Report

Nikki Haley’s Loyalty Test Backfires

The U.S. ambassador’s threat to punish states for voting against the U.S. at the U.N. didn’t work out so well.

U.N. General Assembly votes overwhelming to reject President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital on December 21, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
U.N. General Assembly votes overwhelming to reject President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital on December 21, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In her first day on the job, Nikki Haley issued a stern warning to her U.N. colleagues from the lobby of U.N. headquarters: back American initiatives at Turtle Bay or face unspecified consequences. There was a new sheriff in town, Haley made clear, and she “would be taking names” of those who crossed the United States.

The combative phrase, which Haley has used time and again to underscore Washington’s expectation of loyalty, reflects a deeply held view by President Donald Trump and his U.N. envoy that the United States is not shown the respect it deserves as the organization’s biggest financial backer. But Haley’s strategy has failed to broaden support for American positions at the U.N.

In her first year as U.S. ambassador, the U.S. has lost support in the United Nations, with only 31 percent of States voting alongside the United States on controversial resolutions before the U.N. General Assembly, the lowest number since 2008, when states voted 25 percent of the time alongside President George W. Bush’s administration. During the final year of the Obama administration’s states voted with the United States 41 percent of the time, according to a recently published State Department report on U.N. voting practices.

The voting outcome raises questions about the effectiveness of Washington’s use of threats to secure international backing for its policies. But Haley has not chosen to hide from that record. On the contrary, Haley has embraced it, highlighting the gap to justify the need for more punishment.

“We care more about being right than popular,” Haley said in a statement issued last week. “President Trump wants to ensure that our foreign assistance dollars – the most generous in the world – always serve American interests, and we look forward to helping him see that the American people are no longer taken for granted.”

As part of that effort, Haley’s office recently produced an internal paper, made public by Foreign Policy, proposing a sweeping reassessment of U.S. foreign assistance with a view to punishing dozens of poor countries that vote against U.S. policies at the U.N. The move followed a U.S. decision, actively championed by Haley, to cut tens of millions of dollars in assistance to Palestinian refugees in retaliation for their government’s opposition to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Some conservatives have advocated conditioning foreign economic assistance to countries’ voting records at the United Nations since the early 1980s, when the idea was first championed by the then U.S. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Their argument was that U.S. development assistance had a “dubious” impact on improving conditions in poor countries, so withholding such assistance would have little impact on a country’s well-being.

The get-tough approach obscures a reality that Haley and the State Department have actively minimized.

The vast majority of U.N. member states act overwhelming alongside the United States on most resolutions adopted by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. Last year, 230 of the 323 resolutions adopted in the General Assembly were adopted by consensus, meaning the U.S. joined forces with the entire membership. The remaining 93 resolutions — typically more controversial measures dealing with issue from the Cuban embargo to a raft of resolutions denouncing Israeli practices — were forced to a vote.  If you combine all resolutions adopted by consensus with those out to a vote you would see the U.S. acting in line with the rest of the membership about 80 percent of the time. In 2015, the U.S. acted alongside the rest of the U.N. membership 84.1 percent of the time.

“The stark numbers contained in the report don’t reflect the fact that countries agree with the United States the vast majority of times,” says Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, a U.N.-advocacy group.

But Haley, who didn’t mention consensus-based resolutions in her statement on voting practices, and the State Department, have highlighted the differences rather than similarities. In its annual report on voting records, Trump’s State Department introduced a new voting methodology that widened the gap between the U.S. voting record.

In the past, the State Department counted not only the final vote on a resolution by the U.N. General Assembly resolution, but also votes on similar measures before key U.N. committees. By that standard, countries voted alongside the United States 37% of the time, rather than the 31% cited in the report.

A State Department official pointed out that the U.S. updated its methodology “to better capture more accurately the voting conduct of U.N. member states.” The official added that the voting records of states at the U.N. “will be an important element, but not the sole element, considered as future decisions are made” about whether to provide assistance.

Though no matter how you interpret the figures, support for U.S. positions has dwindled under Haley’s watch.

In an interview Monday,  Brett Schaefer, an expert on the U.N. at the conservative Heritage Foundation,  defended the U.S. approach, saying that including consensus votes in the overall tally provides a “false” impression of support for American positions because such votes typically involve routine, non-controversial issues.”like adopting a resolution on World Bicycle Day.” Resolutions adopted by vote, he added, almost always involve matters where the member states either agree or disagree on substance.

He also says it is too early to judge Haley on the effectiveness of the strategy of conditioning assistance on support for U.S. policies because the administration has yet to finalize its internal deliberations on its policy on foreign assistance. Haley, he said, “would be better judged by her ability to turn votes once the administration decides to use foreign assistance to support U.S. policies in the U.N. Hopefully, this happens in 2018.”

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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