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Ex-George W. Bush Official Doubts Trump's U.N. Financial Strategy


What is President Trump's administration really doing to the United Nations? Maybe a bit less than it seems. Over the weekend, the administration claimed credit for cutting the United Nations budget. In reality, it appears to be a routine tightening of the belt that was agreed upon by many nations. But the U.S. has been critical of the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was unhappy the other day when the world body disagreed with the U.S. move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.


NIKKI HALEY: What we witnessed here today in the Security Council is an insult. It won't be forgotten. It's one more example of the United Nations doing more harm than good in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

INSKEEP: Haley said the U.S. was taking names. Mark Lagon is with us now. He served for more than six years as a political appointee of the George W. Bush administration at the State Department. He worked on U.N. issues. Ambassador, good morning.

MARK LAGON: Pleasure to be with you.

INSKEEP: How does this administration's approach to the U.N. compare with other presidents?

LAGON: Well, it repeats themes about value for money and how Israel is singled out at the U.N. that earlier administrations have focused on, but much more acutely so. There's more bombastic language. And threatening other countries of cutting their foreign aid, not just cutting the U.N., is a bit different.

INSKEEP: Do you see that as merely bombast, as something that the U.S. would never actually do?

LAGON: Well, I think this is a unique administration, and it may do more, but it's important as the United States asks about value for money and whether it has enough voice and whether bad actors have a bigger voice, whether it's actually shooting itself in the foot if it isolates itself.

INSKEEP: Well, OK. Let's ask about that value for money. Does the United States get value for its money? Because we do spend billions supporting the United Nations, specifically.

LAGON: Well, there are problems with some U.N. bodies. You know, some work better than others. The World Food Program feeds the hungry much better than the Food and Agricultural Organization, and the U.S. has more leverage there. In the U.N., there is a lot of criticism of Israel. That's a singular focus of this administration. But the U.S. has a veto in the U.N. Security Council. Nikki Haley used it to block the Security Council criticism of the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem. So there is a value.

INSKEEP: So you're pointing out that even though Nikki Haley sounded angry and expressed the anger of the United States, the United Nations didn't actually do anything in the end to the United States because the U.S. was able to block it?

LAGON: Well, you know, it's sort of like the movie "Casablanca," you know, to say I'm shocked, shocked, that there's criticism of the United States and Israel and the U.N. It's not exactly news.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

LAGON: But it's worth thinking where the United States gets value. The U.S. spends a lot of money and properly so on defense around the world, but the U.N. helps share the burden by paying for peacekeeping missions all over the world so the United States doesn't have to shoulder it alone.

INSKEEP: That sounds good, but let me just ask you if this world body still makes sense. I just want to remember, for those who may not, that this organization was founded by the alliance that won World War II. It was seen as a way to make permanent that alliance that was going to dominate the world, and it was going to be led by the United States and it made New York into the capital of the world, in a sense. That was the idea in 1945 in that period. Does the United Nations as constructed still make sense in the world as it has evolved today?

LAGON: Well, one of the fundamental problems is it gives equal voice to countries that are dictatorships or have strongmen, and that was true from the very beginning with Stalin being giving a permanent veto in the Security Council. But it's kind of rich from this administration where Haley's bosses, Trump and Tillerson, celebrate strongmen in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Philippines. So them having a voice is not a surprise. The question is value for money. And places where the United States can use leverage of voluntary funding or get a good burden-sharing makes sense. You know, take an example. The World Health Organization has a lot of its funding from dues, and the United States has less of a voice. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, it's focused on particular epidemics. The U.S. has lots of leverage, and it gets other countries demonstrably to share the burden.

INSKEEP: So when the United States puts up some money and gets other people to work with it, it actually has a huge voice at the United Nations?

LAGON: It can. And the Global Fund is an example of an organization outside of the U.N. Should look at other options, but the United States might well be shooting itself in the foot. United States didn't go on the U.N. Human Rights Council in the late Bush administration, but under Obama in six years there, the number of resolutions on Israel went down from 60 percent to 40 percent to 20 percent of the resolutions.

INSKEEP: OK. So you can make a difference if you're there, you're saying.

LAGON: Maybe being inside is better.

INSKEEP: Mark Lagon. Ambassador, thank you very much.

LAGON: You bet. Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.