Our modest UN contribution has yielded a strong return

At a time when our nation is balancing competing priorities, reducing federal spending and strengthening U.S. global leadership, it is worth highlighting a modest investment that has yielded strong returns for our nation — our contributions to the United Nations.

While many of my colleagues have adopted an almost knee-jerk reaction against the U.N., I stand with 85 percent of Americans who, across party lines, believe the U.S. should maintain an active role in the world’s preeminent international organization. And I stand with 60 percent who favor paying our yearly dues to the U.N. in full and on time. That is why, in a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee markup of the FY 2012 Foreign Relations Authorization Act, I voted against an amendment that would reduce our contribution to international organizations by 25 percent and for amendments that would increase our contributions to international peacekeeping activities and lift arbitrary caps on U.S. peacekeeping operations. America cannot retreat from its global responsibilities. 

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From terrorism to the threat of pandemics, the United States faces challenges that are beyond the power and financial means for any single nation, no matter how powerful, to address alone. Our contributions to the U.N. enhance our national security and our foreign policy priorities, save dollars while growing jobs and our economy and strengthen our leadership in the international community. 

The U.S. created the U.N., and we have a long history of using it to successfully promote our national security interests. With a veto-wielding permanent seat on the Security Council, we have been able to implement arms embargoes in Iran, halt the travel and freeze the assets of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and promote democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the rest of the world pays almost 80 percent of the bill for critical U.N. political missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. These missions are aimed toward stabilizing those countries so U.S. troops can come home. 

Our leadership at the U.N. also has allowed us to defend Israel. The Israeli government has repeatedly indicated that it wants the U.S. to remain fully engaged at the U.N. to fight anti-Israel sentiment. At the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, for which U.S. engagement has made a significant positive difference, withdrawing funding will mean ceding ground to states willing to make investments to undermine Israel and a stronger human-rights system. Finally, America’s ability to get other members of the Security Council to impose tough new sanctions on Iran — a key foreign policy objective we share with Israel — will be damaged if we fail to meet our payment obligations.

But in a sluggish economy, it is important to know that we are getting a bang for our buck. To put it in perspective, our contribution to the U.N. budget — which covers immunizing children from infectious diseases, halting the spread of such pandemics as swine flu and SARS and deploying peacekeeping missions around the world — is less than $2.7 billion per year. Compared to the $100 billion per year we are sinking into the war in Afghanistan, it is a great value. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, U.N. peacekeeping — in which other countries carry the burden of providing troops — is eight times less expensive than fielding a comparative U.S. force.

Our relationship with the U.N. not only saves us money, it in fact makes money and provides jobs. For every dollar we give to the U.N. secretariat, we get $1.50 back. The United States won all but two contracts for the renovation of U.N. headquarters, as well as obtaining the second-most contracts of all bidding nations for goods and services rendered in peacekeeping operations. 

In congressional districts across the country, American jobs are being created and companies are benefiting from our relationship with the U.N. In my own district, Skytel, a company that produces microcomputers, was awarded a contract with the U.N. If Congress decides not to pay U.N. dues and we go into arrears, we won’t continue to win these valuable contracts, and it will hurt our economy and job growth.

As a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, I have over many years observed the benefits of paying our dues — and the consequences of being delinquent. The U.N. is like most large and complex organizations: It requires a constant need for vigilance and oversight to ensure that funds are spent efficiently and effectively, and that its mandated tasks are successfully fulfilled. Yet, we also need to acknowledge the great improvements that have occurred because of U.S. influence and leadership. The U.S. led the way on the revitalization of the U.N. Ethics Office now headed by a respected American, the increase in whistleblower protections, the promotion of government transparency and the enforcement of budget discipline. I can tell you that the money and resources we put into the U.N. system do more to bolster effective reforms than if we disengage and withhold dollars. 

Even former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a sharp critic of the U.N., acknowledged that “American leadership is critical to the success of the U.N., an effective U.N., one that is true to the original intent of its charter’s framers.” But we have painfully learned that our leadership wanes when we try to extort with the power of our purse rather than exhort with the force of our bully pulpit.

There is no place for insipid and juvenile amendments to deny aid to countries that vote against us in the U.N. Only diplomatic engagement, not bullying threats, will guarantee positive outcomes, just as it has for 60 years. 

As my colleagues determine our contribution to the U.N., it is critical to remember what we get in return for our dollars — a focus on our strategic interests, burden-sharing in maintaining global security and an infusion of investment into our economy.

Connolly is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.