The need to protect its interests and advance freedom, security, and prosperity compels the United States to interact broadly in the world through bilateral relationships, strategic alliances, and international organizations. However, the international community is comprised of nearly 200 nations, many of which are neither economically nor politically free and feel threatened by American efforts to promote those principles. The U.S. can also meet resistance from its friends and allies when economic and strategic issues address points of contention.
The United Nations and Other International Organizations
The U.S. belongs to over 60 international technical, regional, diplomatic, military, and financial organizations. However, member states often fail to assess whether these organizations remain focused on and are fulfilling their original goals. As a result, their effectiveness and relevance to U.S. taxpayers is often in doubt.
The United Nations, created in 1945 to maintain international security and promote basic human rights, performs some useful tasks but has often failed to fulfill its primary responsibilities. For example, the world has witnessed hundreds of wars since 1945, yet the U.N. has authorized the use of force in response to aggression only twice: to respond to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea and to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The 65 peacekeeping missions it has authorized often have been beset by mismanagement, fraud, procurement corruption, and incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse. U.N. procurement and management have also proven vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement, as evidenced by the Iraq Oil for Food scandal.
The U.N.’s aid-focused development plans have a poor record of success. Countries receiving significant U.N. development assistance show no better results than those that receive little aid.
The U.N. Human Rights Council, created in 2006 to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, has exhibited persistent bias against Israel, partiality and politicization in its examination of human rights, and an inability to exclude from membership states with appalling human rights records. The council’s record in these areas has not improved significantly since the U.S. joined it in 2009.
The failure to implement reform of the U.N. system is particularly disturbing for the U.S., which is the U.N.’s largest financial contributor. Countries opposed to U.S. policies and leadership use the U.N. and other international organizations, in which they are on a more equal footing with the U.S. in terms of decision-making, to assert their influence. U.S. allies are often unreliable partners in these organizations. Allies that are part of the European Union (EU), for example, frequently say they cannot negotiate with the United States on a policy until the EU arrives at a unified position. Voting as a single bloc—irrespective of members’ national interests—enables the EU and other regional and ideological groups like the G-77 to counterbalance U.S. leadership and constrain U.S. actions. The U.S. must use the tools available, including financial withholding, to bolster its efforts at the U.N.
Although it stands as the most successful military alliance in modern history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains beset by post–Cold War challenges, including the struggle to formulate a cohesive defense strategy, inequitable sharing of financial and operational burdens, enlargement fatigue, and limited European defense capabilities. Although NATO was able to act in Libya, the U.S. was once again forced to provide most of the arms for the mission, especially advanced weaponry. The 10-year war in Afghanistan remains a crucial test of the alliance’s willingness and ability to stand behind its Article 5 obligations.
NATO also faces a serious challenge from the EU’s efforts to create a separate defense identity, especially in an era of declining defense budgets. The EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy has resulted in duplication of NATO’s role and structures, delinking of the NATO and EU alliances, and discrimination against non-EU NATO members such as Turkey. The EU’s drive to lift the arms embargo on China is but one example of how far removed its strategic outlook is from that of the U.S.
The Anglo–American Special Relationship is rooted in common values, shared interests, and a shared desire to play a leading role in the world. The U.S. ratified the U.S.–U.K. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty in 2010, and President Obama undertook a state visit to the United Kingdom in 2011. Overall, however, the Administration has undervalued and even undermined the Special Relationship—for example, by encouraging Argentina to advance its groundless claim to the Falkland Islands. Moreover, Britain has done too little to ensure that it remains a sovereign and capable partner, instead cutting defense spending to critical lows and failing to resist the EU’s relentless drive to stop member states from playing an independent and assertive role in the world. Both sides lack a strategy for advancing united global leadership in defense of liberty.
The U.S. has treaty commitments to five allies in the Western Pacific: Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. The alliances in Northeast Asia and Australia serve as anchors of America’s resident power status to balance China’s rise and ensure regional peace and security. In particular, U.S. military bases in Japan and South Korea are indispensable in deterring an aggressive, heavily armed Communist North Korea. The U.S. also has key security partners in Taiwan and Singapore and growing ties with other Southeast Asian nations and India.
Despite some wise individual policy choices by the Administration, the overall confidence of our allies in U.S. leadership has been undermined by perceptions of American economic decline, defense budget cuts and procurement decisions, the rapid rise of China, and deference to Chinese interests, particularly concerning Taiwan. The Administration has strained to counter these doubts without addressing the underlying causes.
- Evaluate membership in every international organization. The United States must honestly assess whether each organization works as it was intended, its mission is focused and attainable and not dependent on “good faith” that does not exist, and it advances U.S. interests. This should include an end to funding for those, like the U.N. Human Rights Council, that are irredeemably ineffective or otherwise work against U.S. interests.
- Maintain current U.S. law prohibiting funding of U.N. organizations that admit Palestine as a member state. The Palestinian push for statehood absent a negotiated agreement with Israel would deal a major setback to Israeli–Palestinian peace prospects. Past U.S. financial withholdings have proven effective in helping to advance U.S. policy priorities at the U.N. On October 31, 2011, UNESCO’s General Conference officially approved Palestinian membership with a vote of 107 in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstentions. In compliance with U.S. law, the Obama Administration suspended all U.S. funding for UNESCO. The U.S. was UNESCO’s largest contributor, providing the organization more than $84 million in 2010.
- Link development assistance to a country’s support for U.S. policy priorities in the U.N. and other important international organizations. Since 2000, about 87 percent of the recipients of U.S. development aid have voted against the U.S. most of the time on non-consensus votes in the U.N. General Assembly, and over 72 percent have voted against the U.S. most of the time on non-consensus votes deemed important by the Department of State.
- Use America’s influence, including financial leverage, to press for key U.N. reforms. These reforms include shifting toward voluntary funding of international organizations to support activities the U.S. deems worthwhile and defund those it does not deem worthwhile; unfettered member-state access to all audits, internal documents, and other relevant information on the U.N. and its agencies; increased internal oversight and accountability; a reconstituted Mandate Review to eliminate outdated, irrelevant, or duplicative activities; fewer robust U.N. peace enforcement operations, which generally have been unsuccessful; and real, consistent consequences for violations to improve the capacity of the U.N. and member states to investigate allegations of corruption and incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers.
- Resist expansion of the Security Council. Expanding the council would contribute to gridlock, dilute U.S. influence, and likely result in less support for U.S. interests.
- Insist on more equitable burden-sharing in NATO. Demand that all members recommit to spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense; request the removal of most national caveats on deployed troops and equipment in NATO operations; lead more multinational procurement projects; advance NATO’s transformational initiatives, including strengthening of the NATO Response Force; and push NATO efforts for comprehensive missile defense.
- Lead NATO enlargement efforts. NATO enlargement is consistent with the broader vision of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. The U.S. should position itself as a champion of Macedonian and Georgian efforts to accede to NATO.
- Reject EU attempts to constrain U.S. global leadership. Maintain strong relations with individual European nation states; reject the EU’s “multilateralisation of multipolarity” approach to refashion the international system; defend U.S. sovereignty against problematic EU-backed international treaties such as the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Ottawa Convention, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; oppose the EU’s attempts to lift its arms embargo on China; and investigate EU funding streams in the U.S. to ensure compliance with U.S. law.
- Repair and enhance the Anglo–American Special Relationship. Both nations should commit to a policy of international leadership and a timely renewal of the U.S.–U.K. Mutual Defense Agreement, express an exclusive commitment to NATO as the security alliance for Europe, and declare their resolve to continue operations in Afghanistan and to isolate and pressure Iran.
- Demonstrate firm commitment to Pacific allies and fully enable partnerships. Make investments in America’s military that are appropriate to a long-term presence in the Pacific, including fully funding U.S. Navy shipbuilding requirements; hold firm to the long-standing Guam agreement to realign U.S. forces in Japan; maintain the 28,500-man troop level in South Korea, both as a sign of commitment to the alliance and to deter North Korean aggression; expand U.S.–Australian cooperation to include greater joint use of military facilities; give the Philippines first priority for excess defense articles, explore lend-lease options for military hardware, and find new alliance uses for Subic Freeport; make available for sale the F-16C/Ds requested by Taiwan; expand operational cooperation and raise the level of strategic dialogue with Thailand; and pursue robust strategic and military engagement with India.
Facts & Figures
- A majority of the U.N.’s 193 member states are neither politically nor economically free.
- Total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system exceeded $7.691 billion in 2010.
- Two-thirds of the General Assembly’s members, which in the aggregate pay only about 1 percent of the U.N.’s assessed budgets, can approve increases over the objections of the U.S.
- The U.S. is the U.N.’s largest financial supporter, responsible for 22 percent of the regular U.N. budget (paying over $597 million to its regular budget alone in 2010). Each of the least assessed countries is charged about $27,000 per year.
- The U.S. pays over 27 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget (over $2.2 billion in 2010). Each of the least assessed countries was charged approximately $8,000.
- Only five NATO member states (Albania, France, Greece, the U.K. and the U.S.) currently spend the benchmark of at least 2 percent of GDP on defense.
- The Pacific is home to the world’s three largest economies and more than half of global trade. The U.S. has treaty commitments to five allies in the Western Pacific: Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
- China’s military budget is the world’s second largest and also its fastest growing. Its military modernization is aimed directly at countering American predominance.
- Several of the world’s most volatile conflict zones are in East Asia, including the Taiwan Strait, Korean Peninsula, and South China Sea.
- The U.S. Pacific Command includes five aircraft carrier strike groups, including one based in Japan, and two-thirds of total U.S. Marine Corps strength, 400 aircraft, and 60,000 soldiers.
Selected Additional Resources
- Ted R. Bromund, “Preserving the Special Relationship: A Conservative Agenda for President Obama’s State Visit to Great Britain,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2558, May 19, 2011.
- Steven Groves, “Accession to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea Is Unnecessary to Secure U.S. Navigational Rights and Freedoms,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2599, August 24, 2011.
- Bruce Klingner, “Top 10 Reasons Why the U.S. Marines on Okinawa Are Essential to Peace and Security in the Pacific,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2571, June 14, 2011.
- Bruce Klingner, “South Korea: Taking the Rights Steps Toward Defense Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2618, October 19, 2011.
- Walter Lohman, “Shaping U.S.’s Future in the Indo–Pacific,” The Washington Times, April 20, 2011.
- Walter Lohman, “Defrost the U.S.–Taiwan Relationship,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3173, February 28, 2011.
- Sally McNamara, “Swaying American Opinion: Congress Should Investigate European Union Advocacy in the United States,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 92, May 16, 2011.
- Sally McNamara, “How President Obama’s EU Policy Undercuts U.S. Interests,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2521, February 16, 2011.
- Sally McNamara, “NATO Summit 2010: Time to Turn Words Into Action,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2498, December 10, 2010.
- Brett D. Schaefer, “Congress Should Renew the Report Requirement on U.S. Contributions to the U.N. and Reverse Record-Setting Contributions to the U.N.,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3324, July 22, 2011, at.
- Brett D. Schaefer, “The U.S. Should Pursue an Alternative to the U.N. Human Rights Council,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2572, June 23, 2011.
- Brett D. Schaefer, “United Nations: Urgent Problems That Need Congressional Action,” Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 1177, February 3, 2011.
- Brett D. Schaefer and Anthony B. Kim, “The U.S. Should Link Foreign Aid and U.N. General Assembly Voting,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2591, August 8, 2011.
- Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips, “How the U.S. Should Respond to the U.N. Vote for Palestinian Statehood,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2574, July 6, 2011.
Heritage Experts on United Nations / International Organizations