Obama administration demands UN reform -- but won't threaten to withhold funding

With presidential elections looming, the Obama administration has launched a high-profile campaign in favor of belt-tightening at the United Nations -- but without the threat of withholding U.S. funding for the sprawling world organization.

The aim, at least in part, is to preempt even tougher action proposed by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, which calls for selective U.S. funding cutoffs unless specific demands for U.N. reform and transparency are met.

Unlike the Republican proposals, the administration’s campaign, spearheaded by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. for Management and Reform Joseph Torsella, explicitly rules out withholding of U.S. financial aid and counts on persuasion to propel its agenda of efficiency, transparency and openness. Whether U.N. bureaucrats and their developing world supporters will be impressed remains to be seen.

Torsella’s effort -- and even his appointment -- nonetheless represents a sea change on the part of the administration, which did not even have a full-time diplomat assigned to the reform effort until Torsella was sworn in last April. Even so, Torsella’s expertise in the area is newly minted: prior to his swearing in, he was head of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education. Prior to that, he served as founder and head of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Currently, the U.S. pays 22 percent of the U.N. Secretariat’s $5.2 billion regular biennial budget, and 27 percent of peacekeeping, as well as greater or lesser amounts of a host of other programs. Last year, the State Department said the U.S. gave U.N. funds, programs and agencies about $7.4 billion, but that may still understate U.S. largesse.

Among the main elements of the reform campaign:

-- significant future cuts in the fast-expanding, multibillion-dollar U.N. “regular” budget; and a “comprehensive reform” of the U.N.’s “broken” budget process.

-- a pay freeze for top U.N. officials, mirroring a freeze in existence for top U.S. civil servants ordained in 2010, and a staff reduction through attrition to “right-size” the bureaucracy by 2015. The U.S. first tried to get the freeze installed last September; instead, top U.N. officials in New York got a roughly 3 percent pay hike.

-- a comparative study of “seriously distorted” U.N. pay for senior officials, who now earn, according to U.S. calculations, nearly 130 percent of their U.S. equivalents, and a “new look” at U.N. benefits ranging from health care to vacations to pensions.

-- greater scope and protection for the U.N.’s internal watchdogs to look into waste, fraud and mismanagement, and publicly air the results, along with greater openness in U.N. budget proceedings.

-- a louder and more public effort to keep human rights and nuclear proliferation outlaws like Iran and North Korea out of U.N. committee chairmanships and other key positions -- roles they have recently won.

-- a coordinated effort by the relative handful of U.N. donor countries -- roughly a score pay most of the U.N.’s bills -- to force the hydra-headed U.N. bureaucracy to focus on better results and “real world outcomes,” as Torsella put it, rather than bureaucratic process.

Click here for the full U.N. reform agenda.

Just how convincing the reform campaign will be is unclear. The hidebound, bloated and inefficient U.N. is already suffering, according to internal documents obtained by Fox News, from a “crisis in confidence” in the 43,700-member organization headed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has been assembling his own variations on a reform agenda.

Ban, however, is largely responsible for the U.N. hiring binge that the U.S. now wants to restrain.

At the same time, he has been publicly excoriated by key U.N. budget committees for a “failure of management” in the continuing fiasco of a high-tech, $315 million computer and software system that is supposed to be the key to future U.N. management reform. The project, adrift for more than a year, is now three years behind its original schedule and not slated for completion until 2015.

Deploying 21st century information technology to improve the U.N.’s performance is nonetheless another mainstay of the Obama administration’s reform offensive.

Ban was also rebuffed by U.N. member states in a bid to gain greater authority over the micromanaged U.N. budget process by increasing his ability to move unspent money around in the organization at his own discretion to meet new or unexpected needs. The U.N. General Assembly currently allows Ban to spend up to $10 million that way each year; Ban had asked for an increase to $15 million. A key U.N. budget oversight committee said Ban had not put forward “any new arguments or rationale” for his case.

For its part, Ban’s office maintains that his proposal has not been rejected and will be taken up again in April. “We therefore have to await the related discussion and the resulting outcome,” a spokesman for Ban told Fox News.

So far, the biggest victory claimed by Torsella and his U.N. reformers is a slight reduction in the U.N.’s recently passed biennial “regular” budget, to $5.15 billion for 2012-2013.

It was, Torsella told the Washington branch of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations late last week, “the first U.N. regular budget since 1998 that’s gone down in comparison to the previous budget’s actual expense.” Torsella said the cut amounted to a 5 percent U.N. budget decrease compared with the previous biennium, and at least a $260 million saving.

Torsella’s comparison, however, is slightly misleading. U.N. spending totals have always tended to grow through a process of programming creep as the budget cycle progresses. Compared to the starting, rather than the ending, point of the 2010-2011 budget cycle, the new U.N. proposal is only about $44 million, or 0.8 percent, lower than at the same point in the previous cycle. All the remaining savings are still speculative.

The administration is “taking baby steps forward” on the U.N. reform agenda, says Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. financing at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s still not nearly what we need to see.” U.S. claims that it has successfully held the line on U.N. spending in the current budget, he adds, are “jumping the gun.”

The administration’s transparency agenda has also not fared well out of the starting gate. An effort by the head of the U.N.’s watchdog Office of Internal Oversight Service (OIOS) to post all of her units audits publicly online was held up by what Torsella called “a small group of member states,” though the U.S. Mission to the U.N. claims to post most of them on its own website.

The last posted OIOS audits on the USUN website yesterday, however, dated from September 2011, and the posting was not comprehensive.

Whatever its limitations, the administration’s reform effort has been loudly backed by such pro-U.N. groups as the lobbying subsidiary of the Better World Fund, originally funded by billionaire Ted Turner to further the U.N.’s agenda, and whose board is heavily studded with current and former U.N. officials and officeholders. (Many of the same board members also sit on the board of the U.N. Foundation, which Turner also chairs, and which fund-raises and creates partnerships to support U.N. initiatives.)

All of those groups vociferously oppose any notion of using U.S. financial contributions to the U.N. as a club in the reform effort.

Exactly the opposite approach, however, is taken by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House International Affairs committee, and one of the world organization’s sharpest congressional critics, who insists that “the U.N. is fundamentally flawed and needs fundamental reform, not tactical tinkering.”

“While I appreciate Ambassador Torsella’s efforts,” she told Fox News, “from the beginning the administration’s strategy has fallen short of the fundamental reforms we need.” It “does not use our strongest leverage -- our contributions -- to demand real change. To the contrary, the administration surrenders our leverage by insisting that we pay our contributions to the U.N. in full, no matter what. As long as this continues, real reform efforts are destined to fail.”

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News and can be found at Twitter @GeorgeRussell

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