Trump wanted others to pay more at UN. No one picked up the tab

US President Donald Trump. (J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
US President Donald Trump. (J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

President Donald Trump’s promise to save American taxpayers money by getting other countries to contribute more to international organisations has been put to the test at the United Nations.

It didn’t go well.

American diplomats in New York lobbied countries including India, Brazil, and Turkey to increase their financial support for the UN’s $6.7bn-a-year peacekeeping budget, but they came up short during negotiations this month.

That will leave the “blue helmets,” who monitor conflict zones from South Sudan to Lebanon, with a $220m shortfall for the year, as the US refuses to pay more than a quarter of the total budget.

“Unfortunately, in a deeply dissatisfying and disappointing turn of events, every country decided reform was good and right for the UN, but not for how it is financed,” Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet, the US representative for UN reform, said on Saturday.

The impasse underscores the difficulty the Trump administration faces as it pushes countries to put up more money for international organisations - from the UN to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - where the US has traditionally been the largest donor. The president tweeted on Monday that other countries “take advantage of their friendship with the United States”.

The US remains the top contributor to UN budgets, paying more than $10bn a year when all expenditures are totaled. It had been paying about 28% of the peacekeeping budget, but Congress has capped those payments at 25%.

The Obama administration, emphasising the need for multilateral cooperation, waived the cap, but it has been reimposed by the Trump administration, which says many of the peacekeeping efforts are wasteful and ineffective.

As US Ambassador Nikki Haley steps down with the arrival of the new year, Trump’s nominee to replace her, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, is expected to double down on the administration’s criticism of the UN and what it sees as its anti-Israel bias and its inefficiencies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled a hardening of the approach in a speech this month, saying the UN was founded as “an organisation that welcomed peace-loving nations” but that it wasn’t clear if it properly serves that mission anymore.

UN budget contributions are calculated using a variety of metrics such as a member nation’s population and the size of its economy, but many discounts are granted - for instance for developing countries with large external debts.

Other UN members argue that the US already got discounts in 2000, when Ambassador Richard Holbrooke negotiated a cut to 22% from 25% for US payments to the regular UN budget, and a cut to peacekeeping contributions to 27% from 30%.

“The lack of agreement on a 25% ceiling will cause the organisation to continue to face a 3% shortfall in its peacekeeping budget as the United States will pay no more than 25% of peacekeeping expenses, again a less than ideal outcome,” Chalet said.

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