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OPINION

Peacekeeping should trump a parade

By RICK NOACK | The Washington Post | Published: August 17, 2018

After President Donald Trump announced his intention to host a military parade in Washington this year, critics compared the plans to the dreams of a despot, complained about them being too focused on Trump himself and questioned the costs of any such endeavor.

On Friday morning, Trump tweeted that he had canceled the parade for this year amid spiralling costs, but indicated that it was potentially still on for 2019, if costs went down. “Now we can buy some more jet fighters,” he wrote.

The Associated Press had previously reported that a parade in Washington would have cost $92 million, or three times as much as initially predicted by the Trump administration. If such a parade — or a somewhat smaller version of it — were to be held next year, what sort of message would it send?

One year ago, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced cuts of roughly $570 million to the U.N. peacekeeping budget — of which the United States would have shouldered 28 percent, or roughly $160 million. This year, the budget decreased further as some missions were shuttered, with the United States again saving about the same amount as last year.

This is part of a general reduction in U.S. expenditures abroad, including a call to slash the foreign aid budget by a third, which was later thwarted by Congress. Now my colleagues reported that the Trump administration is using other means to take back more than $3 billion in already approved foreign aid in an effort to curb such spending.

The problem is, experts, including many former military officers, are pretty sure that money spent on diplomacy and international institutions saves U.S. lives in the long run.

So rather than hold that parade, would the money be better spent if it was used to restore some of that cut funding for U.N. peacekeeping missions that almost invariably use non-American troops?

The United States has decreased its annual U.N. peacekeeping contributions by almost $300 million since Trump took office. Roughly a third of those savings would now be spent on his parade instead (though of course the money comes from different departments).

Defending his parade, Trump has argued that the Veterans Day event would honor the millions of U.S. servicemen and women who have risked their lives for the country. The cuts to the U.N., meanwhile, are justified on the grounds that the missions are vastly overfunded.

“I have seen value in the U.N., and at the same time the U.N. has fat around the edges,” Haley said last year.

But in reality, U.S. cuts have already resulted in peacekeeping missions being scaled back. Despite recurrent violence, the U.N.’s Darfur mission has been cut significantly and could be closed down entirely. Similar measures were imposed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the humanitarian situation has worsened since.

Most critics of Trump’s military parade argue that there’s certainly nothing wrong with honoring U.S. servicemembers. But such plans seem a bit incongruous as the United States is slashing budgets that contribute to greater security around the globe without risking U.S. lives.

In 2017, more peacekeepers lost their lives than at any other point of time over the last two decades.

“Peacekeeping has a price. So, we cannot go too far in reducing our resources; we have to have adequate resources for the implementation of our mandate, particularly as we are doing all these efforts to adjust to these difficult security conditions that we’re facing today,” Jean-Pierre Lacroix, undersecretary-general for the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations, said in July.

A common but false assumption about U.N. peacekeeping funding is that the United States can simply reduce its contribution share unilaterally. In fact, it has an obligation to fund 28 percent of peacekeeping costs — a ratio set by a committee and based on economic strength and Security Council membership. To reduce expenditure without violating those obligations, the overall budget must be reduced. In other words: By reducing its own costs, the United States has caused a ripple effect that has allowed China, Russia and all other nations to also spend less on missions that are securing peace.

“U.N. peacekeepers play a really vital role in protecting civilians from violence, whether that’s violence perpetrated by armed groups or perpetrated by communal groups or sometimes even violence by the government itself against its own population,” Aditi Gorur, director of the nonpartisan Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program at The Stimson Center, told Voice of America last year when the cuts were first announced.

The U.N. peacekeeping system is far from perfect, which is why officials have launched a number of initiatives to stop abuse and sexual exploitation committed by U.N. peacekeepers. But in many cases, U.N. peacekeepers are doing jobs in conflict zones where the United States would otherwise have been under pressure to put boots on the ground.

The United Nations only contributes $1,428 per month and soldier out of its budget. That’s quite a lot in India. Compared to what deploying U.S. troops would cost, it’s still a bargain and ultimately might be more useful than a parade.

Rick Noack is a foreign affairs reporter who covers Europe and international security issues from The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau.

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