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Did Trump try to lose today’s United Nations vote on Israel?

- December 21, 2017
Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks on the floor of the General Assembly on Dec. 21 in New York City before the vote condemning Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate its embassy there. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday adopted a nonbinding resolution that condemns the United States for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. The vote was 128 in favor, with 9 against and 35 abstentions.

The United States lobbied hard and publicly to sway governments. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, tweeted and wrote in an open letter to other ambassadors that the United States would be writing down the names of countries that voted against it. Later, President Trump doubled down on that threat:

[T]hey take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars and then they vote against us. Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.

Politicians and media outlets around the world were quick to condemn the Trump administration for trying to bully countries to support the United States. Yet the Trump administration should know public threats may backfire in multilateral diplomacy over Israel.

Another way to interpret the bluster is that the Trump administration wants to appear isolated in the U.N.

Public threats can give countries reasons to do what the U.S. tells them not to do

The United States has a long and at least partially successful history of buying U.N. votes with foreign aid. Typically, the United States communicates carrots and sticks privately. Buying votes is frowned upon, even at the U.N. Issuing public threats may make it harder for some governments to vote with the United States.

The European Union, G77, African Union and other organizations try to carve out common positions on controversial U.N. resolutions. When faced with public pressure, these groups may double their efforts to form a cohesive bloc.

What’s more, each country’s domestic politics influence its position significantly. In most countries, both Trump and Israel are unpopular. Choosing Israel’s side is difficult for many governments in normal times. It becomes even more difficult when combined with a public threat by an unpopular U.S. president.

Some anecdotal evidence suggests the threats may have had such adverse effects. For example, the Canadian government apparently changed its vote from a “No” to an “Abstention” out of fear it would be perceived as a “U.S. puppet.” The Bolivian U.N. ambassador proudly proclaimed Bolivia would be the first name Haley should write down. The public threat made it all but impossible for Western European European Union countries to abstain from the resolution. Only Eastern European countries led by right-wing governments ended up abstaining.

The Trump administration has good domestic reasons to try to look tough

The U.S. administration’s hardball strategy has a domestic politics rationale as well. Standing up for Israel remains popular among Americans — and especially Trump supporters.

The United Nations is unpopular, especially among Republicans. In 2017, only 16 percent of Republicans agreed the United Nations is doing a good job solving problems. Foreign aid is also much less popular among Republicans than Democrats.

Even though much of the posturing is over domestic politics, this doesn’t mean there won’t be foreign policy consequences. The vote may provide the administration with an excuse to cut off funding to the U.N. and its agencies. There could also be consequences for foreign aid to some governments. The United States gives most of its aid for strategic reasons. Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are the largest aid recipients. The United States understands the latter four countries cannot vote for Israel for domestic political reasons. These countries are unlikely to be cut off. Strategically less important aid recipients may be at risk. Indeed, the favorable domestic politics makes Trump’s threat more credible for these countries.

So  did the Trump administration threats affect the votes?

The vote results suggest the U.S. threats may have moved some smaller countries to abstain or vote no. Countries such as Togo, Guatemala and several Pacific islands voted with the United States. Some larger countries, like Ukraine, simply refused to take part in the vote. Perhaps they feared upsetting either side in the debate.

Answering the question whether the threat affected the vote is more complex. When I ran a simple regression analysis, I did find countries that received significant (at least 0.05 percent of GDP) military or economic aid from the United States were somewhat more likely to vote against, abstain or be absent from the resolution (although the amount of aid did not matter, nor did aid dependence). Yet, for the most part, countries voted the way they always vote on resolutions regarding Israel. I examined 16 resolutions on the Palestinian question the U.N. has voted on this year. Israel voted against all of them. The United States abstained twice. I then computed a score of agreement with Israel (an abstention counts as 0.5).

The graph above plots all countries by their recent voting history on Israel. Most countries that already regularly vote with Israel abstained or voted no. There are some notable exceptions (such as Ghana). There are also some countries that (almost) never vote with Israel and that abstained on the Jerusalem vote, such as the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Jamaica and Fiji. These are the countries that are most likely to have been affected by the threat. This suggests the threat may have worked especially for aid recipients where Israel is not a major domestic issue and/or where governments are more favorably disposed toward Trump.

We cannot exclude the threat having disparate effects. Perhaps it made some countries, such as Ghana, Britain and Canada, less likely to abstain while making other countries more likely to abstain or to refrain from voting altogether. Private diplomacy may have achieved the latter without the former. The public threat made good domestic political sense.