In response to the U.S. State Department’s annual report to Congress on member voting practices in various UN venues, Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, has likely set back efforts to improve the U.S.-South African bilateral relationship, not to mention countless others. Ambassador Haley seems to be saying that if a country consistently votes against the United States in the UN, its bilateral U.S. assistance will be in jeopardy.
The report has been prepared annually since 1984. This year, it concludes that other UN member countries voted with the United States an average of 31 percent. This represents a drop of 10 percent since Donald Trump became president, likely reflecting the international unpopularity of the administration’s “America first” foreign policy.
Ambassador Haley is running a transactional riff on the data. She states that the United States pays 22 percent of the UN’s costs and that therefore, the 31 percent of the UN’s membership that votes with the United States “is not an acceptable return on our investment.” After the report’s release, Ambassador Haley said, “President Trump wants to ensure that our foreign assistance dollars always serve American interests, and we look forward to helping him see that he American people are no longer taken for granted.” In December 2017, shortly before the UN General Assembly voted against the United States with respect to the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Ambassador Haley warned that she would be “taking names” of countries that voted against the administration. The UN Voting Practices report, now published, makes that easy to do.
It identifies those countries that were least likely to vote with the United States. In order, they are: Zimbabwe, Burundi, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Bolivia, and South Africa. Threat’s by Trump and Haley aside, South Africa finds itself in bad company, a reality that should give many South Africans pause. Every other country on the list is to a greater or lesser extent a tyranny, which South Africa (and Bolivia) emphatically is not. Of course, South Africa does not set out deliberately to thwart the United States in its UN votes, even if some South African politicians might wish to. Rather, South Africa’s votes reflect the policies and goals of a democratically elected government in Pretoria at a particular moment in time on a particular issue.
South Africa is the only multiracial country in sub-Saharan Africa and it has the continent’s most developed economy. It is a multiparty democracy conducted according to the rule of law and with among the most developed guarantees of human rights in the world—it is the only African country to permit gay marriage, for example.
There are myriad ties between the United States and South Africa involving civil society, academia, and a plethora of other human endeavors, but with respect to the official relationship, spokespersons on both sides are careful. They use words like “cordial,” diplomatic shorthand for “cool,” while insisting with little credibility that the bilateral relationship is good. The reality is that the official, bilateral relationship is not warm or close. This is mostly the result of history, unrealistic expectations on both sides, and the personalities of their past and present leaders. These deeper issues often exacerbate smaller questions, such as South Africa’s eligibility to take part in African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), an arrangement that provides participants with nearly unfettered access to the American market. The foreign policies of South Africa and the United States are also often out of synch because of different goals. For example, the South African government strongly objected to the NATO operation in Libya that led to the demise of tyrant and dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Nevertheless, the emergence of pro-business Cyril Ramaphosa as chief of state in January 2018 raised the possibility of improving the bilateral relationship. In fact, irrespective of veiled American threats to cut assistance to South Africa, Zuma's ouster alone could very well result in significant change to South Africa’s UN voting behavior. However, Ramaphosa has not reached out to the Trump administration, at least publicly, and Trump has not yet appointed an ambassador in Pretoria.
Altogether, the United States provides less than $500 million in assistance to South Africa, mostly to the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), a few other health programs, and small amounts of assistance to basic education and small enterprises. The amount is not large, and South Africa has been assuming a larger share of the costs of PEPFAR. Despite Ambassador Haley’s saber rattling, it would be difficult for the administration to cut drastically PEPFAR assistance; the American public would not respond well to pictures of South African children dying because they lost access to antiretroviral drugs. Serious cuts to U.S. bilateral assistance to South Africa are therefore unlikely.
Nevertheless, South Africans are likely to resent deeply the Trump administration’s rhetoric holding bilateral assistance hostage to votes in the UN. For a government that is a descendant of an anti-apartheid and “anti-colonialism” liberation movement, the Trump administration’s threats have more than a whiff of neo-imperialism about them. If Ramaphosa does want a better official relationship with the United States, which he likely does, Trump’s transactional approach to UN voting makes it more difficult for him to muster public opinion within his party but also among the larger South African public.