President Joe Biden has brought back an era of diplomatic normalcy to the United Nations in his first year in office. After the often-raucous and unpredictable four years of the Trump administration’s relations with the UN, Biden and his administration have re-embraced the organization in a concerted and measured — albeit, low-key — way. This comes as a relief for many member states who have, in the past, preferred a consistent and reliable United States stewardship in the Security Council and the General Assembly. Oddly enough, though, Biden’s restoration of the US presence in the UN, almost incidentally and without wishing to do so, has diminished the organization as a prominent public feature of America’s foreign policy.
Biden’s official desire to re-engage with the UN comes as no surprise. Biden, after all, is part of a long line of Democratic presidents, including the man most responsible for founding the organization, Franklin Roosevelt, as well as successors like John Kennedy and Barack Obama, who favored multilateralism as the golden credo of US policy and treasured the UN as the most prominent edifice of planetary security. Biden himself was notable for being a key player at the end of the last century who, while serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helped engineer the repayment of US arrears to the UN.
The US is now, without fanfare, back to working closely with the UN on a variety of fronts. For example, in the last month or so, US diplomats have doggedly coordinated with the UN on two vital global crises — in Yemen and Sudan. Washington’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, is currently visiting Mideast Gulf capitals and London in concert with UN emissaries, trying to reinvigorate peace efforts in that war-torn land, where military escalations have occurred in the last week. Meantime, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee and the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, are in Khartoum, Sudan, to bolster UN talks to settle a festering crisis between its military regime and pro-democracy protesters.
Meanwhile, Biden’s ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat who came out of retirement and is an African-American, has proven to be very much representative of the administration’s straightforward, under-the-radar approach. She is not a public figure, by any means, like numerous past US envoys, including Adlai Stevenson, George H.W. Bush, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Andrew Young, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Madeleine Albright, Samantha Power and Nikki Haley — but, nonetheless, she has cabinet-level status. She has quiet strengths as an experienced negotiator and exhibits civility and professionalism in her interactions with others (though some say she can be aloof and too reserved). Further, she has often talked openly about her struggles as a minority in America. Given her Louisiana background, she also promised at the start of her ambassadorship, in late February 2021, to pursue a form of “gumbo diplomacy” with her colleagues, though that approach has appeared to have fallen by the wayside.
She is an activist. She has traveled frequently to many countries over her nearly 12 months representing the US, including, among others, to Thailand, Mali and Niger, where she promoted the contributions of vast US vaccinations supplies; along the Turkey-Syrian border to talk up US humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and internally displaced people; and to Jordan to highlight US help to the country for taking in so many people fleeing war in the region. However, given her serial jaunts in 2021, there have been some complaints that she is not around as much as her colleagues would like her to be — nor as involved. She rarely speaks to the media at the UN, following a practice by former US Ambassador Samantha Power and, at first, Susan Rice.
So far, in her tenure, Thomas-Greenfield has successfully carried out Biden’s re-engagement agenda with the UN, in a check-off-the list approach. The US has rejoined many important agencies that the Trump administration disavowed. For example, Washington has returned to the UN Human Rights Council, and US independent experts have re-established a presence on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee Against Torture, among other bodies. Washington has reclaimed the Paris Agreement. It has regained membership in the World Health Organization, restored funding to the UN Relief and Works agency, which helps indigent Palestinians, as well as restarted full assistance to the UN Population Fund. And the president’s 2022 budget will pay up most of our two years’ worth of US arrears to the UN.
Thomas-Greenfield has waved the US flag, too, in the more-fraught deliberations in the UN Security Council. Most recently, she threatened a list of fresh sanctions on North Korea after its launches of several ballistic and other missile tests that violate UN resolutions banning the development or testing of ballistic technologies used to deliver nuclear warheads. She has challenged China, our major adversary, on sensitive human-rights issues, while at the same time, she has been working with Beijing on a few common causes, such as North Korea and Iran. Recently, she stated that she was ready to take action to isolate Russia in the Council should it decide to invade Ukraine further.
There has been little follow-up, however, on some matters closely identified with the last Democratic administration, under President Obama — specifically on nuclear disarmament, expanding relations with Cuba and dealing with China’s growing role in the UN. Nonetheless, under Biden, the US looms large again in the institution. In turn, Washington now feels as if it can treat the UN as a commonplace feature of our foreign policy — a compliment in some respects — so that Biden seldom mentions it in his pronouncements on global affairs. The UN’s success as an assemblage relegates it to a matter-of-fact status. So, while a return to normalcy is the operative policy these days, at least in the US it means that the UN does not get as much attention or credit as it has in the past. That leaves the UN almost as a sideline player, significantly unable to exert influence on so many crises now cascading across the world.
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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.