation and stability. As E.U. Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini said, “[i]t is essential for us that we all keep investing in these U.N. agencies. They are as important to global peace and security as defense spending – or even more.”
President Trump’s budget blueprint is not the first time that U.S. officials have discussed decreasing peacekeeping contributions. Levels of expected peacekeeping contributions are assessed through a formula similar to that used to assess contributions to general United Nations expenditures. The United States has traditionally been expected to contribute a larger share of funds towards peacekeeping efforts than any other country due to its financial means and role as a permanent member of the security council. In the 1990s, President Clinton signed legislation that capped U.S. contributions to peacekeeping efforts at 25% of total costs. The United Nations continued to assess the United States at levels above this cap, leading the United States to incur arrears to the organization and stretching collective peacekeeping resources thin. In December 2000, the United Nations General Assembly lowered the assessed contribution rates for the United States, committing to a progressively decreasing rate of assessment for peacekeeping and a 25% target. Congress passed legislation recognizing this plan, continuing the cap, and providing for the payment of arrears as the United Nations reached the 25% target. However, beginning in 2001, this cap was periodically adjusted in order to meet the assessed levels of support requested.
The budget cuts proposed by President Trump’s “skinny budget” go much further than those of past presidents. In the FY18 budget outline, the Trump administration suggests that they will not request funds to contribute to peacekeeping efforts above 25% of total U.N. peacekeeping costs. Currently the total international budget for such efforts is approximately $7.87 billion, making President Trump’s proposed ceiling for U.S. funding $1.97 billion. In FY17, the United States is expected to contribute 28.47% of the total peacekeeping budget or approximately $2.24 billion. Assuming that total peacekeeping expenses remain relatively stable, there will be a $270 million gap between the amount assessed and the amount requested for FY18. Such a cut would be the first time since 2001 that the 25% cap on peacekeeping support has been enforced. State Department sources report that they’ve been told to expect a cut to peacekeeping resources that might be even larger, in the neighborhood of 40% or approximately one billion dollars. The Trump administration is also pursuing cuts to total peacekeeping expenses in addition to the percentage for which the United States is responsible. Earlier this spring, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley raised concerns about peacekeeping resource allocation and effectiveness within the Security Council. She specifically highlighted concerns about the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ultimately securing a reduction in the authorized force size by three thousand troops. The United Nations also voted unanimously to conclude the peacekeeping mission in Haiti in October of this year. These agreements will help to reduce the overall cost of peacekeeping efforts and reduce resource constraints should the United States make dramatic reductions to its financial support of U.N. programs.
Likelihood of Successful Reductions: Congressional Opposition and Recent International Action
Despite the administration’s gusto and increasing calls for a reduced role for the United States in international organizations, this proposal will likely face an uphill battle in Congress. Democrats have been heavily critical of the proposed “skinny budget.” However, opposition to these budget cuts is not limited to one political party. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS), called President Trump’s proposed cuts to the State Department’s budget “dead on arrival.” He specifically expressed his concern about the administration’s seeming lack of support for soft power programs, including aid to international organizations, and noted the importance of these efforts for the larger foreign objectives of the United States. Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY), Sen. Graham’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, did not take as strong of a stance but noted his concern that all of the “diplomatic tools at our disposal” are fully and responsibly used. Unless President Trump’s budget can gain the full support of the SFOPS chairman, these unprecedented and harsh cuts will struggle to make it out of committee and into the larger appropriations measures considered by the full Appropriations Committee and Congress as a whole.
However, recent international developments might help lessen resistance to these deep budget cuts. In the past several weeks, the U.S. military has carried out strikes targeting ISIS in Afghanistan and the Assad regime in Syria while increasing its naval presence in the waters surrounding North Korea in response to potential nuclear testing. The United Nations and its peacekeeping efforts have not proved useful for addressing the issues at hand. While U.N. peacekeepers are engaged in sixteen missions spanning the globe, they are not currently involved in any of the regions in which these recent U.S. actions have occurred. Due to a Russian veto, the United Nations Security Council declined to address the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Ambassador Haley said that the United Nations “[failed] to prevent the North Korean nuclear threat.”
These recent events could be used by the Trump administration and its congressional allies to suggest that the mission of U.N. peacekeeping efforts, and the United Nations as a larger organization, is out of touch with American interests and priorities. Should military power continue to be far more important than soft power in President Trump’s international strategy, as these events suggest, this might necessitate and rally support for a shift in resource dedication to U.S. military efforts. The ability of the Trump administration to achieve its desired budget cuts, and the future of the U.N. peacekeeping program, will thus turn largely on the international events of the next several months in the lead up to the release of the final budget proposal and the subsequent congressional process.