What would happen if the United Nations ran out of money? Will unpaid translators show up to work at the Security Council? Will Con Edison simply turn the lights off at First Avenue and 42nd Street? More importantly: Will peacekeeping troops across the globe have to pack up and go home?
We may soon find out. The U.N.'s operating budget is on pace to expire this summer, when a spending cap on the U.N.'s two-year budget is reached. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton sought the cap to pressure the developing world into acceding to a set of reforms that would streamline U.N. bureaucracy. So far, however, that tactic has backfired. And in the process, it has fostered a strategic realignment in Turtle Bay, in which the global south acts as an increasingly muscular foil to reform.
For better or worse, the United Nations relies on precedent, tradition, and consensus to make its most important decisions. This is particularly true on budgetary matters. Going back to the 1980s, when the Reagan administration prodded the body to change its budgeting process so that small nations that contributed little money couldn't force through frivolous increases, the U.N. has adopted budgets covering two-year periods. It has done so always by consensus and never by roll-call vote. The practice held for nearly 20 years, until April 28, when South Africa, on behalf of the developing world and China, forced a resolution to stall a series of management and budget reforms championed by the U.N.'s main donors.
The South African resolution was consensus-shattering -- an unprecedented airing of grievances by the nations of the developing world. These countries felt that they were being railroaded by the large-donor states -- the United States, Japan, and European nations -- behind the current reform drive. Fearing that many of these reforms would usurp power of the General Assembly -- the main deliberative organ of the U.N. where poorer countries wield more clout -- the developing countries demanded a rare roll-call vote, and 121 of them voted for South Africa's resolution.
The ill will can actually be traced to December 2005, when Bolton held up the 2006-2007 biennium talks as a tactic to force reform. Most of the changes that he sought were supported by virtually the entire Western world and inspired by Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself. But the developing world vigorously opposed key personnel and budget reforms that would have transferred authority to the Office of the Secretary General and away from the General Assembly.
Even though Europe and Japan were with Bolton on the substance, they opposed his tactic, saying they were loathe to hold the operating budget hostage. As a shutdown loomed, the United States, Europe, Japan, and the developing world finally reached a compromise whereby $950 million of the $1.76 billion operating budget was authorized.
That cap was set to be reached at the end of June. In May, Bolton expressed a willingness to extend the deadline to September. Still, developing countries could vote on their version of a U.N. budget without the backing of the United States, goading the Bush administration into forcing a shutdown.
Should the U.N.'s operational funding be cut off, it will have to divert funds from peacekeeping operations, which are funded separately. “The U.N. isn't a body which can afford not to be available 24/7,” Undersecretary-General for Communications and Information Shashi Tharoor told Reuters in June. “There are peacekeepers who are awaiting instructions from New York. There are humanitarian operations that depend on staff in New York.” One peacekeeping operation that would suffer inordinately is the mission to Darfur. By September, preparations for the mission will be under way, and the troops' deployment would inevitably suffer should the command center in New York scale back its operations.
It is unclear how Bolton will amend his negotiating tactics to avert a shutdown. For one thing, he has refused to define what specific reforms the United States requires in order to remove the cap. This has lead to the impression in Turtle Bay that the United States is negotiating in bad faith. Meanwhile, the countries of the developing world are quickly looking to one another, and to China, as bulwarks against the United States. The two groups that represent the interests of the developing world at the U.N., the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77, are growing in influence and numbers. Recently, two Caribbean nations, Dominica and Antigua-Barbuda, joined the Non-Aligned Movement, which in September will elect Cuba for a three-year presidency. That two tiny Caribbean countries find an alliance with Cuba more profitable than working with the United States speaks to America's evaporating influence at the U.N.
In addition to reform, Turtle Bay will be consumed this summer and autumn by a debate over who should succeed Kofi Annan, whose term expires in December. Traditionally, the Security Council refers a single name to the General Assembly for a pro-forma vote. But in May, India sponsored a resolution asking the Security Council to nominate at least two individuals for secretary-general, and let the General Assembly vote on its preferred candidate. Adoption of this proposal by the United States could ameliorate tensions with the developing nations and those that pay the bills. Bolton, however, swiftly denounced this proposal, claiming that it would herald a “charter crisis.”
A crisis, however, is precisely what awaits the United Nations should the current climate of mistrust, hostility, and antagonism persist.