Cyber & Technology

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

By Stewart Baker
Friday, December 22, 2017, 10:36 AM

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 20 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 order from the Security Council

The order instructs U.N. 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. U.N. Security Council resolutions are considered binding.  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. 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 U.N. and thus not technically bound by the resolution, all of its members are. Europeans, long used to delivering lectures about U.S. 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 the State Department, 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.