In a 1998 episode of The Simpsons, cinematic bad boy McBain—a pastiche of action heroes from pre 9/11 Hollywood played by Arnold Schwarzenegger stand-in Rainer Wolfcastle—lifts a cargo pallet above his head from the back of a burning airplane after an attack. Buttons popping from his chest, he throws the cargo from the aircraft, uttering a solemn vow: "They won't stop me from delivering these UNICEF pennies."
This scene perfectly encapsulates the longtime cultural perception of UNICEF, the international children's aid organ established by the United Nations in the bloody aftermath of World War II. The "Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF" campaign came in 1950, and for nearly 60 years it became the most enduring image of the agency, which billed those little penny boxes as an "all-American tradition."
And yet, the fiscal year 2020 budget request released by the White House this week eliminates an entire line item that provides funds for U.N. humanitarian and development programs.
The White House requested exactly $0 for the International Organizations and Programs budget line item, according to a U.N. Dispatch report. The budget vehicle, which funnels government funding to U.N. programs like UNICEF, the U.N. Development Program, the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, and other humanitarian programs, had chewed up $339 million in the White House's FY2018.
The proposal comes amid two years of budget proposals that have drastically slashed parts of the United States' overall annual contributions to the U.N., which fell from $10 billion (or a fifth of the U.N.'s operating budget) in 2016 to a requested $1 billion for the Department of State's Contributions to International Organizations budget. In addition, the Contributions to International Peacekeeping Activities line item that essentially underwrites U.N. military operations is facing a major blow even as a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres indicated that the cuts "would simply make it impossible for the U.N. to continue all of its essential work advancing peace, development, human rights, and humanitarian assistance."
The retreat from global leadership follows suit with prior decisions by the Trump administration, whose cultural base is tinged with with a streak of economic globalism. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2017, abandoned the INF Treaty that helped end the ballistic- and cruise-missile arms race of the Cold War, and reportedly raised the prospect of pulling out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization multiple times. Trump even used his remarks at the U.N. General Assembly in September to blast the "ideology of globalism" as a threat to the country despite relative support for it among the American public.
"Each of us here today is the emissary of a distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on Earth," Trump said. "That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination."
Trump's U.N. screed, and pulling of funding from UNICEF, is a telling indicator of how he sees power—and how he misunderstands the historic role of U.S.-support for the U.N.
Foreign aid and engagement through international institutions like the U.N. have historically been a valuable tool of both global legitimacy, and national security. Consider the 1954 Food for Peace Act, whose mission to boost foreign food assistance for trade purposes evolved into, as President John F. Kennedy put it in 1960, "a helping hand to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want." Former senior U.S. military leaders have argued for the essential relationship between food insecurity and the politico-economic instability that ferments terrorism; even the White House's own 2017 National Security Strategy explicitly stated that it would continue to support "food security and health programs that save lives and address the root cause of hunger and disease"—the very programs that its FY2020 budget does away with.
Under Trump, the U.S international goodwill has waned, according to the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy Soft Power index—and not just due to distaste with the "America First" mantra, but also the administration's retreat from the country's historic role as a political and cultural hegemon beyond mere military might. "The largest driver of global public opinion on a given country is how it conducts itself in the world. Essentially, is it a force for good or a force for ill in the world?" the USC report says. "Given the strain that 'America First' has put on the rules-based international order, answering that question of the US is not so straightforward."
This is deeply unsurprising. After all, Trump sees the international stage as a crude war of all against all, one best fought alone with a sword and shield; when it comes to playing with others, his proposal that long-time U.S. allies pay for the pleasure of an American troop presence is more akin to a protection racket than a formal alliance. Peace is won, according to Trump, by having a bigger sword and shield than the other guy—or by negotiating better terms from a valued business partner.
Trump may see himself, ironically, as McBain, besieged on all sides by great powers while on a critical mission for humankind. At least McBain saved the pennies.