Congress has been concerned for decades that countries receiving American foreign aid often oppose U.S. initiatives and priorities in the United Nations. A State Department annual report, mandated by Congress since 1983, on the voting practices in the U.N. General Assembly shows that the vast majority of recipients of U.S. foreign assistance routinely oppose U.S. diplomatic initiatives and vote against the U.S. The most recent report confirms yet again that most recipients of foreign aid voted against the U.S. in the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) in 2011.
To address this issue, Congress should instruct State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to take into account countries’ U.N. voting practices when allocating America’s development assistance.
Low Support for the U.N. in the U.S.
In 1983, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick testified on how the U.N. could be “made a more effective instrument for problem-solving and peace-making among nations, an institution which helps resolve difference rather and exacerbate them.” Among her recommendations was to make “voting behavior, in multilateral organizations like the United Nations…one of the criteria we employ in deciding whether we will provide assistance, and what type of assistance and in what amount.”
To help implement this recommendation, Congress required the State Department to track how individual countries vote in the U.N. and report the results to Congress in its Voting Practices in the United Nations report each year since 1984. Each report includes tables listing the percentages with which countries voted with the U.S. on U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and UNGA resolutions, including consensus and non-consensus votes and votes deemed “important” by the State Department. These reports serve as a unique and valuable source of information for gauging support for U.S. priorities and policies and show that, to the detriment of American interests, the U.S. is often in the minority at the U.N.
Most UNGA resolutions are adopted by consensus—i.e., without a recorded vote or without dissent. For instance, 186 of 281 resolutions (66 percent) were adopted by consensus during the 66th UNGA session in 2011, which is typical of recent U.N. sessions. Although some consensus decisions are the result of prolonged negotiation, it is very difficult to separate the significant consensus votes from those of little substance. Therefore, analysis is better focused on non-consensus votes—when actual votes are taken on resolutions and, by definition, involve substantive matters where member states disagree—where there is a transparent metric for measuring support for U.S. positions.
Voting coincidence with the U.S. in the UNGA on non-consensus votes has averaged 32.4 percent since the State Department’s first report in 1984. The all-time low was 15.4 percent in 1988. Since 2000, voting coincidence in the UNGA on non-consensus votes has averaged 31.6 percent, although it has improved in recent years. In 2011, voting coincidence with the U.S. was 51.5 percent, compared to 41.6 percent in 2010, 39 percent in 2009, and 25.6 percent in 2008. The 51.5 percent mark for 2011 is the highest since the reports began.
The State Department did not offer an explanation for this spike, but, since the membership and agenda of the UNGA has not markedly changed since 2008, it likely results from the Obama Administration yielding on resolutions and policies that were previously seen as objectionable.
As part of the report, Congress instructed the State Department to annually identify important issues and report on support for them. These resolutions also offer insight into support for U.S. positions because they are often controversial and subjects of intense U.S. lobbying. On important non-consensus votes, voting coincidence with the U.S. was 52.9 percent in 2011 compared to an average of 39.2 percent since 2000.
Foreign Aid and U.N. Voting
Every U.N. voting report between 1999 and 2009 listed U.S. foreign assistance disbursements to each nation alongside its voting coincidence with the U.S. However, the Obama Administration ended this practice and, since 2010, has failed to include foreign assistance disbursements in its reports.
UNGA voting patterns indicate (and analysis confirms) that the U.S. neither effectively rewards countries that support U.S. priorities in the U.N. nor withholds assistance from countries that consistently oppose U.S. priorities. Most major recipients voted against the U.S. more often than they voted with the U.S.
Indeed, over the past 10 UNGA sessions, on average, 82.7 percent of all development assistance recipients (184 countries in all) voted against the U.S. in a majority of the overall non-consensus votes, and 68.5 percent voted against the U.S. in a majority of the important non-consensus votes. In 2011, average voting coincidence with the U.S. among U.S. development aid recipients was 49.7 percent on overall non-consensus resolutions and 51.2 percent on important non-consensus votes.
Chart 2 summarizes voting coincidence with the U.S. for the 30 largest recipients of U.S. development assistance (cumulatively between 2001 and 2010). Of these 30 countries, 28 voted against the U.S. in a majority of the overall non-consensus votes, and 25 voted against the U.S. in a majority of the important non-consensus votes.
What the U.S. Should Do
Expecting countries to follow America’s lead on every vote is unrealistic. Even America’s strongest allies do not agree with the U.S. on every vote. Yet the U.S. could champion its positions more effectively in the UNGA by:
- Linking U.N. voting to eligibility for U.S. development assistance. Other priorities often override support for U.S. positions in the U.N. As a result, many countries believe that they can oppose American priorities and initiatives without consequences. Congress should instruct the State Department and USAID to take into account U.N. voting when dispersing development assistance.
- Requiring information on foreign assistance to be stated in the annual U.N. voting report to Congress. The Obama Administration stopped including data on foreign assistance in its most recent reports. Congress should require State to include this information in future reports.
Advancing U.S. Interests
America’s engagement with the U.N. is multifaceted and serves as an important vehicle for discussing many of today’s complex global challenges. To protect and advance its interests, the U.S. should explicitly link U.S. foreign aid to support for U.S. priorities in the U.N.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009). Anthony B. Kim is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.