International Engagement in an Age of Austerity

As the United States continues to face a spiraling deficit and attempts to “do more with less,” the spotlight has rightly fallen on our nation’s leaders to creatively cut spending and look for new revenue. The legislative “supercommittee” charged with the formidable task of trimming the federal budget is currently combing through thousands of financial commitments, each valued by some segment of the national population. This fundamental reassessment of our nation’s finances will ultimately impact all of our lives in many startling and subtle ways. For example, we may have to wait on the phone a little longer to speak to a representative at the IRS. We will probably not receive as comfortable a social security check as our grandparents, if we receive one at all. We will eventually be forced to pay higher taxes regardless of any unlikely miracle of budget policy. Nobody likes longer lines, cut services, or higher taxes. However, in confronting such challenges and developing creative cuts to spending, America must not sacrifice its longstanding commitment to the international community and its established leadership in the United Nations.

As the World population is set to eclipse the seven billion mark on October 31st, the challenges of food scarcity, environmental sustainability, and health remain dire. One could provide pages of statistics on devastation in Somalia, flooding in Thailand, or the resurgence of polio. Security issues and questions of governance continue to plague Africa and Central Asia and fledgling democracies struggle in the Middle East and North Africa. With an ever-increasing population and increased challenges with global repercussions, the United States cannot abandon its commitments to international aid and engagement. On the world stage, America has been a leader, ensuring peace and security, promoting democratic values and rule of law, and improving countless lives through investments in health and infrastructure. Now is not the time to sacrifice American foreign aid for isolationist policies under the banner of cost-cutting.

While I do not reject the need for reform or ignore the organization’s inefficiencies, the United Nations is the only global body and forum for all nations to discuss and develop solutions to the world’s problems. Over its 66-year history, the U.N. has accomplished much in many fields including eradicating smallpox, controlling nuclear technology, improving woman’s rights, managing trade relations, reducing child mortality, adopting environmental protocols, and more. Yet, the United Nations needs sustained leadership and funding to deliver success in such initiatives. Much of that funding comes from contributions of its member states, especially the United States (about 22 percent of the U.N. budget).

The United Nations (as well as aid programs in general) has come under scrutiny of congress and political campaigns in the past. As the international community is not a registered voter and politicians are eager to show commitment to a domestic base, the United Nations and other expensive international projects are often criticized in political rhetoric. For example, the U.N. Withdrawal Act of 1995 went so far as to require the removal of the U.N. headquarters from New York. Although the bill failed, it highlighted America’s general anxiety of international organizations—namely, questions of American sovereignty and national interests. Yet international apprehension at the bill also highlighted America’s critical leadership role in world affairs and the responsibilities inherent in that role. The United Nations, the only global forum inclusive of all nations, faced extinction should the United States give up on the project.

This month, the House introduced a similar bill to restrict United States’ commitments to the U.N. “The United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011” would make U.S. contributions to the United Nations voluntary and reduce all U.S. contributions by fifty percent if the U.N. does not receive 80 percent of its international contributions on a voluntary basis. Interestingly, the text of the bill unilaterally requests reforms of various U.N. bodies for continued U.S. participation and specifically withholds funds from any U.N. entity that recognizes the existence of Palestine. Luckily, the bill has no chance of passing. It should, however, serve as a wake-up call for the State Department to pursue cost-cutting reforms of the United Nations though effective auditing and removal of bureaucratic inefficiencies. Such a multilateral approach will ultimately allow us to expand our international leadership, show that the United States is committed to international engagement, and in turn achieve constructive U.N. reform for the betterment of all nations as well as the U.S. treasury.

On the domestic level, the Federal government must eliminate its own inefficiencies by cutting duplicate positions and reassessing priorities. It must increase communication and shared resources between departments to learn to “do more, with less.” We all can agree that the United States needs to confront its financial difficulties, yet it cannot come at the expense of decades of international engagement and leadership.

Hunter M. Richard ’12 is a government concentrator living in Quincy House. He is the Secretary-General of Harvard Model United Nations.

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