Earlier this week the world formed a united front at the United Nations against an administration whose recklessness and inability to see the greater picture once more destabilizes the world.
Earlier this month the Trump administration defied decades of prior United States and global policy when it recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and announced the move of the US embassy to that city. The United States were quick to defend their move by claiming that as a sovereign state, they have the right to decide where their embassy is located. Of course they are perfectly correct, any country may place an embassy wherever they want provided the host agrees. Having the right to do something however does not mean you should do it and it certainly does not mean others cannot criticize you for it. As such it is no surprise that the world, both allies and foes, united to call out the decision of the United States as irresponsible and unjust.
Only a few hours ago an article was published on this same website calling out the nations who voted to oppose the United States. In it, the author makes the argument that other states are ungrateful and that they should not have used the UN as a platform to voice their displeasure. The author also pointed out that US allies such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany were on the same side as tyrannical regimes such as Syria. This reasoning ignores that essentially the entire world did so as well, except for Eastern Europe, North America, Israel and a few tiny states economically dependent on the United States. Only those last two categories outrighted voted against it, with the other instead abstaining. Just because a bad actor happens to agree with you it doesn’t mean your cause is wrong. That is a red herring. European and other leaders have made independent substantial statements regarding their position. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that her government does not support the decision and that the status of Jerusalem can only be decided as part of a two-state solution, French President Emmanuel Macron called the decision regrettable and one France does not approve of, even the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (a man not known for his restraint) refreshingly called the decision one that could disrupt efforts to reach peace. The Netherlands provided an especially strong counter, stating that to resolve the issues in the Middle East a two-state solution is needed and that unilateral action is not going to help. The Pope expressed deep worry and called for the status quo to be respected and for wisdom and prudence to prevail. Supposedly, even the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense of Trump’s own administration oppose the decision to move the embassy.
There is of course quite some irony in a country so adamant that it is exercising its sovereign rights, threatening other countries for exercising their own sovereign rights to vote in a forum specifically designed for members to voice their grievances in an environment where their voices can be heard. Here we also have an answer to the question why American allies have chosen to go for such a public display of displeasure. Right until Trump’s decision became public allies have cautioned against it both privately and publicly.
So to answer the question, why use the UN? Because all other channels fell on deaf ears and the decision is a significant enough one to warrant using what the United Nations was designed for. Add to this that that the European Union contributes 30% of the budget and unanimously voted in favour of the resolution, so even if some members are deemed more important than other, the largest contributor certainly has the right to be heard.
Jerusalem is a city of incredible importance in the history of the world, it has indeed been a key site of the Jewish fate for its entire existence, but that same argument applies to Christianity and Islam. Israel has owned the entire city for the past 69 years but Arab Muslims have lived there for the past 1300. No one sane argues that Israel does not own Jerusalem and that it does not treat it as its capital, however there is power in words. Recognition implies approval, approval of an invasion in contravention to Security Council resolutions, approval of the continued occupation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlers, and more importantly it sends a message to Palestinians and indeed Muslims everywhere that they are somehow inferior. It also removes one of the sticks that could be used to force Israel to the negotiating table: by not recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and by placing their embassies in Tel Aviv, instead of Jerusalem, the nations of the world maintain a bargaining tool for Israel to gain true legitimacy. It serves as a statement by those states that they stand by international law and that if Israel wants to gain full recognition it will need to compromise with the Palestinians. It has been legitimately pointed out that so far this policy has had little to no effect. A permanent agreement to settle the borders between Israel and Palestine was unlikely to happen in the near future before the decision, and it remains uncertain whether that will take the form of independent Palestinian and Israeli states or one of the other solutions proposed. It is however certain that unilaterally rewarding one party to the talks does not bring us any closer and in fact strips all legitimacy from the state taking that unilateral action.
One would expect that the Republican Party would have learned their lesson when it comes to taking unilateral action in the Middle East against the advice of its European allies. The President whose major achievements until that point included historically low approval ratings, provoking a nuclear state and attempting to blow up a deal that is keeping another state from developing nuclear weapons. The President claims to have a plan for the Middle East but despite many calls for that plan to be revealed so far, like many of the plans he has we have yet to see any of it. The United States of America in historical perspective has not been at this very long, the country was only founded in 1776 and did not become a true global actor until World War I so it is not that surprising that they are still on a learning curve when it comes to dealing with disputes that go back into antiquity. Europe has been at this for centuries and it has made many mistakes when it comes to dealing with this region, many of which the United States is repeating right now rather than learning from where Europe went wrong.
The United States indeed does not need to fund a quarter of the UN budget, or provide billions in foreign aid. In fact if they feel that strongly, they should stop. Let them sit in their own corner making America great again while yelling America First at anyone that passes them by. However, leave the rest of the world to the adults in the room so that something can actually be achieved.
Alexander de Boer is a Master’s Student International Relations at Leiden University and European Studies at the University of Twente.
Photo by Gage Skidmore