LONDON — Since Donald Trump took office as president of the United States, numerous satirical videos have emerged, apparently from European states vying to be “second” to America’s “first.”
The German spoof cites the country’s experience of walls. Luxembourg’s boasts that it has a lot of money and “you know what, Mr President? You don’t even have to pay taxes. None. Zero. Nada.” And Switzerland’s proclaims: “We also love to treat our women badly. Love it. We didn’t let them vote until 1971.”
The idea of diplomacy by YouTube may appeal to a president who governs by Twitter. Such diplomacy would certainly allow for even deeper cuts to the US State Department.
But if Trump is serious about his “America First” foreign policy, he should be strengthening diplomacy, particularly through the United Nations, the only organization capable of tackling the major challenges facing the world. And American partners in Europe should be making this case vigorously. This is especially true for Britain, which considers itself the closest US ally on the continent.
The White House’s proposed cuts to UN funding were hardly surprising, and they foreshadow what could appear in next year’s budget, which is due to be sent to Congress by the end of September. Trump took aim at the UN before his inauguration, tweeting that it was “just a club for people to get together, talk” (one of its most valuable functions) and that “things will be different after Jan 20th.” A draft executive order on UN funding was prepared — and shelved — during his first week as president.
From across the pond here in London, it appears that many US Republicans, even those who opposed Trump, are now exploiting his presidency to promote red-meat causes, such as attacking a woman’s right to choose and the UN. While the American Sovereignty Restoration Act, a perennial fringe attempt to withdraw from the UN, is as unlikely as ever to succeed, proposals supported by high-profile Republicans are more troubling.
For example, Senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) have proposed defunding the UN in response to a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s violations of international law. That the resolution passed, in late December 2016, only because the Obama administration chose not to veto it is conveniently forgotten. So, too, is the fact that millions of people who rely on the UN’s humanitarian agencies for their basic needs would suffer if financing were withheld. In the words of a former presidential candidate, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, this is an “opportunity for those of us who are very anti-UN” to “deconstruct it.”
Despite longstanding hostility to the UN, the White House budget, both the interim and for 2018, is most likely to encounter opposition in Congress. Even if it doesn’t succeed, it is deeply disconcerting, implying a failure to understand how valuable the UN is to the US and how useful it could be to the Trump administration. Trump’s UN envoy, Nikki Haley, has already demonstrated the organization’s utility as a soapbox. It could also serve as the forum for unconventional meetings if Mar-a-Lago falls out of favor.
The UN is central to the rules-based international order the US has built since World War II. The order cements American power and inoculates the country against global power shifts. As former US Ambassador Susan Rice memorably put it: “The Security Council can’t even issue a press release without America’s blessing.”
Like their allies in Europe, US administrations have always acknowledged, albeit more reluctantly at times, the UN’s role in furthering their interests. After 9/11, President George W. Bush may have sought to justify “coalitions of the willing,” but he also reaffirmed America’s commitment to the UN, noting that “no nation can build a safer, better world alone.” The invasion of Iraq by the US without the UN’s blessing arguably ended up harming the US more than the UN.
If Trump still wants to put “America first” and adopt a narrower definition of US interests, the UN will be crucial in picking up the slack in promoting stability across the globe. Europe continues to ride out a period of turmoil brought on by political and economic challenges from within and without, notably a more adventurous Russia. Meanwhile, the major emerging economies, except for China, seem disinclined to play a global police, humanitarian or peace-broker role.
The UN is a vital tool for advancing Trump’s foreign policy priorities by strengthening international efforts to counter terrorism and by creating conditions for trade to flourish. It also provides a mechanism for US allies, in his words, “to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost.”
And the UN is cheap. Its interventions are far more cost-effective than those of the US. The organization’s annual peacekeeping budget, which currently covers 16 operations on four continents, is roughly equivalent to what the US spent in a month in Afghanistan at the height of the war there.
Other countries provide more than 80 percent of the UN’s shoestring regular budget, which, by the way, is a sixth of what Americans spent on carry-out pizza in 2015. US funding to the UN represents just 0.1 percent of the federal budget and is generally supported by the American public.
Today, the UN is needed more than ever. The convergence of multiple crises has stretched the post-1945 international system to breaking point, threatening to reverse the gains of the past 70 years of the UN’s existence. Yet instead of increased engagement with the UN, national outlooks are narrowing.
While Obama’s record at the UN was far from perfect (the US continued to shield its allies from criticism and opposed proposals it disliked), the eight years of his administration showed what constructive US engagement can achieve, from helping to secure the Paris Agreement to negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. And in Secretary-General António Guterres, the US has a strong partner in such areas as counterterrorism, UN management reform and tackling sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers.
To put America first, Trump must put the UN second. Channeling the farsighted leadership of the UN’s founding father, Franklin D. Roosevelt, is the best way to make America great again.
A version of this essay first appeared in Huffington Post.
This is an opinion essay.
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Natalie Samarasinghe is the global director of advocacy for the Open Society Foundations. Previously, she was the executive director of the United Nations Association-UK, the first woman to have this role, and a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. She has degrees in human rights and modern history from Oxford University and the London School of Economics.