Editor’s note: This analysis is part of Security Clearance blog’s “Debate Preps” series. On November 22, CNN, along with AEI and The Heritage Foundation, will host a Republican candidate debate focused on national security topics. In the run-up to the debate, Security Clearance asked both the sponsoring conservative think tanks to look at the key foreign policy issues and tell us what they want to hear candidates address.
The U.S. is far and away the major financial backer of the United Nations. Yet the world body often embraces resolutions and policies at odds with American positions and interests. Should the U.S. exercise its “power of the purse” to influence the U.N.?
On occasion, the U.S. has done just that, withholding contributions to express its extreme displeasure with actions taken in Turtle Bay. But the Obama administration rejected this tactic early on. Instead, in his first address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama proudly announced a “new era of engagement” with the U.N. President Obama’s Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, likewise considers withholding to be a practice that is “fundamentally flawed in concept and practice, sets us back, is self-defeating, and doesn’t work.”
So how’s that working? The Palestinian Authority’s recent doings in Turtle Bay are instructive.
In September, the PA applied to become a member state of the UN. This violates its commitment, under the 1993 Oslo agreement, to seek statehood through negotiations with Israel.
The Obama administration resignedly vowed to veto the membership bid in the Security Council. And it now looks like that won’t be necessary. The PA is projected to fall short of the nine votes needed to pass a Security Council resolution.
But the U.N. isn’t the only game in town. There are roughly 17 other specialized agencies and organizations, broadly considered part of the U.N. system, that operate essentially autonomously. They have their own membership procedures, and the U.S. has no veto powers in these bodies.
Pending the Security Council’s decision on their U.N. membership request, the PA announced it would seek membership in one of these organizations: the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). On Oct. 31, UNESCO’s General Conference officially approved Palestinian membership with a vote of 107 in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstentions.
Elated by their success, the Palestinians immediately announced that they would seek membership in 16 other U.N. organizations. Then, suddenly, things changed.
On Nov. 3, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas instructed his representatives not to apply for membership in any other U.N. agencies stating, “Our official position is to only focus at the time being on our bid to win full membership in the UN. All other memberships will come automatically after that.” He characterized the UNESCO bid as unique because the Palestinians had sought UNESCO membership 22 years ago. He did not explain why they were not seeking membership in the World Health Organization, in which the PLO had sought membership in 1989 along with UNESCO.
What could have caused this 180 degree turn?
One significant event occurred during the intervening period. The Obama administration announced that it would act in accordance with U.S. law, which prohibits U.S. funding for any U.N. organization that grants the Palestinians full membership, and withhold all U.S. funding for UNESCO. The U.S. kicks in 22 percent of UNESCO’s assessed budget.
The announcement came as a shock to many U.N. member states. In the lead up to the UNESCO vote, U.S. officials had been ambiguous and unclear about the consequences of admitting the Palestinians as a member. Even after the vote, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated that the U.S. “will maintain its membership and commitment to UNESCO.”
Considering such statements and the administration’s previous unconditional pledges of paying UN assessments in full, is it any wonder that the UNESCO members weren’t much concerned about the U.S. reaction to granting membership to the Palestinians?
That changed once it became clear that the Obama administration could not circumvent the law and there was little appetite in Congress to change it.
Following the U.S. announcement that it would withhold contributions to UNESCO, Secretary-General Ban, who had previously called the Palestinian membership bid “understandable,” warned that piecemeal efforts by the Palestinians to join agencies of the world body were “not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody.” He specifically expressed concern that the loss of American financial support would adversely affect “millions and millions of people.”
And, faced with the now very real prospect of losing U.S. contributions—in some cases over a quarter of their funding—by admitting the Palestinians, the more responsible UN leaders and member states quickly lost enthusiasm for Palestinian membership.
As President Obama noted, admitting the Palestinians would undermine U.S. and Israeli interests and gravely damage the long-term prospects for a negotiated Israeli–Palestinian peace.
The Palestinian membership experience is just the latest example of money talking louder than diplomacy at the U.N. The threat of U.S. financial withholding is a useful, often critical, tool in advancing U.S. priorities in Turtle Bay. Like any tool, it is not suited to every task. But the next President of the United States should not be shy about using it when appropriate.
Brett Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs. James Phillips is Heritage’s Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs.