The UN General Assembly sent a message from the world to the Trump administration yesterday—and it wasn’t pretty. Despite dire threats to countries voting against the United States, a huge majority of countries called Trump's bluff to condemn Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The vote was overwhelming against the U.S. position—128 countries voted to condemn, only 9 opposed, and 35 abstained.
The United States, with its uncritical support of Israeli violations, has long been criticized at the UN. But Thursday's vote reflects the profound global antagonism that the Trump administration has caused and indeed embraced. And once again U.S. protection of Israel is the basis for Washington being so thoroughly isolated at the UN.
Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflects the centrality of Israel in his Middle East policy. It was driven by Trump's eagerness to placate his right-wing Christian Zionist base and to please his key donor, the Israel-can-do-no-wrong casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
"The willingness of 128 countries to defy the Trump administration’s threats speaks to the potential for the United Nations to reclaim its role as a central venue for challenging U.S. power—at least when most countries are prepared to unite in that challenge."
The decision was taken despite its potential to undermine the regional anti-Iran alliance being orchestrated by Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. That dangerous effort would actually threaten an even greater possibility of new war in the region—but the Trump administration has openly backed the Saudi campaign.
The Jared-Mohamed bromance hoped to build a coalition against Iran including publicly normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. That would have required reassuring Arab leaders and especially people across the Arab world that the Palestinians were somehow being taken care of, that Israel was no longer a problem. That meant they needed a new "peace process" even if it was based on completely unacceptable terms. Now, Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital makes new negotiations far more difficult for the Saudi leadership to claim. Even Saudi Arabia voted to condemn its erstwhile U.S. partner.
While the language was far more insulting—including Trump’s dismissive "we don't care" statement regarding the impact of cutting aid to impoverished countries—Trump's bullying response to the General Assembly condemnation is consistent with earlier U.S. practices at the UN. Ambassador Nikki Haley's warning that "we're taking names" of countries daring to vote against Washington, and Trump's threat to cut aid to those countries, were both taken straight out of earlier U.S. playbooks. Both Bush presidents, father and son, used bribes, threats and punishments against any country that dared defy U.S. interests at the UN.
George H.W. Bush, desperate to win Security Council support for war against Iraq in 1990, bribed Ethiopia, Colombia and Zaire with new aid packages and previously prohibited weapons. China's abstention (to prevent a veto) was purchased for new long-term U.S. aid and post-Tienanmen Square diplomatic rehabilitation. When Yemen voted against war, the U.S. ambassador announced "that will be the most expensive 'no' vote you ever cast"—and Washington cut all aid to Yemen, then as now the poorest country in the Arab world.
In 2003, just a day before the United States launched war against Iraq, the General Assembly was considering a vote against the looming war. To head it off, Bush Junior threatened UN member states in almost the same words Nikki Haley used this week. A faxed note sent to almost all governments in the Assembly read, "the United States would regard a General Assembly resolution on Iraq as unhelpful and as directed against the United States. Please know that this question as well as your position on it is important to the U.S."
Fourteen years later Haley would ominously warn, "As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the president and U.S. take this vote personally."
The willingness of 128 countries to defy the Trump administration’s threats speaks to the potential for the United Nations to reclaim its role as a central venue for challenging U.S. power—at least when most countries are prepared to unite in that challenge. Many of those 128 are poor, dependent countries whose leaders must have been afraid of what many in the UN still refer to as the “Yemen Precedent.” But perhaps they also had in mind another period of UN history—when the UN joined global social movements and civil society, as well as numerous governments, in refusing to endorse a criminal and immoral war. Washington threatened Security Council countries then as they threaten the Assembly now—with loss of aid, with an end to trade deals, and more. But the Council stood firm. And for eight months, in 2002 and 2003, the United Nations stood "against the scourge of war" as its Charter demands. For eight months it stood instead for peace, for justice, for international law. Maybe someday it will do so permanently—for peace, for justice, and even Jerusalem.