Exiting the United Nations: Paths and Potential

Written by Tracy Nelson

On the very first day of the 115th Congress, Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL) introduced H.R. 193, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017. The bill orders the President to terminate membership in the United Nations and all related agencies, withdraws financial and peacekeeping support for the organization, and retracts the agreement establishing the U.N. headquarters in New York. The legislation collected eight cosponsors and plentiful critics during its first month of existence. While many have reacted strongly to this proposed legislation, the suggestion is neither innovative nor unique but instead part of a much larger history. This article seeks to examine the process of leaving the United Nations, the probability of the United States making such a move, and its linkages to a larger movement away from intergovernmental and international organizations.

Withdrawal from the United Nations and the Indonesian Experience

While the U.N. Charter provides for the expulsion of member nations, it does not outline procedures for a nation to voluntarily withdraw or resign its membership. Article 54 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties states that a country may withdraw from a treaty in accordance with the procedures outlined in the treaty or by unanimous consent of the other countries bound by the treaty. Article 62 of the Convention allows nations to leave a treaty due to an unforeseen “fundamental change in circumstances,” given that those circumstances were the basis of the original treaty. While this Convention is not technically applicable to the United Nations, nor is the United States a member of the treaty, its principles are generally accepted as customary international law.

Very little precedent exists for potential exit from the United Nations. In 1965, prior to the adoption of the Vienna Convention, Indonesia withdrew from the United Nations. Indonesia objected to the creation of Malaysia and viewed the non-permanent seating of Malaysia on the Security Council as an act of neo-colonialism. President Sakarno sent a telegram to the United Nations withdrawing its membership and also forsaking $50 million in economic and technical aid already earmarked for Indonesia. The next year, General Suharto seized power in a coup and notified the United Nations that Indonesia would resume cooperation with the organization. Because the United Nations had never formally acknowledged Indonesia’s withdrawal, Suharto’s message was accepted and the Indonesian delegation asked to return. By not formally recognizing the withdrawal notice and instead treating the instance as a case of non-cooperation, the United Nations avoided the opportunity to create a policy for exit.

Customary law and a lack of precedent suggest that the United States would have an extraordinarily difficult time leaving the United Nations while abiding by international norms. No clear exit path has been created, either through the terms of the U.N. Charter or through the experience of other nations. Unanimous consent allowing any nation to leave the organization, much less its largest financial supporter, is unimaginable. Finally, a “fundamental change in circumstances” argument might be attempted, but would be weak due to the continued membership of the United States throughout many more drastic periods of domestic and international change. Leaving the United Nations would be extremely difficult to do within the context of existing international legal norms.

Potential for U.S. Withdrawal

This is not the first time that a bill has been introduced to withdraw the United States from the United Nations. Already this year, several bills have been introduced to defund or review membership in the United Nations based on specific positions of the United Nations, like Israel-Palestine issues or environmental policies. Such bills are relatively common and rarely gain traction. However, the motivation behind this most recent bill makes it unique. H.R. 193 instead objects to continued U.S. membership in the United Nations based on the merits of the organization itself, suggesting that the United Nations has a “dangerous agenda” and is “a waste of taxpayer dollars.”A bill identical to H.R. 193 has been cosponsored by a host of Republican representatives and introduced in every Congress since the 105th Congress in 1997, though the bill has never moved beyond referral to a standing committee.

Despite this legislative history, the introduction of H.R. 193 during this Congress has raised eyebrows because of the quick uptick in cosponsorship and the potential support of President Trump. The current legislation has attracted more cosponsors in one month than the bill often has over the course of a whole year. Past presidents have been hesitant to criticize the work of the United Nations or the continued membership of the United States. President Trump, however, was critical of the United Nations on the campaign trail and has reportedly drafted executive orders mandating the review and reduction of U.S. funding to international organizations.  According to Gallup polling, approval ratings for the United Nations have tumbled amongst Americans over the last fifteen years. In 2002, 58% of respondents said that they believe that the United Nations is doing a “good job” in solving the world’s problems, while today that number hovers around 38%.

Despite the seeming swell of public and elected official support for H.R. 193, it seems highly unlikely that the United States would leave the United Nations. Leaving the organization would leave the other treaties and organizations to which the United States belongs unstable and vulnerable. Other critics of the bill suggest that leaving the United Nations would allow China and other rising powers to gain international influence. Furthermore, the bill lacks the congressional support to secure passage. Neither Rep. Rogers nor any of the bill cosponsors sit on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to which the bill has been referred. While withdrawal may be an increasingly popular policy move, it lacks sufficient support to rationalize upsetting the international order.

Recent Resistance to Intergovernmental Organizations

Regardless of the probability of success of the proposals for a U.S. exit from the United Nations, they highlight a very important recent trend in international law – a push away from intergovernmental organizations. Arguably the most well-known example of this trend is the United Kingdom’s June 2016 “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. However, the phenomenon is more widespread than just nationalist momentum in the United Kingdom and United States. Since 2012, eight nations have left the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, citing lack of efficacy. In 2016, President Duterte of the Philippines threatened to leave the United Nations in response to the organization’s criticism of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Earlier this month, the African Union endorsed the mass withdrawal of its member states from the International Criminal Court. Should this anti-intergovernmental and international organization trend continue, it could spiral and potentially normalize departure from international organizations and increase popular support for the United States to leave the United Nations.

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