Don’t Miss a Story: Subscribe to PassBlue
Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.
Unable to win converts with fake facts, Nikki Haley has turned to threats to persuade her fellow United Nations diplomats to support her boss’s incendiary foreign policy.
Haley tested this novel approach to counter a General Assembly vote on Dec. 21 aimed at pressuring President Trump, the fellow who appointed her as his UN ambassador, to reverse his recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the President and U.S. take this vote personally,” Haley wrote to some UN delegations on Dec. 19, adding that Trump “will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those countries who voted against us.”
Echoing this message, Trump told reporters the next day at the White House: “I liked the message that Nikki sent yesterday at the United Nations to all of those nations that take our money and then they vote against us in the Security Council, they vote against us potentially at the assembly. They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars and then they vote against us. Well we’re watching those votes. Let ’em vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”
The president has made no secret of his longtime desire to slash UN funding. But his unilateral Dec. 6 shift on Jerusalem reversed nearly seven decades of American foreign policy and injected uncertainty into an international consensus that the ancient city’s final status could be determined only through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel seized East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War and has occupied it ever since, declaring the entire city to be its eternal and indivisible capital. But the international community has never recognized that step; instead, it has adopted a series of Security Council and General Assembly resolutions envisioning the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Haley was visibly infuriated by the strong international reaction to Trump’s decision, insisting that Washington was merely recognizing reality and routinely exercising its sovereignty in announcing an eventual new location for its embassy, which is now in Tel Aviv. She said that Trump had done no damage to the peace process and nothing to prejudice Jerusalem’s final status.
But apart from the US and Israel, almost every other nation in the world vigorously disagreed with her interpretation. The Arab world was particularly critical, calling for a new leader for future peace efforts that left Washington on the sidelines. Despite Trump and Haley’s insistence that the move was no big deal, no other country has formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or opened an embassy there. (Russia recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this year while affirming its commitment to East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state.)
Haley quickly launched an aggressive campaign to counter the global outrage, but suffered her first setback on Dec. 18, when she had to veto a Security Council resolution, put forward by Egypt, calling on Washington to reverse itself on the Jerusalem move. All 14 of the Council’s other members supported the resolution, and it was the first US veto in the Council in six years.
Supporters then called for a vote in the 193-nation General Assembly, where resolutions carry less weight but Washington has no veto. Haley reacted through Twitter, Trump’s preferred avenue for conducting foreign policy, with her initial threat of retaliation.
“At the UN we’re always asked to do more & give more. So, when we make a decision, at the will of the American ppl, abt where to locate OUR embassy, we don’t expect those we’ve helped to target us,” she tweeted. “On Thurs there’ll be a vote criticizing our choice. The US will be taking names.”
Her bullying promise to take names repeated a pledge she made during her first week on the job in New York: “[F]or those who don’t have our backs, we’re taking names.”
Speaking just before the Assembly vote, Haley ramped up the threat. Noting that the US was the biggest contributor to the UN budget, she said Washington saw the lack of support on Jerusalem as a sign of “disrespect” that would be considered in future funding decisions. The international reaction would turn the American people against the UN, she predicted.
“The United States will remember this day when it was singled out in the United Nations for the act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation,” she told the Assembly on the morning of the vote, Dec. 21, about an hour before it took place [see video below]. “This vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN and on how we look at countries who disrespect us at the UN. And this vote will be remembered. . . . [W]e have an obligation to acknowledge when our political and financial capital is being poorly spent.”
Israel’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, also defending Trump’s decision, complained of the irony of Arab leaders denouncing Washington for violating international law while failing to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli targets.
“Those who support today’s resolution are like puppets pulled by the strings of the Palestinian puppet masters,” he said.
But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who traveled to New York from Ankara for the vote, focused on what he termed the “undignified” US attempts at “bullying” other UN members. “We will not be intimidated. You may be strong but this doesn’t make you right,” he said.
The US threats appeared to have little impact, as the resolution was ultimately approved by an overwhelming 128 to 9. But 35 nations abstained — including Argentina, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Poland and Romania — most likely a result of some governments’ fears of retaliation. (Moreover, 21 countries did not vote at all).
Joining Israel and the US in voting no were Guatemala, Honduras, Togo and the tiny Pacific Island nations of Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Among European Union nations, which typically are among the closest US allies and vote as a bloc, 22 voted in favor while 6 — primarily in Eastern Europe — abstained.
The resolution, while not mentioning Trump or the US by name, stated that any actions intended to alter Jerusalem’s status “are null and void and must be rescinded” in line with relevant Security Council resolutions. It urged all governments to refrain from establishing “diplomatic missions” in Jerusalem.
The far-reaching, rapid international response to the US policy shift on Jerusalem should have been no surprise to Washington. Global disputes over the Middle East are a regular occurrence at the UN and typically go through the Security Council, where they are vetoed, then continue on to the General Assembly.
But broad US threats to cut off aid over UN members’ votes are rare. True, Trump has long been critical of US spending on the UN, and this vote may have given him ammunition to slash America’s funding in the near future, if he so desires.
Yet while Washington has periodically threatened this or that nation with funding cuts over a policy difference, such a dispute usually doesn’t surface at the UN. The last time Washington tried to use foreign aid as a blunt weapon in New York may have been in 2003, when President George W. Bush sought Security Council support for invading Iraq over allegations of Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction. But Bush’s threats came to nothing after the US effort failed and the US invaded anyway, triggering more than 14 years of war and profound embarrassment when no weapons were found.
Trump’s unilateral shift on Jerusalem may have been most significantly weakened on the international stage by his inability to demonstrate that he had given it much consideration before he made his decision. The new policy’s emergence seemed rushed and ill thought out, casting Trump as the architect of his own PR disaster.
And Haley’s curt dismissal of the relevance of past Council resolutions on Jerusalem could return to haunt her as the international debate continues on her handling of separate crises in Iran and North Korea. In those situations, Haley has pointed to past Council measures as the gold standard for defining international misconduct.
When Washington itself ended up in the crosshairs over alleged resolution violations, however, Haley turned to crude threats to try to sway world governments from taking up the charges.