Over the past year, President Donald Trump and Ambassador Nikki Haley, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, have expressed frustration that countries that receive generous amounts of foreign assistance from the United States consistently vote against the U.S. at the United Nations. As President Trump stated in the 2018 State of the Union address:
I recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Shortly afterwards, dozens of countries voted in the United Nations General Assembly against America’s sovereign right to make this recognition. American taxpayers generously send those same countries billions of dollars in aid every year. That is why, tonight, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America’s friends.
The President reiterated this desire in his 2018 address to the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA). This is neither a new complaint nor a new proposal. Over the past 40 years, the United States has been in the minority of most votes in the UNGA. Major recipients of U.S. assistance are among the countries that support America the least. This is concerning because, while not all votes in the UNGA are important to U.S. interests, some resolutions address key U.S. interests, and being on the losing end of these votes can hinder U.S. policy objectives.
This trend led previous U.S. officials, notably Ambassador Haley’s predecessor Jeane Kirkpatrick, to track voting trends and seek authority to use U.S. assistance to shift voting patterns to coincide more with the policy positions of the U.S. In 1983, Congress instructed the U.S. Department of State to prepare an annual report on the frequency with which other countries vote with the U.S. overall and also to include votes “on issues of major importance to the United States in the General Assembly and the Security Council.” At the same time, Congress mandated that voting coincidence at the U.N. be taken into account when allocating U.S. assistance, although the provision was rescinded in 1990.
Analyses of U.S. assistance allocation provide conflicting results on whether the U.S. aid allocation has influenced U.N. voting among recipients. However, as a policy, the U.S. did not systematically implement a policy of adjusting assistance based on U.N. voting. Unsurprising, voting coincidence with the U.S. has remained low and largely unchanged since Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s tenure. Since 1983, voting coincidence in the UNGA has averaged just over 34 percent on overall non-consensus votes, and a bit over 49 percent on “non-consensus important votes.”
If Congress and the Administration seriously wish to use U.S. assistance to promote U.S. priorities at the U.N., they should restore the requirement that U.N. voting be taken into account in allocation of U.S. assistance. However, experience indicates that this is insufficient. To advance this goal more effectively, the President should propose, and Congress should support, legislation to:
- Restore the legislative requirement that U.N. voting be a mandatory consideration in aid allocation. While the U.S. uses its foreign assistance to advance a number of goals, advancing U.S. interests in the U.N. must rank highly. Failing to include this goal among the 400 legislative directives currently governing U.S. foreign assistance allocation is imprudent in the extreme.
- Amend the statute on the report on voting practices at the United Nations. Congress should amend the statute to require inclusion of foreign assistance data and a summary of specific actions to take U.N. voting into account in allocation of assistance.
- Identify—in advance—resolutions that address issues important to key U.S. foreign policy or security interests so that other nations understand which votes could affect U.S. assistance decisions.
- Set aside 10 percent of the Economic Support Fund and authorize the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. to use it to reward countries that support the U.S. at the U.N. Efforts to influence U.N. votes are more likely to be successful if the carrot of rewarding countries that shift positions toward the U.S. complements the stick of cutting funds to countries opposing U.S. positions.
- Communicate U.N. voting priorities in capitals. The U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., the State Department, and U.S. embassies must work jointly to highlight important U.N. votes in New York, Geneva, and Vienna and explain clearly that opposing the U.S. will affect the bilateral relationship, including future assistance and cooperation.
If it is to increase support for its priorities at the U.N., the U.S. must hold nations more accountable for their actions at the U.N. in the overall diplomatic relationship and use available tools, including foreign assistance, to reward support and sanction opposition when votes are cast on issues critical to U.S. interests.
History of U.N. Voting Coincidence with the U.S.
In the 73-year history of the United Nations, the membership has undergone considerable change. In size, the membership increased nearly fourfold from the original 51 members in 1945 to the current 193 member states. Early on, a majority of the U.N. membership was democratic or Western in orientation. However, the balance shifted as membership expanded to include newly independent countries that more closely aligned with the Soviet Union or formed new ideological groups, such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961, the Group of 77 (G-77) in 1964, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, now named the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in 1972.
In the early years of the U.N., before the founding of these groups, countries voted in the UNGA either to support Eastern or Western interests in the Cold War, or, on issues not central to that conflict, acted independently. Often, the U.S. was able to engage governments individually on specific resolutions to attract support.
However, after the establishment of alternative groups like the NAM and G-77, the number of issues subject to bloc voting broadened beyond core Cold War rivalries. Moreover, these groups emphasized bloc unity and solidarity and, as a result, members began voting more consistently within blocs to heighten their influence. In practice, this created a logrolling dynamic wherein countries that had little interest in the substance of a resolution adhered to a group position favored by countries that had a strong interest in the resolution in order to benefit from bloc voting on other resolutions in which they had a strong interest.
Significant overlap in the membership of the OIC, the NAM, and the G-77 amplifies the impact of bloc voting: 64 countries are members of at least two of the three groups, and 49 countries are members of all three. This overlap facilitates extension of positions in one group to the others. For instance, while the OIC lacks the numbers of the G-77 and the NAM, most of its members are also members of these groups, and the OIC can influence those groups to support OIC positions on Israel. In addition, there is also a strong tendency in the U.N. for regions to vote together as blocs. This often reinforces the solidarity of ideological groups because the G-77, OIC, and NAM member countries comprise a majority of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. These regions together include over 70 percent of U.N. member states.
The size of these voting blocs is important because, under General Assembly rules, a simple majority (97 votes out of 193 member states) is sufficient to pass most resolutions. Decisions on “important questions” as specified in the U.N. Charter, such as approving the U.N. budget, require approval by a two-thirds majority (129 votes out of 193 member states).
It is very easy for these groups to use the advantage of their numbers to push or block various resolutions and reforms. The NAM (119 member states) can pass most resolutions in the UNGA if members vote as a bloc. Even more numerically powerful is the G-77, which, with 133 member states, accounts for over two-thirds of the UNGA and can pass any resolution if members vote as a bloc.
Bloc voting has made it more difficult to convince governments to vote with the U.S. on resolutions if the majority of the ideological or regional group or influential members have an opposing position. Voting coincidence with the U.S. began to erode in the late 1960s and early 1970s driven in significant part by the rise of NAM and G-77 bloc voting as the U.S. saw its diplomatic overtures “rebuffed with the explanation that states could not vote against consensus positions.” The trend led Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan to write in 1975:
This is our circumstance. We are a minority. We are outvoted. This is neither an unprecedented nor an intolerable situation. The question is what do we make of it. So far we have made little—nothing—of what is in fact an opportunity…. In Washington, three decades of habit and incentive have created patterns of appeasement so profound as to seem wholly normal. Delegations to international conferences return from devastating defeats proclaiming victory…. It is time we grew out of our initial—not a little condescending—supersensitivity about the feelings of new nations. It is time we commenced to treat them as equals, a respect to which they are entitled.
Several years later, Ambassador Kirkpatrick echoed this frustration in her 1983 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Ambassador Kirkpatrick argued that the majority of the U.N. member states had become desensitized to U.N. voting and consideration of issues, which they saw as largely meaningless and divorced from the real world outside Turtle Bay. Most countries, she maintained, were willing to let the “few who see a chance to roil the waters” run the U.N. agenda because the U.S. was not paying attention to their votes. According to Ambassador Kirkpatrick:
In my view, we cannot and should not maintain the compartmentalization that traditionally has separated our bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. We need to communicate to nations that their votes, their attitudes, and their actions inside the U.N. system inevitably must have consequences for their relations with the United States outside the U.N. system. We must communicate that it is not possible to denounce us on Monday, vote against us on important issues of principle on Tuesday and Wednesday, and pick up assurances of our support on Thursday and Friday.
Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s testimony convinced Congress that the U.S. needed to pay more attention to voting in the U.N. Congress passed legislation in 1983 instructing the U.S. Department of State to submit an annual report to Congress on the voting practices of individual nations to ascertain how often they voted with the U.S. The reporting requirement has remained in place since then, although Congress replaced the original law with new legislation in 1990, and amended it in 2004.
The data show that U.N. voting coincidence with the U.S. has remained relatively steady since Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s 1983 testimony. As illustrated in Chart 1, voting coincidence saw a slow decline beginning in the 1960s, but sharply declined in the late 1970s and has never recovered. Specifically, voting coincidence averaged 68.2 percent between 1946 and 1979, but averaged half that between 1980 and 2017.
Although there has been some fluctuation in the post-1980 period, the data indicate that this variation was due far more to shifts in U.S. policy than shifts in voting by other member states as a whole. When Democrats are in the White House, average annual voting coincidence under the old methodology was 18.6 percentage points higher than when a Republican was President and, under the new methodology, 8.3 percentage points higher.
U.S. Assistance and U.N. Voting
When it first mandated the report on Voting Practices in the United Nations, Congress also adopted legislation that barred assistance to a country that the President finds, based on the contents of voting practices report, to be “engaged in a consistent pattern of opposition to the foreign policy of the United States.” This provision was based on a recommendation of Ambassador Kirkpatrick:
To say that I believe there has to be some linkage between bilateral and multilateral diplomacy should not be taken as meaning I advocate simply turning the economic assistance spigot, or the military assistance spigot, or any spigot at all, on or off solely on the basis of how a country votes in the United Nations…. But I do believe that behavior, including voting behavior, in multilateral organizations like the United Nations should also be one of the criteria we employ in deciding whether we provide assistance, and what type of assistance and in what amount. Most particularly, I am convinced that to make attacks on the United States a risk-free operation can only [have] the effect of insuring that they will take place.
The intent was to use U.S. assistance as a counter-balance to the pressure from ideological or regional groups and create incentives for countries to vote with the U.S. Despite the annual voting report and the legislative requirement barring aid to countries consistently opposing U.S. foreign policy, analyses of the linkage between U.N. voting and U.S. assistance allocation provide “mixed results.” For instance:
- An analysis from 1991 found that “the correlation between aid and compliance between 1985 and 1988 did not change appreciably…. [T]he Reagan administration never fully exercised its discretionary authority granted by Congress and thus did not follow through with its threat to link aid allocations tightly to recipients’ diplomatic conduct.” In fact, according to that analysis, efforts by U.S. diplomats at the U.N. to incorporate voting into aid allocation decisions were opposed by other parts of the U.S. government responsible for the implementation of American foreign policy.
- A 2006 analysis examining U.S. aid allocation to 119 countries from 1960 to 1997 found that U.N. voting was positively correlated with whether a country received U.S. foreign aid, but that the amount received had a slightly negative correlation with U.N. voting.
- A 2008 paper examined data for 143 countries from 1973 to 2002 and found “strong evidence that US aid buys voting compliance in the Assembly. More specifically, our results suggest that general budget support and grants are the major aid categories by which recipients have been induced to vote in line with the United States.”
- A 2017 study examining assistance from 1961 to 2012 concluded that, in the post–Cold War era, the U.S. “systematically provides more bilateral foreign aid to countries that hold an unfavorable position or are moving away from its position.” The authors argue that this as a rational strategy for vote-buying in an era when the U.S. is not competing with a rival for those votes because the U.S. has little incentive to provide additional aid to countries that already support its position. However, when “there is another country with comparable power and opposing interests trying to buy votes in the UNGA, as we can assume was the case during the Cold War, there is an incentive for the United States to provide aid even to those who support its position a priori, in order to counteract the vote-buying of the opposing country.” Arguably, this situation is increasingly relevant with China’s increasing aid profile.
In short, various studies reach different conclusions about the whether the U.S. uses its assistance to influence voting at the U.N. or, if it does so, whether that allocation influenced votes. Conversations with U.S. officials from each of the past six Administrations who would have been involved in decisions on linking U.N. voting to aid allocation perhaps sheds light on this disparity. These individuals could recall a few isolated instances where aid to an individual country was increased or decreased over a position it took in the U.N., but all confirmed that such a policy was not implemented systematically.
U.N. Voting: Most Aid Recipients Vote Against the U.S. Most of the Time
Several times, Heritage analysts have conducted similar analyses of the relationship between U.S. economic and military assistance and U.N. voting. For instance, a 2011 analysis examined U.N. voting and assistance from 2000 to 2010 and revealed that major recipients of U.S. assistance are among the countries that support America the least. It also found no correlation or an insignificant negative correlation between U.N. voting and U.S. assistance. In other words, these analyses found that the U.S. did not systematically use its assistance to influence voting in the U.N.
We conducted a similar analysis for this Backgrounder using voting data based on the new methodology adopted by the U.S. Department of State in Voting Practices in the United Nations 2017. As with the 2011 study, the more recent data show that major recipients of U.S. assistance remain among the countries that support America the least. (See Chart 2.) We also examined the relationship between U.S. development assistance (official development assistance (ODA) plus other official flows reported by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) and U.N. voting using the new methodology, from 2007 to 2017.
The analysis looked at this data relationship from several perspectives: the overall relationship between development assistance funding and U.N. voting coincidence; the relationship between development assistance funding and U.N. voting the year after; the relationship between development assistance funding and U.N. voting the year prior; and the relationship between changes in development assistance funding and changes in U.N. voting. This was to determine whether (1) there was a general relationship between development assistance levels and U.N. voting coincidence; (2) the U.S. pre-emptively adjusted aid to influence U.N. voting in the upcoming year; (3) the U.S. changed aid allocations after voting to reward or punish aid recipients for their votes the previous year; and (4) there was a linkage between changes in aid levels and changes in voting.
Development Assistance and U.N. Voting Coincidence. As was the case in the 2011 paper, the analysis showed no significant relationship between development assistance and U.N. voting coincidence from 2007 to 2016, which is the most recent year that development assistance data are available.
Development Assistance and U.N. Voting the Year After. Over the past 10 UNGA sessions from 2008 to 2017, 141 countries received development assistance from the U.S. in the year preceding the UNGA session. Overall, the relationship between development assistance and U.N. voting coincidence with the U.S. is negative, but statistically insignificant. Specifically, over that period:
- Average voting coincidence with the U.S. among U.S. development assistance recipients the year after receiving aid was 29.2 percent on overall non-consensus resolutions and 45.4 percent on important non-consensus votes.
- On average, the year after receiving aid, 92.2 percent of development assistance recipients (130 out of a total of 141 recipient countries) voted against the U.S. in at least half of overall non-consensus votes, and 64.5 percent of development assistance recipients (91 out of a total of 141 recipient countries) voted against the U.S. in at least half of important non-consensus votes.
- Of these countries, 125 countries received development assistance every year. The voting coincidence with the U.S. among this subset was 29 percent on overall non-consensus resolutions, and 44.9 percent on important non-consensus votes. Thus, on average, regular aid recipients were less likely than were periodic recipients to vote with the U.S.
Development Assistance and U.N. Voting the Year Prior. The overall relationship between development assistance from 2009 to 2016 and U.N. voting coincidence with the U.S. from 2008 to 2015 is negative, but statistically insignificant. Specifically, 126 countries received development assistance from the U.S. in each year after the UNGA session.
- Average voting coincidence with the U.S. among the U.S. development assistance recipients the year before receiving aid was 28.7 percent on overall non-consensus resolutions, and 43.7 percent on important non-consensus votes.
- On average, the year before receiving aid, 92.1 percent of development assistance recipients (116 out of a total of 126 recipient countries) voted against the U.S. in at least half of overall non-consensus votes, and 68.3 percent of development assistance recipients (86 out of a total of 126 recipient countries) voted against the U.S. in at least half of important non-consensus votes.
Changes in Development Assistance and Changes in U.N. Voting. Finally, we conducted an analysis to determine if there was a relationship between changes in U.N. voting and changes in development assistance. First, changes in development assistance from years “a” and “b” were compared to changes in U.N. voting in years “b” and “c,” that is, to determine if changes in U.S. development assistance allocations were influencing votes the year after allocation. Second, the analysis was reversed to determine if changes in U.N. voting from year “a” to year “b” correlated with changes in development assistance allocations from year “b” to year “c,” that is, if the U.S. was adjusting aid levels to reward or punish voting the year prior. In both cases, the analysis separately compared overall U.N. votes and important U.N. votes. This analysis revealed no significant relationship between changes in development assistance and changes in U.N. voting coincidence with the U.S.
If the U.S. has been using assistance to “buy” or influence votes in the U.N., there should be some evidence of correlation between levels of assistance or changes in assistance and voting coincidence. Our analysis finds no such evidence, indicating that the U.S. has not systematically used its assistance to influence voting in the U.N. General Assembly over the past decade or, to the extent that it has tried to do so, it has been ineffective.
Using Aid to Bolster U.S. Priorities at the U.N.
One measure of the influence of U.S. foreign assistance programs is the extent to which they advance U.S. interests. To serve this goal, Congress has enacted hundreds of legislative directives, restrictions, and other guidance on allocation of U.S. assistance. In 2008, Oxfam published a list of 400 such directives covering concerns about the impact of U.S. assistance on: the environment, labor standards, infrastructure, nutrition, disease, small businesses, victims of torture, human rights, independent media, intellectual property, drug trafficking, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, human trafficking, and a host of other issues or subsets of those concerns. The Oxfam list even includes a dozen directives involving the United Nations, but U.N. voting coincidence is not among these 400 directives, since the requirement that U.N. voting be taken into account in allocating U.S. assistance was rescinded in 1990.
The notion that advancing U.S. interests and increasing voting coincidence in the U.N. not be included among the 400 directives covering allocation of U.S. assistance is ludicrous. Of paramount importance is the U.N. Security Council that frequently considers matters of international peace and security. However, while UNGA votes are non-binding, they often are interpreted as the “will of the international community” and influence policy in many countries. Every session, the General Assembly considers resolutions that could damage U.S. interests. This situation requires that the U.S. pay close attention to General Assembly votes and that U.S. diplomats and negotiators spend much time and effort trying to prevent such initiatives from gaining international legitimacy through U.N. resolutions or decisions.
President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address—which highlighted the problem of aid-receiving countries voting against the U.S.’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—illustrates the point: U.S. diplomats should have as many tools at their disposal as reasonable to influence other countries at the U.N., including foreign aid. While U.S. diplomats are skilled at engaging and reasoning with their counterparts, pressure from regional or ideological groupings is deeply established and difficult to overcome. A financial incentive could help tip the balance.
Nonetheless, some have voiced concern that factoring U.N. voting into assistance allocation could undermine other U.S. interests. An American Enterprise Institute scholar noted that major recipients of U.S. aid, such as Afghanistan and Jordan, are in the group that votes against the U.S. most of the time, as are countries suffering from significant humanitarian crises. Similarly, the Center for Global Development cautions that the Administration should weigh the potential gains from “increased foreign policy compliance at the UN” against the potential costs “in terms of disproportionate harm to democracies and the poor, the diminished effectiveness of the aid dollars that are spent, and the possible implications for patterns of global influence.”
These factors, however, have always been part of the discussion. Ambassador Kirkpatrick in 1983 stated bluntly that aid should not be cut off entirely because of U.N. voting, but that “voting behavior, in multilateral organizations like the United Nations should also be one of the criteria we employ in deciding whether we provide assistance, and what type of assistance and in what amount.” As Ambassador Haley has similarly made clear, “U.N. votes should never be the only factor in our foreign aid decisions. We have many interests that go beyond the U.N. But they should be one of the factors, and we are determined to start making that connection.” Reportedly, the proposal drafted by Ambassador Haley emphasizes that, in some cases, security, humanitarian, or economic concerns should take priority over U.N. voting.
Expecting every member of the U.N. to follow America’s lead is unrealistic, of course—even America’s strongest allies do not agree with the U.S. on every vote. Nevertheless, America’s ability to influence votes in the U.N. is in the national interest, and the U.S. could be more effective in championing its positions at the U.N. To advance those positions, the President should propose, and Congress should support, legislation to:
Restore the legislative requirement that U.N. voting be a mandatory consideration in aid allocation. While the U.S. uses its foreign assistance to advance a number of goals, advancing U.S. interests in the U.N. must rank highly. Failing to include this goal among the 400 legislative directives on aid allocation is imprudent in the extreme, considering the serious matters that are increasingly discussed, debated, and decided there. This consideration has increased urgency, considering indications that China is using its bilateral assistance to reward support in the U.N. According to a 2015 study,
there is a statistically significant link between the receipt of highly concessional flows…and voting in line with China in the UN General Assembly. An increase in voting similarity by 0.1 increases ODA by more than 86 percent, and grant funding by 159 percent. The annual number of ODA and grant projects increases by roughly two.
The Secretary of State and the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should be required to meet every year with the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. to receive recommendations on reducing assistance based on U.N. voting records. These discussions should particularly focus on votes in favor of resolutions that clearly target the U.S. or its foreign policy.
Amend the statute on the Voting Practices in the United Nations report. To underscore President Trump’s effort to ensure that “American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests,” Congress should amend the statute on the U.N. voting practices report to require inclusion of foreign assistance data and a summary of specific actions taken to comply with the requirement to take U.N. voting in coincidence into account in allocation of assistance.
Identify, in advance, resolutions that address issues important to key U.S. foreign policy or security interests. Not every U.N. vote is equally important to the United States. Efforts to sway voting will be more effective if the U.S. identifies in advance the votes that it considers important and will weigh when it allocates aid.
Set aside 10 percent of the Economic Support Fund (ESF), and authorize the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. to allocate it to reward countries that support the U.S. in the U.N. Efforts to influence U.N. votes are more likely to be successful if the carrot of rewarding countries that shift positions toward the U.S. complements the stick of cutting funds to countries opposing U.S. positions. The U.S. uses ESF assistance for many purposes, but its overarching goal is to promote the economic and political foreign policy interests of the U.S. Increasing support for the U.S. in the U.N. is an important foreign policy interest of the nation. Ten percent of ESF funding would be $467 million, based on the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget. Although the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. in New York should have authority to allocate these funds, she should solicit input from the U.S. Missions in Geneva and Vienna and consider using these funds to influence high-priority votes in those venues. Although the U.S. Permanent Representative would have the authority to approve allocation of these funds, USAID and the State Department should retain responsibility for implementation.
Communicate U.N. voting priorities in capitals. Sometimes U.S. priorities at the U.N. and communications to U.N. country missions in New York from U.S. officials are not passed on to national governments and therefore do not have the desired effect of changing votes on key issues. Communicating U.S. priorities from the State Department to Washington embassies and from U.S. ambassadors to foreign governments directly can provide an alternative means for messages to reach decision makers in other governments and can help circumvent parochial U.N. politics and bloc voting that can influence votes by country missions irrespective of the wishes of their governments. The U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., the State Department, and U.S. embassies must work jointly to highlight important U.N. votes in New York, Geneva, and Vienna and explain clearly that opposing the U.S. on these votes will affect the bilateral relationship, including future assistance and cooperation.
The U.N. is a political body, and many member states are opposed to key U.S. policies and objectives. Many influential countries in the U.N., particularly in groups like the G-77, see the U.N. as a vehicle for enhancing their influence in order to counterbalance the United States. To counter this pattern, the U.S. must use its influence and resources, including foreign assistance, to reward nations for siding with the U.S. in the U.N. and communicate displeasure when they regularly oppose the U.S. on important matters.
—Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. Anthony B. Kim is editor of the Index of Economic Freedom and Research Manager in the Center for International Trade and Economics, of the Davis Institute
Evolution of the Voting Practices Report
The State Department has submitted the Voting Practices in the United Nations report to Congress since 1984. Each congressionally mandated report covers voting practices for the preceding calendar year. Congress has updated and amended the legislation several times, but each report has, at a minimum, provided data on:
- Voting coincidence of individual countries for all plenary votes in the UNGA;
- Voting coincidence of individual countries for “key” or “important” votes in the UNGA as identified by the State Department;
- Average voting coincidence on resolutions for regional groups;
- Voting coincidence on the Security Council resolutions; and
- A description of “key” or “important” UNGA resolutions.
In 1990, Congress mandated that the report include specific information and that the format for reporting plenary votes in the UNGA be identical in format to the 1987 report. However, some content has changed. In 2004, Congress amended Section 406 of Public Law 101–246 to require a “separate listing of all plenary votes cast by member countries of the United Nations in the General Assembly on resolutions specifically related to Israel that are opposed by the United States.” The text of the statute governing the Voting Practices in the United Nations report is in Appendix B. Two other notable changes in content include:
Providing U.S. Assistance to U.N. Member States in the Report. Information or discussion of U.S. assistance was included in several U.N. voting reports in the 1980s, but was not included in the reports submitted for voting during the calendar years of 1989 through 1998. Inclusion of foreign assistance data resumed in the report on voting practices for 1999 after Congress mandated in the omnibus appropriations act for FY 1997 that the voting practices include “a side-by-side comparison of individual countries’ overall support for the United States at the United Nations and the amount of United States assistance provided to such country.”
Congress last enacted this requirement in the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act for FY 2001, but the information was included in each Voting Practices in the United Nations report for 1999 through 2009. The Obama Administration revised Voting Practices in the United Nations starting with the report for 2010, including eliminating the inclusion of U.S. assistance. The 2010 report provided no explanation for the exclusion, but critics had opposed its inclusion since the 1980s, because they saw it as an implicit endorsement of Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s original proposal to use foreign assistance to increase voting coincidence.
Listing Voting Coincidence Inclusive of Consensus Decisions. Reports in the 1980s focused on recorded votes. In 1989, however, Congress required the Voting Practices in the United Nations report to include “an analysis and discussion, prepared in consultation with the Secretary of State, of actions taken by the United Nations by consensus.” The 1989 report included detailed discussion of important consensus resolutions, but did not include consensus decisions in the voting coincidence statistics. Starting with the 1993 voting report, the Clinton Administration added a second column presenting voting coincidence with the United States including consensus resolutions. While the statute mandating the U.N. voting report does not require this additional column, it was included in every report between 1993 and 2016. According to the 2012 report, “Consensus resolutions indicate agreement with U.S. positions, so adding these to the vote totals more accurately reflects the extent of cooperation and agreement in the General Assembly.” This claim is debatable and deceptive.
Many U.N. resolutions are, frankly, unimportant or do not elicit debate or controversy. How accurately does adopting pabulum by consensus reflect cooperation and agreement with the U.S.? Overwhelmingly, resolutions adopted by a recorded vote are far more likely to address issues of substance and are more revealing about whether countries support U.S. positions or oppose them, which is why they were the original focus of the report. Indeed, the report is intended to be on voting practices in order to ascertain support among other member states for U.S. positions as expressed by their votes. Moreover, since the UNGA adopts most of its resolutions by consensus—for instance, it adopted 230 (71 percent) of 323 resolutions by consensus in 2017 versus 93 (29 percent) by a recorded vote—including consensus resolutions simply elevates the voting coincidence of every country without providing additional insight. To the contrary, it arguably obscures it. For instance, is North Korean “cooperation and agreement” with the U.S. more accurately reflected by the 11.1 percent voting coincidence in 2016 when only votes are considered, or the 71.2 percent voting coincidence when consensus resolutions are included? The most significant effect—and the very purpose—of including consensus resolutions in voting coincidence is to inflate the perception of support for the U.S. in the U.N.
Changes in the Voting Practices in the United Nations 2017 Report
The Voting Practices in the United Nations 2017 report introduced the most significant methodological shift in the report since its inception. These changes strengthen and refocus the report on its original intent: to analyze voting patterns in the U.N. in order to ascertain support for U.S. policies. First, while the report lists resolutions adopted by consensus and highlights “important” consensus resolutions with a brief discussion, the voting coincidence metric “excludes issues approved without a vote, procedural motions, preliminary votes, or votes on which either the United States or the country with which it is being compared did not cast a vote.” Second, the report gives partial credit (1/2 point) when either the United States or the country with which it is being compared cast an abstention. The new methodology improves the accuracy of the report in several important ways.
First, it increases the focus of the report on resolutions where there is an issue of substance as demonstrated by the fact that some number of countries felt compelled to vote for and against the resolution as opposed to consensus resolutions with little substance. The rare instances where significant and important resolutions are adopted by consensus are highlighted and discussed in the section focusing on important consensus resolutions.
Second, it focuses on actual data. Since the U.N. does not record attendance when resolutions are adopted by consensus, earlier reports extrapolated attendance when compiling voting coincidence inclusive of consensus resolutions. As explained in the 2012 report:
Since not all states are equally active at the United Nations, the report credits to each country a portion of the 180 consensus resolutions based on its participation in the 89 recorded Plenary votes. Each country’s participation rate was calculated by dividing the number of Yes/No/Abstain votes it cast in the Plenary (i.e., the number of times it was not absent by the total number of Plenary votes). However, this calculation assumes, for want of an attendance record, that all countries were present or absent for consensus resolutions in the same ratio as for recorded votes.
In other words, the report manufactured data to assign voting coincidence for consensus decisions.
Third, the new treatment of abstentions provides more nuance. Convincing a country to shift its vote from one opposite the U.S. position can take significant effort or involve significant political cost if the country is bucking the consensus position in a regional or ideological group. Convincing a country to abstain can be an incremental step toward an eventual reversal or, depending on the overall votes, a successful or useful outcome in itself. These partial successes, which break precedent and can pave the way for further shifts in the future, should not be ignored.
Fourth, excluding votes on preliminary paragraphs and procedural measures removes subjectivity, focuses on results, allows independent verification, and extends the period for voting comparison:
- Previous voting coincidence reports had included a dozen or more votes on preliminary paragraphs and procedural measures because these votes can address important issues. But these votes are vulnerable to manipulation either by calling votes simply to increase or decrease voting coincidence or selectively including votes on preliminary paragraphs and procedural measures for that purpose. To avoid this potential for distortion, the report discusses procedural motions and preliminary votes, but excludes them from the voting count metric.
- The vote on the final resolution is ultimately the vote that matters. A dozen votes against the U.S. on preliminary paragraphs should not weigh more heavily than one final vote with the U.S. on the final resolution.
- Votes on preliminary paragraphs and procedural measures are not retained by the U.N. and, thus, are not verifiable by independent records.
- Because the U.S. voting report is the only source for votes on preliminary paragraphs and procedural measures, and because the report dates only to 1983, analysis of voting coincidence using the old methodology with preliminary or procedural votes incorporated cannot be conducted on U.N. voting prior to 1983.
In short, the new methodology provides significant benefits in transparency, focus, verification, and opportunities for analysis.
Finally, despite claims that the methodology “jukes” the report, the impact of the new methodology on voting coincidence is, on average, minor: Under the old methodology, voting coincidence averaged 35 percent from 1985 to 2017, while voting coincidence averaged 34.32 percent under the new methodology over that period. In fact, as shown in Appendix A Chart 1, the primary impact of the new methodology was to smooth the extremes seen periodically under the old methodology.
Text of 22 U.S. Code 2414a: Annual Report to Congress on Voting Practices at the United Nations
(a) In general
Not later than March 31 of each year, the Secretary of State shall transmit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate a full and complete annual report which assesses for the preceding calendar year, with respect to each foreign country member of the United Nations, the voting practices of the governments of such countries at the United Nations, and which evaluates General Assembly and Security Council actions and the responsiveness of those governments to United States policy on issues of special importance to the United States.
(b) Information on voting practices in United Nations
Such report shall include, with respect to voting practices and plenary actions in the United Nations during the preceding calendar year, information to be compiled and supplied by the Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, consisting of–
(1) an analysis and discussion, prepared in consultation with the Secretary of State, of the extent to which member countries supported United States policy objectives at the United Nations;
(2) an analysis and discussion, prepared in consultation with the Secretary of State, of actions taken by the United Nations by consensus;
(3) with respect to plenary votes of the United Nations General Assembly–
(A) a listing of all such votes on issues which directly affected important United States interests and on which the United States lobbied extensively and a brief description of the issues involved in each such vote; (B) a listing of the votes described in subparagraph (A) which provides a comparison of the vote cast by each member country with the vote cast by the United States; (C) a country-by-country listing of votes described in subparagraph (A); and (D) a listing of votes described in subparagraph (A) displayed in terms of United Nations regional caucus groups
(4) a listing of all plenary votes cast by member countries of the United Nations in the General Assembly which provides a comparison of the votes cast by each member country with the vote cast by the United States, including a separate listing of all plenary votes cast by member countries of the United Nations in the General Assembly on resolutions specifically related to Israel that are opposed by the United States;
(5) an analysis and discussion, prepared in consultation with the Secretary of State, of the extent to which other members supported United States policy objectives in the Security Council and a separate listing of all Security Council votes of each member country in comparison with the United States; and
(6) a side-by-side comparison of agreement on important and overall votes for each member country and the United States.
Information required pursuant to subsection (b)(3) shall also be submitted, together with an explanation of the statistical methodology, in a format identical to that contained in chapter II of the Report to Congress on Voting Practices in the United Nations, dated March 14, 1988.
(d) Statement by Secretary of State
Each report under subsection (a) shall contain a statement by the Secretary of State discussing the measures which have been taken to inform United States diplomatic missions of United Nations General Assembly and Security Council activities.