In overwhelming UN vote on Jerusalem, a reality test for Trump's tough talk

Is US foreign aid altruistic or self-serving? Trump's pre-vote rhetoric seemed to reopen that debate, but in the early aftermath is a hint at a pragmatic answer.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the UN General Assembly Dec. 21. President Trump's threat to cut off US funding to countries that voted against his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital had raised the stakes for the UN vote and sparked criticism of his tactics, with one Muslim group calling it bullying or blackmail.

When President Trump threatened this week to cut off foreign aid to any country voting against the United States in the United Nations General Assembly, it conjured up engrained public frustration over what some Americans – including Mr. Trump – perceive to be a world of freeloaders.

“All these nations that take our money and then vote against us at the [UN], they take hundreds of millions of dollars and billions of dollars and they vote against us,” Trump said Wednesday at his last cabinet meeting of the year. “Let them vote against us, we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

The president was mining the narrow but deep vein of public resentment against foreign aid recipients, adding, “People are tired of the United States – people that live here, our great citizens that love this country – they’re tired of this country being taken advantage of, and we’re not going to be taken advantage of any longer.”

Trump’s hardball tactics raised once again the decades-old debate over the purpose of the billions of dollars in military assistance and foreign aid the US provides to dozens of countries each year.

Is it altruism, or is it one tool in a global power’s national security strategy? How much and what kind of a quid pro quo should the US expect from each aid recipient – and should the US punish those who sometimes oppose it on the world stage, or should it take the long view of foreign aid’s over-all benefits?

Trump will have the opportunity to demonstrate where he comes down on those questions after Thursday’s overwhelming vote in the General Assembly, which implicitly condemned his decision this month to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

And while the president so far appears to have relished pitching his hard-ball approach to his base, there are already signs the pragmatic wing of his administration will react to the vote with more restraint.

In a lopsided vote on a resolution drafted by Yemen and US NATO ally Turkey, the 193-member General Assembly voted 128 in favor to 9 opposed, with 35 countries abstaining.

Among the affirmative votes were almost all of the top recipients of US military and development assistance, save for the top military assistance recipient – Israel. Most of America’s major allies, including Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, voted for the resolution, although Australia and Canada abstained – as did Colombia, which receives some US military assistance.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Dr. Riyad Mansour (c.), Palestine's observer at the United Nations, talks with members of the General Assembly prior to a vote Dec. 21, 2017, at UN headquarters in New York.

The resolution – which mirrored an Egypt-authored text that fell to a US veto in a 14-1 vote in the UN Security Council Monday – does not name the US, but demands that “any decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status, or demographic composition of the holy city of Jerusalem have no legal effect and … must be rescinded.”

The resolution further “demands that all states comply with Security Council resolutions regarding … Jerusalem, and not to recognize any actions or measures contrary to those resolutions.”

Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – and also to begin the process of moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – went against decades of US policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations that called for leaving Jerusalem as a “final status” issue to be settled as part of a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. The US has long supported Security Council resolutions deeming Jerusalem a final-status issue.

'Telling it like it is'

The General Assembly vote left the US isolated at the UN, but that is not a particularly unusual position for the US to be in, many international relations experts say. What is different, some add, is the toughness of Trump’s rhetoric and his near-glee at appearing to buck the international community.

“This vote at the UN is hardly unusual, the US has been isolated there before, particularly on Israel, and for that matter this idea of cutting aid is not new – Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 with this same idea, that the US offers assistance, and then those who receive it turn around and humiliate us,” says Doron Ben-Atar, a professor of American history at Fordham University in New York.

But what is new, Dr. Ben-Atar adds, is the stridency in Trump’s rhetoric – what some call “telling it like it is” – which he says feeds a global view that “Trump is not a legitimate president” and ratchets up the Trump-international community standoff.

“American frustration with the UN and all the international agencies around it is long and it’s bipartisan, and rhetoric expressing that is within the regular borders of American discourse,” Ben-Atar says. “What is unusual here is the coarse way in which the Trump administration behaves, this talk of ‘taking names’ and ‘getting back’ at anyone who opposes the US in a vote,” he adds. “No country would want to be seen as bowing to that.”

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, had said earlier this week that she would be “taking names” and would report back to the president with a list of countries that opposed the US.

She continued with that theme as she addressed the General Assembly before the Thursday vote, saying “the United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly for … exercising our right as a sovereign nation.”

Insisting the vote would “make a difference in how Americans look at the UN,” Ambassador Haley said, “We will remember it when we are called upon once again to make the world’s largest contribution to the United Nations. And we will remember it when so many countries come calling on us, as they so often do, to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit.”

Kudos for tough talk

The Trump administration’s threatening tone toward the international community was criticized by former diplomats and international relations experts who said it isolated the US at a time when it will need partners to confront North Korea, Iran, and other adversaries.

But the tough talk won kudos from others who relished hearing echoes of the “sovereignty-above-all-else” wing of the president’s national security team in the pronouncements – and who have long advocated for foreign aid cuts.

“President Trump has rightly signaled that there will be costs for choosing to be against us, rather than with us,” says Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington and a former acting assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the Reagan administration.

Mr. Gaffney says the US should start by cutting back its annual contribution to the UN, which he describes as “a playpen for totalitarians, tyrants, and terrorists.” After that, he says, the US should cut aid to the Palestinian Authority.

But after those two targets, cutting assistance to “those who vote against us” becomes increasingly problematic.

Note of realpolitik

Egypt, Jordan, and Afghanistan are all major recipients of US assistance, and all voted for the resolution condemning the United States. But many national security experts say cutting aid to them over the vote would be a classic case of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

“We don’t support the Egyptian government because we like them or because we’re nice, we do it in part because of a commitment we made after they made peace with Israel. But mostly we do it because Egypt is a critical country in a region of vast implications for our national security,” says Fordham’s Ben-Atar. “We know it would be catastrophic if Egypt became a failed state.”

Likewise Jordan, which has been a stalwart ally of the US in the fight against ISIS, would not suffer alone and without broader regional implications if the US pulled the plug on aid because it voted for the UN resolution.

Indeed, by Thursday afternoon the Trump administration had already shifted from threats to “take down names” and punish those voting against the US to more nuanced and diplomatic language.

At the State Department, spokesperson Heather Nauert said the administration foreign policy team had been “empowered to explore various options going forward with other nations.”

But then she offered a note of realpolitik, adding that “the UN vote is really not the only factor the administration would take into consideration in dealing with our foreign relations.”

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