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The Wrong Side Of History: America’s ‘Veto’ And ‘Abstention-Imperialism’

Above photo: Security Council Fails to Adopt Norwegian Proposal on Malaysian Complaint Against Indonesia. Discussing a document (l. to r.) are: Sir Patrick Dean (United Kingdom), Mr. Sivert A. Nielsen (Norway), and Mr. Adlai E. Stevenson (United States). Behind them (l. to r.): Mr. Francis T. Underhill (United States), Mr. Donald R. Toussaint (United States), and Mr. Charles Woodruff Yost (United States). By Teddy Chen/UN.

On Tuesday, March 17, 1970, Charles Woodruff Yost, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, entered the international body’s headquarters building on the far east side of Midtown Manhattan.  He was about to make history.  The UN was already 25 years old, but nonetheless, the organization’s top superpower had yet to exercise its profound Security Council veto power.  Within a few hours, Yost was set to change all that.

In the interest of what greater good would this patrician, cultivated, career diplomat-scholar wield the veto: Freedom? Liberty? Human dignity? Or the rights of small nations?  Hardly.  No, this day America’s global ambassador brandished the voting “nuclear option” to protect from censure an illegal, racist, white-settler-minority regime – Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) – that even then waged war, and maintained a state of emergency, to disenfranchise its black majority (some 95% of the populace).

Until 1970, the Soviet Union had been the UN’s vetoer-in-chief, spiking no less than 80 resolutions.  Besides the USSR, only Britain (thrice), and France (twice) – to defend their imperial actions and white-settler colonies or clients in Africa – had so used their granted (as permanent members of the Security Council) power-check.  Everything changed, however, that March.  Henceforth, the United States would cast the vast majority of vetoes: a total of 85 to the Soviet Union’s (and later Russian Federation’s) 48.  No other member came close.  That Washington cast its first negative vote to prop-up racist settler-colonialists, and that hardly any Americans had (or have) a clue about it, is disturbingly instructive.  Furthermore, as it turned out, this wretched veto proved perfectly in character.

A Power Time Capsule

History stands still at the United Nations.  Consider it an imperial time capsule; and a nefarious one at that.  After all, the real authority at the UN – the five member permanent Security Council – is itself a dated vestige of a bygone era: a flawed power structure freeze frame from a second war that failed “to end all wars.”  Ostensibly an organization dedicated to self-determination, sovereign state equality, and the extinction of cross-border aggression, in truth the UN mirrored and formalized existing power inequities from the first.

Here was an imperial institution, whose charter – and vast majority of “general” (assembly) members – were dedicated to anti-imperialism.  Yet, the Security Council represented paternalism incarnate: resting, as it did, on the assumption that the world required “big-boy” countries to mind the unwashed herd.  The five nations ultimately selected to permanently (imagine the conceit!) man the global ship – and imbued with the veto ability to bring it to a screeching halt – may not have been entirely reflective of actual power-dispersal, or broadly consistent (even in 1945), but it did have a certain logic.

Britain was broke, having barely survived the war; France literally broken; the latter having lost the war before it “won” it.  China was shattered, divided, on the cusp of civil war, and – at best – had fought its Japanese opponent to a stalemate.  The United States and the Soviet Union were, of course, the two true power-brokers – but even there, the potency gap was wider than either admitted.  Only America had emerged (domestically) unscathed and truly better off in World War II’s aftermath.

Still, Britain had technically held out against Hitler and assisted the American juggernaut, and besides, it – like the earlier vanquished France – still held vast swathes of the globe in its imperial embrace.  That seemed to warrant a place at the adults-table.  China was a mess, itself a recent victim of European empire-vultures – but its immense population and strategic position earned it a spot on the A-team too.  The Soviets, well, back in 1945 – before the myth of the Americans as the single-handed back-to-back world war champs had fully taken root – it was hard to deny that they, more than anyone, had carried the lion’s share in the Nazi defeat.  But there was something else, a matter even less discussed in polite company: all five permanent Security Council members were empires.  Three (China, America, and the Soviet Union) were expansionist, on some level settler-colonial, continental behemoths; the other two, rickety leftovers of the high-imperial age maritime prototype.

It wasn’t long, of course, before the bipolar Cold War broke out – or, more accurately, restarted – and, China having gone “red” in 1949, two armed camps formed.  Britain and France, empires or not, fell under the American wing to one degree or another – putting the lie to the fiction that either was a true superpower.  China initially caucused with Soviets, at least until the final Sino-Soviet split of 1965 exposed another fiction: that of a worldwide communist monolith.  Nonetheless, that veto-bit continued to matter.

The positions and principled squawking of Burkina Faso might be cute, charming even, but only the five “serious” players could instantly scuttle world opinion and make a mockery of the whole transnational enterprise.  But how would, and has, the cryogenically frozen (on V-J Day) Security Council use the veto “nuclear-option?”  (Pun, perhaps, intended, as all five would, by 1964, possess such weapons)

Uncle Sam’s Veto

It is striking how little one hears any meaningful discussion of America’s use of the Security Council veto: its historical patterns and prospects.  Naturally, the public and press purportedly hold U.S. congressmen responsible for their records – though the supposedly “progressive” Democratic Party’s nomination of Joe Biden raises serious questions about that statement’s veracity – so, logic would hold that countries be held to account for their influential international votes.  Only that’s rarely the case, particularly in the United States.  Maybe, in part, the lack of interest reflects Americans’ exceptionalist mistrust of all transnational institutions, and general unconcern with foreign affairs.

Furthermore, few citizens or leaders take the UN seriously these days – though I’d submit this sentiment confuses the sequence.  Washington (and Moscow, in key ways) had – through veto intransigence and the threat of such – castrated the UN’s power and deprived it of most real seriousness or legitimacy, long before America’s populace and policymakers decided the international body wasn’t to be taken seriously.

In the American case, though, perhaps it is of some (inadvertent) comfort to the citizenry not to know just how and why Uncle Sam wielded the veto – and the even more cowardly abstention – in their name.  For the truth has often been obscene.  The record is as clear as it is unsettling: in the vast majority of cases, the U.S. has vetoed, or abstained from, Security Council resolutions in the interest – or at least with the effect – of stifling the freedom and sovereignty of brown folks, propping up racist or imperial regimes, and empowering brutal, dare I say, (albeit “anti-communist”) “terrorists.”

Thus, while the U.S. (for the most part) has eschewed anachronistic, overt province-snatching after 1945 – though an empire it remains all the same, and has always been – it has most certainly engaged in a flagrant brand of “veto-” and “abstention-imperialism” right in the heart of New York City.  More often than not, America’s veto-imperialism has officially blocked the liberty-aspirations of people of color populating the nascent nations of the Global South.  It’s less conspicuous, but even more spineless, abstention-imperialism was almost equally nefarious – tacitly lending “wink-nod” legitimacy to the racist locals and remnant European colonizers doing much of the blocking.

The whole callous charade amounts to a record of shame – in four distinct temporal and geographic phase-spaces – that helps account for the abysmal American reputation abroad, and offers a starkly different answer to the criminally naive question of former President George W. Bush: “Why do they hate us?

Phase I: Colonial-Imperial Ally Solidarity (1963-81)

The United States wasn’t (and to be fair, isn’t) always Mr. Prime-Evil in the Security Council.  For a time, in fact, it voted – though its actions weren’t necessarily consonant – with an eye to the decidedly anti-imperial values President Roosevelt (an early UN proponent) had espoused in the 1941 Atlantic Charter: such as that “all people had a right to self-determination.”  In fact, in 1956, the Soviets and Americans voted together to condemn the British-French-Israeli conspiracy and blatant invasion of Egypt during the “Suez Crisis.”

Washington again voted with Moscow, and against (the abstentions of) its imperial European NATO allies four times in 1960 alone: condemning apartheid South Africa’s Sharepville Massacre of black protestors, and on a few calls for Belgian troops to leave their now sovereign former colony of the Congo.  Sure, (not-so) behind the scenes, the U.S. had financed South Africa through (precious mineral) trade and investment; and also stymied Congolese democracy – the CIA even plotting the assassination of the popular Congolese nationalist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (the Belgians and their local allies would beat them to the punch).  Nevertheless, in international councils, at least, Washington could claim anti-colonial consistency.

Something changed right around the time the United States took up the French imperial mantle, with real force, in Vietnam.  In 1963 – just months before the CIA conspired in the coup-assassination of the U.S.-installed president of South Vietnam – Washington started to consistently join the old European colonial powers to regularly veto and repeatedly abstain from resolutions that condemned remnant (mostly Portuguese) colonialism, or white-settler apartheid neo-imperialism and regional aggression in Southern Africa.

From 1963-81, the U.S. vetoed three (twice with Britain) – and abstained from 10 (nine along with the British, seven with the French) – resolutions related to the condemnation of “The Last Empire” in Africa.  The resultant output: at least 100,000 Africans killed by the Portuguese dictatorship.  On seven further occasions (always joined by Britain, five times by France) Washington vetoed – and 18 times abstained (with Britain all but once, and France for 13 votes) – resolutions that decried South African or Rhodesian internal apartheid or external invasions of neighboring states.  Some of these American (and NATO-allied) votes were particularly heinous: including veto-refusals to condemn South Africa’s illegal military occupation of the continent’s “last colony” (Namibia), impose sanctions on the apartheid regime, and abstentions from resolutions that decried both Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, and South Africa’s outright invasion of newly independent Angola.

The losers, in America’s post-1963 pro-imperialist and racist regime volte face, were, naturally, the black bodies toiling for the freedom and autonomy promised in the very United Nations Charter that the U.S. had decisively championed and brought to fruition decades earlier.

Phase II: Dancing with (“Non-Commie”) Monsters (1981-91)

Both regional manifestations of phase II, and the entirety of phase III, represent the – still ongoing – “go-it-alone” era of American veto/abstention-imperialism.  With some notable exceptions, as the 1980s unfolded, America’s European, former-colonial allies got squeamish at the Security Council.  They were increasingly willing – and in fact preferred – to allow the United States to take up the empire mantle at the UN.  This ever more (mostly) applied in Southern Africa, and was almost always true in Washington’s own backyard: Latin America.  These, then, were but differing regional flavors of the same tortured temporal phase.

In 1981, two events occurred – and it’s unlikely that they were coincidental – which changed (if ever so slightly) the British and French calculus at the UN: yet another South African invasion of neighboring Angola, and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan.  Paradoxically, South Africa – and occupied Namibia – were, in a significant sense, British Frankenstein’s Monster creations (as was Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, which had been forced to accede majority rule in 1980), and the war-torn countries the apartheid state repeatedly attacked (Mozambique and Angola) were detritus of NATO-backed Portuguese imperialism.

Regardless, the old European powers gladly handed over “protection” “responsibility” to the U.S.  By early 1981, South Africa’s latest brazen invasion of Angola was one too many – especially after the controversial “raid” or “massacre” at the Cassinga “rebel” or “refugee” camp there – for Britain and France.  Thence it fell to an amenable Reagan administration to prop-up the apartheid state.

The new president was a perfect candidate for racist regime apologia.  Reagan, the former actor, possessed the perfect combination of white-settler sympathy and historical ignorance to “play” the role.  Within two months of his inauguration, Reagan publicly defended South Africa, positing:

Can we abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals we all must have and so forth?

Only Reagan’s logic was based on an incredibly faulty understanding of the recent past.  In fact, leaving aside the utterly absurd claim that the relatively new country had fought on America’s side in “every” war, South Africa’s ruling National Party (in power 1948-94) had vehemently opposed entry into World War.  Worse still, leading members – including the recent president of South Africa – had then been interred by their government as Nazi sympathizers.

On another level, however, Reagan was right – or at least inadvertently honest – about the decisive role of American corporate interests, mainly mining, in ensuring Washington’s longtime support for the abhorrent apartheid regime.  He might as well have admitted the real rub: Pretoria’s white apartheid-committed leaders were monsters.  Only they weren’t communists – so they were our monsters.

Throughout the Reagan years, the U.S. vetoed at least seven South Africa-related condemnatory resolutions (usually with British, but now only once with French, backing), and abstained from 10 similar votes.  The abstentions usually involved the more salacious South African actions – such as massacres of anti-apartheid protesters – and, for the first time, London abandoned Washington nearly half of the time.  Paris was completely out of the abstention game on all ten votes.  In the interim, tens of thousands of Africans were killed within South Africa whilst fighting apartheid, and by a conservative estimate, 8-12,000 others lost their lives defending their countries from Pretoria’s repeated invasions of Angola and incursions into Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and others.

During the new administration’s inaugural month, Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, provided perhaps the most honest (if incorrigible) justification for, and kick-off of, the new unilateral American epoch at the Security Council on all matters Southern Africa related: “International terrorism will take the place of human rights in our concern because it is the ultimate abuse of human rights.”  Haig’s distinctly Orwellian “newspeak,” and circular logic, masked one inconvenient detail: according to Washington, the “terrorists” were all black; and the only “human rights” that most whites defended were those circumscribed by apartheid.

As Chester Crocker, the president’s own assistant secretary of state for African affairs, reportedly told a reporter, “all Reagan knows about southern Africa is he’s on the side of the whites.”  The secretary may as well have been describing America’s broader role at the UN.

Phase IIA: “Get off” my (Latin American) “Lawn” (1973, ’82-90)

Throughout its history, the United Nations has no doubt been afflicted with bias, and had great penchants for certain cause célèbre.  Generally, the core concerns of the General Assembly have honed in on South African apartheid (1948-94), and Israel’s perpetual occupation of Palestine (1967-present).  Sometimes this UN laser focus has come at the expense of other global victims – Tibet and East Timor come to mind – but in other cases, it seems the organization has strategically picked its battles and recognized its limitations.

Thus, given America’s decisive role in founding – and later funding – the UN, and realizing Washington’s capacity and intense dedication to a singular role in “its” hemisphere, relatively few Security Council resolutions related to Latin America.  This in spite of Uncle Sam’s vicious meddling – fostering coups, paying right-wing death squads, and even outright invading neighbors – in the southern half of the New World throughout the post-UN era (and long before).

Of course, whenever UN members had the temerity to even raise concern over any of these U.S. aggressions, Washington vetoed the motions so fast the General Assembly members’ heads must have spun.  What’s more, in Latin American affairs, America jettisoned the passive aggression of its elsewhere ubiquitous abstention-imperialism.  In fact, on only a couple of occasions did the U.S. bother with tactic; once halting calls for a ceasefire during its invasion of the Dominican Republic (1965); another over a vague, watered-down 1973 resolution, that only “urged,” and “requested,” states to “refrain” from “coercive measures against Latin American countries.”  Even then, the latter measure dared not include a single mention of the United States by name.

That same day, March 21, 1973, Washington had spiked a resolution on the real issue at hand: possession of the Panama Canal.  Although this proposal, too, only “urged” the two sides to “negotiate” America’s eventual handover of the canal – only under U.S. control because it had instigated a 1903 “revolution” to pry Panama away from Columbia – Washington wasn’t having any of it.  After 1973, the U.S. vetoed eight other modest condemnations of its pugnacious policies in the region: four times over its decade long proxy war in Nicaragua, three times to defend a couple of its outright invasions – Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989) – and once to back Britain’s Falklands War (1982) with Argentina.

Throughout, Washington was usually left alone and unafraid alone on its Latin American vetoes.  Only twice did it have allied backing: from London and Paris during the Panama War, and, of course, from the Brits, during their own conflict with Argentina.  Indeed, so egregious and unnecessary was the Grenada invasion, that even Britain – which the U.S. had backed in their operation the year before – abandoned America at the UN.  Consider them Falklands-fair-weather friends.  All told, U.S.-induced coups, destabilization, and its backed, trained, and/or armed reactionary proxies, contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths.  Furthermore, the legacy of Washington’s vetoes, and the actions they covered, veritably created the conditions from which the recent mass of northbound Central American refugees fled.

Phase III: Big-Brother (to Israel) in the Schoolyard (1968-?)

So linked have America and Israel become in the collective domestic and international mind, that it is easy forget that, while Washington was the first to recognize the new state, it was initially other powers – notably France – that provided the most military and diplomatic support to Tel Aviv.  That changed rather quickly after Israel’s decisive victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and its decision to occupy – indefinitely as it turned out – two Palestinian districts (the Gaza Strip and West Bank) which the UN had “set aside” for local Arabs back in 1947.

With but a few exceptions (and never with an actual veto) Britain and France dared not so overtly back Israel’s regional aggression and illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, as the U.S. was – and remains – willing to do.  By the numbers, America’s shielding of Israel from censure, oversight, and sanctions, has been staggering.  Since 1973, Washington has vetoed no less than 38 resolutions critical of Israel’s stranglehold on the West Bank and Gaza, invasion and lengthy (until 2000) occupation of Southern Lebanon, assassination campaign, and decades-long, legally-prohibited settlement of conquered Palestinian land.  Furthermore, the U.S. abstained from at least 20 votes when Tel Aviv perpetrated its more shameless aggressions: like bombing, or executing Palestinian rebels in, Tunisia, gunning-down Palestinian protesters, and backing Lebanese militiamen who murdered UN peacekeepers.

In every veto (and most all abstentions), over an astonishing 50 year span, the United States stood alone in its reflexive unwavering support for Israeli occupation and regional aggression.  Even when, as was often the case, the resolutions condemned “terror” and atrocities on both sides of the intractable conflict, Washington simply couldn’t countenance criticism of its little brother – right or wrong!  The parallels with South Africa are as extraordinary as they are troubling.

The tragic irony is that America – which crafted the “self-determination” clause in the Atlantic Charter precursor to the UN – has perennially backed, and helped catalyze the construction of, another apartheid state – this time in the Mid-East – at the Security Council.  U.S. support, tacit encouragement, and defense of two-tiered, racialized occupation regimes, was nothing short of the American raison de etre in the UN Security Council since at least the mid-1960s.   Unfortunately, that putrid precedent-setting ultimately came back to bite Washington’s backside over the last decade.

Phase IV: The Precedent-Script Flips (2011-?)

When it came to veto-wielding, America’s go-it-alone phases continued apace after the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Soviet Union, and well into the post-Cold War era.  Washington was the dominant “no” power from 1989 until 2011, during which time it cast 17 of the 25 total vetoes (14 on behalf of Israel, 16 without allied solidarity), compared to six by Russia (three alone) and four from China (two alone).  Then came the Arab Spring, which morphed by mid-2011 into a Syrian “Winter” of outright civil war.

With that outbreak, the Security Council script instantly flipped and since then it has been Russia, in defense of its client – the Syrian Arab Republic of Bashar al-Assad – that’s dominated the veto-game.  After October 4, 2011, Moscow vetoed 19 of the 21 total blocked resolutions – 14 to shield Assad, and 10 times standing alone in the vote.  Equally worrisome, China jumped in nine times, and always along with Russia.

The U.S. vetoed just two (both related to Israel).  While Moscow’s role in propping up the Syrian regime – though the increasingly Islamist alternatives to Assad are no less troubling – and enabling its despicable war crimes, is atrocious, the Russians learned the technique from us.  Here’s the awkward rub: just as the United States used its veto – and military aid – to irreversibly deadlock any settlement of Israel’s occupation of Palestine for at least 47 years, of late Russia has followed America’s example to protect its regional lackey.  In the absence of any sense of consistency or historical context, the U.S. government, public and (especially) “liberal” media figures are shocked…just shocked.

Moscow’s non-Syrian vetoes mainly stifled UN criticism of its involvement in the ongoing Ukraine conflict.  Though certain to set off hysteria with the Russia-obsessed DNC-plants over at CNN and MSNBC, any sensible analysis demonstrates that there is also a rather discomfiting connection – and therefore hypocritical uni-directional judgment – between recent Russian meddling in Ukraine and earlier American activities in Latin America.  Both Washington and Moscow engaged in respective brands of “get-off-my-lawn” proxy-wars – in the U.S. case, Nicaraguan Contras death squad support – around their self-proclaimed spheres of influence.  From this decidedly valid viewpoint, Russia’s Ukraine endeavors (2011-present) track pretty closely with America’s more prolonged Latin American campaigns (1979-90…or longer).

After all, while hardly excusing Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine, their activities are far closer to home than parallel (and far deadlier) American actions were in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  One wonders how Washington would react to Russian meddling in Mexico?  My guess is with a call to war.

As a parent of two sons under the age of 12, simple common sense instructs that one must, necessarily, be wary of the example (and precedent) one sets.  Perhaps the same can be said for nation-states, which, it seems, is a lesson the United States has lately learned at the UN Security Council.

Seated on the Wrong Side of History

This deplorable catalogue of American veto and abstention imperialist intransigence amounts to much more than some horrifying international civics lesson.  The far weightier truth is that more often than not, in the Security Council chambers, Uncle Sam was firmly seated on the wrong side of history.  The mainly venal manner in which Washington has wielded that veto has almost single-handedly – though with key early and late-stage assists from Moscow – made a mockery of the UN Charter and all its ostensibly stands for.

In the process, America’s protected clients killed hundreds of thousands of post-colonial brown and black freedom-seekers.  However, even from a more insular, strategic perspective, Washington’s voting behavior has ultimately backfired – at the cost of its own troops’ lives and any lingering sense homeland security.  It all amounts to a brand of veto-blowback.  Third World nationalists sensed early that the U.S. didn’t have their best interests at heart, and that it dominated the United Nations.  To this day, countless Africans, Latin Americans, and Arabs have never forgiven either entity.  This hasn’t bode well for the U.S. in its interminable (on some level resultant) two-decade war on terror.

As a Zimbabwean black nationalist newspaper put it way back in 1960: “Africans have learnt now the folly of entrusting the freedom of a country to an organization [the UN] that is controlled by one big imperialistic country [the U.S.].”  As a recent historian astutely concluded, that “lesson seriously limited the room for political moderation in nationalist circles.”  From this not entirely inaccurate view, the UN was either feckless (due to neo-imperial veto power), or else a Washington – or New York – front.

Whichever “poison” global southerners “picked” (and continue to select) they understandably decided to look elsewhere for support in their freedom and independence struggles: to communism, alternative (Soviet Union or Chinese) state backers, and, (some) lately to violent strains of Islamism.  Forced into these ideologies, tactics, or foreigners’ arms, the nationalists thus provided Washington a seemingly even realer reason to intervene in opposition: and around and around we go.

Finally, while the admission doesn’t play in polite company, there was (and is) always a distinct racial component to American veto/abstention-imperialism.  The business end of a U.S. veto almost always served white states and white (even minority) rule.  To wit, fully two-thirds of Washington’s 85 odd nay votes defended the existence or actions of an apartheid-inflected regime (Rhodesia, South Africa, or Israel).  About half of the rest covered its own nefarious policies against brown folks in Latin America.

And so I am reminded of a passing comment from Reagan’s Africa point-man in the state department, who claimed that in South Africa, “it is not our task to choose between black and white…”  On this point, Chester Crocker was terribly mistaken, as even a cursory glance at Washington’s veto record illustrates.

America, as a nation, almost always took sides…it chose the whites


Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order.  Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.  Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.

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