Can the UK save the United Nations from Donald Trump's cuts?

The UK could redirect funds from Brussels to the United Nations after Brexit. 

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The US President Franklin Roosevelt was reportedly so excited to tell the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill about the name he had come up with for the World War II Allied power that he barged into Churchill’s room, where the Prime Minister was naked, just as he was coming out of the bath. Churchill, it is said, took the intrusion with aplomb, and agreed with Roosevelt’s suggested name: “United Nations.” This incident occurred a few weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, when Churchill was staying at the White House to plan the war effort with Roosevelt. During Churchill’s visit, he and Roosevelt drafted the “Declaration by United Nations”. Beyond the aim of defeating the enemy, the declaration committed the Allies to certain principles, such as respecting state sovereignty, promoting free trade, as well as defending human rights, justice and religious freedom. It formed the basis of the United Nations, as we know it. 

Unfortunately, Donald Trump, the current US President, is a UN sceptic. He plans to cut US funding to the UN by hundreds of millions of dollars. As a result, many of the UN’s activities, which benefit vulnerable communities globally, will be squeezed or halted. The UK should protect the UN, an organisation it helped conceive nearly 75 years ago, by providing it funds to offset the Trump cuts.

Already, Trump has unilaterally withdrawn aid from one UN institution, the family planning-focused UN Population Fund (of which the UK is the biggest donor), depriving it of $32.5m for 2017. His recently released 2018 budget proposal, which Congress will review over the next few months, seeks to eliminate funding to UN climate change programmes, as well as drastically cut funding to other UN programmes and peacekeeping operations. It is unlikely that Congress will resist many of these proposed cuts. 

Offsetting these cuts will require the UK to voluntarily fund UN programmes, in addition to its existing UN commitments. Currently, the UK is the UN’s sixth largest financial contributor (its contribution is based on set criteria applicable to all countries at the UN). Annually, it contributes nearly $115m to the regular UN budget and almost $500m to the peacekeeping budget. It also voluntarily funds many UN development and humanitarian programmes. The UK does not have to look far to find additional funding sources. It contributes over a billion pounds annually through the EU for foreign aid – less than a third of which the EU then donates to UN programmes. The UK should redirect most or all its contribution towards EU foreign aid to UN activities impacted by Trump’s cuts. 

As the UK will continue to contribute funding to Brussels, at least until its official exit from the EU in 2019, any reallocation of funds will take time, and may need to occur incrementally. Nevertheless, redirecting the funds will help the UK maintain its commitment of spending 0.7 per cent of its gross national income on foreign aid, which places it in an elite club of donor countries.

Besides the obvious benefit of ensuring that those in need of aid receive it, such increased funding to the UN would offer significant political benefits to the UK. It would counterbalance some of the loss of international prestige from Brexit. It would also win the UK more friends and increase its influence at the UN, which would translate into greater leverage. This could be used to push reforms to enhance the UN’s effectiveness in dealing with today’s unique challenges. Beyond continuing to press for improvements in UN management and Security Council reform, the UK could encourage the UN to better adapt to a world with rising non-state actors, including hackers and terrorists. These reforms would benefit the UK, as the UN serves as a force multiplier for the UK’s foreign policy, from Cyprus to Somalia. Small wonder that, in 2016, the UK was second only to the United States in terms of the number of Security Council resolutions for which it was the lead drafter.

Brexiteers also need not worry. Reallocating funds from the EU to the UN is not tantamount to replacing the EU with another comparable organisation. Unlike the EU, the UN is not a supranational organization requiring any ceding of sovereignty. It is an intergovernmental organisation that allows states to pool their resources to meet the challenges that no one state can face alone, thus enabling them to preserve their sovereignty. Churchill and Roosevelt understood this. Although the challenges may be different today than in their time, the principles they set out in the “Declaration by United Nations” are as relevant today as then. They should be upheld – at least by one of the two countries responsible for drafting the declaration.

Arslan Malik is a Visiting Fellow of Practice at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. He previously held positions at the U.S. Department of State, as well as with the United Nations.