A wide view of the General Assembly Hall. UN Photo/Ryan Brown

UN Vote on Jerusalem Tests the Power of Trump’s Threats and Ultimatums

UPDATE II: The resolution passes with 128 countries voting in favor; 9 against; and 35 abstentions. As you can see from the list below, Trump’s threat yesterday to cut off aid to countries who vote against the United States did not seem to hold much sway. This includes Egypt, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Jordan which are top recipients of US military assistance and foreign aid.


UPDATE: In remarks ahead of the vote, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley explicitely threatened to cut American funding for the United Nations over this vote. This is a dangerous conflation between the work of the UN around the world and the individual actions of countries who are members of the UN. As Richard Hobrooke once famously quipped, blaming the United Nations when votes do not go in America’s favor is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.

Should the US make good on this threat, the world could be thrown into profound disarray.

The US is the largest financial supporter of the UN, paying about quarter of the regular budget and 28 percent of the budget of UN Peacekeeping. The US is also among the largest funders of humanitarian agencies like UNICEF, the World Food Program and the UN Refugee Agency. Reducing or cutting funding to the UN and its agencies would have a devastating impact around the world.  The idea that the United States would punish vulnerable people in need of food aid because other countries in the world do not agree with its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel makes no sense.


The UN General Assembly is scheduled to vote on a resolution today condemning the American decision to formally declare Jerusalem the capitol of Israel. This move was deeply unpopular in most of the world and highly controversial in the United States, which had historically reserved any final designation of Jerusalem’s status as part of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The General Assembly vote follows a resolution at the Security Council that garnered the support of the entire council, except the United States which cast a lone veto.

Following that embarassingly lopsided vote, the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley sent a threatening letter to UN member states ahead of today’s vote, saying that President Trump takes this vote personally and suggested the United States would retaliate against those countries who vote against American interests.

Later that day, President Trump made the threat more explicit:

“All of these nations that take our money and then they vote against us at the Security Council or they vote against us, potentially, at the Assembly, they take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars and then they vote against us,” Mr. Trump said.

“Well, we’re watching those votes,” he added. “Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

The resolution will pass with a wide margin today as member states call Trump’s bluff or feel that the domestic pressure outweighs doing the bidding of a deeply unpopular US president.

Some of the drivers of this bill are important US allies, including Saudi Arabia. Yesterday, Trump spoke with the Saudi King and did not even raise this issue, according to the official White House readout of the call. This raises the possibility that these threats are just posturing meant for domestic political consumption.

Other countries that are driving this vote include Egypt, which is the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel. It is highly unlikely the US would subvert that relationship over this vote. Elsewhere, in Europe, traditional American allies like the UK and France have already signaled their displeasure with this move, and governments are unlikely to support the highly unpopular move of a highly unpopular US president.

In the end, the key measure of success of these threats from the United States could be the number of countries who opt to simply abstain from the vote instead of voting directly for it. The US will probably see very few countries in its corner–but these threats could convince some countries to sit out the vote all together. On the other hand, these threats could totally backfire as countries balk against being threatened by a U.S. President.

In the end, though, some foreign policy hands see the issuance these threats over a largely symbolic vote is diplomatic malpractice. The Trump administration should have expected this global reaction, taken its lumps and moved on.

In the end, one thing the President and his allies should avoid is blaming the United Nations as an institution for the results of the votes taken by its member states. This distinction is important–as Richard Holbrooke once famously quipped “Blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.”

For the sake of the UN’s work around the world, let’s hope that President Trump can make that distinction after today’s vote.

Go Deeper:  Middle East expert Marc Lynch and I speak on the Global Dispatches podcast about some of the regional diplomatic and political fallout from Donald Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.