UN Vote Buying: A Bad Idea That Never Dies

Photo by michelmond via Shutterstock

by Diana Ohlbaum

The Trump administration is agitating for a “sweeping reassessment” of the way foreign aid is distributed. Rather than making decisions based on where it is needed most or how it can be put to best use, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is proposing to tie aid to how countries vote in the UN General Assembly.

It’s an idea with a long and tarnished pedigree. In 1983, piqued by then-Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s testimony about U.S. isolation at the United Nations, Congress prohibited aid to any country “engaged in a consistent pattern of opposition to the foreign policy of the United States” and mandated an annual report from the State Department on UN voting practices.

It didn’t take long to acknowledge the policy was a failure. By 1990, the Cold War was ending, there were better reasons to give or withhold aid, and the threat of aid cuts hadn’t changed voting records. Congress retained the annual report but repealed the explicit linkage to aid, leaving the Heritage Foundation to wage a solitary battle (see reports in 1998, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014) for its reinstatement.

Fast forward to December 2017, when the Trump administration announced its controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, reversing decades of U.S. policy upheld by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. In response, the United Nations began considering a resolution that expressed “deep regret over recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem” (without specifically mentioning the United States). Ambassador Haley warned that “the US will be taking names” of countries supporting it, and President Trump followed suit with a threat to cut off aid to any country that voted for it. In the end, all of eight countries joined the United States in opposition—Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Togo—and the resolution was adopted by an overwhelming vote of 128-9.

So much for the bullying tactics. But even if they had worked, does the United States really want friends that can be procured only by bribery or threats and intimidation? Does it serve the cause of freedom if democratically elected governments cater to the U.S. government’s whims instead of following their own policy processes? And why would an administration so hostile to the functioning of the United Nations attach such importance to how its members vote?

There are reasonable concerns about the feasibility of creating a “voting test” for aid. Figuring out which votes to count, what percentage of concordance is acceptable, and how to interpret absences and abstentions is complex and contentious. What’s more, most aid recipients already support the United States the majority of the time. As Sarah Rose points out in her analysis for the Center for Global Development, “If you consider consensus actions, essentially all US aid goes to countries that align with the US position over 70 percent of the time.”

But focusing on the practicalities misses the larger point. Using aid to buy votes—and its flip side, using the withdrawal (or threat of withdrawal) of aid as a bludgeon against those who fail to fall in line—is morally repugnant and counterproductive.

It’s targeted at the wrong people. Those who propose linking aid to votes are referring mainly to one type of aid: development assistance. These are the funds used to eradicate hunger and disease, improve education, increase access to clean water and sanitation, expand economic opportunity for women, prevent violent conflict, and achieve other internationally agreed-upon goals. The vast majority of development aid goes to U.S.-based non-profits and contractors—not foreign governments—and cutting it off hurts poor and marginalized communities a lot more than it hurts national leaders.

Oddly, these cut-off threats are rarely applied to arms sales and security assistance, even though such aid is often used to prop up unstable governments, and much of it goes directly to foreign militaries. If fealty to U.S. foreign policy is the objective, then withholding military aid would be more effective and more appropriate.

 It encourages corruption and waste. Americans are already skeptical of aid because they don’t believe it helps poor people. Using aid for overtly political ends will confirm those doubts—which may in fact be the hidden agenda behind this proposal.

If aid is intended to influence foreign policy stances rather than to achieve development outcomes, then governments that vote as directed will view aid as being owed to them. Think about it: once its policy position is “bought,” a national government will feel justified in taking the money to use as it pleases, which is unlikely to be for the public good. (This is, in fact, what happened for decades with Egypt, which believed that signing the Camp David Accords entitled it to a certain level of U.S. aid and resisted every attempt to ensure that the money was spent responsibly.) Instead of encouraging partner governments to be accountable to their people for the provision of public goods, vote-buying offers them incentives to ignore the popular will.

This is not to say that aid is unrelated to policy change. Development aid is indeed intended to support policies that lead to poverty reduction, broad-based economic growth, and good governance. But what message does it send if aid is terminated when local partners—who have little or no influence over UN voting decisions—have been doing everything right?

It undermines important U.S. national interests. The United States provides aid not just to demonstrate America’s good will, but to address the root causes of violence and extremism, prevent the spread of disease, protect the global environment, advance democracy and rights, and open new markets. In some cases, the United States provides aid in countries with unfriendly or uncooperative governments because ignoring misery and chaos will mean bigger problems later, and because there are individuals and communities willing to risk their lives to bring about change. How dangerously shortsighted is it to hold these long-term interests hostage to short-term political posturing?

It creates relationships of patronage, not partnership. States are not children to be rewarded or punished by the size of their “allowances.” And votes ought not to be treated as paid transactions. Does the United States want allies or satellites? A united front or the illusion of one? In order to build durable coalitions and common agendas, the United States must persuade by the power of its principles and inspire by the power of its example. It must accept that friends do not always agree and that disagreement on one issue does not preclude collaboration on other issues.

To be fair, vote-buying is hardly alien to American-style democracy. Behind closed doors, politicians horse-trade for votes that are more important to one member than another. Congressional leaders and appropriations “cardinals” ensure funding for states and districts whose representatives toe the party line. Party campaign committees threaten to pull funding from candidates who break with leadership. PACs and major donors dictate policy positions, often against the popular will and the member’s better judgment. Then again, isn’t that a large part of the reason why Americans hate politics and politicians? Congress shouldn’t give them more excuses to hate foreign aid.

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum



  1. “But even if they had worked, does the United States really want friends that can be procured only by bribery or threats and intimidation?”

    The U.S. wants obedient vassal states. This is the real reason we hate Russia and to a lesser extent China. They are the only countries with even the slightest power or will to oppose us on some issues. Nothing less than total servitude will suffice, the same goes for Iran.

  2. Diana Ohlbaum wrote, ‘U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations [Nikki] Haley warned that “the US will be taking names” of countries supporting it, and President Trump followed suit with a threat to cut off aid to any country that voted for it.’ It would be correct to characterize that as ‘the current US administration’ but not as ‘the United States’.
    As she noted, “Vote-buying is hardly alien to American-style democracy. Behind closed doors, politicians horse-trade for votes…” And US administrations have been doing that at the UN also. The difference this time is that it is not “behind closed doors.” It’s part of a reality show, ego trip. Those two don’t deserve to be on the world diplomatic stage, but the American electoral system put them there. And, they are not going to change. It is necessary to live through it until the next administration, while doing what is possible to minimize the damage–perhaps writing along the lines, ‘Sorry for what’s going on; we expect to fix it at our next election”.

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