The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. is still lonely at the United Nations

When President Obama first addressed the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, he preached conciliation:

I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. And this has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction. Now, like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 — more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared. […]  We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.

So how has this worked out? Has Obama been able to close the gap between the United States and the rest of the world in the United Nations, as so many hoped when he took office? The evidence suggests that he has not.

The graph above plots the ideal points of the United States and the average ideal points of states in various regions of the world (as defined by the United Nations) based on their votes in the U.N. General Assembly. This is essentially the same thing as estimating how liberal or conservative senators are based on their votes in the Senate. The neat trick Michael Bailey, Anton Strezhnev and I used is that we incorporated information about change and stability in the content of the United Nations’ agenda to identify when countries actually change their positions on issues (for a bit more, see here and here).

The picture does not look pretty for the United States. There is a massive gap between this country and everyone else, and this gap seems to be widening steadily rather than closing. Obama may have moved a little bit toward the center of the space, but not much. And there is no evidence that other states have gravitated toward the U.S. position.

If you look at individual countries, there is more variation than displayed here, but other than Israel and Canada, only Palau and Micronesia are in the vicinity of the U.S. ideal point (around 2 on the scale in the figure). As shown below, the average change in the position of countries between the last four years of the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration is 0 (-.02, actually). During Obama’s tenure, some countries moved closer to the U.S. ideal point, most notably Nauru (score that one for U.S. diplomacy!). But others shifted further away, including Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia; presumably because of domestic political changes. Most countries pretty much stayed where they were.

What accounts for this? Some may simply argue that the rest of the world is morally decrepit and the United States is not (or vice versa). But there are some alternative theories. The first is that domestic interest-group politics holds American foreign policy hostage. Between 25 and 30 percent of contentious votes in most years revolve around Israel. Some argue that the U.S. position is shaped more by domestic interest groups than by a rational calculation of national interests — an assertion that is heavily contested by others.

Still, there are other votes where domestic politics appears to shape what the United States can and cannot do at the United Nations. For example, there is an annual vote condemning the United States for its economic embargo of Cuba. Most Western countries consider this policy a relic of the Cold War and abandoned supporting Washington in the early 1990s. These days the United States is lucky if, aside from Israel, it gets Palau and Micronesia on its side. The gap between the United States and the rest may thus result from domestic forces that hold a sway over U.S. foreign policy but that are not nearly so influential elsewhere.

The second theory is that the “lonely superpower,” as Samuel Huntington phrased it, is likely to come into conflict with other states simply because it has many more military and economic capabilities than anyone else. This view holds that the United States simply has different interests and responsibilities that derive from its asymmetric power. Moreover, its posture is likely to create conflict with states that do not accept the status quo. In 2012, the most extreme states on the opposite side of the spectrum were North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela. These states have little in common other than their ability to draw the ire of the United States.

Allies too are affected by power dynamics. During the Cold War, U.S. allies had incentives to side with the United States and to avoid voting with the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, these countries became free to do what they wanted, so they no longer needed to support an embargo on Cuba. U.S. power oddly may also make it more constrained. If the Netherlands changes its vote on a resolution criticizing Israel for its settlement policies, then this is unfortunate for Israel but it does not appreciably alter its security situation. A change of vote by the United States, however, could be interpreted by others as a signal that it is less willing to defend Israel and may decrease security. This theory, then, holds that the unusual power the United States has is also responsible for the unusual divergence of interests between it and others.

It is important to keep things in perspective a bit. While the United States has few close friends whose votes it can always rely on, the conflict is not nearly as intense as it was during the Cold War, when the United States had close friends but also a much more powerful adversary. The graph shows that, too: However contentious politics at the United Nations is these days, the Cold War was still much worse. Moreover, votes in the U.N. General Assembly are largely symbolic. If the United States has to take some on the chin, this is not the worst place to do so.