The persistent and near constant flow of international systems is, for the most part, taken for granted by most modern people.
It takes something like a global health crisis to bring to the fore all the unnoticed mechanisms, large and small, that allow things to run as smoothly as they do.
At the local level, everyday individuals experience the ‘system’ as basic services that allow them to manage their lives; banking, supermarkets etc. in order for those things to work, it demands certain fundamental infrastructures remain intact and available. If those things cease to function, the system collapses very quickly.
At the worldwide level, things may be much bigger, but the same fundamental dynamic exists. Global supply chains, international communications, data systems, all of these phenomena are dependent on a certain level of stability, investment, and access to resources. Even among those who actually notice the existence of these systems, few stop to think how they continue to operate.
One of the biggest failures of the United States from a self promotion point of view is allowing much of the world to forget the extent to which this international order is indebted to American investment. From the U.S. Navy’s patrolling of vital maritime routes, to government investment in technological research and development (the United States funds nearly a third of all global R&D), America bears the burden of providing for and maintaining much of the basis of civilization as we know it.
Of course much of this investment comes in the form of direct funding. The federal government spends tens of billions of dollars a year in direct foreign aid. Much of this money is transferred directly to national governments. However, considerable sums are also spent on bankrolling NGOs that conduct important work for the international community. The U.S. government contributed over $10 billion to U.N. programs in 2018, which included efforts ranging from refugee resettlement to atomic energy research. This sum represents over 17 percent of all the U.N.’s operating expenses for that year. This places the United States as by far the biggest contributor to the U.N.– in fact bigger than the next three ranked countries combined. In most cases, these organizations become well known for the roles they play in moving civilization forward, while the source of their funding remains an obscure fact at best.
There is no doubt that massive American investment at the global level has produced much good for mankind. It has allowed world progress to lurch forward and has provided the stability and security for that progress to take place. But with all of the billions in American treasure being shifted overseas for so many decades, a legitimate question arises: is it in the interests of the United States to allow all of the institutions and agendas it finances to to continue as they are?
Recently, controversy surrounding the World Health Organization and President Trump’s call to pull U.S. funding from the agency, brought this question to public attention. The WHO, hailed the world over as a vital contributor to global health, receives roughly a fifth of its entire biennial budget from the United States. Funds from Washington transferred to WHO over the past ten years have amounted to a whopping $3.5 billion, an amount the agency’s head Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus recently recognized as an “immense” part of the organization’s operating costs.
But the WHO story only highlights a broader pattern that has taken place within the current administration. President Trump has made it a central policy objective to reassess much of America’s foreign investment. In his budget proposal for 2021, Trump recommended reducing U.N. peacekeeping funds by 29%, decreasing U.N. regular budget and specialized agency funding by 34% and completely “eliminating” funding for other U.N. programs. To be clear, Trump is not advocating simply slashing all U.S. contributions. The proposal actually includes some increases such a yearly payment of $598,000 for the United States to rejoin the World Tourism Organization. The policy is rather a shift in approach to U.S. foreign aid. Simply put, Trump is demanding America be more critical when assessing whether international programs are in fact aligned with its interests. An example of this policy in action from early on in Trump’s presidency was the decision to pull funding from the U.N.’s cultural body UNESCO. Many in the media were quick to point to a UNESCO statement heavily hostile to Israel as the trigger. However, plans to leave the agency were in the works months before. The more likely reason UNESCO suffered the chopping block is due to the fact that it long abandoned its neutral mandate and adopted its own political agendas–the anti-Israel statement was only an indication of a much more endemic problem. Indeed, UNESCO has a substantial history of anti-American political activities and giving a platform to outright smears of the United States. Even the U.S. Commission for UNESCO, a strong ally of the organization, was forced to acknowledge in the early 1980’s that UNESCO’s ”discordant debates on extraneous political issues” had impaired UNESCO’s effectiveness. This reality prompted the Reagan administration to leave the agency in 1984.
Another example worth highlighting is Trump’s 2018 decision to cut funding for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. agency charged with aiding Palesinian refugees. For over six decades, the United States was the single biggest supporter of UNRWA. Since 2008, the annual contributions to the agency amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2017, the United States contributed a whopping $364,265,585 to UNRWA — more than the next nine national contributors combined. The sudden pullout by the U.S was a major hit to UNRWA. The organization has yet to recover from this funding slash and continues to be in the midst of a major budget crisis until today. Many were quick to criticize Trump for pulling the plug. But the president’s reasons for his decision should, at the very least, urge a critical look into UNRWA’s dealings. The organization has for years been a tool a extremist elements within Palestinian communities, giving them the platform and resources to radicalize the individuals that pass through its institutions. It can hardly be considered responsible for the United States to fund an institution that hires unrepentant terrorists into leadership roles and openly promotes extremist violence.
All of this is not to suggest cutting foreign aid is the preferred default for the United States. There are many valid criticisms for many of Trump’s budget-cut proposals, namely that they may produce a detrimental effect to American foreign policy objectives in the long run. But this is precisely the point. There is no question that it is in U.S. interests to promote many international causes, whether they be logistical, humanitarian, or economic. This investment however should always be undertaken with a critical eye. As nice as these investments many seem at first glance, there is no guarantee they will produce results aligned with what the U.S. actually seeks to promote. Even when positive outcomes do exist, the externalities they bring about may undercut all the good.
As the United States faces both international and domestic crisis, this period is a valuable opportunity to reassess how Washington determines success in its foreign investments.