The Global Politics of Sequestration

United Nations Headquarters, New York

United Nations Headquarters, New York

Blogging at the UN Dispatch, Mark Leon Goldberg last week raised some important questions about how the sequestration will affect the United Nations.

For those who have not been following domestic U.S. politics over the past few months, the sequestration is a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts to government spending. Republicans and Democrats agreed to the system last year in an attempt to force themselves to reach a compromise on debt reduction. The idea was to make the cuts so painful that both sides would prefer to negotiate more targeted cuts than allow the sequestration to take effect. But in a signal of the degree of dysfunction and political polarization in Washington, D.C., the sequestration went in to effect on Friday when the two parties could not reach agreement.

While there has been much discussion of the domestic impact of sequestration, less attention has been paid to the foreign policy effects. We know, for example, that the U.S. military will face more than $500 billion in cuts under sequestration, $46 billion of which would take effect this year. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that the sequestration cuts would “seriously damage a fragile American economy and…would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe.” The self-made crisis, he added, “undermines the men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to protect this country.”

Beyond the U.S. military, however, sequestration will affect our international efforts more broadly. The United States contributes about 27 percent of the cost of UN peacekeeping operations and about a quarter of the organizations regular budget. Sequestration will mean a cut to these contributions in the short term, with the U.S. withholding approximately $100 million in funding towards peacekeeping and a similar amount from the regular budget. However, as Goldberg notes, any savings would be illusory.

Those cuts won’t actually end up saving the USA any money in the long term because the USA is treaty-bound to pay its membership dues to the UN. So, rather than cutting UN spending, the real effects of the sequester will be the accrual of American arrears. Eventually, the USA will have to pay off those arrears so there will be no real saving.”

But the impact on UN operations would be very real indeed. As Goldberg describes it, “A $100 million cut to UN peacekeeping could mean that countries that have expressed willingness to contribute troops to an international mission in Mali may not be able to deploy. The preconditions necessary for a peacekeeping mission — food, fuel, equipment —  requires reliable funding.” Not a pretty picture.

What do you think? How will sequestration affect the ability of the United States to achieve its foreign policy goals? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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