Ambassador Haley delivers remarks at a UN Security Council Open Debate on the Middle East, July 25, 2017

State Department Juked the Stats in Report on Voting Patterns at the United Nations

Every year for the past 34 years, Congress has mandated that the State Department produce a report comparing America’s voting record at the United Nations to that of every other country in the world.  The idea is to quantify and demonstrate how often other countries vote with the United States or against it.

Most years, this report is more or less ignored. But this year the report has a degree of urgency. That is because Ambassador Nikki Haley is seeking to condition American foreign aid and spending at the United Nations on countries’ voting records, so the stakes are high.

With much anticipation, the State Department released its “Voting Practices in the United Nations 2017 Report” late last week. The report ostensibly showed that other countries rarely sided with the United States at the UN. Nikki Haley pounced on the results with this press release.

Today, the State Department released its annual UN Voting Practices Report as required by Congress for the last 34 years. The report includes a comparison of voting records between the United States and other countries on UN General Assembly resolutions. Of the 93 resolutions that were voted last year, on average other countries voted with the United States only 31 percent of the time – a 10 percentage point drop from 2016 but at a rate that is historically near average.

“The American people pay 22 percent of the UN budget – more than the next three highest donor countries combined. In spite of this generosity, the rest of the UN voted with us only 31 percent of the time, a lower rate than in 2016. That’s because we care more about being right than popular and are once again standing up for our interests and values. Either way, this is not an acceptable return on our investment. When we arrived at the UN last year, we said we would be taking names, and this list of voting records speaks for itself. President Trump wants to ensure that our foreign assistance dollars – the most generous in the world – always serve American interests, and we look forward to helping him see that the American people are no longer taken for granted,” said Ambassador Haley. (Emphasis added)

This interpretation of the results is somewhat disingenuous.

For the first time, the annual Voting Practices in the United Nations report tweaked its methodology to make it appear the United States is more isolated than it actually is.

Specifically, the report made two big changes to how it counts votes. First, and most significantly, the report excludes resolutions that are adopted by consensus — that is resolutions in which every country (including the US) agrees. This is a questionable adjustment because votes by consensus represent the vast majority of the decisions taken at the UN General Assembly. In 2017, of the 323 resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly, 93 resolutions required a vote, while 230 resolutions were adopted by consensus.  Unlike in years past, this report does not take into a county those consensus votes.

See for yourself. Here is a screen shot of the 2016 report:


And this is the same table from the 2017 report, which excludes the far-right column.


Needless to say, there is a great deal of comity at the United Nations when one takes into account the incidences in which countries work together. When one excludes examples of cooperation among member states, then the UN looks like a far more adversarial place.

Another key change in methodology that gives the appearance of a sharply declining vote coincidence with the United States is that this year’s report, for the first time, excludes what are known as “preliminary votes.” These kinds of votes are usually over the wording of key parts of the text of a resolution and can sometimes differ from the final vote on the resolution. Previous years’ reports included this in the overall count. The 2017 report does not.

This new methodology gives the appearance that countries are voting with the US less frequently. Using the standard methodology in 2016, for example, countries voted with the US 54.8% of the time, compared to 41% using the new methodology. In 2017, using the standard methodology the voting coincidence would have been 37% compared to the 31% reported using this new methodology.

But again, these figures exclude the vast majority of decisions taken at the General Assembly, which happen by consensus.

This matters because Nikki Haley has threatened to tie countries’ voting records at the UN to American foreign aid.

Ambassador Haley implied as much by saying that these results are not “an acceptable return on our investment.” Other media outlets have reported on a draft memo, circulated by Haley’s staff, that would enact cuts to allies who do not consistently vote with the US at the General Assembly. Haley has also, already, successfully pressed the White House to freeze funding to a UN humanitarian agency over a vote taken at the General Assembly.

There is little strategic logic in tying how a country like Barbados voted last December on a non-binding resolution about sustainable fishing to, say, whether or not the US will fund peacekeepers in Mali or support polio eradication in Pakistan.

There may be some political profit to this kind of posturing by the US ambassador, but threatening to cut off aid to individual countries or to the UN itself has not served US interests much.