Learning from the Jerusalem vote

At a glance, the UN vote to condemn the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel seemed to have almost as many interpretations as interpreters. Because the General Assembly’s 2012 vote on observer status for the Palestinians won the support of 138 nations, the fact that ‘only’ 128 supported the recent resolution (9 voted against and 35  states abstained) could, conceivably, be read as a modest gain for Israeli diplomacy. Perhaps that is why, despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reflexive denunciation of the General Assembly a “theatre of the absurd” his Foreign Ministry quickly argued that the non-opposition of 65 countries was “hugely significant.” With similar logic, after intense pressure to deter support for the resolution failed, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations made a speech that ignored both the substance and text of the resolution and offered impassioned arguments that, in the restrained phrasing of Haaretz, “did not reflect the reality on the ground.”

Of course the vote was more about the United States and its loss of authority, both diplomatic and moral, in international fora. UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s threat to “take names” was typical of the empty aggression that has characterised this administration’s cartoonish approach to a world that it little understands and over which its influence is waning. Hollow threats, Trump’s diplomatic weapon of choice, may earn him the loyalty of a populist base, but they fatally undermine his country’s standing abroad.

The know-nothing pride behind such gestures is all of a piece with Trump’s quixotic ideals of reinventing US governance. Occasionally the tenets of the new philosophy are stated clearly enough to attract the derision they deserve. Last month, for instance, after addressing a panel on US-European Relations at the Wilson Center in Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about the unprecedented cuts to the State Department’s budget. Channelling his boss, Tillerson described the cuts as “reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have success … in getting [international] conflicts resolved” and that in the wake of these successes his department would need fewer diplomats.

In a withering analysis of Tillerson’s beleaguered tenure at the State Department, Fred Kaplan itemizes some of the consequences of Trump’s decision to reduce the department’s budget by a third: “Of 153 State Department positions that are nominated by a president, Trump has left 76—almost exactly half—unfilled …” Kaplan adds that: “These include most of the department’s policy-related jobs, including the undersecretaries for political affairs and international security affairs as well as the assistant secretaries for intelligence and research, politico-military affairs, conflict and stabilization operations, international narcotics and law enforcement, population refugees and migration, African affairs, East Asian and Pacific affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, South Asian affairs, Western Hemisphere affairs, and many more.”  Trump’s interminable list of foreign policy gaffes are largely due to this loss of informed feedback, intelligence and resources. Proof that in diplomacy, too, you tend to get what you pay for.

Further signs of hubris abound. After Russia expelled 755 American diplomats, Trump joked that Putin should be thanked for reducing the US government’s payroll. Shortly afterwards, when Laura Ingraham of Fox News asked whether he “worried that the State Department doesn’t have enough Donald Trump nominees in there to push your vision through?” he countered:

“Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.”

After claiming ownership of his foreign policy so adamantly, Trump cannot plausibly deny that the rest of the world has just punctured his ridiculously hyper-inflated reputation for deal-making and conflict resolution. Instead, the UN vote has shown, yet again, that the current leader of the free world is dangerously out of touch with the world that he seeks to lead.

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