U.S. lawmakers are working in an unusually bipartisan manner to boost federal funding across the government's spate of defense, technology and international development programs — all in the name of pushing back against long-term strategic security threats emanating from China.
But there is one notable exception: increasing financial support to the United Nations.
“Right now, at the U.N., to paraphrase President Biden, we’re in a fight for the soul of the world. It would be a grave mistake to cede the U.N. and other multilateral fora to China, which is why the president’s budgets ask for the resources and authorities needed to assert U.S. leadership,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in June at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the administration’s fiscal 2023 spending request for the U.N.
House Republicans have strenuously protested House Democrats’ inclusion of nearly $4.7 billion in multilateral assistance in their version of next year's foreign aid bill, which the Appropriations Committee sent to the floor in a party-line vote in late June. That represents a $2.3 billion increase over this fiscal year's base funding levels to support international financial institutions — including a proposed $1.6 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund — and to international organizations such as the United Nations and its constituent agencies, like the World Health Organization.
Much of the bill’s proposed funding increases for the U.N. system would go toward paying down the arrears the United States accumulated during the Trump administration for its mandatory contributions to international peacekeeping efforts. The bill would direct nearly $1.8 billion to those operations, an amount that includes over $200 million to address such prior unpaid assessments.
The top Republican on the House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, Harold Rogers of Kentucky, warned at a markup last month that the measure had “no chance of passing” into law with such “misplaced funding priorities.” His list included the proposed funding boosts to the U.N. system, at least absent certain bureaucratic overhauls there.
Rogers and other Republicans have been mostly unmoved by arguments from Democrats and the Biden administration that the increased financial support for the United Nations is needed as part of a broader effort to counter China’s efforts to rewrite rules and reshape norms that have governed the international community since the end of World War II.
“Currently, our failure to live up to our financial obligations at the U.N. gives our adversaries an easy talking point, one they hit us with again and again,” Thomas-Greenfield said at the June hearing. “We need to be able to pay our bills in full and on time, and this will bolster our credibility and our leadership.”
Beijing is seen as pushing polices within U.N. agencies and other multilateral bodies that are generally less concerned with preserving human rights and good governance and more focused on protecting the ability of regional powers — like itself — to maintain spheres of influence over weaker neighboring states.
Even if the United States were to fully settle its outstanding international peacekeeping dues, that wouldn’t come close to resolving the influence competition with China inside the United Nations, argues Brett Schaefer, an analyst who studies U.S. international affairs spending at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
'Fear of China'
In 2020 — the last year for which a full financial accounting of contributions to the United Nations was available — the U.S. paid to the U.N. system five times the amount China did, even while still owing around $1 billion in membership dues, according to Schaefer.
“When you take a look at U.S. contributions and U.S. support for the international systems and the U.N. system writ large, U.S. support by far outstrips that of China — and that is particularly the case in involuntary contributions,” Schaefer said, referring to the mandatory or assessed contributions the United States pays for things like peacekeeping operations and to some U.N. bodies like the WHO. “Even where the U.S. does not have an obligation to pay, the U.S. generosity far outstrips that of other countries.”
Even before China grew in the past half-decade to become what Washington views as the top long-term strategic challenger to the United States, Democrats had long argued for lifting the 25 percent cap Congress previously imposed on the amount of money the U.S. government is permitted to pay annually in assessed contributions to the total U.N. peacekeeping budget.
“You can’t put fear of China . . . or the effort to counter China ahead of every other priority,” Schaefer said. “The U.S. has many priorities in the U.N. system, and it needs to pursue them in a way that is both rational and effective, and use of financial leverage has to be a part of that process.”
With the Biden administration adopting what Schaefer calls a “full-body hug” approach to the U.N., member countries have felt little pressure to adopt the reforms long pushed by the U.S. That list includes things like how member countries are assessed mandatory contributions for peacekeeping, as well as how countries share information on emerging infectious diseases with the WHO, he said.
The fiscal 2022 omnibus spending deal provided enough funds to pay the United States’ full fiscal 2022 assessed peacekeeping dues. But it did not provide extra funds to pay down America's back dues, according to an analysis by the Better World Campaign, an advocacy organization that supports strong U.S. support of the United Nations.
“By including a down payment on the more than $1 billion owed to U.N. peacekeeping, the [House foreign aid] bill strengthens the U.S. position on the world stage, especially in regards to increasing global investments by authoritarian regimes,” Peter Yeo, senior vice president at the United Nations Foundation, an advocacy organization that works to build public support for U.N. activities, said in a statement.
The Biden administration will have another opportunity to try to convince Republicans of the need to provide more robust funding to the U.N. and other international bodies when Michele Sison, assistant secretary of State for international organization affairs, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 13.