The Trump administration joins UN Security Council calls for peacekeeping reform and reduced expenditure in the DRC, but there is more than meets the eye.
Donald Trump’s America First Budget targets a range of programs with the aim of prioritizing American domestic needs when it comes to federal budget allocation. One area designated for belt-tightening is Washington’s contribution to the UN, notably the organization’s peacekeeping budget. President Trump’s calls for substantial reductions in foreign aid in order to save money have been widely panned, especially given the minuscule percentage that foreign aid and America’s UN-related expenses constitute to overall spending.
Nevertheless, U.S ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, echoed such sentiments during her confirmation hearings in January, and it appears that the plans of the Trump administration have been set in motion with Haley announcing a reduction in U.S peacekeeping spending. The U.S constitutes the largest contributor (at 28%) to the UN peacekeeping budget; a budget that has ballooned over the last two decades to $7.87 billion in 2016. 2016 also saw 99 peacekeepers die in the line of duty, as the force is increasingly used not only to avert conflict but provide a last line of defence for failed states and in counter-insurgency operations.
A moment of international consensus?
The poster-child for this trend is the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – MONUSCO – which cost the UN $1.2 billion last year. MONUSCO has also been one of the deadliest missions in UN history. It is in this context that Nikki Haley pushed for a reduction in U.S peacekeeping contributions, as well as a reduction in UN assistance to the DRC. Specifically, Haley argued that “the UN peacekeeping mission […] is aiding a government that is inflicting predatory behaviour against its own people. We should have the decency and common sense to end this.”
This sentiment has been echoed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has backtracked on election promises to revive Canadian peacekeeping operations which had been cut under the Harper government. Ottawa referenced its painful experiences in Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s and noted that peace support missions were increasingly putting troops into ongoing and dangerous counter-insurgency operations outside the Blue Helmets’ traditional role.
Given the hostility towards the Trump administration in the international community, it is interesting that Haley’s suggestion has found sympathetic ears, highlighting the mire in which UN peacekeeping finds itself. While the U.S has expressed its intention to reduce funding, it was a French proposed resolution that recently mandated a reduction in troop numbers for MONUSCO. Specifically, the resolution, unanimously adopted by all 15 Security Council members, will reduce troop levels from 19,815 to 16,215. While this sounds like a lot, MONUSCO is already under-strength, meaning that fewer than 500 troops will actually return home.
It is interesting that the resolution was sponsored by France, given Paris’ active involvement in west Africa, especially Mali, and its recent calls for more support from Canada and other states, as well as the UN. Reducing troop numbers for MONUSCO may align with wider concerns about streamlining and re-evaluating peacekeeping operations, but it also potentially frees up more resources under the current budget for efforts elsewhere, notably in Mali.
In any case, what the resolution does demonstrate is that there is significant consensus in the Security Council that the situation in the DRC and the operations of MONUSCO are not satisfactory. Haley’s rebuke of the Congolese government and Joseph Kabila in particular, combined with the aforementioned troop reduction sends a clear signal that Kabila needs to abide with existing transition plans. Kabila has incited nation-wide protests by his refusal to step aside after his two term limit expired on December 31st. Moreover, the successive delays in organizing the hitherto agreed upon 2017 elections have only further angered ordinary Congolese and the international community.
Term limit related violence only adds to the already dismal state of affairs in the country, which is battling over 70 rebel groups in the east. Increasing instability recently saw the murder of two UN (one American and one Swedish) experts in the DRC, resulting in international condemnation and the introduction of a U.S travel warning on March 31st.
More than meets the eye surrounds UN funding
Haley has portrayed the UN’s MONUSCO vote as a triumph of cost-cutting and carrot-and-stick shrewdness, which meshes well with the Trump administration’s own cost-cutting efforts. While many share Haley’s legitimate reservations concerning the DRC government’s human rights record, as well as the need to reform peacekeeping efforts, several factors undermine her claims. Moreover, it is understandable that Washington is unhappy with the level of its contribution to the UN, especially due to the mushrooming peacekeeping program, and its calls for other countries to increase their funding allotments is warranted.
That being said, there is sharp disconnect between the rhetoric of the Trump administration on the issue and the actual ‘savings’ to be had. Firstly, even the inward-looking Trump administration has stated that it will cap UN spending at no more than 25% of the total UN peacekeeping budget, in line with historical contribution levels. What the exact level Washington sets remains to be seen; as things currently stand the U.S will reduce its share from 28% to 25%.
This amounts to a reduction of $236 million: this is less than a pittance in wider U.S budgetary calculations. By way of comparison Washington is expected to bill American taxpayers an additional $300 million in 2017 in increased security costs for the President and his family. Protecting Trump Tower (if Melania and Barron remain there for the rest of the year) and if Trump continues his regular Mar-a-Lago trips – he is hosting Xi Jinping there on April 6th – wipe out any ‘savings’ made at the UN.
In exchange, the U.S cedes moral authority on the matter to others, and leaves potential security council rivals such as China to increasingly influence UN deployments with their financial clout. Chinese UN and peacekeeping contributions (the second highest in 2016 at 10.29%) have steadily risen in recent years, and while that may benefit populations protected by peacekeepers, it represents another token indication of American decline. Nor can America tout the ‘lives in danger’ argument to a domestic audience when it contributes less than 100 individuals to peacekeeping efforts.
It is interesting to note that the MONUSCO vote now permits peacekeepers to intervene nationwide in the DRC, not just in the east – which since they are effectively propping up the Kabila government, is actually a benefit for Kinshasa. This, together with the de facto 500 person troop reduction, puts into question Haley’s statements that the resolution is a moral and monetary slap on the wrist for the DRC.
Moreover, while the resolution reduces troop numbers it also calls for the deployment of more specialized, better trained units. Said units are invariably going to come from developed nations, and are going to end up costing source nations more money. The UN pays source countries a flat rate of $1,332 per peacekeeper per month, whereas national governments pay their peacekeepers based on rank and along national salary guidelines. This means that more specialized personnel drawn from developed nations cost their governments far more than they receive in UN funding. Conversely, this is why poor nations such as Bangladesh dominate UN peacekeeping numbers, because their governments make a profit, or at least break even, given lower national wage structures, and other reduced overhead outlays.
While Haley is right to caution against using peacekeepers as a one-size-fits-all solution, the reality is that less funding from the U.S (be it 3% or higher) will mean trying to get more for less, and propagate a situation that only increases the trend of outsourcing peacekeeping the the Global South. The provision of often ill-trained and ill-equipped peacekeepers (and the resulting scandals) is then in turn used as evidence of the program’s shortcomings. This is hypocritical given that rich UN members opposed the 17% pay increase for peacekeepers in 2014, while simultaneously not wanting to put their own personnel in harm’s way.
While reform and streamlining efforts are needed, these efforts could achieved without any financial burden (while also retaining leadership status) on Washington if existing funding levels were maintained. Instead, the U.S could use its financial leverage in conjunction with international partners to help shape future deliberation, rather than engaging in token penny-pinching.