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70 years of United Nations voting in one graph (and two apps)

- September 27, 2015
Graph by Erik Voeten based on: https://erikvoeten.shinyapps.io/IdealPointsUN

The United Nations celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The world body is many different things to many different people. One of its most basic functions is that it provides a building in which the world’s leaders voice their shared concerns as well as their vehement disagreements. President Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are among the many world leaders who will give speeches on Monday to open this year’s session. They will surely congratulate the United Nations on its achievements, highlight the many common purposes the organizations serves, and then set out diametrically opposing views of how the world’s ills can be cured.

The graph above summarizes how the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) have voted over the United Nations’ 70-year-old history (or, actually, 69, as this year’s session is just starting). The further the lines are apart, the less alike two countries’ voting records were in a given year.  The “ideal points” are the U.N. equivalent to estimates of how liberal or conservative member of Congress are. In the first 45 years, these reflect state positions in the Cold War conflict. Since the end of the Cold War, they roughly correspond to agreement with a U.S.-led world order. If you are interested in the methodology, check out this article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. All the data are here.

Here is a short version of the 70-year story. The Cold War dominated the United Nations for the first few years, although issues of colonialism also took center stage in the 1950s and 1960s, explaining the gap between the United States and France and Britain. Initially, the average U.N. member state was quite close to the U.S. ideal point. The United Nations was a body where the United States could often get its way. That changed with the introduction of many new member states (decolonization) and the changing structure of global politics. Now the United States is further removed from the U.N. average than any other state, in no small part thanks to the many votes on the Middle East and Israel.

The graph clearly shows that the Soviet Union changed course when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought Russia (the new permanent representative) even closer to the United States. Yet, under Putin, Russia has moved away again. Still the world is currently less polarized than it was during the Cold War, when the gap between the United States and its main great foe was much larger and there was a large gap between the two blocs.

The People’s Republic of China did not take its U.N. seat until 1970. Before that it was held by Taiwan (the Republic of China). China aligned itself with many developing nations and tried to stay on the sidelines of the Cold War in the U.N. It moved away from the United States after the Tiananmen Square protests but moved slightly toward the Western position later in the 1990s.

There are many other stories to be told. This app allows you to pick your favorite countries and display their U.N. voting histories on a similar graph. A different app (in beta) lets you search through the history of contested U.N. General Assembly resolutions and display the votes on a map of the world. For example, the map below shows how countries voted on a resolution regarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. But the app also allows you to research the intricacies of divisions over the 1956 Suez Canal crisis or self-determination on the Comorian island of Mayotte, if you were so inclined.

Voting on R/68/262, Territorial Integrity of the Ukraine. Created using https://erikvoeten.shinyapps.io/UNVoting/

Voting on R/68/262, Territorial Integrity of the Ukraine. Created using https://erikvoeten.shinyapps.io/UNVoting/

The United Nations can be faulted for many things. But, to paraphrase Richard Holbrooke, blaming it for when states disagree is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly. Still, the purposes of a political arena are a bit more ambitious than that of a basketball arena. One would hope that the United Nations’ decision-making bodies ultimately allow for more peaceful resolutions of conflicts and other beneficial outcomes than there would be in their absence. Here, the history is clearly a mixed bag, and one that is too complex to address in the confines of a single blog post. Perhaps these apps help provide a bit of historical context to what we will witness over the next few weeks.