Does the United States buy votes at the United Nations?

INOBy David Bosco

In the latest issue of International Organization, David Carter and Randall Stone examine whether U.S. foreign aid helps buy votes at  the UN General Assembly. The data they’ve gathered and analyzed tells an interesting story: U.S. aid flows seem to influence democratic states more than autocratic ones. The authors argue that this is likely because the United States has strong strategic reasons for aiding autocracies and so aid to these states is “stickier” and less likely to be adjusted on the basis of things like hostile UN voting.

The conclusions aren’t altogether surprising given Congressional interest in whether foreign aid recipients tend to support the U.S. in multilateral fora. As the authors note, since the mid-1980s Congress has required the State Department to report on the voting practices of all states in the UN General Assembly. (You can find the latest version of that report here.) But they go further than that, stating that U.S. law requires that UN voting be considered when disbursing aid. “Buying votes [at the UN]”, they write, “is official policy.”

That assertion intrigued me because it has been a frustration of certain US foreign policy conservatives that no such link exists. So what gives? I checked in with Brett Schaeffer at the Heritage Foundation, who has criticized the United States for not directly linking aid to UN votes. It appears that Congress briefly did require that aid be linked to UN voting. This Heritage report provides some of the background:

Congress…pass[ed] legislation linking the U.N. voting report and U.S. foreign assistance by requiring the Administration to submit the report by January 31 each year or at the time of “the annual presentation materials on foreign assistance.” This linkage was strengthened by the additional provision prohibiting use of funds appropriated in the act to assist countries “engaged in a consistent pattern of opposition to the foreign policy of the United States.”

With this legislation in hand, Ambassador Vernon Walters, Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s successor, tried to influence voting in the U.N. in the mid-1980s. Regrettably, when the original 1983 law was replaced in 1990, the provision prohibiting the use of funds for countries “engaged in a consistent pattern of opposition to the foreign policy of the United States” was excised, eliminating the very lever deemed so vital by Ambassadors Kirkpatrick and Walters. However, the legacy of the linkage resulted in the inclusion of information on U.S. foreign assistance in most subsequent reports, including a table in every report on U.N. voting between 1999 and 2009 that listed U.S. foreign assistance disbursements alongside recipients’ voting coincidence with the U.S. However, Voting Practices in the United Nations 2010, the most recent report, was substantially revised from earlier reports and does not include this table.

The analysis by Carter and Stone suggests that whatever the formal policy, that linkage remains healthy as a matter of practice.

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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