July 9, 2004

July 9, 2004 | Backgrounder on International Organizations

Forging Freedom Coalitions to Promote U.S. Priorities in the United Nations

The United States has vast and varied national interests in every region of the world. To protect and advance its interests, the U.S. must expend enormous resources and time in bilateral and multilateral initiatives to support desirable outcomes and counter undesirable ones. A key venue for analyzing support for U.S. diplomatic initiatives is the United Nations General Assembly, which conducts discussions and adopts resolutions on critical issues of peace and security, terrorism, disarmament, economic and social development, humanitarian relief, and human rights. A country's record in General Assembly non-consensus votes is one means of measuring its support for U.S. priorities. It also provides some important guidelines for a strategy to elicit greater support for U.S. foreign policy objectives. For example:

  • Foreign assistance has not led recipients to support U.S. positions in the United Nations. On the contrary, most recipients of U.S. assistance vote against the U.S. more often than they vote with it on non-consensus ballots.
  • Countries are more likely to support positions advocated by the U.S. if they are economically free, as measured by the Index of Economic Freedom.1 The freer a country is, the more likely it is to vote with the U.S. on non-consensus ballots.
  • Governments considered politically free by Freedom House's annual publication, Freedom in the World,2 are more likely to support U.S. positions on non-consensus votes in the General Assembly than less free countries.

As nations become freer, both politically and economically, the policies that they consider to be in their interests become more closely aligned with policies championed by the U.S.--not because they are U.S. policies, but because they are policies consistent with the interests of free societies. To bolster support for U.S. policies internationally--and in the General Assembly in particular--America should seek to create coalitions among economically and politically free nations that already share many values and principles with America. Furthermore, America should increasingly focus its foreign assistance on promoting political and economic freedom in recipient countries, because countries with these freedoms are more likely to support U.S. priorities.

Foreign Aid Fails to Promote U.S. Policies at the U.N.

One measure of how strongly America's foreign assistance programs support U.S. priorities is the degree to which aid recipients vote with the U.S. in the General Assembly. Historically, the United States has been largely unsuccessful in eliciting support for its position in non-consensus votes3 in the General Assembly. Following the Cold War, the United States enjoyed a honeymoon with the U.N. during which it steadily gained support for its positions on non-consensus issues, culminating in a voting coincidence of over 50 percent in 1995. Since then, however, voting coincidence with the U.S. has declined steadily to 25.5 percent in 2003--a level fairly consistent with the average over the past few decades.4 The U.N. practice of "one nation, one vote" allows the many U.N. members with repressive economic policies or political systems to "vote together to block not only sensible ideas of economic development, but also proposals for U.N. reform that would loosen their hold on U.N. decision-making in areas of budget and economic development."5 Worse, these repressive governments exert pressure through regional voting blocs to dissuade countries that would otherwise be more receptive to U.S. positions from voting with the U.S.

Unlike U.N. Security Council resolutions--which all U.N. member states are obligated to obey--General Assembly votes are non-binding. However, General Assembly votes do influence public perceptions in many countries and are often characterized as the "will of the international community." Unfortunately, recent General Assembly sessions have seen a wide array of proposals floated that, if adopted and enforced, could wreak significant damage on the global economy and U.S. interests. As noted by Assistant Secretary of State Kim R. Holmes, "Our diplomats and negotiators spend huge amounts of time trying to prevent such ideas from gaining international legitimacy through U.N. resolutions or decisions."6 This situation requires the U.S. to pay attention to General Assembly votes and seek to influence them in favor of its interests.

A potentially effective lever for increasing support is America's foreign assistance. Unfortunately, America has made little effort to use foreign aid to support U.S. priorities in the U.N. On the contrary, most major recipients of U.S. foreign assistance vote against the U.S. more often than they vote with it. (See Table 1.)

  • Over the past four sessions of the U.N. General Assembly, 86 percent of U.S foreign aid recipients voted against the U.S. a majority of the time.
  • Of the 23 largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid that have voted during the past four sessions, 20 countries voted against the U.S. a majority of the time on non-consensus votes.


The United States should disburse most foreign assistance to directly support American interests.7 However, aid recipients face no consequences for failing to support U.S. priorities. Disbursement of U.S. economic and military assistance over the past four years is not significantly correlated with the recipients' support of U.S. policy positions in the General Assembly during that period. Nor are there indications that the Department of State weighs such support when deciding among potential recipients.

Military assistance can be excused for this disconnect. Support of U.S. interests is clearly preeminent in the provision of military assistance, which is overwhelmingly used to provide equipment and training for America's allies or to nations and goals deemed vital to America's security interests--such as the Pan Sahel Initiative, designed to help recipients combat terrorism. America's military concerns are often in unstable areas of the world and require cooperation with governments that are less-than-ideal partners. Here the choice is between different facets of support for U.S. interests--one in the U.N. and one around the world. In an ideal world, recipients of military assistance would bolster U.S. security in both arenas, but securing support in just one of the two is justifiable. If U.S. interests are not advanced in either realm, assistance should be reallocated to better support U.S. interests.

Ties between development assistance and American interests, however, are more tenuous. Arguably, such assistance would support U.S. interests if it demonstrably contributed to higher standards of living in poor nations (Wealthier nations are generally more stable and likely to become economic partners with America). Unfortunately, development assistance has a dismal record in catalyzing economic growth. The U.S. disbursed nearly $259 billion (constant dollars) in development assistance between 1980 and 2001.8 Yet the people in many of these countries are no better off today in terms of per capita gross domestic product (GDP) than they were decades ago; some, in fact, are poorer. From the U.S. alone, countries such as Honduras and Malawi have received economic assistance equivalent to half of their 2001 GDP (all data in constant terms) over the past two decades, but per capita GDP in those nations has fallen over that period. Specifically, of the 77 countries that received economic assistance between 1980 and 2001 that amounted to at least 1 percent of their 2001 GDP (constant dollars), and for which per capita GDP data are available:9

  • Thirty-three experienced a decline in real per capita GDP.
  • Fifteen experienced negligible real growth--less than 1 percent compound annual growth--in per capita GDP.
  • Only 29 experienced real compound annual growth in per capita GDP exceeding 1 percent. Of those, only 8 countries saw growth over 3 percent.

The failure to elicit economic growth is tragic. A low-income country with a per capita income of less than $1 per day (such as Burkina Faso or the Central African Republic) must see a real compound growth in per capita income of approximately 5 percent for 15 years to reach the World Bank defined level of lower-middle-income status (per capita income of $746). To reach upper-middle-income status (per capita income of $2,976), it would have to experience real compound growth in per capita income of over 5.5 percent for 40 years.10 Instead, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic have seen real growth in per capita GDP of 1.25 percent and -0.98 percent, respectively.

Clearly, development assistance has failed to facilitate development reliably. Combined with the demonstrated failure of U.S. assistance to engender support for U.S. policies in the U.N., this should lead policymakers to reassess America's traditional means of disbursing development assistance and to examine options for increasing its effectiveness in catalyzing growth and rewarding support for U.S. priorities.

Freedom Is a Key Indicator of Support

While foreign assistance has little impact on the voting patterns of recipients, the level of a country's political and economic freedom is a key indicator of support for U.S. policy positions. The probability that countries will side with the United States in the U.N. General Assembly on non-consensus votes increases as a country's political and economic freedom increases, as measured by Freedom in the World 2004 (published by Freedom House) and the 2004 Index of Economic Freedom (published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal).

Economic Freedom
The Index measures economic freedom in 155 countries according to their performance on 10 economic factors--including government intervention in the economy, trade policy, tax policy, and regulation. Scores range from 1 to 5, with 1 being the most free and 5 being the least free. The overall economic freedom score is calculated by averaging the scores for each of the 10 factors.11 Analysis of voting patterns reveals that economically "free" countries voted with the U.S. more often than "mostly free" economies. Similarly, "mostly free" economies are more likely than "mostly unfree" economies to vote with the U.S., and "mostly unfree" countries are more likely than "repressed" economies to vote with the U.S. During the 58th session of the General Assembly, the non-consensus voting patterns of the 152 countries (for which data on economic freedom and voting records are available) were as follows:

  • Countries ranked "free" in the 2004 Index voted with the United States 41.8 percent of the time;
  • Countries ranked "mostly free" voted with the U.S. 29.4 percent of the time;
  • "Mostly unfree" countries voted with the U.S. 20.5 percent of the time; and
  • Countries with "repressed" economies voted with the U.S. only 16.2 percent of the time.

Charts 1 and 2 illustrate the relationship between economic freedom and voting with the U.S. on non-consensus issues in the General Assembly. Chart 1 shows a positive correlation between these two factors. As economic freedom increases, voting coincidence with the U.S. also increases. Chart 2 averages the voting coincidence of the 143 countries (for which data are available) over the past four sessions of the General Assembly by category of economic freedom. This chart clearly demonstrates a positive relationship between countries' level of economic freedom and their support of U.S. positions in the General Assembly. The rate of voting with the U.S. in economically free countries is more than twice that of economically repressed countries.



Political Freedom
Analysis reveals similar voting patterns for countries according to their level of political freedom, as measured by Freedom House in its annual study, Freedom in the World. Freedom House awards points for 10 questions on political rights and for 15 questions on civil liberties. The total points are used to determine two numerical ratings between 1 to 7, which are then averaged to determine a status category of "free," "partly free," or "not free."12 Analysis of voting patterns reveals that politically "free" countries voted with the U.S. more often than "partly free" countries. Similarly, "partly free" countries were more likely to vote with the U.S. than "not free" countries. As with economically free countries, politically free countries were far more likely to concur with U.S. positions during the 58th session of the General Assembly.

  • Countries ranked politically "free" voted with the United States on non-consensus votes 34.8 percent of the time,
  • "Partly free" countries voted with the U.S. 20.9 percent of the time, and
  • "Not free" countries voted with the U.S. only 16.2 percent of the time.

As Chart 3 shows, the relationship between political freedom and voting with the U.S. on non-consensus issues in the General Assembly over the past four sessions is consistent with the results from the 58th session. As with economically free countries, politically free countries are more likely to vote with the U.S. on non-consensus General Assembly ballots than less free countries. Politically "free" countries vote with the U.S. more than twice as often as politically "not free" countries.


Why do these patterns exist? Experience and common sense lead to the obvious conclusion that nations vote according to their national interests in the United Nations. Indeed, the organization is a microcosm of international relations. As nations become freer, both politically and economically, the policies that they consider to be in their interests become more closely aligned with policies championed by the U.S.--not because they are U.S. policies, but because they are policies consistent with the interests of free societies.13

What the U.S. Should Do

The United States has been losing ground in the United Nations. Although it is unrealistic to expect every nation in the U.N. to follow America's lead (even America's strongest allies will not agree with the U.S. on every vote), the U.S. can and should be more effective in championing its positions in the General Assembly by bolstering diplomatic efforts with policies designed to increase receptivity to America's positions.

Patterns of General Assembly voting indicate that U.S. development assistance is neither effectively rewarding countries that support U.S. priorities in the U.N. nor being withheld from countries that oppose U.S. priorities. Analysis reveals that freer countries (both politically and economically) are more likely than less free countries to support positions taken by the U.S.--regardless of the amount of assistance received. America should recognize these realities and take several specific steps to increase its chances of garnering support for U.S. positions in the General Assembly.

  • Focus traditional assistance on economically and politically free countries. Since World War II, the United States has provided more development aid to the world than any other country. Yet, decades of foreign aid have failed to lift recipients out of poverty. The few examples of successful development indicate that the keys to development are good economic policy and a strong rule of law--not foreign assistance. The Bush Administration's new Millennium Challenge Account seeks to address the failures of traditional development assistance by focusing aid on countries committed to ruling justly, investing in health and education, and promoting economic freedom. By encouraging countries to adopt these policies, the United States would not only support the best means for recipients to escape poverty, but it would also increase the number of countries that share America's regard for economic and political freedom--values that should translate into greater support for the U.S. both in the U.N. and around the world.
  • Seek support for an economic freedom coalition within the U.N. A key element in increasing support for U.S. positions in the United Nations is to lessen the influence of regional voting blocs over the voting practices of individual member states. These blocs tend to defend the interests of the least free members of the blocs. A plausible strategy for accomplishing this goal, as proposed by Assistant Secretary of State Holmes, is to create an "economic freedom alliance" among nations of all regions that have a demonstrable record of economic freedom.14 Such a coalition would serve U.S. interests by offering alternative voting relationships beyond regional groupings and would facilitate common principles that both developed and developing countries could champion.
  • Support efforts to establish a voting bloc based on political freedom in the U.N. There are numerous countries in the U.N. that are considered politically free.15 Yet these nations routinely fail to hold less representative governments accountable for their lack of freedom. Even worse, they frequently permit repressive governments to run roughshod over U.N. bodies and resolutions designed to highlight or curb human rights abuse and political repression. A case in point is the ability of the despotic governments of Cuba and Sudan to gain seats on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights despite far freer candidates in their regions. To improve the democratic deficit, cooperation among the real democracies at the U.N. must be improved. As noted by Assistant Secretary Holmes, "[T]he decisions of international organizations become more democratic--more representative of the people affected, more transparent, and more accountable--when more democracies are involved. Those democracies should strive to make sure their work is bolstering democracy among member states."16 The U.S. needs to support efforts to coordinate votes and uphold the efforts of democratic states in the U.N. to champion political freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. The U.S. and its democratic allies should denounce actions by regional groups that clearly undermine the cause of representational government, the rule of law, and basic human rights.


President George W. Bush expressed a fundamental principle integral to America's sovereignty and security when he declared, "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country."17 The United States cannot subjugate its foreign policy decisions to the vagaries of international support. However, unilateral action is not always the best avenue for protecting American interests and the U.S. should do all that it can to bolster support for America's policies in the United Nations.

Clearly, foreign assistance has done little to meet this goal, as evidenced by the voting records of America's leading recipients. Instead, the United States should focus on changing the dynamics of the U.N. by forging coalitions with nations that share the American principles of political and economic freedom and seeking to expand the membership of those coalitions by focusing development assistance on countries with demonstrable records of improving political and economic freedom. While the U.N. will never be an echo chamber for U.S. policies, forging coalitions with nations that share values with the U.S. can go a long way toward advancing American priorities.

Brett D. Schaeferis Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs and Anthony B. Kim is a Research Assistant in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.





1. Marc A. Miles, Edwin J. Feulner, Jr., and Mary Anastasia O'Grady, 2004 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 2004), at www.heritage.org/research/features/index/downloads.html.

2. Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004: Global Freedom Gains Amid Terror, Uncertainty, at www.freedomhouse.org/research/survey2004.htm (June 28, 2004).

3. In the 2003 session, the General Assembly adopted 288 resolutions, of which only 77 were adopted without consensus. This analysis of General Assembly voting patterns ignores consensus decisions because these issues generally do not adopt language of substance and contribute little to determining support of U.S. decisions. See U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, "Introduction," in Voting Practices in the United Nations, 2003 , March 31, 2004, p.3, at www.state.gov/p/io/rls/rpt/c12061.htm (June 28, 2004). By law, the State Department is required to analyze and discuss "important votes." These are defined as votes on "issues which directly affected United States interests and on which the United States lobbied extensively." The State Department provides this analysis and justification for inclusion of individual votes in this category in Voting Practices in the United Nations, 2003 , p. 119-150. Both non-consensus votes and important votes are considered in Table 1 and the Appendix of this paper.

4. The all time low was 15.4 percent in 1988. U.S. Department of State, "Introduction," p. 3.

5. Kim R. Holmes, "Promoting Economic Freedom at the United Nations," Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 823, February 24, 2004, at www.heritage.org/Research/TradeandForeignAid/hl823.cfm.

6. Ibid.

7. A notable exception is humanitarian assistance provided for relief from natural disaster or famine.

8. U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants and Assistance from International Organizations: Obligations and Loan Authorizations, July 1, 1945-September 30, 2001, CONG-R-0105 , at www.dec.org/pdf_docs/PNACR900.pdf (June 28, 2004).

9. While experts may disagree about the impact of an additional dollar of development assistance on economic growth, development aid advocates unanimously call for increased assistance and commonly blame insufficient levels of assistance for the lack of growth among recipients. Thus, this analysis excludes countries that received an insignificant amount of assistance between 1980 and 2001 (cumulative aid over that period totaling less than 1 percent of their 2001 GDP). World Bank, World Development Indicators Online, 2004, at www.worldbank.org/data, and U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants and Assistance from International Organizations.

10. The World Bank, "Classification of Economies," in Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries (Washington, D.C.: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 2003), pp. 219-223.

11. William W. Beach and Marc A. Miles, "Explaining the Factors of the Index of Economic Freedom," Chapter 5 in Miles, Feulner, and O'Grady, 2004 Index of Economic Freedom.

12. Freedom House, "Survey Methodology," in Freedom in the World 2003: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, at freedomhouse.org/research/freeworld/2003/methodology.htm (June 28, 2004).

13. These patterns hold even though the overall level of voting coincidence with the U.S. on non-consensus decisions has been declining: Freer nations continue to vote with the U.S. more consistently than less free nations.

14. Possible non-Western European members of such a coalition (based on the 2004 Index of Economic Freedom classifications) include Armenia, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Bolivia, Botswana, Cape Verde, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and other nations judged "free" or "mostly free." For a full listing, see the Appendix. See also Holmes, "Promoting Economic Freedom at the United Nations."

15. For a full listing, see the Appendix.

16. Kim R. Holmes, "Democracy and International Organizations," remarks to the World Federalist Association and Oxfam, Washington, D.C., December 5, 2003, at www.state.gov/p/io/rls/rm/2003/26949.htm (June 30, 2004).

17. George W. Bush, "State of the Union Address," January 20, 2004, at www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/01/20040120-7.html (June 28, 2004).

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Anthony B. Kim Research Manager, Index of Economic Freedom, and Senior Policy Analyst
Center for Trade and Economics (CTE)