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Trump and Haley Turned Today’s U.N. Vote on Jerusalem Into a Much Bigger Drama Than It Needs to Be

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 21:  Nikki Haley, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks on the floor of the General Assembly on December 21, 2017 in New York City. A vote is scheduled at the United Nations General Assembly today concerning Washington's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and relocate its embassy there. The US, which alone vetoed a resolution put to the Security Council on the move to Jerusalem, cannot veto General Assembly motions, which require a simple majority to be adopted. The Trump administration has threatened to take action against any country that votes against the United States decision to move its embassy.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Nikki Haley, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks on the floor of the General Assembly on December 21, 2017 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote shortly on a resolution calling on the U.S. to withdraw its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Update, 12:31 p.m.: The resolution passed by a 128–9 vote.) As with other recent votes on this topic, this was expected to be a lopsided result, with only South Sudan, Guatemala, and a handful of Pacific island states joining the U.S. and Israel.

President Trump raised the anticipation around the vote Wednesday by suggesting the U.S. would cut aid to countries that voted for it. Following up on Ambassador Nikki Haley’s vow that the U.S. would be “taking names” at today’s vote, Trump got more specific, telling reporters, “For all these nations, they take our money and then vote against us. They take hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars and then they vote against us. Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

While at this point, we shouldn’t underestimate this administration’s capacity for petty, self-destructive behavior, we still shouldn’t take this threat literally. There may be some form of retaliation, but it’s hard to imagine the U.S. will cut aid to all the countries. The country that sponsored the Security Council resolution, Egypt, is a major recipient of U.S. military aid, and as Israeli journalist Barak Ravid notes, if Trump were to cut that aid, the first person to object would be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a speech before the assembly today, Haley warned member states, “The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack.” Referring to U.S. funding to the U.N. as a whole, she said, “We have an obligation to demand more of our investment. If our investment fails, we have an obligation to spend our resources in more productive ways.” This seems to be a suggestion that the U.S. would cut funding to the UN as a whole, so that’s a hefty threat. U.S. contributions account for about one-fifth of the UN’s budget.

This is an absurdly disproportionate response to a not-that-significant event. This is a nonbinding resolution against a purely symbolic U.S. action. The U.N. General Assembly votes every year to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba (most recently by a vote of 191–2) with little discernable effect.

The main political goal of this resolution was to demonstrate the political isolation of the United States’ policy toward Israel, which is also not exactly news. This has become a somewhat major event only because Trump and Haley are turning it into one—another example of this administration prioritizing domestic political symbolism over any conceivable foreign policy goal.

Thanks to Trump’s and Haley’s statements, the U.S. is now in a position where it either sabotages important security relationships and deepens its own isolation by following through on their threat, or undermines the credibility of future ultimatums by balking on it.

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