It's no secret that the United Nations hasn't lived up to its billing as a champion of human rights and democratic values since its establishment in 1945. All too often, the UN system has aided and abetted some of the world's most odious regimes—and served as a political weapon for those countries against the West. Yet even by these standards, this summer has seen an unprecedented level of rot in the world's most powerful international forum.
Iran, under mounting pressure from the international community for its persistent nuclear ambitions, was elected to a top post at the UN Arms Trade Treaty conference in Geneva in early July. To add insult to injury, the news came just days after the Islamic Republic was found to be flouting UN restrictions by shipping arms to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—arms that Assad has subsequently used against his own people.
Then there's the World Intellectual Property Organization. A subsidiary agency of the UN, it has been accused of violating international sanctions levied by its own parent body and selling proscribed computer equipment to both Iran and North Korea. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has just launched a formal inquiry into the matter.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, waging a bloody civil war that so far has claimed more than 17,000 lives, is under serious consideration for membership in the international community's premier human rights body, the UN Human Rights Council.
The Iranian government, which is currently attempting to sever its population's access to the World-Wide Web, has done even better; it is not only a member but the rapporteur of the UN Committee on Information, a body charged with coordinating "public information policies and activities" among UN member states. Other countries on the Committee include enemies of the free press like China, North Korea and Russia.
Such unaccountable developments are hardly new, and outrage over them has bubbled up within the Washington Beltway for years. In practice, however, real solutions to the UN's excesses have been in distinctly short supply.
Yet the United States actually has a great deal of leverage over the UN's behavior. Back in 2006, America provided more than $5.3 billion to the UN system, including nearly half of the budget of the World Food Programme and roughly a quarter of the UN's entire peacekeeping budget. Today, it does even more; in 2011, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the United States shelled out nearly $7.7 billion to the UN. That sum provided a quarter of the operating budget of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and funded nearly 30 percent of UN peacekeeping operations and the activities of the UN Relief Works Agency.
In the past, some policymakers in Washington have suggested that a reduction—or an outright withholding—of this financial commitment could serve as a much-needed behavioral corrective. But successive administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, have shied away from doing so, preferring consensus in international governance to painful and acrimonious debates over the UN's conduct.
That sort of laissez faire attitude is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, however. With a deepening national budget deficit and the looming threat of "sequestration" now on the horizon, the Obama administration simply cannot afford to continue bankrolling business as usual at the United Nations. Rather, it should seize the moment to press for serious changes to the way the UN operates as a condition for continued American investment.
Fortunately, a blueprint for doing so already exists. Several years ago, Congress convened a blue-ribbon task force on UN reform (headed jointly by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senator George Mitchell) to address the very problems mentioned above. The commission came up with a series of sweeping recommendations for how the UN could be made more accountable—from independent oversight of UN operations to mandating a more constructive take on counterterrorism and rogue regimes. Most, however, still remain unimplemented.
The White House, now looking to tighten its fiscal belt on a number of fronts, would do well to dust off those recommendations and give them a serious second look. And it would do even better if it began to harness them as a way of reining in the UN's sprawling, unaccountable bureaucracy.