When the United States Stands Alone

President Donald Trump addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, N.Y., September 24, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

There’s going to be a lot of talk about the U.N. over the next couple of weeks. The 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly will kick off with speeches by President Trump and other world leaders next week. And the U.N. Human Rights Council is currently meeting in Geneva, as China works to bring international human-rights mechanisms under its control, and as it and other authoritarian powers seek election to the body (if history is any guide, they’ll be successful).

The usual suspects are already spinning up the narrative that the United States stands alone at the U.N. Last week, the United States and Israel were the only countries to vote against a General Assembly resolution on the global coronavirus response. Some have seized upon that vote to paint the United States as a bad faith actor that stands alone in the world.

An assistant editor of a website notorious for laundering Chinese and Russian state media talking points wrote on Twitter, “The US empire and its little brother-in-crime Israel are the world’s biggest rogue regimes.” Unsurprisingly, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying agrees, tweeting this morning: “The US stands in opposition to the international community. Its objection to the UN resolution calling for solidarity and cooperation against COVID19 only isolates itself.”

In addition to the General Assembly vote, Hua highlighted two other recent U.N. votes: The U.S. attempt to re-impose U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran that had been lifted by the 2015 nuclear agreement, and a Chinese-authored U.N. Human Rights Council resolution approved in June of 2020. Here, as it often does, the Chinese Communist Party is simply lying. It’s worth looking at what actually happened.

Hua’s tweet claims that the U.S. was the only country to vote against the UNHRC resolution in June — but the Trump administration had already left the council two years before that. The picture Hua shared was from a vote in 2018. And no wonder: Though a Chinese resolution promoting disturbing language on human rights still passed in June, 16 countries voted against it. It’d be better if the resolution hadn’t passed at all, but this episode demonstrates that the U.S.’s concerns are shared by at least some UNHRC members.

As for the Iran sanctions vote, it’s true that only the United States and the Dominican Republic supported the measure. Once U.N. sanctions are lifted in October, Iran will regain the ability to buy conventional arms. Only the United States has sought to avert this grave outcome. China and Russia eagerly await their chance to sell arms to this U.S. adversary, and, meanwhile, France and the United Kingdom are preoccupied with preserving the Iran deal, which they see as a higher priority than preventing arms shipments to Tehran.

On its face, the U.S. vote against a General Assembly resolution on the global coronavirus response sounds inexplicable. But beneath the resolution’s innocuous-sounding language on international cooperation to combat the pandemic lies a political agenda that was successfully adopted by the assembly. While the initial draft would have been more acceptable to Washington, the one that eventually passed excluded references to human-rights defenders that appeared in the first draft. And thanks to a last minute amendment proposed by Cuba, a new clause urges states to lift their economic sanctions, a non-starter for any country that seeks to punish the many crimes committed by authoritarian regimes. In this light, it’s surprising that other democracies with similar sanctions authorities supported the resolution.

The main thread running through these incidents supposedly marking the United States’ isolation at U.N. bodies is its refusal to back down in the face of authoritarian attempts to coopt international organizations. What’s inexplicable isn’t that the U.S. stands apart from the international community; it’s that too few countries have supported its efforts.