As President-elect Joe Biden finds his footing in foreign affairs, one of his foremost challenges will be re-engaging with the United Nations. So far, he has said little about the organization, but he has just appointed a new UN envoy-in-waiting, an experienced and articulate diplomat, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and former envoy to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Given Biden’s campaign commitments to multilateralism and global cooperation, this re-engagement will probably be robust. The question is how quickly he can upend the previous administration’s hypernationalist “America First” policies that have constrained the US role at the UN and steer American leadership back where it has historically belonged — front and center.
Biden’s background as a Democrat gives him instant international credibility with the UN, which is finishing its 75th anniversary year. He is identified with a long, hallowed pro-UN tradition among Democratic Party presidents. Notably, President Franklin Roosevelt was its central inspiration and its main founder at the 1945 San Francisco Conference. His successor, President Harry Truman, ensured that the US Senate ratified the UN treaty and later pushed the Security Council to undertake its first important enforcement action — stopping the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950. In turn, President John Kennedy was the first — and only US president — to actually cite the UN in an Inaugural Address, calling it “our last best hope.” President Carter emphasized human rights in the institution; President Clinton helped appoint one of the body’s most accomplished secretaries-general, Kofi Annan; and President Obama’s two envoys focused on women’s rights and disarmament.
President-elect Biden can quickly put his own stamp on the organization by re-entering three UN agreements that his predecessor, President Donald Trump, disowned, falsely, as detrimental to US security. First, Biden has already signaled that he will rejoin the UN’s Paris climate accord, naming John Kerry as his new emissary to the pact. Second, he says he hopes to reopen talks soon with Iran on reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to delimit that country’s nuclear program — an agreement the UN Security Council firmly endorsed. Third, and most urgently, he has promised that the US will re-enlist in the World Health Organization to eradicate the coronavirus.
In addition, Biden can rejoin the Human Rights Council, which President Trump quit in 2018 because it repeatedly criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. As some observers have noted, Biden could re-enter the Council and presumably use an American voice in the body to block or mitigate some of the Council’s most egregious decisions — like its piling on Israel — while curing it of its continuing unwillingness to censure the world’s authoritarian regimes.
On another front, Biden can now renew US contributions to the family-planning agency, the UN Population Fund. Trump withdrew financing from it on the unfounded grounds that it helped China with coercive abortions and involuntary sterilizations. However, Democrats have historically supported the fund. The President-elect could also assess whether the US should sign the UN Global Migration Compact adopted in 2018, which provides broad guidelines for handling the growing migrant and refugee plight. Trump’s vehement anti-immigration views have precluded any US participation.
Restarting US assistance to the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees (Unrwa) will likely be another Biden administration initiative. Trump cut all US funding in 2018 to punish the Palestinians for refusing to drop demands that their brethren be allowed to take back their lands in Israel. In line with other Democratic leaders, however, Biden would probably restore this funding to enhance the chances of returning to the two-state solution in the Middle East.
He may also rejoin the highly influential Unesco. Since 2011, Congress has barred US funding for Unesco or any other UN entity that formally recognizes Palestine or “accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.” Due to these conditions, the US today remains an observer-nation at Unesco. If Biden returns to it full time, he must ask Congress to repeal these provisions and pay membership arrears.
Lastly, Biden will have to confront the matter of China, the UN’s second-largest donor nation financially, after the US. These days, China is flooding the UN Secretariat and UN agencies with its diplomats, displacing US influence. How can he counteract this?
The new Biden administration, it appears, is poised to reboost US involvement in the UN. Under Biden, Washington will surely return to what it has done historically in the past — promote traditional American democratic values, defend US security interests and be willing to work with other countries. In the final analysis, all global matters invariably end up at the UN.
The first words of Biden’s UN envoy should simply be those of the president-elect himself, “The US is back.”
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Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.