Trump’s pernicious attempt to starve the UN of cash could yet backfire

Thanks to ‘America First’, the UN’s annual budget is down. But Palestinians and the United Nations itself could benefit in the longer term.

Just ahead of the announcement by the UN that its annual budget is to be cut by 5%, at a time of almost unprecedented global humanitarian need and increasingly bitter and intractable conflicts, the Donald Trump administration revealed that the slash in spending was almost entirely down to its decision to hold back on some $285m in contributions. This is a Trumpian Christmas present, announced as collective punishment for the member states who voted against his incendiary decision to recognise Jerusalem as the “capital of Israel”.

The US announcement may at least save its UN ambassador Nikki Haley from the painful and somewhat lengthy task she had set herself of “taking the names” of the countries who voted to uphold innumerable international agreements over the final status of the city. The easier option might have been to simply send Trump the list of nine assorted Central American kleptocracies and quasi-dependent territory Pacific island states who fell in line behind the White House (and who will now no doubt be expecting special largesse).

The US cuts to its contribution to the UN budget were not, however, unexpected. Earlier this year, for instance, the US was pushing for specific cuts for spending on UN work connected to the occupied Palestinian territories. At the same time, Trump was claiming to still support the “two-state solution” for Israel and Palestine.

The cuts could have been even more savage, had it not been for the work that secretary general Antonio Guterres set himself in both reforming the organisation and reaching an understanding with the ambitious Haley, whose pronouncements seem designed for a domestic audience and frequently disregard even America’s closest allies. Yet the message from these budget cuts is very clear, and Trump’s effortless prose confirmed it when he told a cabinet meeting: “Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

It may well be that other member states, such as China, Germany, India and others, further increase their contributions in order to fill the gap. It is entirely possible that the current atmosphere of threat and menace may begin to revive demands by some member states for the UN to consider moving its headquarters from New York to Geneva or Nairobi. And it is to be hoped that American support for the UN – which is far more widespread than many commentators would have you believe – will be strengthened by the desire to kick back against a dystopian Trump view of the world that risks leaving the US isolated and friendless.

Ironically and quite unintentionally, recent events seem likely to lead to a rapid increase in the number of countries ready to recognise Palestine diplomatically and push to accord it full membership of the United Nations. And with the Middle East peace process currently moribund, those who believe that a two-state solution is dying will likely be encouraged. Indeed, that doesn’t offer the long-term solution that could be provided by a secular, democratic, one-state Israel/Palestine where the rights of Jews, Muslims, Christian and none of the above could be guaranteed by international statute. The alternative of unceasing, unending conflict and regional insecurity is what the UN came into existence to discourage and prevent.

The stark truth is that the world now needs a policy of “UN First”, just as it lives in hope of the USA becoming active and engaged again.