It’s complicated: are the US and the UN heading for a breakup?

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” Donald Trump, 20th January 2017

Donald Trump has never left any doubt that he intends to put ‘America first’. During his notably brief inauguration speech, the President stressed that trade, taxation, immigration and foreign policy will be governed in line with his patriotic maxim. Consequently, the nature of the “friendship and goodwill” Trump’s administration will seek from other countries should not be expected to conform to typical connotations of either friendship or goodwill.

President Trump’s staunch (if repetitive) commitment to ‘America first’ calls into question the United States’ future involvement in international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Trump has taken to Twitter to criticise both organisations, most recently to dismiss the UN:

Trump is not the only politician pushing for an end to US involvement in the United Nations. Prior to his inauguration, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017 was introduced to Congress, with the intention of compelling “the President to terminate US membership in the United Nations.” While such a bill may sound in tune with the tone set by Trump’s presidency, it should be noted that this bill has been submitted to each new Congress for the last twenty years. The timing may be alarming and it remains to be seen how the new administration will handle the bill, but this is not new territory or a development resulting directly from Trump’s inauguration. For many American politicians, the UN is regarded as a drain on US resources and by extension, the US taxpayer. 22 percent of the UN’s funding is obtained from the US; in 2016, the US reportedly contributed $594 million to the UN’s regular budget and a further $2.3 billion to its peacekeeping budget. For the likes of many conservative Republicans, the UN has had it coming for some time.

Hostility towards the UN reached greater heights in December during the aftermath of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 regarding Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. The resolution, which states that the settlements are in violation of international law, was passed 14-0, including an unusual abstention from the US.  For the likes of one-time presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, this was all a bit too much:

Trump himself urged, “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”, though his active response to the situation has not developed beyond the realms of a tweet.

Since the UN resolution, the House Freedom Caucus – a group of right-wing congressman – has been among those discussing proposals for a new law regarding the UN and its funding. While one option would be to reduce the amount of US funding, the more extreme path of permitting US funding to be voluntary and agreed by Congress every two years has also been considered. Given the current significance of US support to the UN, any change is likely to cause a disturbance to the UN’s order of business.

Group of protesters waving Israeli flags walking thrugh Old Jerusalem street

Israeli settlers demonstrate on the street in the Old City of Jerusalem | Photograph Gerardo C. Lerner/Shutterstock


Despite Trump’s personal reservations concerning international organisations, British Prime Minister Theresa May stated that the President was “100 percent behind NATO”, during her state visit last week. Trump may have been able to suggest an upset to the international community last year, but as President, it is clear that he will have to choose his battles.

If the US were to leave the UN, the organisation would not only lose a major source of funding, but also one of its central sources of authority. Over the course of the Syrian conflict, China and Russia made repeated use of their veto privileges against bills supported by France, the US and the UK. It is unlikely that Trump would risk alienating the US from the international community and give way to a UN under an increased influence of rising BRICS nations.

The UN is currently maintaining 16 peacekeeping operations, from Haiti to Kosovo, South Sudan to Cyprus. If its budget were to take such a significant hit, it is unimaginable that its operations and 117,000 troops, police, military observers, civilian personnel could be maintained. The UN’s engagement in peacekeeping operations has been by no means perfect, and failed to operate swiftly and protect civilians in Libya and Syria. However, to turn away from the organisation has the potential to damage it irreparably.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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