Days of intense negotiations enabled the Biden administration to avoid casting a veto at the United Nations Security Council in defense of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
But abstaining from a resolution designed to help more humanitarian aid reach Gaza only limited the damage to America’s standing around the world as it becomes an increasingly lonely protector of Israel.
The outcome was a relief to U.S. officials loath to exercise America’s veto power in defense of Israel for what would have been the third time since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks. Abstaining from a 13-0 vote may look better than casting a veto — which President Biden has said should be reserved for “rare, extraordinary situations” — but it still may not help America’s image abroad.
It is one reason, with the year drawing to a close, that the United States finds itself diplomatically isolated and in a defensive crouch.
That isolation is a dramatic turnaround in international perceptions for the Biden administration: For most of the past two years, top U.S. officials led what they saw as a valiant crusade to rally the world against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken were praised at home and abroad for uniting allies under the banner of American leadership as they invoked basic principles of international law and human rights.
“Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages. A test for America. A test for the world,” Mr. Biden boasted in February in his State of the Union address. “Together, we did what America always does at our best. We led. We united NATO and built a global coalition.”
Today, as the United States guards Israel’s interests at the United Nations, endorses its goal of destroying Hamas and provides its munitions, much of the world sees the Biden administration as enabling an indefensibly lethal Israeli military campaign, which President Biden himself has referred to as “indiscriminate bombing.”
Coalition building on behalf of Ukraine has turned to crisis management over Gaza. The United States is now at odds with staunch allies like France, Canada, Australia and Japan, all of whom voted for Friday’s U.N. resolution and for another earlier this month calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. The United States vetoed that resolution, on the grounds that any cease-fire would allow Hamas to regroup and attack Israel again.
Human rights groups — which for months applauded U.S. efforts to hold Russia accountable — now denounce the United States for supporting Israel, which many of them accuse of committing war crimes in Gaza.
Israel blames Hamas for embedding itself among civilians and says it takes unusual steps to mitigate civilian casualties. The health ministry in Gaza says the death toll there is more than 20,000, although it is not known how many of those are civilians.
Senior Biden officials who found a clear sense of purpose in the project of uniting Europe against Russia privately admit that the past weeks have been difficult as the U.S. supplies and defends an Israeli campaign that has led to so much suffering and global outrage. “The last couple of months have been gut-wrenching when you see the suffering of men, women and especially children in Gaza,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference on Wednesday.
“No U.S. official right now likes this situation,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations for International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization.
Adding to the anxiety is the fact that bad blood toward Washington over its role in the Gaza conflict could complicate other diplomatic goals for the United States, at least in the near term.
“We are isolated,” said Barbara Bodine, a former career diplomat and ambassador who is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. She warned that the United States has lost the global good will it had earned from its response to Russia’s aggression. “For too many friends and allies, it just stood in such stark contrast to our response to Ukraine,” she said.
Biden officials firmly deny that any contradiction exists between their confrontation of Russia and their defense of Israel. In each case, officials say, they are standing up for the victim of a brutal and unprovoked attack. Mr. Blinken often cites Israel’s “right to defend itself,” a phrase he has also applied to Ukraine. He has also said separately that Russia’s invasion and the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks were moments for “moral clarity” around the world.
It is not the first time that the United States has appeared isolated in its defense of Israel, especially at the United Nations, where successive American administrations often have swatted back what they see as reflexive anti-Israel sentiment. In remarks explaining the U.S. vote on Friday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, noted that the Security Council has yet to condemn the original Hamas attacks.
In a sign of how important the Friday vote was to the Biden administration, Mr. Blinken assumed an unusually large role in the negotiations even as Ms. Thomas-Greenfield pressed her U.N. colleagues. A senior administration official said that Mr. Blinken worked the phones with numerous Arab officials, including three calls each with the foreign ministers of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
“It took many days and many, many long nights of negotiating to get this right,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said, praising the resolution for offering “a glimmer of hope amongst a sea of unimaginable suffering” by creating a U.N. coordinator for Gaza aid.
Asked about American isolation on Wednesday, Mr. Blinken betrayed no concern, saying that the United States continues to “rally countries around the world” to support Ukraine, has cultivated partnerships to strengthen the U.S. position against China, and is leading global efforts on food insecurity, artificial intelligence and clean energy.
When it comes to Israel and Gaza, he said, “countries throughout the region, as well as countries around the world, want to work with us and are looking for American leadership in this crisis — even countries that may disagree with us on certain issues that have come to the fore.”
But much of the world sees things differently — especially, Ms. Bodine said, countries in the so-called “global south” that are not closely aligned with any major powers like the United States, China or Russia. Many of those countries, including South Africa and India, never saw the U.S. emphasis on Ukraine in the heroic terms that much of Europe did, Ms. Bodine said.
“Much of the global south did not feel that their conflicts and problems garnered the same level of concern and action,” she said. Then, when Mr. Biden and other U.S. officials seemed to greenlight a massive Israeli military response to Oct. 7 “without guardrails,” she added, it “painfully confirmed to many in the south this sense that there was a double standard.”
Bad blood over Gaza would make it harder to win support from those countries, in particular for pro-Ukraine resolutions, Mr. Gowan of Crisis Group warned.
That is great news for the Russian government.
“The Russians have been reveling in this moment and they have used every possible opportunity to talk about U.S. double standards,” Mr. Gowan said. “At the end of the day the Russian strategy works, because beyond the United Nations what everyone sees is Russia standing up for international law — and the U.S. standing against it.”
Speaking at the United Nations in September of last year, Mr. Biden said that members of the United Nations Security Council should cast vetoes only under “rare, extraordinary situations to ensure the council remains credible and effective.” At the time, Russia had cast seven veto votes since the beginning of his presidency.
The United States is still far from that tally. But it was surely on the minds of Biden administration officials as they scrambled to avoid their third veto related to Gaza in as many months.
That outcome, Ms. Bodine said, “would have been devastating.”