FP: Trump administration may cut UN funding by 50%

Conservatives have demanded for years that the US cut back its share of United Nations dues and expenses without much success in administrations of either party. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports that their losing streak may be coming to an end. Sources within diplomatic and Trump administration circles expect to see massive cuts in UN support, possibly higher than half of the funds usually provided by the US, when the White House releases its final budget proposal on Thursday:

State Department staffers have been instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent in U.S. funding for U.N. programs, signaling an unprecedented retreat by President Donald Trump’s administration from international operations that keep the peace, provide vaccines for children, monitor rogue nuclear weapons programs, and promote peace talks from Syria to Yemen, according to three sources.

The push for such draconian measures comes as the White House is scheduled on Thursday to release its 2018 budget proposal, which is expected to include cuts of up to 37 percent for spending on the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign assistance programs, including the U.N., in next year’s budget. The United States spends about $10 billion a year on the United Nations.

It remains unclear whether the full extent of the steeper U.N. cuts will be reflected in the 2018 budget, which will be prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget, or whether, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has proposed, the cuts would be phased in over the coming three years. One official close to the Trump administration said Tillerson has been given flexibility to decide how the cuts would be distributed.

Earlier, Republicans had objected to news of steep cuts to the State Department budget, even when it appeared that much of those cuts would hit foreign-aid programs. The overall budget reduction was rumored to be 37%, a figure that immediately drew opposition from Mitch McConnell. “I’m not in favor of cutting what we call the 150 account by that amount,” McConnell said, adding that such cuts would “probably not” pass the Senate. Lindsay Graham called the idea “dead on arrival” when the cuts were left unspecified. “This budget destroys soft power, it puts our diplomats at risk and it’s going nowhere.”

The pushback apparently helped Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Politico reported late yesterday that the White House revised its cuts to State and USAID, stretching them out over several years rather than all at once, after Tillerson lobbied Trump for a second look:

The State Department budget won’t be getting cut as deeply as President Donald Trump initially suggested after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson successfully pushed back with the White House, according to people familiar with the plans.

The budget blueprint expected later this week will still trim funding for both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development next year, but by less than the 37 percent initially floated in preliminary documents sent out by the White House in late February.

The budget revision is expected to include “staged cuts” spread out over several years, instead of the immediate hit, according to a senior administration official, who said that the White House is giving Tillerson time “to do a deeper analysis on foreign aid.”

Both of these stories got published nearly at the same time, which suggests some horse trading took place on proposals for deep cuts. Tillerson could have saved State’s own programs and personnel with offers to shift more of the cuts onto the UN. Given the immediate and sharply negative reaction to the topline budget proposal numbers, Tillerson would have had some leverage in those negotiations, especially since the UN is so unpopular among Republican voters — and they’re not alone, according to a Rasmussen poll from last month:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 50% of Likely U.S. Voters favor a major cutback in how much money the United States gives to the UN. Thirty-three percent (33%) are opposed, while 17% are undecided. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Sixty-eight percent (68%) of Republicans and a plurality (49%) of voters not affiliated with either major party favor major cuts in UN funding. Just 35% of Democrats agree.

If Rasmussen’s polling is accurate, this “major cutback” (as the question frames the policy) will be broadly popular. Majorities or pluralities support a major cutback in all demographics except among Democrats (35/42), self-professed liberals (27/50), and those earning above $200,000 (33/43). Those numbers in opposition are hardly dominating in those demographics, and it’s not tied strongly to Trump either; even those who “somewhat disapprove” of Trump support a major funding cutback by a 48/20 margin. (Those who “strongly disapprove” oppose that policy 18/57.) The most interesting demo is race, in which “other” actually supports a major cutback (54%) slightly more than white voters (50%), and a plurality of black voters do also (43/33).

Given the breadth of support for major cutbacks of UN funding, a budget that retains much of it over White House objections may become a real headache for Senate Republicans — especially if Tillerson winds up advocating for those cuts. While presidential budget proposals rarely form the basis of Congressional budget language, this particular issue will get a lot of attention from a lot of voters, and Mitch McConnell et al had better figure out how to deliver on a significant portion of those cuts.

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