The Threat of US Cuts: Helping Peacekeeping Help Itself?

US Army troops and UN peacekeepers distribute food and water after the Haitian earthquake of 2010. Cité Soleil, Haiti, January 24, 2010 (Sophia Paris/UN Photo)

As the prospect of United States funding cuts hangs over the United Nations and its flagship peacekeeping operations like the sword of Damocles, many are asking whether the threat might in fact provide the impetus for necessary reforms. The picture will become clearer at the April 6 Security Council thematic debate on peacekeeping, which the US is organizing. If UN member states remain focused on reform and reinvest in political strategies, and if the bureaucracy helps itself by initiating real rather than merely rhetorical change, a positive outcome is possible.

Reports of proposed US cuts have generated much panic around Turtle Bay for the past couple of months. This started with a January draft US presidential executive order—never signed into action—recommending “eliminating wasteful and counterproductive giving” to the world body. It culminated in March with the release of the US federal budget blueprint for 2018, which confirmed the White House’s intention to cut 40% of the State Department’s $2.2 billion annual contribution to the UN’s overall peacekeeping budget, which comes to just under $8 billion.

Last week, Samuel Oakford of IRIN provided the UN community with some potential (and likely temporary) solace. Oakford mounted a compelling argument on how complicated the process of cutting funding would be. First, President Trump would have to “get the proposed budget through the US Congress.” Second, if he succeeds, it would still require “tricky diplomatic maneuvering and careful navigation of the UN’s bureaucratic roadblocks” to negotiate down the current US share of the overall peacekeeping budget. In any event, Washington would not have the opportunity to significantly cut the peacekeeping budget before late 2018, when peacekeeping assessment rates negotiations—which occur every three years—next take place.

The first part of that argument has certainly been strengthened by the political setback Trump experienced in attempting to overhaul the US healthcare system—a major 2016 election campaign promise and a much more financially significant issue than UN peacekeeping. On the second part of the argument, however, the US may not wait to start throwing its weight around. It is, after all, a veto-holding power in the Security Council and the leading financial contributor to the UN, and can already effect change during mission mandate renewals and at the Administrative and Budgetary Committee (Fifth Committee). Its commitments in these areas will be tested this week, with the 17-year-old mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) up for renewal, and the US already reported to want a 25% reduction in its $1.2 billion overall budget [Ed. note: On April 31, the Security Council renewed the mission’s mandate until March 31, 2018, while reducing its troop ceiling by some 3,600 military personnel].

US parsimony may actually be welcomed by other major UN financial contributors, who may look to reduce their own contributions to the peacekeeping budget. It will likely be resented by others, including troop-contributing countries, who already feel that peacekeeping is done on the cheap. The peacekeeping budget more than doubled between 2003 and 2008, from less than $3 billion to over $7 billion and around 100,000 personnel deployed after that period. The increase is mostly due to an increase in the number of larger multidimensional operations authorized, in comparison with smaller observer or political missions, which amount to a fraction of the cost of their larger counterparts. Piecemeal mission-by-mission cuts would, however, likely not meet the US stated ambition of a 40% cut across the board.

This is why the US will also be looking at reducing its peacekeeping assessment rate. This currently stands at 28.57%, with China a far second (10.29%), followed by Japan (9.68%), Germany (6.39%), France (6.31%), and the United Kingdom (5.80%). There has been longstanding bipartisan support in the US for reducing this rate, and Congress actually capped it at 25% in 1994, but most years the cap has been waived to meet UN obligations. Trump could decide not to waive the cap, which would save the US that extra 3.57% budgetary commitment but also put it back into “arrears” at the UN for the first time in nearly a decade. Under Article 19 of the UN Charter, a member state whose arrears equal or exceed the contributions due for two preceding years can lose its vote in the General Assembly. Further, a permanently lowered assessment of the US rate will likely be complicated to achieve as it requires other member states to increase their own contributions to fill the gap and could, in any case, not be achieved before 2018.

Over the years, peacekeeping trends have in general not been affected by the nature of the US administration in power—Republican or Democrat. Nonetheless, the Obama administration supported UN peacekeeping in a way that previous administrations had not, convening a summit of more than 50 world leaders on the margins of the 2015 UN General Assembly and releasing a new presidential policy calling for the US to aid UN peacekeeping in a number of ways, including partner-building efforts and pushing for reform of the system.

Communications are being directed at the US administration and, in particular, Congress about the cost-effectiveness of UN peacekeeping and the negative impact of drastic cuts. The Better World Campaign and the United Nations Association of the United States of America are doing exactly that, highlighting that “it costs the United States $2 million to deploy a single U.S. solider and $24,000 to deploy a UN peacekeeper.” Although this effort is undoubtedly important, we should not lose sight of the fact that the best way to help peace operations remains for the UN itself to send the right signals about the direction of the organization.

The leadership of the world body seems to understand the need to take the lead. Secretary-General António Guterres has already reacted to the blueprint of the White House’s 2018 budget by stating his total commitment  “to reforming the United Nations and ensuring that it is fit for purpose and delivers results in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.” In his last press conference before handing over the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to his successor Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under Secretary-General Herve Ladsous emphasized that the “cost for each peacekeeper fell 16 per cent in recent years, dropping the entire budget of the blue helmets worldwide to around $7.2 billion” (from $8.2 billion in 2011), and that “no other army has done what the United Nations has done over the past six years.” Speaking at a recent IPI event on UN peacekeeping doctrine, Dimitry Titov, Assistant Secretary-General for the Rule of Law and Security Institutions, made a similar point about UN success in stabilizing countries and putting them on track for peace, in comparison to what coalitions of the willing have achieved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.

The April 6 Security Council debate will be a good opportunity for the UN to further refine its communications strategy in this respect. The concept paper circulated ahead of the event encourages Council members to “consider whether current peacekeeping operations continue to be the best-suited mechanisms for meeting the needs of those on the ground and achieving the Council’s political objectives, or if changes are needed,” and asks “are current missions still ‘fit for purpose’?”

At a March 29 Council on Foreign Relations event, the US permanent representative to the UN, Nikki Haley, commented on a US-proposed strategic review of ongoing missions and which vision it intends to lay out during its Council presidency next month. She reinforced that “effectiveness and accountability” should guide the process, adding that “the goal should be to end these missions, not continue them with no end in sight, creating a more dependent and helpless environment.”

While some member states may step in to cover gaps in funding left by the US in several UN agencies, funds, and programs, this is unlikely to happen with peacekeeping. That said, some may look at countries like China—which has been playing a growing role in peacekeeping and currently holds the acting force commander position in the mission in South Sudan—or Japan to increase their assessed contributions down the road.

It is also unlikely that Guterres, who has made conflict prevention his priority, will choose to focus on defending peacekeeping from US cuts, when reductions to other parts of the UN budget could have a more immediate impact—the organization’s humanitarian response, for example, is already struggling across the world, as evidenced by a poor donor response to the current East African famine appeal. His pick of former South Carolina Governor David Beasley to run World Food Programme may have been motivated by an attempt to safeguard US funding of the agency.

Taking Responsibility

Rather than await arbitrary funding cuts, the UN has an opportunity to propose changes on its own terms. For that to happen it needs to quickly move from rhetoric to action. There are a number of things UN peacekeeping can do to help itself.

First, the UN needs to deliver on the promise of successful exit strategies to peacekeeping transitions in Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire, and Liberia. These will be the first peacekeeping missions to close since the mission in Timor-Leste ended over a decade ago (other than the short-lived UN observer mission in Syria). In Haiti, all peacekeeping troops will depart in October, but a police presence will remain; in Cote d’Ivoire there will be no successor UN presence beyond June; and in Liberia peacekeepers will depart by March 2018. The US was actually the Council member which insisted on “getting the transition right” and on maintaining the Liberian mission beyond elections scheduled for October this year. France, Russia, and the UK abstained on the resolution. This could be the prelude of a tit-for-tat battle between Council members over which missions matter the most, with France potentially attempting to counter US attempts to cut the mission in the DRC in return.

While the budget implications of closing of these three missions will be somewhat modest, the message—that UN peacekeeping can achieve its outcomes and make successful exits—is important and must be communicated clearly. But the UN as a whole—including its agencies, funds, and programs, as well as the peacebuilding architecture—should start organizing to help ensure that peace gains are protected and sustained beyond the departure of blue helmets. The worst case scenario for the UN’s credibility would be if any of the three countries were to face a new crisis soon after the withdrawal of a mission, as happened in Timor-Leste in 2006 or in Burundi since 2015.

Second, the UN needs to put into practice the recommendation of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations review that the “primacy of politics” guide the development of more realistic and less ambitious mandates, and that missions and political strategies be better tailored to the specific conflict.

The US and others may be willing to sustain an expensive peace operation in Mali for some time if this is perceived as credibly contributing to containing terrorism in the region. For similar reasons, Washington may also continue to back the UN Support Office in Somalia, which provides logistical support to the African Union mission (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army, even if it has already opposed AMISOM’s possible transition to a UN peacekeeping mission. The US will, however, likely have much less patience for keeping longstanding behemoths no longer welcomed by host countries—such as the missions in the DRC and the Sudans (including Darfur)—at their current levels.

The UN bureaucracy therefore needs to anticipate coming cuts and put forward proposals for troop reductions, while at the same time suggesting ambitious political strategies that could better and more sustainably contribute to protecting civilians in the medium term. Unfortunately, the suggestion this month to send 320 additional police to the DRC to handle election-related unrest—without a concomitant reduction in the 19,000 troops deployed, let alone any exploration of unarmed protection of civilian strategies—sends the wrong signal.

The UN should seize this opportunity to reduce troop levels and promote “lighter” mission models (reducing logistical and security challenges by the same token). Meanwhile, the UN could do its utmost to implement important reforms on sexual exploitation and abuse and accountability, and avoid drawing bad publicity.

This would double down on the primacy of politics approach and put the onus back on Council members to bring their collective leverage—along with that of regional powers—to bear in seeking long-term solutions to conflicts. Such an approach would require Council members to be ready to reinvest in peace processes; it would also put more pressure on conflict parties, including host governments, to assume their own responsibilities. Cuts in the State Department budget signal that the US may not be ready to take that road.

Third, the secretary-general should take the opportunity to accelerate necessary reforms to the UN bureaucracy and secure member states’ support for these. The threat of US cuts could, somewhat counterintuitively, help Guterres push some bold proposals to reform outdated budgetary processes and focus mission bottom lines more on on-the-ground outcomes and strategic issues. Moving past budgetary minutiae in this way would also be in keeping with the HIPPO recommendations.

Such reform would no doubt help New York-based diplomats implement more cost-effective and accountable missions, instead of fighting over appointments to individual posts for instance. The US may also be tempted to force cuts in the UN secretariat. Washington’s ambassador to the UN under President George W. Bush, John Bolton, was notorious for saying that if the 38-story building “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” While this view has populist appeal, it should be recognized that UN headquarters staff dedicated to supporting field operations is dwarfed by NATO’s Brussels’ headquarters, which employs 4,000 full-time staff. The UN Office of Military Affairs, for example, has only one officer currently dedicated full-time to supporting the Mali mission.

That said, a push toward a more decentralized field-focused UN, as already initiated and communicated by the UN Department of Field Support, may be inevitable. In his first “global townhall” meeting with staff on January 9, Guterres gave an example from his time heading up the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) of managing to reduce headquarters costs by decentralization. He said that although the initial staff reaction was very negative, this helped to increase the donor community’s confidence in the organization’s effectiveness. Contributions subsequently rebounded, and in the end he was able to increase UNHCR global field staff by more than 40%.

Regardless, there is room for rationalization at UN headquarters. Guterres instructing that the regional groupings of the Departments of Political Affairs and DPKO be co-located is a first step and a test of bureaucratic goodwill. The internal review team the secretary-general has appointed may make some broader recommendations for larger restructuring of UN peace and security architecture in June.

Change does not happen easily at the UN. Process matters; it requires a clear vision from the Secretary-General, buy-in from the Secretariat to overcome bureaucratic hurdles, and support from a broad range of member states. The threat of US funding cuts may provide a unique window of opportunity for Guterres to preempt arbitrary decision-making from Washington. This could include laying out a vision, addressing some of the bigger questions about what “fit for purpose” peace operations look like, choosing the right personnel to lead new Secretariat peace and security support structures, and initiating changes before some of the bigger cuts kick in.

Much of the debate so far has focused on countering impending US budgetary restrictions, amid a sense of merely hoping for the best. But business as usual is not an option in this case, and the secretary-general will need to leverage the current outside pressure to build support from member states, both for internal reforms and for putting the onus back on the Security Council to support political solutions to conflict. Only then can the UN decrease its peacekeeping budget by ceasing to use peacekeeping as a substitute for political solutions, as has too often been the case.