There is a lot to like in what Ambassador Nikki Haley has done since arriving at the United Nations last year, especially her outspokenness on human rights issues. At times, she has seemed to be implementing a different foreign policy than the president’s—in a good way. From her very first appearance in the UN Security Council in February 2017 until last month’s, Haley has been tenacious in standing up to the Russians over their ongoing military intervention in Ukraine, and their illegal seizure of Crimea and its 2.3 million people, all while President Trump seemed confused or conflicted about how to address these Russian aggressions, and while her other boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, seemed just plain confused. She has been so far out front on this theme, in fact, one wonders if President Trump—who reportedly told his G7 counterparts over dinner that Crimea belongs to Russia—even knows what his UN Ambassador is up to.
Haley has also been tireless on behalf of Myanmar’s Rohingya people, in no uncertain terms criticizing the near-genocidal atrocities being committed by the country’s hybrid civilian/military regime against its long-oppressed minority. She pressed for the appointment of a special envoy and got a very good one installed in the position; she urged a Security Council mission to the affected regions of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and dispatched her very able deputy, Ambassador Kelley Eckels Currie, who has real expertise, to be part of that delegation.
She and her team at USUN have doggedly pressed in the underbelly of the UN bureaucracy on behalf of human rights NGOs, whose credentials to attend UN meetings were being blocked by various dictatorships, and succeeded in getting their access restored. Nikki Haley appears to have become adept at public diplomacy and insider bare-knuckle maneuvers both.
Haley arrived in New York as a diplomatic novice; one might have thought choosing a South Carolina governor with little international experience for the post was yet another misbegotten appointment by Trump. Yet she has often been marching in the footsteps of previous human rights giants like Madeline Albright and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who both made names for themselves calling out the governments of tin-pot dictators and serious despotisms alike, as facts and events required.
So it is puzzling that she has taken the lead on the U.S. withdrawal mid-term from the UN’s Human Rights Council this week, ceding on an important, highly visible field of diplomatic battle, apparently on grounds that it is too hard to prevail in meetings with thuggish governments, and on grounds they are consistently too mean toward Israel. This departure means that the U.S. now joins Iran, North Korea and Eritrea as the only countries in the world that refuse to have anything to do with the Council. Leaving aside the obvious preferences of her boss, President Trump, for doing deals with the very worst human rights abusing governments in the world today, it is worth a closer look at what Haley and the new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said this week in explaining this retreat.
Haley complained that the Council this year has adopted “five resolutions against Israel—more than the number passed against North Korea, Iran and Syria combined.” Last year, in her first appearance at the Council, she questioned whether it “is merely a showcase for dictatorships that use their membership to whitewash their brutality.” Does anyone really think murderous regimes have successfully burnished their grisly reputations by not having a resolution against them adopted? Or for that matter, does Haley think the Council will now become more active on those fronts with the U.S. absenting itself from the proceedings? Russia has already spoken up for the soon-to-be-vacated American seat on the Council. And there is this: Israeli diplomats say they want the U.S. to stay, because things for them will be worse without the Americans, even though their blustering Prime Minister has applauded the Trump Administration’s announcement.
Stranger still were the comments from Secretary Pompeo, who said continued U.S. participation in the Human Rights Council would constitute a threat to American security. “When organizations undermine our national interests and our allies, we will not be complicit,” he said. “When they seek to infringe on our national sovereignty, we will not be silent.” Could this have had something to do with the recent statement by the UN’s Commissioner on Human Rights, the highly-regarded Jordanian, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, decrying the Trump Administration’s rancid debacle of a policy separating children from parents seeking to legally apply for asylum in the U.S.? To declare that a resolution or a statement opining on events or policies in UN member states “infringes on sovereignty” sounds eerily like what repressive governments everywhere say when called out on their bad behavior. This suggests, moreover, that the Human Rights Council is very consequential indeed—which further begs the question of why the U.S. would walk out of it.
There is no doubt that the HRC is obsessed with Israel. The Council debates and adopts more resolutions decrying Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians than all other situations and countries combined. But this is not a new development; it has ever been thus. Indeed, while all UN institutions have built-in hostility toward Israel—and the United States, too, to be sure—it has at times been much, much worse than it is today.
In 1975, during Moynihan’s time at the UN, the General Assembly—which includes the UN’s entire global membership—adopted the infamous Resolution 3379, equating Zionism with racism. Two of the most resonant, powerful speeches in diplomatic history were delivered on the occasion: one by Israeli ambassador (and subsequently president) Chaim Herzog, and the other by Ambassador Moynihan. In remarks that echo powerfully today in Trump’s America, Moynihan said:
There appears to have developed in the United Nations the practice for a number of countries to combine for the purpose of doing something outrageous, and thereafter, the outrageous thing having been done, to profess themselves outraged by those who have the temerity to point it out, and subsequently to declare themselves innocent of any wrong-doing in consequence of its having been brought about wholly in reaction to the “insufferable” acts of those who pointed the wrong-doing out in the first place. Out of deference to these curious sensibilities, the United States chose not to speak in advance of this vote: we speak in its aftermath and in tones of the utmost concern.
His voice rising in righteous anger, Moynihan shouted,
The United States rises to declare before the General Assembly of the United Nations, and before the world, that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.
The vote was 72 to 35. The United States never did acquiesce. Nor did it forget.
The U.S. did not leave the General Assembly then—and certainly not the Security Council, nor even the dismal Human Rights Commission of the day. Moynihan had foretold that this moment would come, describing in Commentary well before his appointment what the United States ought to do, in a quasi-parliamentary world body, with a hostile majority of non-democratic, even totalitarian states.
The United States goes into opposition. This is our circumstance. We are a minority. We are outvoted. This is neither an unprecedented nor an intolerable situation. The question is what do we make of it. So far we have made little—nothing—of what is in fact an opportunity. We go about dazed that the world has changed. We toy with the idea of stopping it and getting off. We rebound with the thought that if only we are more reasonable perhaps “they” will be. … But “they” do not grow reasonable. Instead, we grow unreasonable.
Going into opposition requires first of all that we recognize that there is a distinctive ideology at work . . . [and] once we perceive the coherence in the majority, we will be in a position to reach for a certain coherence of opposition.
This was at the height of the Cold War, shortly after the ignominious defeat in Vietnam, when the Soviet Union was on the march. Cuban troops were in Africa, proxy fighters for Moscow. The People’s Republic of China was stirring. At the UN, where a cocky Soviet delegation had spurred on the Zionism resolution, Moynihan said: stay and fight; do not cut and run. His subsequent memoir of his time at the UN was entitled A Dangerous Place. What sailors know about the sea, he wrote, diplomats should know about the world; not to shy from it, or be fearful, but to better prepare themselves to navigate their way.
Fifteen years later, when American steadfastness paid off and the communist world imploded, Moynihan was in the U.S. Senate and his contemporary, George H.W. Bush, was President—our last war hero President and a man seasoned in both high-stakes diplomacy and fraught American politics. At that point, while a new world order was being constructed on the fly, and it could have been put off for another day, a Republican administration embarked on a full-court diplomatic press to right a lingering wrong. The United States secured a reversal of the vote on the ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution. It did so with quiet and forceful and principled diplomacy.
As The New York Times reported in December 1991 when Resolution 3379 was overturned by vote of 111 to 25 (there being many more member states with the breakup of the communist empire):
For the United States, the heavy vote in favor of repeal was a demonstration of its diplomatic power. After President Bush called for the repeal in September in a speech to the General Assembly, United States embassies around the world were instructed to put maximum pressure to secure the repeal. The 111 votes recorded today were about 11 more than the United States mission to the United Nations had predicted last week.
The Times also noted:
Many Asian and African nations, including India, Nigeria, Singapore and the Philippines, which voted for the Zionism resolution in 1975, reversed themselves.
That was how a great America once used its influence in the world: it built coalitions and alliances, it persuaded, enticed and cajoled and made improving the world, and correcting the public record to erase at least some of the most outrageous lies, the nation’s business. Diplomacy it was called, which in its heyday was a participatory sport: you had to play to win.
After a sustained surge of democratic advancement after 1989, the world has now seen a dozen years of annual decline globally in overall democratic performance, as Freedom House has well documented. If the U.S. is going to keep the democracy and human rights flags flying during this global democratic recession, then our government is going to have to show up and speak up at the meetings—and enlist the cooperation of the like-minded that remain. That is how the minority party begins to build toward a majority.