The Daily Telegraph is reporting that the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, made some very strong remarks at a recent event in Washington. Speaking about September’s Palestinian bid for recognition in the UN, Rice remarked that a successful recognition vote would be “exceedingly politically damaging in our domestic context” and that there could be “[no] greater threat to our ability to maintain financial and political support for the United Nations in Congress.” In other words, if Palestine gets recognized by the UN, the Obama Administration will be unable to fight off Congressional Republicans (and probably some Democrats too), who would presumably make an effort to defund the UN. The government has distanced itself from Rice’s remarks, saying that they “were informal remarks in a domestic setting.” Still, it is shocking to hear these comments coming from such a senior figure. American UN ambassadors are typically closely supervised by the State Department and have little or no autonomy to make decisions on their own. One would think that being in this position would make her extremely cautious in her public comments. What, then, are we to make of this remark? It’s definitely a headline-grabber, though I haven’t seen it making the rounds in the media just yet. It could be an attempt by the Obama Administration to create some breathing room on the issue by aggressively changing the direction of debate. It could be an attempt to make the world push the Palestinians harder to renew peace talks and shelve the statehood issue for now. What seems most likely, however, is that it was an accidental disclosure by Ambassador Rice of conversations in the corridors of power. People within the Administration are apparently worried, perhaps with cause, that Congress would react to Palestinian success at the UN with defunding.
This affair forces us to wonder what kinds of intoxicating vapors are floating around in Washington–and, being “on scene,” I can say that I do not smell them. The Administration’s reaction to the statehood bid has been one of hysteria. Obama’s major address on the Middle East, for instance, did not even dignify it with a name–it merely referred to the US commitment to stand up to attempts to “delegitimize” Israel. He has repeatedly signaled that the US might veto the bid. A US veto would be an extraordinarily foolish act. It would convince the entire Middle East–and the entire world–that the US cannot be trusted to serve as an honest broker in peace talks. It would subject us to enormous international pressure, in particular in the Arab world. The Saudis have hinted that they could adopt a less parallel alignment (though their politicians are infinitely more inclined to hysteria than our own). There would be quite a cost, so what would we accomplish? We would spare an ally–and to a much lesser extent ourselves–from facing heightened diplomatic pressure. That is it. Israel has the most powerful military in the region by a wide margin, so any attempt by the UN to make impositions on Israel’s relationship with Palestine would require Israel’s permission. Israel would not have to worry about such an attempt, anyway–in such a case, the US would quite reasonably exercise its veto. Palestinian recognition would also not fundamentally alter its relations with Israel in the UN–it would add a little legitimacy to its complaints of territorial violations, but those complaints have already been raised in the UN, with little effect on Israeli policy. Israel has nothing to worry about.
This is what makes the notion of defunding the UN over a statehood bid seem like lunacy. Defunding the UN would play well domestically regardless of its moves on the statehood bid. The UN is a broken institution where Holocaust-denying dictatorships are put on a level playing field with liberal democracies, where Libya (and almost Syria) can get a seat on the Human Rights Committee, where money disappears into an inefficient bureaucracy, and where all that happens on American (and Japanese, and a few others) taxpayer’s money. However, the UN also is a key forum for international agreement. The Security Council process significantly reduces the risk of a conflict between great powers, for it ensures that the UN only acts with their assent. The agreements it produces have become landmarks in fields like human rights. When governments oppress their people, the people can point to their oppressors’ status as parties to conventions on human rights. The UN is vital to addressing problems of global concern like HIV/AIDS or climate change. The UN allows countries to let off steam in an open setting.
It is quite true that the world feels it is entitled to American funding for the UN–one never hears our opponents say, “well, we don’t like this thing they did, but they do provide a very good service for us.” However, funding the UN is entirely in the national interests of the United States. Should the US someday threaten to reduce its funding to ensure that vital institutional reforms are carried out? Perhaps, but now is not the time for that. Now is the time for the US to proceed calmly, to realize that broken institutions cannot force their will upon major military powers, to realize–as the Israelis did long ago–that UN condemnations are worth the paper they are printed on, and little more.
The question, then, is this: How much is the US willing to sacrifice to win a purely symbolic victory for Israel? We will learn the answer in September; it presently looks like “a lot.”