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Despite sequester, State Department ups support for the UN

Even as the mandated sequester bites into U.S. federal spending -- and newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry boasts that he is cutting his budget by 6 percent -- the State Department is planning to boost spending on the United Nations in 2014 by more than 4 percent to at least $3.6 billion.

That is likely to be far from the final tally of Obama Administration support, as hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. development, health and other funds are usually channeled through U.N. agencies and institutions -- with the U.N. agencies taking administrative fees as part of the deal. The most recent tally on the website of the White House Management and Budget website, for example, lists support for the U.N. at $7.7 billion -- in 2010.

Nonetheless, the portions that are sprinkled across various areas of  State’s 2014 budget—which, like the rest of the administration’s proposed budget, must still face Congressional approval-- are impressive, at least in terms of their hikes over previous years.  

The projected spending increase for the New York-based U.N. Secretariat, for example, is an 8.6 percent hike, to $617.6 million, compared with 2013. It represents the U.S.’ 22 percent annual share –the highest by far of any country--of the Secretariat’s “regular” budget covered by dues levied on richer member states.

When a broader array of U.N. affiliated agencies, listed under “Contributions to International Organizations,” are added in to the Secretariat support, the U.S. planned contribution climbs to $1.2 billion -- a still significant 4.5 percent hike in an age of enforced American domestic austerity.

Meantime, proposed U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping are also taking a big  hike, to $2.09 billion, up more than a quarter-billion dollars, or 13.9 percent, from 2013, and an even more impressive 14.6 percent since 2012.

One reason: there has been an increase this year in the annual share of global peacekeeping expenses that the U.S. bears, from 27.14 percent to 28.36 percent, even as a number of peacekeeping missions close or shrink.

But there have also been expanded, and unexpected, increases in U.N. forces in Libya, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, to name a few. The State Department budget also contains, among other things, an optimistic $50 million item to support a “U.N. presence in Syria.”

Even those total big-ticket categories, of course, vastly understate the amount of money that the U.S.. showers on the U.N. each year, which includes food aid, health and humanitarian assistance that are channeled through U.N. agencies, which claim administrative fees for handling the aid -- though often not especially well. 

Just as important as the overall amount, however, are the Administration's priorities, in a $47.8 billion budget that Secretary of State Kerry, in an 8-page introductory letter, calls “a reflection of priorities and hard choices in a difficult fiscal environment.” (Interestingly enough, the term “United Nations” does not occur even once in the letter.)

This time, even some of the much smaller priority streams of U.S. funding through U.N. channels may prove controversial.

Among them: an Administration renewal of its campaign to give about $77.8 million next year to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, an annual contribution that Congress cut off in late 2011 when the organization gave full member-state status to Palestine over strong U.S. objections. The State Department tried to restore the money in 2012, but failed.

This time, in fact, the Administration hopes to give far more money to UNESCO even than the budget openly advertises.

Buried in a footnote to the 190-page State Department is the news that if the Administration can coax Congress into granting a waiver to the freeze, State hopes to hand over the money it did not provide in 2012 and 2013, which could amount to another $135 million.

Both the main UNESCO contribution and the largesse in the footnote are  bad ideas, according to those who argue that such concessions as the UNESCO recognition help to keep Palestinians from seriously joining the bargaining table with Israel to achieve a lasting Middle East peace settlement.

“The only reason that Palestine has not extended its push for recognition with other U.N. organization is the threat of the loss of U.S. funding,” says Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. finances at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If congress gives in to State’s budget request, we would be giving a signal for just such a diplomatic offensive.”

Other small elements of the State Department’s proposed U.N. tally may also evoke outsized controversy.

State Department contributions to “International Organizations and Programs” include a 30 percent hike, to $13 million, for the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose assessments of global warming have been sharply criticized by skeptics.

Secretary of State Kerry is, if anything, more fervent than President Obama himself in his support of urgent—and expensive—action to combat “climate change.” As he puts it grandly in his introductory budget letter, “We must have the foresight and courage to make the investments necessary to safeguard the most sacred trust for our children and grandchildren: an environment not ravaged by rising seas, deadly superstorms, devastating droughts, and the other hallmarks of a dramatically changing climate.”

Another proposed budget increase that may spark controversy is a 22.5 percent hike in financing, to $37 million, for the U.N. Population Fund, whose espousal of abortion has drawn fire from the right-to-life movement.

On the other hand, not every line item in the State Department’s request is a bigger number than the previous year.

The $5.7 billion United Nations Development Program, for example, which has been chided by its own internal evaluators as not especially good at relieving poverty, comes in for an 18 percent cut in funding, to $67 million (the number, however, does not include U.S. anti-poverty and development aid channeled through the organization).

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell.

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