International Organizations

By Kristen Silverberg & Brian Hook

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. government built a liberal international order resting upon U.S. economic power, military superiority, and nascent international institutions. A new constellation of international organizations was meant to tie the postwar world to rules and standards around trade and security. As foreign policy conservatives, we tend to focus our efforts on threats to U.S. economic and military predominance but devote comparatively little energy to decay or dysfunction in international institutions. Yet international organizations require attention along with elements of national power.

While the U.S. government should preserve diplomatic flexibility by working outside the current institutional framework when necessary, U.S. leadership at international organizations can reinforce support for open markets, the rule of law, international security, and effective humanitarian aid. Moreover, the negative outcomes that would result from our absence should be neither overlooked nor underestimated. In many cases, the absence of U.S. leadership enables our competitors to use international organizations to frustrate critical U.S. interests.

International organizations, particularly those clustered in and around the United Nations, encompass a vast range of institutions, each of which poses its own set of challenges. As an example, the on-going crisis in Syria highlights both the best and the worst of the UN. On the one hand, the Security Council’s atrocious failure to take action in Syria helped enable a humanitarian catastrophe, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF provided critical humanitarian relief. At the risk of overgeneralizing, we propose a set of principles the next Administration can use to maximize its effectiveness at multilateral organizations, and thereby avoid some of the major failings of its predecessor.

President Obama campaigned on a commitment to “personally lead a new chapter of American engagement” with international institutions, favoring work through formal institutions rather than the coalitions of the willing sometimes favored by the Bush Administration. [81] Indeed, the President won the Nobel Prize in part based on the Committee’s view that “multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.”[82]

IIn fact, the Obama Administration will leave office with an uninspiring record with regard to international institutions. In addition to the Security Council’s bleak record on Syria, which enabled a devastating death toll and the worst refugee crisis in recent history, the Council’s sanctions process on Iran collapsed after 2010, leaving both the Administration and Iran to conclude that sanctions were running out of steam. The Administration lost key votes on Palestinian membership in UNESCO. It acquiesced to Venezuela’s election to the Security Council. The World Food Program cut back on rations because of a lack of adequate aid.

Faced with this inheritance, the next President may be reluctant to invest energy wading into the multilateral morass, which can wear down even the most persistent policymaker. But with some stronger leadership, international organizations can be a valuable tool for advancing American interests. As a first step, we must reorient U.S. priorities.

The State Department too often prioritizes what international organizations say over what they do, playing into the hands of those countries who prefer multilateral “talk shops”—forums for diplomats to endlessly debate issues with no expectation of effectively addressing them. The State Department, for example, devotes significant effort working on political statements by the UN. In 2009, President Obama took the unprecedented step of chairing a UN Security Council session and used the opportunity to pass a non-binding thematic resolution on nuclear abolition (leaving French President Sarkozy to point out that the session could have been used to do something about actual cases of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran).

Generally, the State Department defaults to political statements from the UN because they are easier and more straightforward than the painstaking work of overseeing the operational and technical side of UN programs. In addition, for some Administrations, particularly on the Left, UN political statements can serve a strategic purpose by building a case for a “customary international law” standard that does not enjoy support domestically.

Political statements from the UN can serve a legitimate purpose—for example, by calling attention to human rights abuses—and we do not suggest abandoning them altogether. But the core value of international organizations to the U.S. government typically lies in their ability to take concrete action. That is why despite the telegenic qualities of the General Assembly and the Security Council, what goes on (or fails to go on) in the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Program, UNICEF, and the many other functional organizations in the UN orbit can be far more important to U.S. interests. To take obvious examples, the IAEA’s capacity to monitor suspect Iranian nuclear sites or UNHCR’s capacity to aid Syrian refugees will be more important than any statement the General Assembly has made in recent years.

The absence of attention to operational issues, meanwhile, creates an opportunity for catastrophic failure. There’s no better example than the aforementioned World Health Organization, whose lackluster response to the Ebola crisis revealed an international health system lacking plans and capabilities to fight global pandemics. The crisis exposed a range of issues: a WHO director-general with insufficient authority and power, failures in the management of the WHO’s Africa regional office; and an array of disparate programs within the WHO diverting time and attention away from epidemic diseases.

As one of us proposed in a Wall Street Journal column, it is time to consider a new organization with a narrower mission and a clearer chain of command that integrates NGOs, foundations, and the private sector into emergency operations.[83] These are the players who increasingly answer the call and lead transformations in global health, eclipsing the WHO and its model of statist solutions. The next President should lead efforts to create a new international medical organization outside of the UN system to control the spread of deadly viruses in developing areas before they reach major population centers. Whatever the fix, it will require hands-on attention to organizational issues.

There is no reason to limit the conception of new, trans-UN functional organizations to medical issues. Many sub-optimally performing UN organizations could use either the prospect or the reality of competition to impel them to up their game. The U.S. government should take functional transgovernmental needs seriously in the 21st century, so if the UN system cannot meet the challenges, we owe it to ourselves and others to devise alternatives that can.

Part of effective leadership on these issues by the U.S. government requires personnel appointments with expertise and focus on the details of UN organization and management. A cabinet-level UN Perm Rep who spends his or her time on the Sunday shows may not be the best person to manage a serious approach to the United Nations. We prefer a sub-cabinet official who focuses on the mechanics of negotiating Security Council resolutions, reviewing UN budgets, pressing the UN on operations and mandates, and demanding transparent and ethical administration of programs.

As a corollary to pivoting State Department attention toward operational issues, the next Administration must also turn the UN’s attention away from developments in New York and toward the field. Personnel now accounts for 70 percent of UN spending, and there is a major expansion project under way to make room for new staff in New York. This is wrongheaded; there are more than enough international sinecures at Turtle Bay already. The U.S. government should instead reinvigorate efforts to move UN functions, especially those related to peacekeeping, from New York to Africa, where most operational activities take place. 

The Obama Administration will leave office with an uninspiring record with regard to international institutions.

 Although our affirmative agenda at the UN should focus more attention on operational issues, it will, of course, be important to continue to work to defeat irresponsible political statements by UN bodies, including by more effectively discouraging reckless voting by U.S. partners and allies. From a country like Venezuela or Iran—in other words, one whose current regime actively opposes U.S. interests and values—irresponsible voting behavior is unsurprising. But as often as not, putative partners or even formal allies oppose the U.S. agenda at the United Nations. For more than two decades, the U.S. government faced an annual General Assembly resolution condemning the Cuba embargo; we were frequently joined only by Israel in opposition. Last year, Jordan, a close ally, forced a diplomatically awkward U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution on Israeli-Palestinian issues. As of 2013, the only major recipient of U.S. foreign assistance that consistently voted with the United States in the UN General Assembly was Israel; each of the other top ten recipients aligned with the U.S. position less than half of the time. Egypt votes with the United States just one out of every four votes; Haiti votes with us only 14 percent of the time.

Indeed, some countries use opposition to U.S. policy in New York or Geneva to preserve “street cred” in their region, even as they work more actively to build closer bilateral ties. There is a school of thought at the State Department that we can forgive a certain amount of hypocrisy with a “wink and nod.” This is generally speaking not a good idea. Bad statements can condone or even lead to bad behavior, and U.S. officials should not act as diplomatic sadists when it comes to their own country’s principles and interests.

One obvious response is to make a country’s behavior at international organizations a more significant factor in our bilateral relationship. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick floated a proposal many years ago to formally tie foreign aid to UN voting patterns, but even short of that step, we could hold states accountable by making clear that the bilateral relationship will depend in part on responsible voting at international organizations.

As part of this effort, the next Administration will also need to tackle the role of regional groups at the UN, which work to undermine the influence of the U.S. delegation through control of the distribution of UN leadership positions. Regional groups frequently dole out positions by nominating a single candidate based on a rotation system, which means that states have a strong interest in keeping members of the region happy, but that guarantees that seats will be filled frequently by some of the world’s worst actors. As part of an effort to address the influence of regional groups, the U.S. government in the next Administration should consistently resist efforts to nominate unqualified countries as consensus candidates, including by recruiting countries to compete for election.

Like its predecessors, the next Administration will face growing demands from rising powers for a larger voice in international institutions, particularly with respect to global economic governance. While the U.S. government has agreed to accommodate changes in key institutions—the G-20 for example—Congress, led by Republicans, has so far opposed IMF quota reform. We support modest quota reform to shift voting power by 6 percentage points from developed and overrepresented oil producers to emerging economies. The change would not increase total U.S. financial commitments to the IMF and would reserve the U.S. veto over major policy decisions. Although the U.S. position is frequently at odds with the major emerging economies at the IMF, we have an interest in keeping them at the table, rather than fueling support for more aggressive revisionist approaches to economic governance.

Security Council reform, however, is a different issue with different policy requirements. Any U.S. President, including the staunchest UN critic, will find himself turning to the Security Council in cases of crisis, as the active agenda of the George W. Bush Administration in the Council illustrates. A UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) facilitates participation by allies and can help diplomatically isolate U.S. opponents. For Europe, especially, a UNSCR provides legal and political cover. In 2010, relatively bland language in a UNSCR on Iran was interpreted by the European Union as laying the groundwork for far-reaching oil and gas-related sanctions, with dramatic consequences for the Iranian budget and economy. It is vitally important for the next President to make clear that, although he will not allow the Council to hold U.S. security concerns hostage, he will engage it seriously.

The next President should lead efforts to create a new international medical organization outside of the UN system to control the spread of deadly viruses in developing areas before they reach major population centers.

There, too large an expansion, and especially one that includes “spoilers,” could render the Council even less likely to take concrete and effective action. The U.S. government has previously endorsed both Japan and India for membership, and we recommend maintaining support for both, but the next President should make clear that any expansion will have to be small to avoid undermining the ability of the Council to act, and that new permanent members should not have the veto. The U.S. position should also emphasize that additional candidates for permanent membership will be considered on the basis of specific criteria, rather than on any notion of regional distribution. Principles could include a commitment to human rights and the rule of law as enshrined in the UN’s own principles, a demonstrated willingness to abide by international obligations, and a record of shouldering responsibility for international peace and security, including through UN contributions and peacekeeping missions. In particular, any permanent members (including existing members) should be prepared to contribute at least 5 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget.

Speaking of money, one persistent problem in some international organizations is the role of “free rider” states that benefit from the organization’s work but without investing in its success. This is part of the reason why organizations with less inclusive membership—where countries earn the right to join—tend to be stronger than universal bodies. It is also why organizations funded by voluntary assessments are, as a general matter, better run than organizations funded by mandatory assessment. Competition makes voluntarily-funded organizations more responsive and effective. Moreover, the states controlling the governing board of a voluntarily funded organization are the ones who have a stake in its success. No investment, no sense of ownership or responsibility; whoever first observed that no one ever washes a rental car got the essence of the point just right.

There’s no better example of the free rider problem than the UN General Assembly budget. The General Assembly operates by one country, one vote, though dues are assessed according to a formula based in part on gross national income. As a result, the 176 member states who contribute less than 20 percent of the budget can easily pass a decision over the objections of the seventeen member states who contribute 80 percent. Moreover, in 1998, the minimum assessment for countries was reduced from 0.01 percent of the regular budget to 0.001, meaning that this year 20 of the poorest countries will be assessed only $37,000, giving them little incentive to scrutinize the UN budget. The result is, not surprisingly, that UN members easily pass new mandates, so that the budget has almost doubled over the past dozen years.

We support proposals by Brett Schafer of the Heritage Foundation to revisit the UN scale of assessments, including by adopting a super majority requirement for budgetary decisions and by imposing a minimum assessment for permanent and non-permanent Security Council members.[84]

Whatever success the next Administration has in advancing a well-run and transparent United Nations, the U.S.-UN relationship will never succeed so long as one of our closest allies, Israel, is the frequent target of UN animus. Every U.S. Perm Rep has been engaged in working to defeat anti-Israel initiatives, though the U.S. government has lost moral clarity on the issue since Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan stood before the General Assembly to declare the “Zionism is Racism” resolution “a political lie of a variety well known to the 20th century and scarcely exceeded in all that annal of untruth and outrage.”[85] Indeed, current tensions between the U.S. and Israel may invite a climate in New York and Geneva that is even more hostile to Israel.

For one, the Obama Administration failed to engage to prevent the election of the Palestinian Territories to UNESCO, forcing a U.S. decision to withhold dues. As disturbingly, the Administration has threatened to engage on a French proposal to table a Security Council resolution on a two-state solution. At the time of writing, the exact French proposal is unclear, but the French are likely to revive elements of a failed 2014 resolution that called for the completion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations within a year, and for Israeli withdrawal from (undefined) Palestinian territories by 2017. The resolution endorsed Jerusalem as the capital of both states, thus prejudging that sensitive issue and perhaps ruling out more workable solutions. 

If this proposal is still alive, the incoming Administration should make clear that any initiative along these lines would draw a U.S. veto, consistent with decades of policy under Republican and Democratic Administrations, which has maintained that resolution to the conflict should come about through negotiations between the parties themselves. 

The U.S. government should instead reinvigorate efforts to move UN functions, especially those related to peacekeeping, from New York to Africa where most operational activities take place.  

In addition, the new Administration should consider whether to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). We should consult the Israelis on this, but our sense is that formal participation in the HRC legitimizes a deeply problematic organization without sufficient benefit to the cause of advancing human rights. We would favor the next Administration withdrawing until the body adopts reforms, including stronger criteria for membership (or perhaps a commitment by regions to have competitive races for each seat); credible action on pressing human rights issues; and evenhandedness on Israel. 

Finally, as part of signaling its intention to adopt a different approach than the Obama Administration, the next President should put serious diplomatic support behind, and ask the Europeans to support, Israel’s candidacy for a 2018 non-permanent Security Council seat.

(81) Speech at Depaul University, October 2, 2007.


(83) Brian Hook, “The U.N. Agency That Bungled Ebola,” Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2014.

(84) Brett Schafer, “The U.S. Should Push for Fundamental Changes to the United Nations Scale of Assessments,” Heritage Foundation (June 11, 2015).

(85) Speech to the United Nations General Assembly by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, November 10, 1975.