“If President Donald Trump signs the order and its provisions are carried out, the cuts could severely curtail the work of UN agencies, which rely on billions of dollars in annual US contributions for missions that include caring for refugees” (US May Cut UN Funding, Leave Global Treaties, The Straits Times).
Drafts of executive orders by the Trump administration which would “drastically cut funding to the United Nations (UN) and other international organisations” (ST, Jan. 27) will be applauded by many sceptics, who view the inter-government organisation as toothless and ineffective. They point to the destruction of Aleppo in Syria, the ongoing bombings and civil war in Yemen, and the less-than-ideal response to refugees and asylum-seekers, and consequently fault the UN for not doing more. The imminent orders from President Donald Trump, in this vein, rightly punishes an anachronistic organisation which has – to some extent – revealed the limits of multilateral cooperation.
No doubt the UN bears some responsibility for these failures, yet in the bigger picture – besides the convenient quip that it has, thus far, prevented a Third World War – it has had more successes. The UN Charter, as the organisation’s foundational treaty, laid out four main objectives for the organisation: to maintain peace and security, to preserve human rights, to maintain friendly relations between countries, and to promote socio-economic progress. Arguably, while achieving the first objective has been problematic because of the structural limitations of the Security Council, the organisation has had more success with the other three objectives.
For instance, the UN offers its 193 members a democratic platform, especially through the General Assembly and a “one state, one vote” structure, to pass resolutions. This inter-government organisation has therefore achieved much by allowing nations to realise collective interests through agenda-setting. The Millennium Development Goals in 2000 started with eight goals and 21 targets. 15 years later, the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 followed with 17 goals and 169 targets. Both endeavours not only involved all members, but also galvanised them to bring about progressive changes. And the results reflect this progress. In developing countries, in particular: extreme poverty rate decreased from 47 to 14 per cent (1990 to 2015), primary school enrolment rate increased from 83 to 91 per cent (2000 to 2015), and under-five morality decreased to six million in 2015.
Few will disagree that reforms are needed for further progress to be made. Amidst the political action in the West – the election of Mr. Trump reflecting general discontentment, and perhaps even disillusionment with organisations like the UN – new Secretary-General António Guterres took office at the start of 2017, promising organisational changes and a more proactive approach to problems around the world. And he has a strong track record to back this rhetoric up. So instead of leading an American withdrawal from the get-go, it would make more constructive sense to weigh the negatives against the positives, to improve and enhance the status quo.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.