Brett Schaefer
October 24 is United Nations Day - an official, international public holiday commemorating the organization's creation in 1945. In the minds of most Americans, United Nations Day probably ranks on par with, say, “Leif Erikson Day” in terms of importance. But as long as our calendars prompt us to remember the UN, let’s take a look at it. At age 65, the UN has become a sprawling international conglomerate ostensibly overseen by its 192 member countries. Core UN functions employ more than 22,000 people and boast a biennial budget of approximately $14.5 billion (including both regular and extra-budgetary resources, to use UN terminology). Those figures don’t include its peacekeeping operations, with more than 122,000 personnel and a $7.3 billion annual budget this year. Nor do they include the budgets and staff of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNESCO or dozens more international bodies affiliated with the UN. The UN is routinely asked to address numerous diplomatic, economic and security issues. Sometimes, it succeeds in its missions. The more technical organizations in the UN system, like the Universal Postal Union (which having been established in 1874 actually predates the UN) and the International Civil Aviation Organization, have been quite helpful in coordinating international correspondence and travel. UNICEF has successfully inoculated millions of children. The WHO helped eradicate small pox. United Nations peacekeeping missions are often useful and more welcome than direct U.S. intervention. However, the UN is not always the best option for pursuing critical missions, nor are all its activities useful. For instance, UN peacekeeping has a decidedly checkered past with the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica massacre occurring on its watch. UN efforts to promote human rights often devolve into farce . Indeed, turning to the UN for help on issues where it lacks expertise, authority, moral clarity or capacity can make international problems worse. One harsh reality about the UN: It is a brutally political organization. Its 192 member nations constantly fight to advance their various, often competing, interests. Since most of these nations are neither economically nor politically free, they routinely vote against U.S. interests. The UN is also often wasteful, corrupt, and mismanaged. Witness its Iraqi Oil-for-Food program. The most expensive scam in history, it netted Saddam Hussein more than $10 billion in illegal revenue. UN procurement is frequently tainted by fraud, and incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel are notoriously widespread. The UN Secretary-General and the member states seem to have little interest in addressing these problems. Americans have every right to be upset by the UN’s inept management and the anti-American tone that typically pervades its meetings. After all, we’re paying for it—literally. The U.S. is the largest financial contributor to the UN. Americans pay 22 percent of its regular budget, more than 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget, and a similarly disproportionate share of the bill for other UN affiliated organizations, funds and programs. And each year, the UN demand on U.S. taxpayers seems to increase. Since 2000, the UN regular budget has more than doubled and the peacekeeping budget has tripled. To put that into perspective, consider that, over the last decade, while the U.S. was funding a global war on terrorism, two major military operations, and an unprecedented “stimulus” program, the UN increased its regular budget at an even faster clip. In fiscal year 2009 alone, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget reports, the UN raked in more than $6.3 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars. Last December, the administration voiced no objection when the UN decided to increase U.S. dues for UN peacekeeping resulting in more than $100 million in increased annual costs to U.S. taxpayers. Our huge financial contribution to the organization makes the routine defeat of U.S.-led efforts to improve UN transparency and accountability incredibly frustrating. It also leaves many Americans wondering if the UN is more trouble than it’s worth. A February 2010 poll by Gallup found that only “thirty-one percent of Americans say the United Nations is doing a good job of solving the problems it has had to face.” Beyond doubt, the UN is a difficult forum that often works against America interests. But most nations strongly support it. Since the organization is not going anywhere soon, the U.S. has little choice but to deal with the organization. Dealing with the UN successfully requires a healthy skepticism about its utility. We must see the UN for the political organization it is, recognize its strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to fight for our own policies and interests. The latter requires toughness. We must be willing to halt support for unproductive programs and leverage our financial contributions to push for reform. And we must be willing to walk away when negotiations in the UN move in a direction counter to our national interests. Unfortunately, the Obama administration often appears to lack the requisite skepticism. Instead, it seems eager to involve the UN in a number of issues--such as disarmament, development, global warming, and human rights--in which the UN is particularly feckless or counterproductive. Looking to Congress to offset the toughness deficit is often just as frustrating. Lawmakers last year agreed to pay U.S. peacekeeping arrears to the UN with no reform strings attached. Hopefully, the new Congress will be more willing to learn from past experience: When pushing for UN reform, nothing speaks louder than Congress’ power of the purse . The UN record has some high points, but, overall, the disappointments outweigh them. But a holiday is a holiday, even if it’s not as thrilling as Halloween. Although, come to think of it, many of the people honored and offered the UN soapbox upon which to spout bizarre conspiracy theories and frightening threats are a lot scarier than the typical Halloween monster. So this Sunday, take a moment to realize the UN is doing a lot and—with the Administration’s blessings and your tax dollars—will likely be doing a lot more. And let’s hope for change, so that those resources won’t be squandered on activities that promote the interests of repressive regimes such as Iran or China or Cuba rather than freedom-loving peoples everywhere.

Brett Schaefer

Brett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation's Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives.