Freedom: Key Indicator of Support for America’s Interests in the U.N.

Anthony B. Kim /

In her March 30 speech at the opening ceremony of the National Model U.N., Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, pointed out that:

Important as the United Nations is as a vehicle to promote global security, foster broad-based development, and advance collective interests, the UN is far from perfect. A serious gap still separates the vision of the UN’s founders from the institution of today. The Security Council still stumbles when interests and values diverge, as they do over such issues as Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma and Sri Lanka. In the General Assembly, member states too often let political theater distract from real deliberation and decision.

Not surprisingly, with its complex system of organizations, funds, programs, offices, and other bodies, the U.N. is indeed a profoundly bureaucratic and political body. The U.N.’s 192 members seek to advance their various, and often conflicting interests. As Heritage Foundation Vice President Kim Holmes points out in Liberty’s Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century, “the original principles of freedom and democracy that inspired the founders of the U.N. have been lost in a cynical power game that essentially defines legitimacy and ‘democracy’ as whatever a majority of U.N. members say it is.”

The American public has correctly recognized the difficulty of working through the U.N. to advance U.S. interests and has expressed frustration with the systematic shortcomings that plague the international organization. As a recent Gallup poll noted, “Americans have never held the United Nations in particularly high esteem.” Since 2003, an average of only 32 percent of Americans have agreed that the U.N. is “doing a good job,” with the lowest approval rating of 26 percent recorded in 2009.

Indeed, many diplomatic initiatives of America, the largest contributor to the U.N. budget, often meet with blockages and delays by other member nations. Of course, expecting every U.N. member to follow America’s lead is not realistic. Even America’s strongest allies do not agree with the U.S. on every vote. However, America could champion its positions more effectively in the General Assembly, particularly by seeking to build and strengthen coalitions among economically and politically free U.N. members. As shown in research led by Heritage’s U.N. expert Brett Schaefer, “the more economically and politically free a country is, the more likely it is to support America’s diplomatic initiatives in the U.N.”

In her speech, Ambassador Rice also emphasized the importance of coming together “to advance America’s interests, to stand up for America’s values, and to strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity.” Forging stronger coalitions with economically and politically free countries in the U.N. will serve as an indispensable long-term diplomatic tool for advancing American priorities.

However, the reality is that a majority of the U.N. is neither economically nor politically free and the near term prospects for them to become free are slight. The majority of these countries do, however, receive U.S. assistance each year. Yet, according to an annual State Department report on voting practices in the U.N., about 95 percent of U.S. foreign aid recipients voted against the U.S. in a majority of the non-consensus votes, and over 72 percent voted against the U.S. in a majority of the non-consensus votes deemed “important” by the U.S. Department of State.

If it is to influence these countries, America must also show that it does not view the U.N. as a penalty free zone in which recipients of billions in U.S. aid dollars are free to vote against the U.S. with impunity. If America is to improve this situation, it must be willing to link U.S. assistance to support for key U.S. priorities in the U.N. and other international organizations.