Global politics after the Jerusalem vote

The U.N. vote on Jerusalem that rejected Trump's declaration seems to harm the U.S.'s ties with member countries

I watched director Chris Columbus’s “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” from 1992 for the first time when I was a middle school student in a movie theater in Istanbul with a group of friends from school. Since then, I do not know how many times I have watched this movie, by myself, with friends, with nephews or nieces and with family. While Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister became one of the most memorable actors in the movie, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as bumbling bandits quickly stole audiences’ hearts with two of Hollywood’s best villainous characters. The movie is based on the story of Kevin who took a wrong plane and instead of flying to Miami, lands in New York. After enjoying a few days in New York by himself, Kevin has to deal with the bandits on top of the other scary things a big city harbors at night. Although in the beginning he outwits the bandits, he later gets caught and can only save himself with the help of his friend in the park. In a rather interesting scene, Kevin runs into the current U.S. president, Donald Trump, at the Plaza Hotel. Kevin asks Trump where to find the hotel lobby, and Trump points him in the right direction with a little bit of surprise and skepticism.

Now on its 25th anniversary, “Home Alone 2” has become a classic and has inspired many around the world to visit New York City during the holiday season. In fact, it added a new flavor to the soft power of the United States, a term coined a few years before the movie by Joseph Nye in his book “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American power.” He specifically developed this concept while trying to challenge the declinism of the 1980s, a concept also addressed by Paul Kennedy in “The Rise and Decline of Great Powers.” For Nye, who tried to refine his concept after its misuse or abuse for the next three decades, a critical component of power was its ability to use attraction and persuasion whenever coercion and payment fail. This meant a lot for many scholars who tried to understand the source of American power in the 1990s in what Charles Krauthammer called the unipolar moment of world politics. And as many scholars in the 1990s found, popular culture and movies produced in the U.S. have a lot to do with its attraction, and thus soft power. “Home Alone 2” is only one of them.

This week, while celebrating the movie’s 25th year, the soft power of the U.S. around the world is the lowest it has been for a quarter century. Ironically, one of the places of this process is New York. After Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognize the city as the capital, a wave of reactions emerged in different parts of the world to the decision. The snowball effect peaked in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting last week in Istanbul. Following the meeting, the issue was taken to the U.N. in New York. A U.N. Security Council resolution was put forward criticizing Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Minus the U.S., all U.N. Security Council member countries, including the staunch U.S. ally Britian, voted in favor of the resolution. The U.S. itself blocked the resolution with its veto power. It was probably one of the most difficult moments for U.S. diplomacy. Following this, a similar resolution was taken up in the U.N. General Assembly, where the U.S. does not have veto power. As a result, things really started to fall apart. Rather interestingly, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley sent an email to the representatives of several countries saying: “The president and U.S. take this vote personally. … The president will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those countries who voted against us. We will take note of each and every vote on this issue.” While many veteran foreign policy experts were trying to interpret this email, Trump threatened to cut foreign aid for countries that vote in favor of the resolution. Trump said: “We’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care.” Things did not stop there. On the day of the vote, another threat came from Haley to cut the U.S. contributions to the U.N. Each and every one of these threats generated serious challenges to U.S. credibility and influence around the world. The vote at the U.N. General Assembly took place under these threats and, as a result, only seven countries other than the U.S. and Israel objected to the resolution, –Honduras, Guatemala, Micronesia, Palau, Togo, Nauru and the Marshall Islands. Every close U.S. ally either accepted the resolution or abstained from voting. No NATO member voted with the U.S. It was a rather problematic moment for American diplomacy and global outreach. In New York, the limits of payment and coercion, as Nye put it almost three decades ago, once again presented themselves.

However, it is important to remember that this confrontation between the international community and the U.S. not only caused the crisis in the U.N., but in the long run, could also generate a major problem for the international systems to which the U.S. contributed a lot to build. The unilateralism of the U.S. may continue to set it apart in different settings and harm multilateral initiatives. In addition, the decision seems to bring forth problems for regional order. It is not clear what kind of role the U.S. can still play in the peace process from now on, or what the future of the peace process will be. Furthermore, it is still unclear what the impact of these developments will be for the future U.S. foreign policy. The initial reactions from the members of the administration are that the U.S. will not take the international community’s feedback into consideration and will continue with its plan to move the embassy. However, this decision may significantly impact the already fragile relations between the U.S. and some of its allies. The process demonstrated that the decision to use foreign aid to push countries to vote with the U.S. could be counterproductive. The use of militaristic rhetoric as an economic instrument was not a good idea at all.

To sum up, it is complicated. This decision has generated repercussions in the international system, in regional order and in U.S. foreign policy. So far, the U.S. seems to be alone and wants to move forward by itself, ignoring any international reaction. Whether the U.S. can really afford this policy and for how long remains to be seen.

[Daily Sabah, 22 December 2017]

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