The Trump Administration and the United Nations – A Good News Story

Diplomatic Competence Brings Success at the United Nations

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

My hat is off to the Trump Administration's deft diplomacy in the United Nations Security Council.

Yes, you read that right. Administration diplomats achieved a real counterterrorism success in the Security Council yesterday. For twenty years, the United States has been advocating for the advance screening of air travelers using data like passport numbers, biometrics, and reservation data (known as PNR, or passenger name records). The Bush and Obama administrations struggled to advance this initiative against passive and active international resistance.

Yesterday, the Trump Administration did what its predecessors could not.

It obtained a unanimous resolution on travel data from the Security Council. The resolution instructs UN member states to require that airlines transmit passport data to destination governments. It requires all states to "collect, process and analyse" PNR, and it encourages them to share the data with other relevant and concerned governments. It requires the development of watchlists of terror suspects to be used at the border and encourages the sharing of watchlist information. Finally, the order requires states to collect fingerprints, photos, and other biometric data to identify terrorists.

This full-throated endorsement of travel data collection is transformative. UN Security Council resolutions are binding on members of the United Nations. Many countries implement entire regulatory regimes based simply on the language of such resolutions. The existence of the order makes it far more likely that the United States will be able to foster the web of travel data sharing agreements that it has long sought as a way to supplement its own border control systems.

The resolution is a body blow to the international resistance to this common-sense terror screening tool. The resistance has been centered in the institutions of the European Union, notably the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament. But when push came to shove, all the EU members currently on the Security Council—France, Sweden, Italy, and (for now) Britain – abandoned the Brussels doubters and supported the resolution. While the EU is not a member of the UN and thus not technically bound by the resolution, all of its members are. Europeans, long used to delivering lectures about US failures to adhere to international law, will have to surrender their skepticism or find themselves on the receiving end of international law lessons from American diplomats.

It's also a tribute to the growing competence of Trump administration diplomats. Despite all the talk (and the reality) of turmoil in the administration and a slow start at State, this is the kind of diplomatic achievement that can only be pulled off by a unified administration supported by subcabinet officials who know what they're doing.

NEXT: Clifford Irving and His Fakes

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  1. Actually, I’m not terribly disappointed in the Jerusalem vote, either; Clarity is always good to have, even if it’s clarity about a bad situation. We’re better off today than we were a few days ago, when there was some doubt about where we stood.

    1. Clarity is not always good to have. Radically honest people are a-holes.

      Diplomacy has always been about sweet lies. And necessarily so – without illusions nationalism turns into warmongering at every slight.

      1. Lies are never sweet in the end, when you’re telling them to yourself. You can say “Nice doggy!” while reaching for a stick, but convince yourself the dog is nice, and you’re gonna get bit. Maybe even mauled.

        I’m celebrating the death of our illusions about the world we’re in. It’s a far uglier place than we’ve been pretending, and we’ve, inexcusably, been treating the pretense as real. Which is why, for instance, we have no real defense against Nothing Korean missiles.

        1. God, I hate Apple’s auto-mistake.

        2. What “clarity” do you think the Jerusalem vote brought us? What nastiness do you think the American government has embraced, exactly? Who is the “dog” in this scenario?

          As I’ve seen it stated, the “clarity” that Trump’s decision on Jerusalem provides is just an acknowledgment of the facts on the ground: Jerusalem is Israel’s de facto capitol. Fine. But at the same time he made this announcement, he tried to maintain that he wasn’t taking a position on any other final-status questions, including the status of East Jerusalem, the borders of the future Palestinian state, refugees’ right to return, etc., etc. If you’d followed the situation carefully, then you’d understand that Trump’s Jerusalem acknowledgment brought more confusion than clarity.

          You want nasty realism? It’s time to recalibrate the American position entirely and embrace the one-state solution that Israel is barreling towards.

        3. I too am “celebrating the death of our illusions about the world we’re in” and acknowledge that “it’s a far uglier place than we’ve been pretending.” As an additional example, I’d offer recent reports (even in the Washington Post!) regarding the three east coast “sanctuary” jurisdictions in each of which uniformed MS-13 members now outnumber local police personnel: yes, if you convince yourself the dog is indeed nice, you might get bit… and deservedly so.

          I can’t help recalling the related point made by Thomas Huxley (see https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE3/TechEd.html ), who wrote that “the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not … the majority of things to be done are common things, and are quite well enough done when commonly done. The great end of life is not knowledge but action.”

          1. Liar.

            There are no such reports. A politician in Virginia claims Fairfax MS-13 members nearly equal the police in number, but the local police, ICE, and the DoJ do not agree with his numbers.

            The WaPo debunked his claim definitively.

            MS-13 members do not wear uniforms.

            And you should practice counting to one. (Hint: Three does not come before one.)

          2. You sound fun at parties.

            “This ranch dip reminds me of how all those killed by illegals would love to enjoy dips but cannot!”

            Your Huxley quote can be used to rationalize treating illegals like individual humans rather than generalizing about them as violent criminals. Even though it may be hard for you…

  2. ‘The Volokh Conspiracy: Libertarians For Big Government, Big Data, Government Surveillance, and Government Secrecy*.’

    * okay, okay — we’ll dial it back to “libertarianish” or “often libertarian”

    1. How dare a slate of several writers not monolithicly agree on everything?

      1. Diversity is good.

        Movement conservatism, in all of its backward and authoritarian glory, masquerading as libertarianism is not.

        1. Are you accusing Sweden of authoritarianism here?

          1. The Conspiracy may be a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, but I have never sensed it to be a mouthpiece for the Kingdom of Sweden.

            Please tell us more.

      2. Arthur Kirkland is far from the only one who has no clue why SB is allowed on this platform.

        1. What is difficult to understand?

          Stewart Baker is a movement conservative and a Republican. He also is white and male.

          The Volokh Conspiracy is an improbably male, strikingly white, right-wing blog whose stated purpose is to make movement conservatism more popular among a broader (the mainstreamers at the Washington Post, the libertarians at Reason) audience.

          Stewart Baker fits like a well-chosen glove.

          1. Man, give AK the benefit of the doubt once and he tries really hard to make himself an ass

          2. “The Volokh Conspiracy is an improbably male,”

            The Volokh Conspiracy is a group of legal scholars. Have you looked at the demographics of that group lately?

    2. Stewart Baker has always been something of the odd-man-out among the Conspirators, at least in terms of general views of state power and authority. I find it useful to read his posts and to consider his thoughts, even though 9 times out of 10 I strongly disagree with his premises, thought-processes, and/or conclusions.

  3. Even though its only been a week, I really, really do miss the WaPo hide comment feature.

    1. there is apparently a Chrome addon called “reasonable” that adds an ignore function to this comment section, although I have never used it

  4. Stewart Baker, once again shows why he is not going to be a good fit for the new Reason affiliated Volokh Conspiracy.

    Just an observation here, but libertarians are genuinely not very keen on increasing the surveillance apparatus of the state, let alone expanding it around world.

    1. He’ll be fine. There are plenty of non-libertarian contributors at Reason.

    2. RoyMo: While we’re “often libertarian,” we’re not always libertarian — and while some of us are pretty hardcore libertarians, others are conservatives, moderates, or a mixed lot. This is by design; I myself am not a hardcore libertarian, though I have many libertarian views and inclinations. And our new affiliation with Reason is most certainly not intended to change this. (As you might gather, the Reason editors, being smart and knowledgeable people, are perfectly aware of that.)

      1. But EV, the thing is this: Stewart Baker is always anti-libertarian

  5. The VC old reliables can be counted on to flog their issues.

    When there’s a massacre using guns, David Kopel talks about Nazi gun control.
    When there’s criticism of Israel, David Bernstein explains why it’s wrong.
    When computer/internet freedom is taken away, Stewart Baker explains why it’s good.

    And Ilya Somin is always there to tell us that it’s OK to not know and not care 🙂

    1. I feel like this is the premise for an age-inappropriate Saturday morning cartoon.

    2. I like to refer to Ilya as “Open Borders Illya”.

    3. You call it flogging, I call it expertise. Stewart happens to know a lot about surveillance issues, and about the value of surveillance — having been General Counsel of the NSA and Assistant Secretary for Policy at DHS is pretty useful experience. Many might disagree with him about his balancing of the value and the harm; but I’m glad that he’s chiming on matters that he knows well.

      1. Expertise and accountability tend be subject to Mile’s Law. The NSA GC quite rarely argues for less data collection or sharing, oil executives rarely argue for less drilling.

        At the same time, independence and impartiality tend to come from people with no experience and no accountability. The ACLU has no idea (and should not have an idea) how to fight crime/terror and will not be held responsible for failure.

        This is a real dilemma with which many have long wrestled, but regardless I do appreciate having SB’s take.

      2. “I’m glad that he’s chiming on matters that he knows well.”

        Does he though? The way this post is written, it seems like Baker doesn’t realize that the key diplomat here (Michele Sison) was an Obama appointee.

        Baker’s emphasis on applauding the “competence of Trump administration diplomats” is, at best, misleading under the circumstances – and suggests that he is either not well informed, or else is intentionally misrepresenting the situation for the purpose of partisan pandering.

    4. If you don’t like flogging, don’t read a blog by academics.

  6. While I have no particular problem with so anodyne a thing as “share basic, public information about travelers, that the countries in question would get on arrival in any case”, I do want to note that no country actually has to obey even a Security Council resolution, despite being a member of the UN.

    No enforcement mechanism means it’s a glorified “pretty please”, and the UN remains – even while occasionally suggesting good things – a posturing waste of space and time.

    1. Sigivald: There’s a lot to be said about how useful the UN is; I’m certainly not convinced that it’s particularly useful. (My guess is that it’s much more useful in some areas than in others.)

      But much in life operates through “glorified ‘pretty please[s],'” especially when it involves relationships between repeat players who are generally trying to get along in various ways (for instance, related to trade). That’s particularly true when the “pretty please[s]” come from established institutions.

      Just to give one example from a field I know: Restatements of the Law (such as the famous Restatements of Torts and of Contracts) have no legally binding quality; no court system has to follow them; they are just the product of the American Law Institute, a voluntary and moderately selective group of lawyers, academics, and judges. Yet they have proved to be quite influential with courts, which actually do have the power to adopt them. No-one should confuse the ALI with Congress or the Supreme Court; but no-one should just dismiss it as a “glorified ‘pretty please'” institution. My sense is that something similar (though of course not identical) is in play with UN Security Council resolutions of the sort that Stewart is describing.

    2. Sigivald: There’s a lot to be said about how useful the UN is; I’m certainly not convinced that it’s particularly useful. (My guess is that it’s much more useful in some areas than in others.)

      But much in life operates through “glorified ‘pretty please[s],'” especially when it involves relationships between repeat players who are generally trying to get along in various ways (for instance, related to trade). That’s particularly true when the “pretty please[s]” come from established institutions.

      Just to give one example from a field I know: Restatements of the Law (such as the famous Restatements of Torts and of Contracts) have no legally binding quality; no court system has to follow them; they are just the product of the American Law Institute, a voluntary and moderately selective group of lawyers, academics, and judges. Yet they have proved to be quite influential with courts, which actually do have the power to adopt them. No-one should confuse the ALI with Congress or the Supreme Court; but no-one should just dismiss it as a “glorified ‘pretty please'” institution. My sense is that something similar (though of course not identical) is in play with UN Security Council resolutions of the sort that Stewart is describing.

      1. I like the UN because historically there are lots of examples of a shared forum doing wonders in deescalating and avoiding misunderstandings.

        1. And how is that working out in the specific case of these two peoples?

  7. Can anybody explain what the hashtag after the datestamp does? I click it and it just seems to move the scroll bar.

    1. You can use it in other posts or comments to link directly to this comment.

    2. Yes — it’s a direct link to the particular comment, so that you can copy it into later comments or posts in which you want to link to that very comment (rather than to the whole thread).

  8. How do you justify calling this “a tribute to the growing competence of Trump administration diplomats” when the only US diplomat referenced in the UN press release (Michele Sison) has been serving since 2014?

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call this a tribute to the continuing competence of Obama administration diplomats?

    1. Or to put it another way, if you’re going to claim that “the Trump Administration did what its predecessors could not” and applaud
      “subcabinet officials who know what they’re doing,” then it seems important to note that Trump did not select the subcabinet official who knew what she was doing.

      1. Or maybe “this is the kind of diplomatic achievement that can only be pulled off by [an Obama appointee].

        1. Obama told her to hold off her move until Trump was in office so that Trump got the credit. It was a nice bipartisan gesture.

  9. So the Security Council enacts laws which America has to obey, good thing this won’t set a bad precedent.

  10. It requires the development of watchlists of terror suspects to be used at the border and encourages the sharing of watchlist information.

    So if I were to call the president of a country that shares a name with a common deli meat a big poopy-head on Twitter, he’d now be able to ban me from mass transportation in the US by putting me on the new international terrorism watch list?

    1. You leave President Fologna alone!

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