Is austerity making the world a more dangerous place? Republican hawks are making the case that the Obama administration's planned Pentagon cuts are making the world safe for bad guys, and now European governments are looking at their defense expenditures as well -- and they're targeting the blue helmets budget line, particularly in peacekeeping missions favored by the United States.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, fended off a push last month by European governments to press to consider cuts next year in U.N.-backed peacekeeping mission in Liberia, which costs upwards of $525 million a year, more than Liberia's $459 million annual national budget. Rice has also resisted calls from other European governments, like Britain and France, to consider deeper cuts in U.N. peacekeeping missions in Haiti and in Sudan.
France and Britain are required to pay, respectively, 7.5 percent and 8.16 percent of all U.N. peacekeeping costs.
U.S. officials say that peacekeeping missions must be adequately funded to ensure their success, and that European governments, who each pay a far smaller share of the U.N. peacekeeping budget, are in some instances motivated by a desire to shift funding to their own "pet" missions, not the commitment to fiscal discipline that they claim.
"There is no country that has a greater interest in the economies, effectiveness, and efficiencies of U.N. peacekeeping missions [than the United States]. We pay 27 percent of the bill while the Europeans pay a smaller percentage," Rice said in an interview with Turtle Bay. "For them to be holier than thou is a bit rich, to say the least."
"We want missions to succeed at maximum efficiency and minimum cost," she said, noting that the United States has already agreed to send thousands of U.N. peacekeepers from Haiti and Liberia back home. "We are all feeling the strain.... But we are not going to sacrifice the effectiveness and success of missions by prematurely closing them or prematurely cutting them down beyond what the security situation on the ground will allow."
But while Rice is backing a prominent contribution to peacekeeping, the Obama administration is seeking cuts elsewhere at the United Nations, delivering a series of sharply critical statements about the organization's failure to tighten its belt and cut waste in these hard times.
The debate is unfolding at a time when the United States and other major donors are facing major financial crises at home, prompting their envoys to press for deeper cuts while securing support for operations of critical national interest. The U.N.'s administrative and peacekeeping budget, however, has been expanded over the past decade, and shows little sign of contracting.
"We meet at a time of severe -- and worldwide economic challenge.... Member states around the world are under financial strain," said Joseph M. Torsella, the U.S. representative for U.N. Management and Reform, in a Sept. 29 speech calling for more belt-tightening before the U.N.'s main budget committee. "That is the simple reality we face, all of us: in a time of scarce resources, the United Nations cannot afford business as usual. But that unfortunately, is exactly what is represented in this budget."
The United Nations currently has about 120,000 peacekeepers serving around the world at a cost of more than $8 billion, with about 27 percent of that amount paid by the United States. Indeed, those costs don't even include a series of expensive "special political missions" in Afghanistan ($200 million), Iraq ($200 million) and now in Libya ($10 million in start-up costs) that are favored by the United States. (The U.S. pays only about 22 percent of the costs for these missions.)
The missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are unpopular, however, among developing nations, who say the United States, Britain, and France get a discount because the operations are funded through the U.N.' regular budget. (Under a highly complex set of U.N. budget rules, the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, China, Russia, France, and Britain -- have to pay a premium on peacekeeping missions, because of their special role in establishing them.) But now budget strains are bringing the United States and its allies at the U.N. into conflict, as competition for scarce resources increases. And even more draconian budget cuts may be coming.
"We're gearing up for a big -- cross-the-system-wide -- fight over the budget, and the peacekeeping stuff will be part of that," said Bruce Jones, the director of NYU's Center on International Cooperation. "There will be a decreasing budget one way or another [because of the] financial crisis. Nobody has any money left."
France, which oversees the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast, has been engaged in a running competition with the United States over resources.
In a cost-cutting effort, the U.N. Security Council decided six years ago to pass a resolution requiring the United Nations to share peacekeeping personnel and equipment among the three West African missions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast. The deal has led to enormous friction between the United States and France, which has sought periodically to borrow for use in the Ivory Coast three Ukrainian-piloted attack helicopters, which are based in Liberia.
The arrangement has not always gone smoothly.
In 2006, the United Nations made a request for a battalion of Liberia-based peacekeepers, plus a team of 140 police officers, to assist the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast, which had come under attack by forces close to then President Laurent Gbagbo. They only secured the support of a much smaller company of peacekeepers.
The United States allowed the Liberian-based helicopters to be used in a French-led military offensive that toppled Gbagbo's government earlier this year, after he refused to accept defeat in U.N-certified elections. But U.N. diplomats say the United States still dragged its feet. "This time took a couple of weeks longer than it should have," said a council diplomat.
A senior U.S. official said that French complaints about American stinginess are a "bit galling," given that the United States has allowed the French to use the helicopters for the better part of a year, and only demanded them backas Liberia headed towards a landmark second presidential election. "We have been very flexible," the official said. "The French took the view that these were their helicopters.
The United States has long historical links to Liberia, which was settled by freed American slaves. And Washington has resisted a European push for further U.N. troop reductions in the U.N. mission in Liberia, which stands at more than 7,000 international blue helmets, down from more than 15,000 in 2006. In September, Rice blocked an amendment by the Security Council's four European governments -- Britain, France, Germany and Portugal -- to consider carrying out a review of the costly U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia, with a view to trimming costs.
"We are not ready to predetermine Security Council actions on so important a matter as UNMIL's drawdown, given uncertainties surrounding the election and tensions in the region," Rice told the council after the vote, expressing hope she could consider cuts next year. "Now is not the moment to impose rigid timelines on UNMIL."
The U.S. refusal to wait for a review of the mission's mandate infuriated European delegations, who took a veiled swipe at the Americans in their explanations of the vote. "We are disappointed that Resolution 2008 did not take up amendments that a number of Security Council members put forward" to review the authorized military and troop strength in Liberia by May 30, 2012," said Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, "We do not expect any peacekeeping mission to be exempt from regular review by this council."
The tone has been sharp. Earlier this year, Lyall Grant also raised concerns about a decision to authorize and fund the deployment of 4,500 Ethiopian peacekeepers to Abyei, disputed territory that straddles the borders of Sudan and South Sudan.
"Why do we need so many troops?" Lyall Grant asked in a closed-door session of the Security Council, according to two diplomats who were in the room. It only required 10,000 British colonial soldiers, he quipped, to administer India. An Indian envoy responded that Britain had not been engaged in a state building effort.
British officials maintain that their concern is not limited to costs, but to the wisdom of maintaining large foreign peacekeeping missions in countries that are no longer at war, and no longer need foreign military assistance. Haiti, for example may be economically distressed and still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake, but it is not at war and still hosts some 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers. Britain believes its time to bring the blue helmets home.
"There are worrying reports that many ordinary Haitians increasingly see MINUSTAH as an occupying force," said Philip Parham, Britain's deputy U.N. ambassador. "We believe the continued presence of large number of troops is counter-productive and police officers, whether from UNPOL, or ideally the Haitian National Police, would be seen as a more sensitive and low-key presence on Haiti's streets."
The United Nations, backed by the United States, plans to reduce the size of the force in Haiti to about 8,000 troops, but will maintain a robust peacekeeping force to fill the vacuum left by a national police force that is incapable of taking full responsibility for security. Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the U.S. ambassador for special political affairs at the United Nations, insisted that the peacekeepers remain with "strong rules of engagement...to deal with a stable but fragile security situation in Haiti. The United Sates believes that any determination of the future size of MINUSTAH forces must be based on security conditions on the ground."
The United States has long had interests in the fate of Haiti, an island nation located some 700 miles southeast of the coast of Florida. The country has sent large numbers of immigrants to the United States, particularly during periods of violence and political instability. Britain, on the other hand, has few vital national security interests in Haiti.
Rice was even blunter. If the British don't think a peacekeeping force is appropriate for Haiti, they "shouldn't have voted to authorize it in the first place, because the nature of it hasn't changed. The Haitian people and the Haitian government are not asking for it to leave now."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.