Since the founding of the United Nations nearly eight decades ago, the United States has been the largest financier of the organization. Yet few grasp exactly how much U.S. contributions outstrip those of other nations, and fewer still seem to appreciate America’s generosity, least of all the U.N. and the other member states.
Last year alone, according to the U.N. Chief Executives Board, the United States provided $18.1 billion to the U.N. system. This represented more than a third of all government revenue received by the U.N. system in 2022. Both in dollar terms and as a percentage of total government contributions to the U.N. system, U.S. contributions are at a 10-year high.
How does that measure up to contributions from other nations? The U.S. gave about three times as much as second-place Germany ($6.8 billion) and over six times as much as third-place Japan ($2.7 billion) in 2022. In fact, the U.S. provided more funding to the U.N. system than 185 other U.N. member states combined.
That puts complaints that the U.S. needs to pay more into perspective, doesn’t it?
What about China? Every UN pundit talks about China’s increasing financial contributions and the corresponding increase in Beijing’s influence. Both are true, but the situation is more nuanced because not all contributions are the same.
Contributions to the U.N. system fall into two baskets: assessed contributions and voluntary contributions.
Assessed funding is the amount that member states are charged by the U.N. and some of its affiliated organizations to support their operations. Although the U.S. has periodically withheld a portion of this funding, assessed contributions are generally considered obligatory.
In 2022, the U.S. paid $3.1 billion in assessed contributions to the UN and its affiliated organizations in the UN system. This was about 23.7 percent of all assessed contributions paid by governments. By comparison, China is now the second-highest contributor to the UN system in terms of assessed contributions – $1.95 billion in 2022, or about 14.9 percent of all assessed contributions paid by governments.
Voluntary funding is the amount that governments provide to the U.N. without obligation. In 2022, the U.S. provided nearly $15 billion in such contributions. This represented over 38 percent of all voluntary contributions provided by governments to the U.N. system in 2022.
By contrast, China contributed less than $164 million in voluntary contributions in 2022 – equivalent to 0.42 percent of the total. When it comes to voluntary funding to the U.N. system, Beijing ranked behind Colombia and Argentina.
The U.S. is especially generous in giving voluntary humanitarian aid. In 2022, the U.S. provided 50 percent of all contributions to the World Food Program, 36 percent of all contributions to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 34 percent of all contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and 32 percent of all contributions to the International Organization for Migration.
Overall, the U.S. contributed over 8.5 times what China did to the U.N. system in 2022. But it contributed over 90 times more in voluntary contributions.
In other words, when it comes to U.N. funding, particularly when it is not obligated, America stands far above China. By any objective measure, the U.S. is doing its share and more.
One would think such generosity would empower the U.S. and be a mighty tool to influence other nations to support our positions. Sadly, the opposite is the case.
In its most recent report to Congress, the State Department noted that on average other countries voted with the U.S. in the U.N. General Assembly only 41 percent of the time. Historically, the average voting coincidence is even worse at 32 percent. Some of the biggest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, both bilaterally and through the U.N. system, are among the countries that vote against the U.S. most often.
Worse, U.N. officials actually criticize the U.S. for not shelling out even more. Earlier this year, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the U.S. and other rich countries for broken promises and demanded they provide $500 billion per year in additional aid.
Not that the U.N. will ever be satisfied. In recent months, the U.N. Secretary General announced that the annual funding gap to meet the organization’s Sustainable Development Goals “has risen from $2.5 trillion before the pandemic to an estimated $4.2 trillion” and the International Energy Agency announced that climate change targets would require global clean energy spending to rise from “USD 1.8 trillion in 2023 to USD 4.5 trillion annually by the early 2030s.”
A trillion here, a trillion there. How casually the U.N. demands that the U.S. and other governments commit more than the entire U.S. federal budget to its projects and causes.
And how readily the Biden administration has bought into this perspective. They keep upping their funding requests for the U.N., rejoin and seek more money for deeply flawed organizations like the Human Rights Council and . And they when Congress balks: “[T]he Administration’s efforts to pay our bills in full have been only partially met by Congress. We continue to maintain high balances on arrears and pay late; it’s China’s favorite talking point.”
Certainly, countries like China, Cuba, and others delight in criticizing the U.S. for paying its assessed contributions late or withholding a portion of those payments to leverage reforms to improve transparency or accountability.
But this is a long-term irritant. The bigger question is why China is successfully expanding its influence in the U.N. while contributing a fraction of what the U.S. does. After all, U.S. voluntary contributions are seven times more than the entire amount China contributes to the U.N. system.
The reality is that other governments and the U.N. have come to view American taxpayer dollars as an entitlement… and too often the Biden administration agrees.
Like people, organizations and governments respond to incentives. Having a seat at the table, as Secretary Antony Blinken likes to say, is a grossly insufficient and expensive strategy, and the results have been underwhelming.
China is using pressure, diplomacy, and financial incentives to shift global outcomes to their preference, including at the U.N. U.S. influence will continue to fade unless the U.S. is willing to use the tools at its disposal to reward positive outcomes and punish negative outcomes. That means reminding the U.N. and other governments how dependent they are on U.S. funding and demonstrating that U.S. support can and will be impacted by their actions.
Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.