Engaging with the world once again has been one of the core policies of US President Joe Biden. Unlike the previous administration, which repeatedly withdrew from international organizations and flouted international rules, the current administration clearly wants to reassert US leadership around the world.
However, so far America's actions have fallen far short of world expectations and even those of its own elites. On March 29 an article with the headline “The United States Must Pay the United Nations What It Owes” was published on the Foreign Policy website, signed by politicians including former US Secretary of State Madeleine K Albright. The article said the Biden administration had done very much very quickly to restore US leadership on the world stage, while leaving a critical part of the US foreign-policy equation unaddressed: paying the dues of more than $1 billion the country owes to the UN peacekeeping budget.
The US spent more than $700 billion last year on its military, 700 times more than it owes to the UN for peacekeeping. For this reason alone, apart from the unpaid $1 billion in UN peacekeeping bills, the US should pay the UN all overdue payments sooner rather than later. As the world's largest economy, the US oddly has become the biggest delinquent payer in the world. Far from serving US domestic politics, this embarrassing title is likely to embarrass Americans.
But this title does not seem to offend the elite policymakers in Washington, who have a history of complying with international rules when the occasion serves their own interests. Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration often used unpaid dues to pressure the UN to overpower the Soviet Union in terms of staffing and resolutions in some important departments. For the next 30 years, the US repeatedly used this tool to firmly enhance its voice in and control over the UN.
Although the US claims to be the world leader, by wantonly pursuing unilateralism and disdaining the international order, its behavior undoubtedly reeks of hegemonism. Especially under former president Donald Trump, the US could not stop itself from withdrawing from one international treaty or organization after another. It is hard to imagine that a debtor who is not interested in public affairs can become a leader of a community.
Re-entry into the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement is a clear indication that the US has begun to rebuild its image in the world. However, if American politicians still try to restrict the UN by withholding dues, the US will not be able to take its claimed role as global leader, let alone gain the respect of the world.
The international community is facing global challenges such as the COVID-19 epidemic. Upholding multilateralism and safeguarding the international system with the UN at its core serves the common interests of all parties. As an intergovernmental international organization, the UN’s normal operation depends on membership dues. It is a legally binding obligation for all member states to pay their assessed contributions on time and in full.
Over the years, most members have done their best to solve the financial problems of the UN and supported its normal operation with concrete actions. In particular, as the largest developing country with a population of 1.4 billion and the second largest contributor to the UN, China not only always earnestly fulfills its financial obligations but has also increased its own contributions while the US has defaulted.
Firmly supporting the cause of the UN and multilateralism with concrete actions demonstrates the responsibility of a major country. The world needs action from the US to prove its declaration of re-engagement. There are many such actions the US can do, but living up to its responsibilities as a member of the UN must be one of them. Of course, this is far from enough. The US needs to reengage with the world in a multilateral way in order to play the role it really wants to have.