It was inevitable that a triumphant Republican government in Washington, D.C., would sooner or later launch an assault on the United Nations. A near-unanimous UN Security Council resolution on Dec. 23 condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinians’ land provided the trigger. That the administration of President Barack Obama stood aside with an abstention, allowing a 14-0 vote to go through, added fuel for Israel’s supporters in the Trump transition team and the United States Congress.
“Things will be different after Jan. 20th,” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, noting the date of his inauguration and implicitly promising that such a Security Council vote will never happen under his watch.
Meanwhile, calls in the US Senate for a “repeal” of the nonbinding resolution are circulating, along with threats of retribution. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, intends to introduce a measure in Congress to cut funding for the UN, though he seems unclear about what will be cut, since the US pays both assessed dues and numerous voluntary contributions. He also seemed to be focused on the 22 percent of the UN’s operating budget. No doubt his intentions will be clarified as he builds momentum for his anti-UN movement on Capitol Hill.
Graham is reported to have met with incoming UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, and has talked with his fellow South Carolinian, Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been nominated as Trump’s ambassador to the UN.
“I anticipate this vote will create a backlash in Congress against the United Nations,” Graham said in a statement. “The United Nations will regret this vote.”
Graham’s statement repeated arguments made by Israel many times in the past. “The organization is increasingly viewed as anti-Semitic and seems to have lost all sense of proportionality,” Graham said. “I will do everything in my power, working with the new Administration and Congress, to leave no doubt about where America stands when it comes to the peace process and where we stand with the only true democracy in the Middle East, Israel.”
Speaking in an interview with CNN, he added: “If you can’t show the American people that international organizations can be more responsible, there is going to be a break. And I am going to lead that break.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who posed a serious challenge to Trump during the Republicans’ primary campaigns, chimed in with a tweet, saying, “No US $ for UN until reversed.” Neither Cruz nor Graham is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but are major political figures.
A rising tide of resentment against the UN is not limited to foreign policy choices. On Capitol Hill, there are strong opponents of the landmark 2015 climate agreement, opposition to LGBT rights and for safe abortion across the UN system and dislike of the Human Rights Council and the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, among other grievances.
Campaigns against the UN are almost inevitably based on misconceptions — or deliberate distortions — of how the UN is structured and how it works, and American voters are easily swayed by unsubstantiated accusations. First, a secretary-general, the chief administer of the UN Secretariat and the international civil service, has no control over the Security Council. He carries out an advisory role to the council only, reporting on global crises involving peacekeeping and other urgent topics.
Under the UN Charter, the council operates as one of five major quasi-independent bodies that comprise the UN system. The council has five permanent members assigned as diplomats by their national governments — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — and 10 elected nations serving staggered two-year terms. Nobody on the council is a UN official.
So, “punishing” the UN because of a council vote is far off target. To influence the council, governments pressure other governments who hold council seats. That is a problem in itself.
One of the UN’s staunchest critics, John Bolton of the American Enterprise Institute, understands how the UN works. He served briefly as US ambassador to the organization under George W. Bush, bringing with him a long-held, genuinely philosophical rejection of institutionalized internationalism, with some exceptions.
Writing in The Times of London in November, he reflected on similarities between the British “Brexit” vote to withdraw from the European Union and the factors behind the election of Trump. He also described what he saw as the heart of the problem in not only the Security Council but also in the General Assembly and UN agencies. In turning to a system that can be sclerotic — and there are UN officials who agree — he looked to the government members with the power to block change on a whim.
“Much of what has marginalized the UN for decades is inherent in the international political system,” he wrote. “National interests continue to dominate in UN decision-making and that will never change. At best, the UN’s chief political bodies, especially the Security Council, will reflect the larger world. At worst, which is unfortunately all too often, the peculiar cultures of UN enclaves such as Geneva and . . . New York make UN deliberations more otherworldly and irrelevant than most outsiders can imagine.”
“The sprawling United Nations system . . . provides the most dramatic opportunity for change in international organizations,” he continued, drawing in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as well as regional development banks, most of which he thinks could be privatized. “Proposals to reform the UN and its affiliated bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF are almost endless. The real question is whether serious, sweeping reform of these organizations (which make Nato decision-making processes look like the speed of light) is ever possible.”
Bolton was considered as a possible deputy secretary of state until his moustache may have annoyed Trump, who also met opposition from Republicans wary of Bolton’s harsh public style. But Bolton would still be listened to by those on a mission against the UN for whom “punishing” the organization may not be enough.
Trump, who always has the last word — and the most ominous insult — tweeted on Dec. 26: “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.