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The US Presidential Candidates’ UN and Foreign Policy Stances

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The UN Security Council approved a United States-led resolution calling for another immediate ceasefire in Gaza, June 10, 2024. The presumptive candidates for the US presidential election in November will pit Joe Biden against Donald Trump, with Robert Kennedy Jr. as an independent right now. But what are their stances on the UN and foreign policy generally? JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

On Nov. 5, American voters will choose their 47th president. Combined, the likely candidates, Joe Biden, a Democrat and the incumbent, and Donald Trump, a Republican former president and a recently convicted felon, have run seven times for the country’s highest political office. Though attracting little poll support, Robert Kennedy Jr., an independent, may have an oversize influence on the race by attracting voters from each party.

Polls are tight between Biden, 81, and Trump, 77. A June 5 Economist/YouGov poll had them tied at 42 points, while Kennedy grabbed 3. In a May New York Times poll of voters in crucial battleground states, Kennedy got 10 percent of registered voters, taking almost evenly from both parties. A new Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota poll finds Biden narrowly leading Trump, 45 percent to 41 percent in the state, while Kennedy, 70, pulls just 6 percent.

PassBlue looked at the three candidates’ foreign policies, notably their stances toward the United Nations, and talked to experts about how these platforms could affect foreign relations post-November as well as who they might choose as their secretaries of state. While the positions of Biden and Trump are readily apparent, Kennedy’s was gathered from speeches, media appearances and his campaign website. No campaign official responded to inquiries from PassBlue.

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“The Biden administration is more traditional in terms of consultative process using existing channels, signaling and diplomacy in a way that people are accustomed to,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, the International Crisis Group’s US program director. “There’s this bigger political question, of whether a change in administration would herald a very sharp break with current policy.”

Trump, according to Matt Duss, executive vice president of the Center for International Policy, a “progressive” think tank, is “far more skeptical of international organizations and multilateralism than Biden.”

“His whole argument, both domestically and in foreign policy, is that the system is rigged,” Duss said. “It’s, frankly, very imperial. It’s this idea that America by virtue of its great power, is owed tribute.”  Trump was recently found guilty of 34 of felony counts for falsifying records to try to sway his 2016 election campaign.

Stephen Schlesinger, the American historian and author of “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations,” said: “The foreign policies of the two main parties in the presidential race come as little surprise. They follow the historic traditions of the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democratic Party tends to favor multilateralism, as illustrated again and again by President Biden’s approaches to global problems over his past three years in office; the Republican Party, on the other hand, adheres to a form of unilateralism and even isolationism, especially in the case of its expected nominee, former president Donald Trump.

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These differing visions require the rest of the world, in their turns, to adjust their own international policies accordingly.”

THE UN

Biden: At the General Assembly in September 2023, Biden said, “The United States is working across the board to make global institutions more responsive, more effective, and more inclusive. But upgrading and strengthening our institutions, that’s only half of the picture. We must also forge new partnerships, confront new challenges.”

The current US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, holds a cabinet-level post. Since the Gaza war began, on Oct. 7, Biden’s top UN envoys have used the Security Council veto four times, three against resolutions demanding an immediate ceasefire and most recently on Palestine’s UN membership application. (The US also voted against the same application in the General Assembly.) On June 10, a US-led Council resolution was approved, calling for a “full, immediate and complete ceasefire” in Gaza, among other elements.

In 2022, under Biden, the US contributed $18 billion to the UN, contributing roughly 22 percent of its general operating budget, as mandated by the General Assembly, making the US the UN’s largest donor. Additional mandated funds support UN peacekeeping missions plus a wide array of voluntary contributions go to UN programs and entities. The largest amounts support the World Food Program ($7.2 billion) and the refugee agency ($2.2 billion). In 2024, the US Congress appropriated $1.37 billion for UN peacekeeping; the US covers about 25 percent of the department’s total annual budget.

Trump: The Trump administration defunded, defamed or withdrew from many UN programs, agencies, entities and international treaties, including the Human Rights Council, Unesco, UNRWA (UN agency providing the main humanitarian aid in occupied Palestine territories), the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement.

His administration also cut the US budget for the UN through its regular budget-committee negotiations. In 2017, he cut about $285 million from US contributions to the UN’s general operating budget and pressured the UN to cut $600 million from the peacekeeping budget. (Most of the latter reduction came from a line item in the US budget that simply reads the “United Nations.” According to US State Department documents, in fiscal year 2018, the US contributed $631 million to the UN, and in fiscal year 2019, the same line item received $463 million. Incremental costs were delivered across other programs; for example the UN democracy fund donations were reduced from $3 million to $2.6 million in the same two budgets.)

Trump and his campaign advisers want to expand presidential powers across many facets of government, including federal spending to aid organizations. As reported by The Washington Post, they aim to defund the World Health Organization, for starters. During his time in office, Trump proposed cutting all funding for UN climate change programs and reducing funding to Unicef.

Kennedy:  According to his website, he plans to end America’s “imperial policies” and reduce participation in international organizations like the UN, yet he calls for “expanded” UN peacekeeping operations, including, he says, in Ukraine, where there is no such mission.

MIDEAST

American presidents are routinely pro-Israel. Since its inception in 1948, Israel has received more financial aid from the US than any other nation and procures most of its weapons from America.

Biden: The US is standing close to Israel over the war in Gaza, despite the rising Palestinian casualty count, documented human rights abuses, student protests throughout the US as well as International Court of Justice injunctions. Earlier this year, the administration pulled its support for UNRWA, based on unsupported Israeli claims that some UN agency staff participated in the Oct. 7 attack. It has yet to reinstate the funding, while Congress banned funding to the UN entity soon after the Israeli accusations were made. In mid-May, Biden’s administration greenlighted the sale of more $1 billion in arms and weapons to Israel. In late May, Biden announced a three-phased deal that he said originated with President Benjamin Netanyahu — who has yet to publicly agree to it — to immediately begin a hostage-prisoner exchange, implement a 42-day ceasefire and increase humanitarian aid flow. The UN Security Council essentially backed it on June 10, with 14 yes votes and one abstention (Russia).

Trump: He relocated the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter as the capital of Israel, despite its disputed international status between Israel and Palestine. At 2024 campaign rallies, Trump claims the situation in the Mideast would be different if he were president, despite clashes with Iran during his term. During his presidency, his son-in-law Jared Kushner oversaw Mideast policies, with no experience. Overall, peace was not achieved, but the Abraham Accords were signed among Israel and Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations among the group. He told Jewish donors in a fund-raising event held recently that he supports Israel’s right to defend itself and continue its operation in Gaza,

Kennedy: He is pro-Israel and blames the current tensions in the Mideast, including the Gaza war, on US foreign policies of the 1950s and 60s as well as the current Palestinian leadership, according to a podcast conversation with the US political commentator Glenn Beck.

RUSSIA’S WAR IN UKRAINE

Biden: He sees the fight in Ukraine as a battle not only to protect that country’s sovereignty but also to uphold democracy in Europe. In April, he signed a bill to provide roughly $61 billion in aid to Ukraine, including weapons from US stock as well as humanitarian aid for Gaza, Haiti, Sudan and Ukraine. Funding was also designated for Israel. During D-Day commemorations in June, held in France, Biden promised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky another $225 million in aid for battlefield needs.

Trump: If elected, he has promised to broker a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, but it would basically cede Crimea and the Donbas regions to Russia, leaving Ukraine open to future attacks, experts say.

Kennedy: Seemingly pro-Russia, Kennedy proposes cutting all aid to Ukraine. In the Beck interview, Kennedy laments that President Vladimir Putin unfairly “had been portrayed as a comic-book villain.”

CHINA 

Biden: Biden extended and recently expanded Trump-era tariffs. But overall, he has sought a more multilateral approach than Trump to China, working with allies and investing at home to try to increase American economic competitiveness with the country.

Trump: Trump took a tough, often bilateral, stance on China, instituting harsh tariffs that started a trade war. Time magazine calculated the tariffs cost the US a quarter of a million jobs and $316 billion.

Kennedy: He disdains current US policy toward China but hopes to reach diplomatic agreements on environmental issues.

SECRETARY OF STATE

Biden: Usaid boss Samantha Power, 53, has been notably circulating as Biden’s pick. But the former UN ambassador’s silence on whether genocide is occurring in Gaza counters her expertise on the atrocity, given that she published a book in 2002, “A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide,” criticizing US foreign policy. It could hurt her chances of getting the top diplomat job.

Trump: Former acting national security director Richard Grenell (and a former spokesperson for the US mission to the UN) is visiting countries as, he calls it, “Trump’s envoy.” Grenell, 57, also just went to Michigan with Michael Boulos, the Lebanese-Nigerian husband of Tiffany Trump (a Trump daughter), in an unsuccessful attempt to win over Muslim-American voters for Trump.

As reported in NOTUS, a nonpartisan publication in Washington, Grenell described himself at the Michigan event as “unsympathetic to the plight of Palestinians.” The report also said that Grenell angered people at the meeting by repeating remarks made by Kushner in March, when he said that Palestinians should be removed from valuable waterfront property in Gaza by Israel.

Tulsi Gabbard, a 43-year-old former Democratic US Congressional representative from Hawaii who is now an independent, endorsed Biden in 2020. She has put her name in the ring for a Trump cabinet position, should he win. Previously, Gabbard was considered for the UN envoy post during his administration. Gabbard also said she would be honored to serve as vice president, secretary of state or defense secretary for Trump. She reportedly declined Kennedy’s offer of vice president.

This article was updated. 


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the candidates' policy on the UN?

Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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