- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Joe Biden’s election as president offers the United States an opportunity to recast its relationship with the United Nations after four years of “America First” disengagement under Donald Trump. The president-elect is already declaring that “America is back.” But to make good on his promise, Biden needs to reinvigorate American leadership within the U.N. itself, while tempering expectations about what the world body can deliver at a time of intense geopolitical rivalry. Beyond reversing Trump’s misguided assaults on the U.N., Biden must strengthen U.S. capabilities to conduct multilateral diplomacy, promote institutional reforms to bring the U.N. into the 21st century, and reaffirm the principles of human dignity on which the organization was founded.
The U.N. often seems designed to frustrate Americans. Its bureaucracy is vulnerable to corruption; its General Assembly is a frequent setting for grandstanding; and its Security Council is paralyzed when the interests of its permanent members collide. For all its flaws, though, the U.N. remains an indispensable foundation for world order, by virtue of its universal membership, sweeping mandate, legally binding charter and primacy over matters of peace and security.
Biden and his transition team are clear-eyed about the U.N.’s shortcomings, but they also understand several realities that the Trump administration ignored, to the detriment of U.S. national interests. First, it is better for America to be inside the multilateral tent, so it can shape global rules and keep the U.N. from going off the rails, than to carp from the outside. Second, the U.N. does indispensable work, like conducting peace operations or nuclear weapons inspections, that the U.S. would be unable to accomplish on its own or only at a prohibitive cost. Third, the U.N. is a relative bargain, with annual U.S. funding totaling $10 billion, less than 1.5 percent of what America spends on its military. Fourth, U.N. membership does not infringe on American sovereignty, when it is properly understood, while the modest constraints it places on U.S. freedom of action are a small price for a rule-bound international system. Finally, as COVID-19 shows, the U.N. does not spring magically to life in crises. It must be mobilized by its most powerful members, but only if they put their rivalries aside when confronted with a common threat.
Once inaugurated as president, Biden should take immediate steps to return the U.S. to the multilateral fold, while advancing a pragmatic agenda to make the U.N. as effective as it can be. He should designate his U.N. ambassador as a member of his Cabinet, elevating the position. While this could create frictions with his Secretary of State, it will carry powerful diplomatic symbolism at the U.N. Given the lengthy global agenda the incoming administration faces, there is plenty of work to go around for two Cabinet officials.
Many of Trump’s U.N. policies are also ripe for quick reversal. As he has promised, Biden should promptly reenter the Paris Agreement on climate change and rescind Trump’s declared withdrawal from the World Health Organization. He should also announce America’s intent to run for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, to join the U.N. Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees, and to fully fund key U.N. agencies that the Trump administration has repeatedly sought to cut off, including the U.N. Population Fund, U.N. Women, UNICEF and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Biden—who famously negotiated with Jesse Helms, the late Republican senator, to end the U.N. “arrears crisis” of the 1990s—should also work with the Senate to reduce U.S. arrears for U.N. peacekeeping dues.
in late 2021. He should likewise champion an expansion of the World Health Organization’s resources and authorities—including through a review conference to improve member states’ compliance with the International Health Regulations, the WHO’s rules of the road that are supposed to be legally binding, and the appointment of a U.N. global health security coordinator reporting directly to the secretary-general, to align the entire U.N. system behind WHO efforts. Finally, Biden should embrace the U.N.’s lofty Sustainable Development Goals—which the Trump administration ignored entirely and which the pandemic is endangering—as the centerpiece for global efforts to advance human welfare, economic progress and a healthy planet.
To further its interests at the U.N., the U.S. will need to invest more energy and resources in multilateral diplomacy, which the State Department has long treated as an afterthought. Such nonchalance is no longer acceptable, given the transnational challenges—from pandemics to global warming to nuclear proliferation—that define our age. Other nations, moreover, are not standing idly by. The most important is China, which has upped its own multilateral game while advancing a vision of world order profoundly different from America’s.
As the Trump administration railed against “globalism,” Beijing stole a march on the U.S., securing key U.N. leadership positions and deploying its financial incentives to curry favor with member states. To regain the initiative, the State Department should expand diplomatic training in multilateral diplomacy and reward this professional competence. The Biden administration must also be prepared to rally support to win critical votes in New York and Geneva, including by bringing pressure where it really counts, on member states themselves.
As president, Biden will confront a U.N. buffeted by three worrisome global trends: rising geopolitical competition, surging nationalism and creeping authoritarianism. These forces have accentuated a longstanding tension within the U.N. and create a quandary for his administration. From its very founding, as U.N. expert Suzanne Nossel recently told me, the world body has sought to be both a neutral forum to catalyze great-power cooperation and a repository of universal values. Rather than choosing between these two visions, the incoming administration needs to walk and chew gum at the same time: It must be able to work with authoritarian powers, including China and Russia, to combat nuclear proliferation, climate change, pandemic disease and other shared threats to world order and human survival. But it must also defend the principles of human dignity enumerated in the U.N.’s Charter and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, building coalitions to defend these ideals against their enemies.
Finally, the United States needs to position itself in favor of U.N. Security Council reform, including a modest increase in both permanent, if not long-term, and elected members. There should be no illusions here, of course. The diplomatic hurdles to expanding the Security Council are high and perhaps insuperable. Nevertheless, the rationale for reform is compelling. Failure to adjust the Security Council’s composition prevents it from leveraging the capabilities of Japan, India and other major players, while courting a legitimacy crisis. President Biden should go on record in favor of expansion, signaling U.S. support for a bigger Security Council that reflects the world of today, as opposed to 1945. If nothing else, staking out this position will place American adversaries, including both China and Russia, on the defensive, as Washington leads the arduous task of updating the premier organ of peace and security to the world as it exists today.