Antonio Guterres, a son of Iberia, seems unaware that waving a red cape in front of a bull could be hazardous to a hapless torero. The United Nations Secretary General is complaining that the World Body is all but broke.“This month we will reach the deepest deficit of the decade,” he told the General Assembly’s budget committee Tuesday, warning further that the UN risks “entering November without enough cash to cover payrolls.
“Our work and our reforms are at risk,” the Secretary General starkly warned, his tone dramatic enough to attract the attention of Turtle Bay-based reporters, many of whom were out to protect the world body from the wrath of America.
The result was predictable. At Tuesday’s daily press briefing reporters demanded to know how much America, the largest contributor to the UN budget by far, still owes (even though, as Spokesmen Stephane Dujarric noted, these figures are posted on the UN’s website.) They also demanded that Mr. Guterres name and shame deadbeat America as the worst dues-owing violator.
What came next, however, should have also been predicted by anyone following world affairs. President Trump retorted to Mr. Guterres on Twitter. “So make all Member Countries pay, not just the United States,” he twittered Wednesday.
For Mr. Guterres, eliciting UN supporters’ help in raising alarms over budgetary shortfalls was the easy part. He should have also been aware that Mr. Trump, his largest benefactor, is impatient with anything that associates America with the word “sucker.”
After decades at the UN, Mr. Guterres must be aware that raising alarms over American dues has been a traditional ritual in October, when the General Assembly’s budget committee begins its annual deliberations.
Since at least 1984, America has been paying its dues according to Washington’s fiscal calendar, rather than Turtle Bay’s. While the UN expects all member states to pay their dues at the beginning of each year, America, which is responsible for more than 22% of the UN’s operating budget, pays in November — and therefore is always considered in “arrears.”
By now, one would think the UN would have wised up to the routine and adjusted spending accordingly. Instead, Secretaries General complain every year, and now Mr. Guterres decided to up the ante so high that his clarion call reached the White House.
“Every year member states pay less and less, and every year they pay later,” UN spokesmen Farhan Haq told me, explaining Mr. Guterres’ alarm.
“Overall the United States, as the largest contributor to the UN, contributes roughly $10 billion annually in assessed and voluntary contributions across the United Nations system,” retorted an American official, adding America will provide “the vast majority of what we owe to the regular budget this fall, as we have in past years.”
The Heritage Foundation’s UN watcher, Brett Schaefer, notes, Congress has been unable to approve an annual budget, which delays a portion of UN payments. Also some UN funds, he adds, are “being withheld until the U.S. certifies that the UN is meeting congressionally-mandated whistleblower standards” — which the administration is yet to certify.
In addition, since the days of Nikki Haley as ambassador, Washington decided to obey US law, rather than heed UN demands: Congress caps contributions to international bodies at a ceiling of 25% of their budgets. While past presidents waived that congressional demand, paying up to 28% of the UN peacekeeping budget, the current administration decided to obey U.S. law instead.
That left a 3% hole in the UN peacekeeping budget, which is separate from the running operational budget — and the UN peacekeeping department is yet to make do with that smaller portion of U.S. contribution.
Similarly, Mr. Guterres can’t manage his budget to last until November, when America will pay its dues. As a result, a barista at the UN delegates lounge tells me that as of this week the joint is ordered to shut down early, at 6 p.m., for budgetary reasons.
That, of course, is a crisis of global proportions — although American taxpayers may wonder if even more departments at Turtle Bay’s behemoth bureaucracy can be similarly constrained. Instead, the UN’s expenses ever balloon, as attested by Mr. Guterres’ more than $3.3 billion budget for 2019.
An experienced diplomat and observer of world affairs, Mr. Guterres should have been aware of Mr. Trump’s tendency to prefer American taxpayers’ concerns over the UN’s. The last thing he needed to do was raise Turtle Bay’s inability to handle budgets to the White House’s attention — waving a red cape at a raging bull.
Mr. Avni, who covers the United Nations, is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.