David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.
On Sept. 24 the General Assembly of the United Nations will reconvene. Many Americans will again focus on the voting patterns of its members. Are they for us or against us?
Last February, under a mandate from Congress, the Department of State issued a report on 1983 voting patterns in the United Nations. The introduction to the report, by Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, said, ''From these comparisons there can be inferred the 'degree of support by the government of such country during the preceding twelve-month period for the foreign policy of the United States.' ''
The report stressed that UN votes do matter because they determine the policy of UN bodies, focus world attention on issues, help to define world opinion, and , ultimately, affect US foreign policy. It acknowledged, however, that this is but one facet of our total relations with the rest of the world.
If these votes are important, the results for us in 1983 were not encouraging.
The largest percentage coincident with ours was by Israel (93.3 percent), followed by the United Kingdom (84.2 percent). Our neighbor Canada voted with us on only 76.8 percent of the issues. The highest coincidence of African votes was by the Ivory Coast: 30.5 percent. Among Arab states, the highest incidence was by Lebanon at 22.5 percent.
The report is sharply critical of bloc voting, particularly by nations of the nonaligned group. When no broad consensus existed, these nations agreed with us on only 20 percent of the votes while joining with the Soviet Union on 80 percent. The US was the only major country singled out for criticism by name in several resolutions.
It is common to conclude that the US is hopelessly disadvantaged in the United Nations, and it is easy to cast doubt upon the wisdom of our continued participation. The power of the blocs is great, reinforced by peer pressure, personal relationships among delegates, and a strong tendency to identify with smaller, weaker nations. Because of our size and power, we are blamed more than former colonial powers for the results of colonialism.
The presence of the United Nations in New York, with its active media and conspicuous pressure groups, means that among many delegates the credibility of official US positions is undermined by other views.
On two issues in particular, the United States has been for a long time and continues to be largely isolated: Israel and South Africa. We could garner only 26 votes against a resolution condemning our support for Israel. With extraordinary effort, however, we were able to mobilize 78 votes against the suspension of Israel from the General Assembly. On two South African issues, we had only 8 and 16 votes with us; not even Israel supported us.
Whether just or not, we are seen as a protector - and sometimes the sole protector - of governments made unpopular by the pressure of the Palestinians in the first case and by the deep emotional power of race in the second. In both cases, facts yield to symbolism.
The situation was markedly different, however, on votes condemning the presence of foreign forces - meaning Soviet and Vietnamese - in Afghanistan and Kampuchea, and the use of chemical weapons in Indochina. There were 116 nations with us on the Afghan resolution, 104 on Kampuchea and 97 on chemical warfare.
The adverse voting pattern is no cause for complacency, but much of it comes on issues relating to Israel and South Africa where we cannot easily overcome deeply rooted historical, emotional, and symbolic factors. On those issues that demonstrate world support against clear Soviet transgressions, the United Nations members recognize the realities, and we can prevail. This broad support suggests that the voting pattern is not totally against us and that even on the more difficult issues we still find the United Nations responsive on our behalf to strong efforts and credible causes.
We can regret the unwillingness of these nations to be equally balanced on issues of Israel and South Africa, but we should not conclude from these votes that we are without support - when we need it - in the United Nations.