The history of the United States of America (USA) and the United Nations (UN) is long and complex. The United Nations owes a lot of what it is today to the US. It was the US that breathed life into the UN with its power and resources. However, contrary to popular myth, there never was a golden age in the relationship between them. It is not very surprising to see multilateralism in the UN under crisis, nor is the ambivalence of the USA towards it. This ambivalence has been there for a long time. Despite that, the UN does hold an important position in US foreign policy. Mostly when the UN and its agendas are in line with the future plans the US has for itself. To put this in theory, I am quoting the famous realist Morgenthau: “The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as a power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman’s thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil.” Realists believe that a hegemon like the United States leads the game f? or international organizations such as the United Nations. A great power does not follow rules set by others.
US Isolationism in Context
Before WWI, the US maintained a strict policy of isolationism, the practice of non-involvement with foreign affairs and foreign alliances. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 played an integral part in solidifying US isolationism because the doctrine deemed any European intrusion into the US’s sphere of influence an act of war. No European country dared to challenge the doctrine, allowing the US to remain isolated from Europe. Furthermore, the US maintained its strict isolationism into the start of WWI as President Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the US out of the war. The first change to the US isolationist policy did not occur until 1917, towards the end of WWI, during President Wilson’s second term when he asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. While there were a variety of factors that led to this decision, the most prominent were the Germans’ use of unrestricted submarine warfare that led to the sinking of the British-owned Lusitania steamship as well as the interception of the Zimmerman telegram, a secret message from Germany that offered full financial and military aid to Mexico to invade the US.
The League of Nations’ inability to enforce the Treaty of Versaille combined with Europe’s practice of making concessions to avoid conflict enabled Germany to rebuild its military with little international opposition. Germany’s Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, was emboldened by the belief that the West was so traumatized from WWI that they did not want to engage in new conflict. To push the limits of Europe’s appeasement, Hitler violated the Treaty of Versaille by remilitarizing the Rhineland, an area of West Germany that was mandated to be unoccupied after WWI. In the Pacific theater, Japan similarly strengthened its military and seized territory.
The US responded by implementing economic sanctions but took no military action. Despite more wars breaking out in Europe after Hitler invaded Poland and in the Pacific, after Japan invaded China, the US still attempted to remain relatively uninvolved due to strong isolationist and anti-war sentiment within the country. The desire not to go to war was so prominent that Japan even believed that the US would seek peace after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Had the US been more active in preventing international conflict early on, perhaps Germany and Japan may have not been as bold in their territorial expansion.
After WWII, a consensus formed that an international body with real authority was necessary to prevent further violence and large-scale conflict. Unlike the League of Nations, the United Nations received overwhelming support from the US; isolationism was no longer an option for the US after enduring two catastrophic world wars. After a total of 50 countries ratified the charter, the United Nations was officially established on October 24, 1945. Since then, the UN has provided a forum for diplomacy that helps mitigate international and domestic conflict.
The United Nations and The United States
The historical relationship between the US and the UN can be described as collaborative and mutually beneficial. Analyzing the UN’s global response to terrorism helps illustrate the benefits of collaboration between the US and the UN. In the post 9/11 era, the UN has helped the US in its fight against terrorism by promoting international cooperation to defeat organizations such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others.
The UN Security Council went on to require that all countries deny terrorists safe haven and financial support and to cooperate in bringing them to justice. By creating an international Counter-Terrorist Strategy, the UN globalized the counterterrorism effort to aid the US in its fight against terrorism. This collaboration on counter-terrorism is just one of many instances where the US and UN have worked together to solve a common international problem. The US cannot take on the world’s problems alone, nor does it have to. The UN has been a long-standing, reliable organization ready to aid the US in its international engagement.
The economic gain between the US and UN further exemplifies the mutually beneficial relationship. The UN receives roughly a fifth of its entire budget from the US, meaning without US support, it would be near impossible for the UN to maintain its current level of international peacekeeping. In return, American companies have received close to $10 billion in procurement contracts to support the UN in areas such as health services and cybersecurity. Furthermore, it is eight times more cost-effective for the US to fund UN peacekeeping efforts than to deploy US military forces. While at face value, it may appear as if the US carries a great financial burden for supporting the UN, the economic gains quickly demonstrate the importance and necessity of a strong US and UN relationship.
Despite being one of the biggest advocates for the United Nations, why has the United States of America been ambivalent towards it?
The US has long been a leader within the UN, serving as a permanent member of the Security Council. But the US has drastically changed the way America conducts its foreign policy, as well as its relationship with the UN by reducing funding and involvement for certain programs. The UN relies heavily on the US to effectively carry out its mission and a reduction in US funding negatively impacts programs that help refugees, ensure food security, and advance peacekeeping. The Trump administration has continued its attempts to reduce UN funding and involvement:
- The United States withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 2017. Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova stated that the move was a loss for multilateralism. The US withdrawal left a power vacuum allowing other countries to possibly push their agenda that is not necessarily in the US interest.
- The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees has stopped receiving contributions from the United States as of 2018. These funding cuts could have potentially prevented 140,000 people from receiving food aid and more than 70,000 people from having access to clean water.
- The World Health Organization(WHO) has lost all funding and connection to the United States after it withdrew in early 2020 during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This move eliminates the US’s strong influence over the WHO while depriving the organization of almost a billion dollars biennially.
To make matters worse, the US proposes future funding reductions in 2021. These funding cuts are detrimental to the United States’ reputation within the United Nations because they signal a slow US departure from the international organization.
The US has developed a “cherry-picking” approach, where it utilizes the United Nations as a tool when needed and sidelines the organization otherwise. While the U.S administration was reducing the budget of certain UN programs in 2018, it was also leading an effort within the organization to increase sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions would ban North Korean cargo ships from docking at almost all ports, attempting to completely shut down North Korea’s cargo shipment.
When talking about the US-UN relationship it is difficult to coin out, the US perception of the latter. As the self-declared guardian of international order, the US projects a certain view at times. Other times it is too busy aligning its foreign policy decisions with domestic agendas. Domestic politics makes foreign policy decisions very sticky for America.
It can be said that the smaller states, especially the third world view the United Nations, today, as an institute that can help them bring forward their case and upgrade their position in international society and help them against international forces over which they have no control. The Europeans, especially the large countries who were once colonial leaders, view the UN as a forum where they can enjoy the power and status they once had over the world.
As mentioned above, the United States has refused to be subject to the jurisdiction of international legal bodies like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and refrained from embracing key human rights regimes with the United Nations, despite its support for the international rule of law. President Clinton signed the Rome Statute for the ICC in 2000 but it has still not been ratified. Clinton did not submit it to US Senate for ratification because apparently, the court had to be assessed first. But as is evident from Helms’s speech, the US does not consider the UN competent enough to judge itself. In 2002, when President Bush came into office, he sent a note to the Secretary-General of the UN suspending the signature of the US and informed the Secretary-General that the US recognized no obligation toward the Rome Statute. President Obama has re-established a working relationship with the court, but there still has not been any ratification. We are yet to see if the great power will subject itself to the jurisdiction of the international criminal court.
Also, United States is one of the only two countries that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Child, and one of few that have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Similar to the ICC, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was signed by President Clinton but has not yet been ratified. The Bush administration backed out from this protocol claiming it to be fatally flawed.
Although the United States has not ratified the conventions, it has on many occasions, used a variety of unilateral sanctions and annual certification processes to punish nation-states that have not conformed to U.S. standards in areas like human rights and narcotics enforcement. The most controversial are extraterritorial sanctions like Helms-Burton that penalize foreigners doing business with what the United States considers rogue states.
The Reason Behind The Ambivalence
Hegemons like the United States create and finance international organizations like the United Nations to spread their ideas and values throughout the international system and to solidify their grasp on power. The realist focus on relative power explains why the United States has acted unilaterally at times. Some realists completely disregard the importance of international institutions and talk about the power of the state alone. However, it is the classical realist argument of the balance of power that can explain the US support for the UN. By being part of a multilateral system such as the UN, the US could prevent counterbalancing by projecting a benign intent towards the world. Stephen Walt and many other realists argue U.S. policy makers have demonstrated support for international institutions such as the UN, to show their satisfaction with the status quo and dampen other countries’ security fears, thus preventing the emergence of a counterbalancing coalition. Walt argues that “the United Nations and other international institutions help the United States exercise its power in a way that is less threatening and therefore more acceptable to others. Also, the USA over the years, from its civic culture and political mindset, has assumed a role of “reformist” of international order and “custodian” of peace and stability in the world.
What really makes it difficult for the United States to maintain multilateralism with the UN is its constitutional separation of powers that grants the executive and legislature joint control over foreign policy. This shared power often complicates domestic approval of multilateral commitments, particularly when the two branches are controlled by different parties. Because the ratification of treaties requires approval by at least two-thirds of the Senate, political minorities frequently block U.S. participation in proposed conventions. As the debates over the League of Nations in 1918–19 demonstrated, the separation of powers can complicate America’s assumption of multilateral commitments.
Long Term Consequences
While the US needs to prioritize its own interests, it must simultaneously be ready to accept trade-offs when dealing with allies because the US cannot effectively command the international stage alone. During the 2018 G-7 summit, Trump received criticism for his unilateral trade tariffs and failure to compromise. The constant dispute with allied countries not only diminishes US credibility but also creates doubt towards the US as a reliable diplomatic partner. International reputation is crucial to diplomacy, and pursuing unilateral foreign policy greatly hinders the US’s ability to maintain international peace and order in the long run.
A New Way Forward
International involvement is more important than ever for the United States, in part due to China’s growing influence. Britain recently dismissed the Trump administration’s security concerns and allowed the Chinese company Huawei to begin developing its 5G cellular network within the country. On top of China’s development of 5G, its Belt and Road initiative invests over a trillion dollars into more than 60 countries’ infrastructure. China’s rapid expansion and investment into the international community pose a direct threat to the US’s international influence. As China expands its international involvement while the US decreases theirs, countries may begin questioning the reliability of the United States as an economic or even military ally.
However, there is still time to reverse this dangerous course. Despite the recent string of budget cuts, the US remains a prominent world leader with enormous international influence because it provides more foreign aid than any other country and alone funds 22% of the 2020 UN budget. Should the US continue to further withdraw from the United Nations, it will send a clear message of isolationism to US allies and adversaries. To ensure long-term peace and American dominance of the international order, the United States ought to reaffirm its role as a world leader by restoring funding and rejoining organizations such as UNESCO and WHO. More importantly, the US needs to demonstrate its commitment to its international partners and the United Nations by accepting globalism and taking part in multilateralism.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, as the US progressively expanded its power relative to every other state, it treated multilateral institutes with deliberate constraints. At various moments in the late twentieth century when the US saw little use for the UN, it faced precarious moments. Today the survival of the UN may not be in doubt, but its existence is in a crippled state. Regardless of our wishful thinking of a world of cooperation and creation of a body of global governance, multilateralism, as defined by Ruggie, requires that states sacrifice substantial levels of flexibility in decision making and resist short-term temptations in favor of long-term benefits.
Undermining the UN would make it somewhat easier for the US to pursue unilateral foreign policy and act alone when it feels the need to. It is somewhat unrealistic to expect the US to not prioritize self-interest and conform to pure multilateralism. What’s However as Ian has mentioned, multilateralism and institutionalism are unlikely to totally disappear from US foreign policy. The ambivalent attitude of the US towards the UN reflects the unstable nature of the institutional bargain but the relationship is more enduring than it seems. The UN after all is the epitome of the values and principles the United States of America embodies and envisions for the world. The UN has been a good place for the US to exercise and extend its substantial reservoir of ‘soft power. The UN’s value to the US and the constraints it imposes is a by-product of the organization’s role in cultivating and implementing norms through a discursive process that the US has had a major role in shaping.
Written by: Zaara Zain Hussain for RSIS Nanyang Technological University, and Paris Nguyen, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow.