Print pagePDF page

Alynna J. Lyon. US Politics and the United Nations: A Tale of Dysfunctional Dynamics (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016), 251 pp.

Reviewed by: Luciana R. Campos (PhD Candidate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, PUC-Minas)

In times when Trump’s erratic presidency looms in America and the world, Alynna Lyons’s book, US Politics and the United Nations: A Tale of Dysfunctional Dynamics, timely assesses how internal political turmoil in the US impacts its multilateral engagement, particularly at the UN. Lyon’s findings provide a framework that we can use to interpret the current situation. Her work may reveal mixed expectations for the current US-UN relations under the Trump administration. Lyon empirically exposes a gap between frequent virulent attacks on the UN by American policymakers and the occasional materialization of their threats, such as the dramatic moments when the US withheld dues in order to pressure for reforms at the UN.

Lyon’s tale of the US-UN relations is one of conditional multilateralism, where international, domestic, and institutional factors within the UN – the book’s three levels of analysis – inform the likelihood of the US-UN engagement. The US’ tone towards the UN is set by domestic bipartisan politics and tensions between the legislative and the executive branches of the government.  Lyon is trying to identify “under what circumstances is it politically feasible for the US to engage in cooperative endeavors through the UN system specifically and the broader international community more generally(p 6). The author researches circumstances and drivers that explain the US-UN relations across the three levels in a chronological manner by utilizing interviews, UN voting records, and funding data to construct her narrative.

The book covers an extensive period from UN’s inception to Barak Obama’s presidency and has a broad thematic scope. Such a broad scope prevents a more balanced assessment of the three levels of analysis. It places an emphasis on the domestic realm and on security-related issues –  the Security Council prevails in the analysis of institutional factors within the UN. This is reflected in the book’s methodological approach. The voting trends and budget data are restricted to the UN itself, it does not encompass, for example, voting patterns and budgets of specialized agencies. Data on specialized agencies could put into perspective the deterioration of relations between the UNESCO and the Obama administration.  Notwithstanding, the author chose to follow overall trends in the US-UN engagement, which illustrate and shed light on wider patterns.

The author manages to present a rather complex subject in an accessible and pleasurable reading. Lyon reviews a long and dysfunctional relation by combining data analysis with illustrative anecdotes to captivate academics and the general public. The book opens with a description of the Republican Senator, Robert Dole’s, presence at the 2012 ratification session of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Dole’s personal appeal was exposed when he showed up in a wheelchair to support the ratification of the convention amid a politicized debate nurtured by critics of the UN. This image echoes throughout the book, when the same Senator appears as the typical obstructionist Republican conservative congressman that often attacks the US-UN engagement.

Former Senator Bob Dole, at right in a wheelchair, entered the Senate with his wife to support a United Nations disabilities treaty. photo credit: CSPAN2.

The book begins with the foundation of the UN and examines the role played by the US along the process (chapter 3). During the time, the support of both political parties for the UN was pivotal and lasted for nearly two decades. The Truman administration, aware of the contentious relations between the Congress and the White House as well as the impact of the public’s opinion over the non-ratification of League of Nation’s treaty, embarked on a long process of convincing internal audience over the need for an international organization. This process gained momentum by the time the World War II was over. Truman’s campaign for the UN charter ratification won bipartisan and public support. Accordingly, the memory of World War II prevailed over discourses, predominant during the League’s era, that defended the US’ autonomy and independence from foreign entanglements.

The author shows a progressive deterioration of the US-UN relations. Lyon depicts a rift between the US parties, where the Republicans explored a political strategy of UN shaming, which became popular among its voters (chapter 4).  The UN was targeted by Conservatives’ attacks that ranged from a more general accusation of the UN staff’s communist tendencies – later replaced by “terrorist” accusations during the Bush administration – to specific attacks, such as those based on ideological grounds over family planning and abortions as well as over fiscal issues regarding UN inefficiencies.

At the international level, the Cold War dynamics constrained the UN Security Council’s functions, while the raising number of member-states during the decolonization process diminished American leverage at the UN General Assembly. These dynamics have led to the adoption of resolutions against the US’ close ally Israel, bolstering criticism of the UN’s relevance and effectiveness in the US.  Both the White House and the Congress began to question UN’s value and capacity.  In response, the UN’s approval rating among the American public decreased. At the height of this ‘wear and tear’, the Reagan administration withheld its dues to the UN and exposed how criticisms directed at the UN has become popular and how unpopular the UN has become in the US.

In the 1990s, America’s attempt to gain the endorsement of the Security Council to act against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is a symbolic return to the UN. As chapter five illustrates the mission’s success inspired other US endeavors in the UN. The US’s turn toward the UN was based on a renewed desire to exert leadership within the UN and to share a governance burden. However, the tragic events involving 18 Army Rangers in Somalia disturbed the US-UN relations and triggered criticism by American political parties and the public, the latter was heavily influenced by the media coverage.

At this point, the author describes a mounting frustration over the UN peacekeeping, leading both the Congress and the White House to sponsor the establishment of conditions for the US participation in the peacekeeping operations. One of these conditions was the US’ control over troops’ command and the other one was centered on UN reform. However, the US-UN relations were often shaped by bipartisan politics, especially when a majority of the Congress was occupied by the opposition party to the one controlling the White House. Accordingly, the Clinton administration resisted an attempt to ratify a bill that tied American funding to the UN to conditions that prohibited the use of these funds for abortion-related projects. After three years, Clinton finally conceded when the US was expected to lose its voting power for not paying the due amounts.

The neoconservative agenda of the Bush Jr. administration and its determination to take action against Iraq, regardless of international support, symbolized America’s detachment from the UN.  In spite of the continuing rhetoric portraying the UN as a threat to individual liberties and American sovereignty, Lyon shows that the US-UN engagement resumed shortly after the detachment (chapter 6). Besides these rhetorical attacks, the US administration re-approached the UN in order to deal with terrorism, Iran, North Korea, and peacekeeping operations. The US engagement with the UN was recognized as an effective way to share burdens and responsibilities. Lyon presents empirical evidences of these ‘under the radar relations’, such as the incremental growth of the US’ voluntary funding for the UN. She notes that although the Republicans are less inclined to support the UN, in moments when they occupy both the congress and the White House, the cool down of bipartisan politics is reflected in better relations with the organization.

The book’s assessment of the US-UN engagement during the Obama administration is the inverse of the Bush administration’s ‘under the radar engagement’, since the American return remained mostly rhetoric due to domestic opposition to Obama’s manifested desire to return to the UN (chapter 7). However, UN recovered some of its prestige during the Obama administration, the US’ ambassador to the UN regained a cabinet position, and the US paid back   millions in debt to the UN. Notwithstanding, amidst Palestinian admission as a member state of the UNESCO, the US responded by cutting the funding for this specialized agency and decreased the funding for several of the other UN entities.  This set forth the relevance of the American Congress over the US’ engagement with the UN in areas, such as budgeting, where it plays a more prominent role. On the other hand, in the areas in which the American administration had more autonomy, such as voting at the UN’s main organs, Obama seemed more engaged than Bush, having   higher voting coincidence with other member-states

The book’s historical review of the US-UN relations identifies five specific aspects that define conditional multilateralism: the historical timing and issue area; the political opportunities opened and closed by power politics; the presidential party; the domestic realm; and ideological concerns (chapter 8).

Lyon’s findings point out to a growing influence of the US’ internal politics. US multilateralism is found to be more intermestic (Bayless, 1977), when the weight of domestic actors – such as congress, public opinion and the media –  is pivotal in shaping the US’ collaboration with the UN.

The analysis of Bush and Obama administrations expose this more clearly, showing both presidents efforts to bypass the domestic politicization of US-UN relations, the former by maintaining a low profile over its re-approximation with the UN, the latter mastering ways to collaborate without congress consent.

Some comfort for Trump’s era is that even the US administrations made up of hardcore UN critics end up recognizing UN’s importance regarding the US’ ability to engage with the rest of the world – rallying allies, sharing responsibilities, and preserving credibility as well as legitimacy. We should hope that the Congress, the Department of State, public opinion, the media, and another intermestic political actors keep Trump’s approach towards the UN accountable.

Bibliography

Bayless, Manning “The Congress, the Executive and Intermestic Affairs: three proposals”, Foreign Affairs, 55, n.2 (1977).