National Security

The U.S. Just Had a Very Good Week at the UN

That Jerusalem vote was a sideshow. Meanwhile, the American ambassador got some real work done.

It's not a popularity contest. She's got a real agenda.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

After the UN General Assembly voted this week to condemn U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the conventional wisdom is that the Trump administration has only isolated itself at the United Nations.  

And it's easy to see the logic. America's adversaries gloated. Palestinians cheered. Even staunch allies like France and the U.K. joined the majority of finger waggers. After all, the UN General Assembly did vote 128 to 9 to condemn the U.S. after Ambassador Nikki Haley promised that she would be "taking names."

But that headline is hiding the real news. While most of the world was focused on the symbolic gang up at the UN General Assembly, the Trump administration had some quiet diplomatic success.

Let's start with the meaningful 15-0 vote on Friday to impose new sanctions on North Korea. The U.S. persuaded China, North Korea's primary patron, and Russia, another key trading partner to the Hermit Kingdom, to go along with the resolution -- no small feat. The new sanctions cap oil exports to North Korea at current levels and demand countries expel North Korean foreign workers. The sanctions could be tougher, but diplomacy is a give and take.

On Thursday, the same day of the General Assembly vote, the UN Security Council quietly passed resolution 2396, 15-0, urging all member states to better screen for foreign fighters returning from Syria, imposing new checks on fake passports and requiring member states to notify other countries when such fighters are detained or prosecuted.

Finally, Haley won a personal diplomatic victory on Iran. This week German government spokesman Steffen Seibert acknowledged a recent UN report on the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal that compiled evidence of Iranian missile transfers to Houthi rebels in Yemen. "The findings contained in the secretary-general's report reinforce our fears that Iran is violating the restrictions on the transfer of arms and ballistic missiles imposed on it," Seibert said. "The report contains several clear indications that there is Iranian involvement in the firing of missiles on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia on July 22 and November 4, i.e. missiles launched by the Houthis in Yemen."

This is important for two reasons. Haley this month personally presented evidence to the public at a U.S. military base of Iranian components found in the fragments of the missiles fired at Saudi Arabia. The UN confidential report on this did not reach the definitive conclusion that Haley raised, as Foreign Policy Magazine has reported. Nonetheless, the German government is concerned enough by the evidence that it is now saying it fears Iran has violated an important provision of the nuclear bargain.

It's also important because Germany was an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump's decision to decline certifying Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal in October. The German government has sought to stay in the nuclear deal. Haley's efforts to prod the UN to examine the Iranian role in arming the Houthis are paying off. Trump's strategy has been to leverage the prospect of America leaving the nuclear deal to get European allies to address its flaws. Curbing Iran's weapons transfers is a good place to start.  

None of this is to say that these recent diplomatic successes are because of Haley and President Donald Trump's threats over the Jerusalem vote. But the inverse is also true. America's symbolic isolation at the General Assembly has not hindered its diplomacy where it matters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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