The US and the UN: Time to go, or time for a timeout?

Last month, hours before the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Ambassador Nikki Haley said: “I’ve often wondered why, in the face of such hostility, Israel has chosen to remain a member of this body.” An interesting question. But a better question would have been: Why has the United States chosen to remain a member of that body?

It is easy to understand why the United States joined originally. The UN emerged from the World War II alliance formed to combat the Axis Powers.  On January 1, 1942, three weeks after Pearl Harbor, the United States and 25 other nations signed the “Declaration of the United Nations,” pledging to commit their full military and economic resources to defeat Germany and Japan.  During the war, 20 additional countries signed the Declaration. These 46 countries were invited to attend the San Francisco Conference in 1945, which formally established the organization.

We are now three generations removed from that genesis. During those years, the UN has metamorphosed from its original mission as a bulwark against dictatorships to a safe harbor for them. According to Freedom House, only 45% of the members of the General Assembly are full-fledged democracies. The rest range from repressive authoritarian regimes such as Russia, Iran, and China, to full blown prison camps like North Korea.

If the United States were not already a member, would it make sense for it to join the UN in its present form? To answer requires asking whether it would make sense for the United States to join an organization in which:

  • The United States pays several multiples of what all other members pay.
  • The organization’s bureaucracy is so sclerotic that hiring key employees takes as long as a year.
  • The organization’s “peacekeeping” forces are notorious for engaging in rampant sexual assault and rape, and spreading disease, rather than keeping the peace.
  • The organization’s “human rights” body is dominated by regimes which suppress human rights.
  • The overwhelming majority of the organization’s resolutions focus on condemning a single member, a member which happens to be one of the United States’ closest allies.

These are not rhetorical questions. They are meant to be taken literally – because each question describes the current state of the UN literally.

If it were not already a member, would the United States join an organization in which it is expected to pay far more than its share? In 2016, it contributed over $8 billion to the UN. Of that sum, $3.024 billion went to the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets; the rest went to the UN’s affiliated budgets. China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom — the other four permanent members of the Security Council – contribute a total of $2.523 billion. The United States, in short, contributes more than three times as much as all the other permanent Security Council members combined.

Looking at the UN membership at large, the disparity is far more graphic. The United States contributes more to the UN’s regular budget than 176 other members combined. We contribute more to the UN’s peacekeeping budget than 185 other members combined.

Granted, many of those members are poor countries. But the 56 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which includes 10 of the world’s top 20 oil producing nations, contribute a combined total of $360 million—less than five percent of our total contribution. In return for the United States contributing 20 times as much, these nations consistently vote against us.

If it were not already a member, would the United States join an organization in which its contributions were used to support a sclerotic bureaucracy? According to Anthony Banbury, a former Assistant Secretary General for Field Support, the organization takes up to a year to hire personnel needed in emergency situations. On the other hand, once hired, it is virtually impossible, “short of a serious crime,” to fire incompetent officials.

If it were not already a member, would the United States join an organization whose “peacekeeping” forces have been ineffective or worse? In 2013, Banbury notes, the UN sent 10,000 untrained soldiers to Mali to deal with a terrorist threat. They spent more than 80 percent of their resources on logistics and self-protection. Peacekeepers sent to South Sudan ran away at the first sign of trouble, leaving aid workers, many of them American, to be raped and assaulted.  At least those ineffectual contingents did no harm to the locals. That is more than can be said for the UN peacekeepers sent to Central African Republic in 2014, who engaged in a campaign of widespread abuse, raping over 100 women, girls, and boys.

The UN peacekeepers sent to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake caused even more harm. Their camp’s sanitation facilities were so deficient that they started a cholera epidemic. By 2013, 770,000 Haitians, roughly 8% of the population, had been sickened by the disease, with over 9,200 fatalities.

If it were not already a member, would the United States join an organization whose “human rights” body is dominated by regimes which repress human rights? The UN’s Human Rights Council includes such stellar advocates as China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Over the past few years, the Council has condemned Israel 78 times. North Korea, which has starved its population, has been condemned 9 times. Iran, which imprisons and tortures religious minorities, has been condemned 6 times. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, which routinely suppress dissent, have never been condemned by the Council.

The United States was on the losing end of 12 out of 15 contested votes by the Human Rights Council in its last session. If it were not already a member, would the United States join an organization where its money was always accepted but its views were rejected 80% of the time?

If it were not already a member, would the United States join an organization whose main activity is condemning Israel, one of America’s closest allies and the UN’s only Middle Eastern member that respects the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities. The lop-sided record of the Human Rights Council has already been mentioned. The record of the General Assembly is even worse. In 2016, 77% of the General Assembly’s country-specific resolutions exclusively targeted Israel. That was actually an improvement over past years. In both 2014 and 2015, 87% of the General Assembly’s country-specific resolutions condemned Israel.

In 2016, the General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Israel’s “escalating aggression” in the Old City, a resolution which dismissed any Jewish connection to the City.  That resolution was one of six which the General Assembly passed that day as part of its annual session for the “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.”

The virulent anti-Israeli sentiment infests all of the UN’s bodies. The Human Rights Council employs an investigator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whose job requires that he report only on Israel, not on the Palestinians. The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has blamed the tendency of Palestinian men to beat their wives on Israeli settlements. The Palestinian Authority’s UN delegation has blamed Israel for global warming.

Abba Eban, a former Israeli Foreign Minister, once quipped: “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”  The remark was meant as a joke. It no longer is. The resolution denying Israel’s connection to the Old City of Jerusalem passed by a vote of 147 to 7 with 8 abstentions.

If it were not already a member, would the United States join an organization so dogmatically hostile to the very existence of the world’s only Jewish State?

So why stay?

The most common answer cited for staying is the need for international dialogue and cooperation. Whatever its faults, the UN provides a forum where the United States can talk to other nations and to try to find common ground on issues of shared concern.

True, but does the United States need the UN to do those things? In 1990, after Iraq invaded and overran Kuwait, the UN passed a number of resolutions condemning Iraq and demanding withdrawal. They had no effect. The Bush Administration then set about creating a coalition of 34 nations, including several Arab countries, which went to war to eject Iraq from Kuwait. The United States did not need the UN to create this coalition. In fact, if it had tried to create it there, the coalition might never have been formed. Iraq would have sabotaged the effort by linking it to the organization’s favorite bête noire, Israel.

On other issues, such as trade, defense, climate change, and space exploration, the United States manages to find common ground with foreign states without using the UN.

Another common answer cited for staying is to acknowledge the UN’s faults, but to contend that the best way to remedy them is to work from within. But is it? Ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s historic speech condemning the UN’s declaration that “Zionism is racism” (“The United States rises to declare … before the world that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”), the United States has worked from within to reform the organization. Granted, it succeeded eventually in securing the repeal of the “Zionism is racism” resolution. But the blatant anti-Semitism which Moynihan correctly identified as the foundation of that resolution has proliferated over time, growing like mold in the dark. Periodically, its pestilential spores emerge into the light and we see its manifestations, as in UNESCO’s May 1, 2017 resolution denying any Israeli claims to Jerusalem, as if three thousand years of Jewish connection to the City never existed.

At most, one can only say that we don’t know which course – staying or leaving – is most likely to lead to reform. We don’t know because we have never tried the latter.

Is it time to do so now?

Interestingly, the UN Charter provides no procedure for a nation to withdraw or resign.  There is only one precedent for any country trying to do so. In 1965, the President of Indonesia, miffed over the admission of Malaysia, sent a telegram to the organization announcing that his country was withdrawing. But he was deposed in a coup shortly thereafter. The new President sent the Indonesian delegation back to the UN, which seated them as though nothing had happened.

This odd episode might actually provide some guidance for the United States. The UN has become a spoiled, petulant, juvenile body. But rather than formally turning our back on it, the United States might consider giving it a “time-out.”  Instead of a formal resignation or withdrawal, the United States should consider a one or two-year cessation of its involvement. We should stop attending meetings. We should stop funding it. We should allow the organization to remain in New York (where its delegates rack up millions of dollars in unpaid parking tickets), but otherwise ignore it – especially when it purports to tell us where we can and cannot locate our embassies.

Such a time-out will provide ample opportunity to test the repercussions of American withdrawal. If, as UN supporters insist, severing our ties leads to a deterioration of international dialogue and cooperation, we can renew our ties and go back in, as the Indonesians did. Similarly, if severing our ties serves as a wake-up call, causing the UN to undertake desperately needed reforms, we can again return.

But if an American “time-out” leads to no improvement, then the nation needs to seriously reconsider its status as a UN member. And the best way to make such an evaluation is to ask not whether the United States should remain a member, but whether, given the gift of foresight, it would ever have joined such a flawed organization in the first place.

About the Author
Lawrence J. Siskind is an attorney practicing law in San Francisco, California. He blogs at