When the White House sent its proposed 2018 budget to the United States Congress on May 23, it was apparent that not only would a hawkish, nationalistic focus on military expenditures come at the cost of international aid and support for the United Nations. Worse, the Trump plan would also sideline discussions on global issues, as American public opinion focuses almost entirely on US domestic programs.
If adopted, the budget would eliminate or drastically reduce US funds for public health and safety, environmental preservation and cultural institutions, among other targets. For Americans, those issues — and not the fate of the UN — are now the talking points along with the uncertain future of the Trump administration itself.
It may be true that the weapons-and-security-heavy budget will get a rough welcome and no doubt a makeover in Congress if there is to be any agreement on its final form by the Sept. 30 deadline. The US federal budget year begins on Oct. 1. By some accounts, the White House plan will be “dead on arrival” for political reasons. An important midterm election takes place in 2018, when all members of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will be up for re-election. Some of Trump’s proposals on domestic spending have already been rejected in Congress.
But that does not make the moment less dangerous for the UN or US-funded international programs. Trump’s uncompromising nationalist pledge to always put “America First” lays bare his team’s contempt for overwhelming human needs around the world.
One example can be drawn from the impact on Africa: on the administration’s wish list is a total ban on US funds for all family planning and reproductive health programs worldwide. Africa, the world’s poorest continent, faces rapid population increases that could doom economic development. The very survival of many of its people is already being tested as resources like food and water become scarcer, in no small part because of climate change, another Trump funding target. In many ways, Africa is off the map in this proposed budget.
More broadly, as the budget proposals now stand, the White House would eliminate the State Department’s development assistance account in the name of “freeing up funding for rebuilding the nation’s military and for pursuing critical priorities here at home.”
The US African Development Fund and Inter-American Foundation would both disappear, as would global food aid and education programs. The US would reserve the right to pay whatever it wants to UN bodies, violating budget-assessment agreements.
These and many other proposed actions are detailed in a chilling 171-page report titled “Major Savings and Reforms,” an attempt by the White House Office of Management and Budget to justify cuts.
Alarm bells at the UN
This is a doubly dangerous time for international cooperation because there is no longer a strong core of pro-UN members of Congress, particularly in the Senate, to save international organizations from devastating cuts. Instead, there are leading senators who have talked about stopping all payments to the UN and withdrawing from agencies and entities in the system, like from Unesco and the Human Rights Council.
The UN Population Fund, UNFPA, has lost all US funding support by executive orders that Trump issued soon after his inauguration. That financing is no longer even up for discussion.
At UN headquarters, the funding situation is causing serious concern. In his regular noon briefing for the media on May 24, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for Secretary-General António Guterres, said: “I think looking at the budget, as it’s proposed now, would make it simply impossible for the UN to continue all of its essential work advancing peace, development, human rights and humanitarian assistance around the world.”
Dujarric added: “The budgetary process in the US is what it is. It is going through a legislative process. So we will wait to see what comes out of that legislative process. I think it goes without saying it, but it bears repeating that we’re obviously extremely grateful for the financial contributions the United States has been making and is making to the United Nations over the years as its largest financial contributor.”
Some UN officials would like to see other nations become more vocal and generous in support of the UN in this crisis.
The State Department, through which many — but not all — US funds for international organizations are directed, would suffer nearly a cut of a third from its budget, by most estimates. In the plan for a 2018 budget, Trump is asking for a maximum of $37.6 billion to cover both the department’s operating budget and the US Agency for International Development.
From that amount, $7.9 billion would be earmarked for largely unpredictable “overseas contingency operations,” according to Hari Sastry, the director of the office of US foreign assistance resources at the State Department, speaking in a conference call briefing.
The Trump administration’s demand that US dues for peacekeeping be reduced from the current 28.4 percent to 25 percent of the total peacekeeping budget, now hovering at about $8 billion annually, means that the US will have to renegotiate or bargain for a change through the UN General Assembly Committee on Contributions. If the US cannot get its peacekeeping assessment changed by the General Assembly, it will fall into perennial arrears and the bills will still come in.
The White House budget office suggests that the 25 percent US cap — set in 1997 by Congress in contravention of binding UN agreements — could be lowered even further. While the cap remains in place in Congress, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama both succeeded in getting one-off increases approved by Congress. Through his lobbying in Congress, Obama met UN assessments of 27 or 28 percent and avoided accruing unpaid bills.
“The Budget assumes the United States will contribute at or below the statutory cap of 25 percent for United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions in the Contributions to International Peacekeeping Activities (CIPA) account,” the Trump White House budget office said in its report. . . . The Budget proposes to eliminate programs in the PKO account, specifically the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership and the PKO portion of the Security Governance Initiative.”
To make peacekeeping even cheaper for the US, a push is on at UN headquarters and in the Security Council to end or pare peacekeeping missions to reduce what the US would be charged based on current assessments.
Damage to other global programs
Viewed in a broader context, the obsession with slashing support for virtually all international programs is not limited to UN-related activities, though voluntary contributions for those and strictly American programs could plummet. For example, in funding American humanitarian aid, the US would impose a 31 percent reduction; for global health, a 25 percent cut.
In the US, influential institutions, including the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the United States Institute for Peace, the Asia Foundation and the East-West Center in Hawaii, would be defunded entirely if Trump gets his way. Although the Fulbright exchange program and the State Department International Visitors’ program, which brings potential foreign leaders to the US, would be saved.
Funds for the Global Climate Change Initiative and the Green Climate Fund, supported by most nations of the world, would be eliminated under pressure from an antiscientific lobby as well as those on the political and intellectual right who oppose international agreements generally.
In support of global health programs, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement on May 23 that the US would continue to fund GAVI, the global vaccine alliance (but only to complete an earlier $1 billion pledge) and would commit $5 billion for the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (Pepfar), which was created by George W. Bush and continued by President Obama. Another $1.1 billion would go to the Global Fund to Fights AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, in keeping with previous commitments.
Cuts to health spending by the US government at home and abroad for family planning and other programs of importance to women have been accompanied by hardline anti-abortion requirements that will further hamstring the work of NGOs and international organizations with which they work worldwide.
Under a presidential directive introduced in 1984, known as the “global gag rule,” any group or organization working in health and women’s health in particular, will be required to certify that it does not provide or even advise patients about abortion. If it does not stick to the rule, it cannot receive American funding, including indirectly.
Numerous organizations appear willing to absorb this penalty on principle — and seek funds elsewhere — rather than give into the conservative American political right and religious or cultural leaders in other countries, as well as the Vatican intolerant of a woman’s right to choose.
When the budget plan was released, the Women’s Refugee Commission commented on the savage cuts to humanitarian aid that is badly needed in a world of crises.
“At a time when US leadership and funding for humanitarian assistance is critical, this budget plays politics with the lives of the most vulnerable populations in the world,” Joan Timoney, senior director of advocacy at the commission, said in a statement. “Displaced women and girls face a host of risks including rape, domestic violence, trafficking and child marriage. This proposed budget doesn’t just betray them, it puts their lives at risk.”
Tillerson and others who have fallen in line with the Trump message repeat the rationale for this lopsided budget, which cuts more than $500 million from migration and refugee assistance, among other programs.
“It acknowledges that US diplomacy engagement and aid programs must be more efficient and effective, and that advancing our national security, our economic interests and our values will remain our primary mission,” Tillerson said in his statement.
The sweeping declarations by US officials that belie the damage they could inflict are striking, and they rewrite much of the purpose of assistance policies, or state them more baldly and coldly than ever.
Peter Wiebler of USAID, a participant in the State Department conference call, described the agency’s priorities as “defeating ISIS, countering extremism and addressing complex crises in the Middle East and Africa caused by extremist groups, including in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere.”
In Tillerson’s words, “America continues to be the world’s beacon of freedom and the greatest force for good and stability.” But in his statement he quickly turned to the four key national budget aims supporting the president’s “America first vision”: defending US national security, asserting US leadership and influence, fostering opportunities for US economic interests and ensuring effectiveness and accountability to the US taxpayer.”
American national security, real or imagined, is the slogan of the day. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to count.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.