On September 18, 2017, a day before the opening of the 72nd session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA), 128 UN member states signed the U.S. drafted political declaration of the 10-point plan for broad reforms of the world body. The document, known as the Political Declaration for UN Reform High Level Event, is intended to demonstrate the member states’ support for the reform initiatives of newly elected UN Secretary-General (SG) Antonio Guterres. His reform plan announced in June, 2017 prioritizes strengthening the organization’s capacity to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Yet critics argue that the SG’s proposed reforms are declaratory, falling rather short in outlining the concrete steps necessary to make the organization more efficient. At the same time, the opposition from both the developing countries and two permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), China and Russia, which did not participate in the meeting, may prove to be a bigger obstacle in implementing this initiative than the ill-defined concept per se.
Since becoming the Secretary-General on January 1, 2017, Antonio Guterres has emphasized the urgent need for reforms within the UN system, mainly focusing on two areas – the first related to reforming the scope of peacekeeping operations to ensure they act as a support for active diplomatic efforts, not vice versa, and the second concerning the improvement of the UN internal management by reducing the unreasonable spending and red tape (A. Guterres, 2017). His reform plans came against the backdrop of skepticism about the organization expressed by U.S. President Donald Trump, who while running for the presidency had labeled the world body as weak and incompetent, promising to cut back on U.S. contributions to the organization. His election rhetoric now turns into the decision by the White House, in the outline of its 2018 budget, to cut funding for diplomacy and foreign aid by 28% that, among other things, also envisages an unspecified reduction of contributions to the UN and its agencies, as well as the enforcement of a 25% cap on the U.S. funding for peacekeeping operations (Reuters, 2017).
In this regard, some experts believe that the UN SG’s push for the UN reform is aimed at assuaging the skeptical U.S. administration that has yet to pay its 2017 dues for the UN regular budget. In this context, it is worth mentioning that the United States is by far the largest contributor to the UN budget that paid $10 billion last year constituting approximately 25% of the organization’s overall budget ($45 billion in 2013) and more than 28% of its peacekeeping fund. As for Trump, considering his policy of “America First”, the support for the management reforms is intended to please his domestic political base who views multilateral institutions with suspicion (L. Epatko, 2017).
Although the focus of Donald Trump and Antonio Guterres on the management reforms has received a certain level of support from the international community, as evident from 128 countries signing the declaration, the actual implementation of the initiative will face serious challenges. The UN SG reform proposal, presented in the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review, among other things, envisages expanding the mandate of the Secretariat, i.e. his own, in the governance of development programs. This move is expected to face serious resistance from the developing countries who would view it as an attempt to undermine the current nature of the decision-making mechanism (Z. Khalizad, 2017). At present, the decision making process in the UN is distributed among a wide range of countries with each member state having one vote. The GA, an organ that decides how and what to spend funds on, is dominated by the countries from the developing world, benefiting from various UN supported development programs. To illustrate, 17 countries have contributed 80% of the UN budget, while remaining 176 countries paid only 18%, however, it is the latter group of countries that decides what to invest these funds in.
According to Article 108 of the UN Charter, any resolution requiring reforms or any amendments to the Charter itself requires a vote of two-thirds of the GA members, including the permanent UNSC members, or their abstention. Therefore, the absence of the Russian and Chinese representatives from the summit on UN reform would further complicate the process. The Russian and Chinese skepticism comes from their resentment of the way the United States pushed the document through. According to Franz Klintsevich, the Russian Senator and First Deputy head of the Federation Council’s (the upper house of the Federal Assembly) Defense and Security Committee, the invitation to participate in the event was extended only to those states that agreed to sign the declaration, a fact that the senator called a “diktat” (Sputniknews.com, 2017). While Leonid Slutsky, the Chairman of the State Duma’s (the lower house of the Federal Assembly) Committee on International Affairs, argued that “Trump’s reform is a move towards a unipolar world” (RT.com, 2017). The position taken by Russia and China suggests that they will not support any reform agenda driven by their geopolitical rival, unless all UNSC members are involved. However, the latter scenario seems unlikely as the countries present in the UNSC have opposing views and interests on many issues.
To sum up, as the largest financial contributor to the UN, the United States has the highest stake in ensuring that the organization operates effectively and avoids any waste. The UN often fails in addressing the existing challenges and achieves less than envisioned in its charter documents. Not only this is evident in its inability to resolve the Syrian or any other crisis around the globe but also in the plethora of agencies and vast bureaucracy that prevent the world organization to respond adequately to the XXI. century’s complex threats. Therefore, the Trump administration is rightly focused on the management reform. The summit is only the beginning of a longer reform process and conversation with the members of international community whose support is vital to bring about changes.
Abulkhairkhan Zhunisbek is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He graduated from Abylai Khan Kazakh University of International Relations and World Languages with a Bachelor in International Relations.