President Joe Biden frequently uses the phrase “America is back” to contrast his foreign policy with his predecessor’s and has followed through by reversing key decisions and policies adopted during the Trump administration. But what is Biden’s vision? What are his goals?
Unfortunately, we still don’t know much beyond platitudes, catch phrases, and a conviction that if Trump was for it, it must be bad. Hopefully, we’ll get some clarity about his vision for America’s relationship with the United Nations when he delivers his first address to the world body on Sept. 21.
Not being Trump is a poor substitute for a guiding purpose and a strategy to achieve it. Yet that seems to be the sum of Biden’s approach to international organizations. Among Biden’s first actions were to: restore U.S. funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the World Health Organization (WHO); reverse Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the WHO and disengage from the Human Rights Council (HRC); recommit to the Paris Agreement on climate change; seek to restore the Iran nuclear agreement; and pledge to pay U.S. arrears to the U.N.
Biden is sure to highlight these decisions in his speech. They are guaranteed applause lines among the “global elite.” Why wouldn’t the assembled nations appreciate a windfall of nearly $2 billion dollars and the promise of U.S. support? They also serve to contrast Biden with Trump, who frequently spoke dismissively of the U.N.
This will serve Biden’s short-term interests, but it will not address broader U.S. concerns.
Specifically, even though Biden disagreed with Trump’s actions, he largely agrees with the criticisms that motivated those decisions.
When it announced that the U.S. would not withdraw from the WHO, the Biden administration emphasized the need to bolster the pandemic response and reform the WHO. In addition, a high priority was a more robust follow-up investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
On the HRC, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made clear that “the Human Rights Council is a flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus, including its disproportionate focus on Israel.”
In the announcement of restored U.S. funding to UNRWA, Blinken noted, “The United States is deeply committed to ensuring that our partnership with UNRWA promotes neutrality, accountability, and transparency.” This is, of course, an implicit acknowledgement of UNRWA’s past lack of neutrality, which allowed hate speech, extremism, and anti-Semitism to be taught in its schools.
Even on the Paris climate agreement, the Administration knows that emissions cuts by the U.S. and other developed nations are insufficient. In 2019, China emitted more greenhouse gas emissions than all developed countries combined.
Iran has slow-played negotiations to the point where even Blinken has admitted that “we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved.”
Despite knowing about these flaws and acknowledging the need for reforms, the Biden administration deliberately chose not to link reengagement or restoration of funds to any specific changes or improvements, believing that the U.S. can better advance reforms through diplomacy and engagement.
This is willful ignorance.
Other governments have their own priorities at the U.N. Sometimes they coincide with U.S. priorities, but often they do not. Even like-minded nations in Europe generally act in their self-interest rather than in the interests of the broader international community. Certainly, they do not subvert their interests to those of the U.S. without a larger motivation or need. As noted by Walter Russell Mead:
The Biden administration sees a renewed American commitment to multilateralism as a way to sign allies up to an ambitious U.S.-led agenda. But many allies, even close and deeply democratic ones, embrace multilateralism as a way to limit America’s ability to press policies on them that they don’t like.
Unsurprisingly, Biden’s reengagement and financial support has garnered statements of appreciation from other governments, but little tangible progress on reform.
Countries are not lining up to eliminate anti-Israel bias or establish stronger membership standards in the Human Rights Council. China has faced no discernible consequence for refusing to cooperate in a follow up investigation of the origins of COVID-19. UN Watch released a report last month providing evidence of dozens of UNRWA teachers condoning violence against Jews or Israel. China’s “commitments” on climate change remain promises of future action that may never materialize. Tehran is dragging out negotiations while centrifuges spin, certain that the U.S. and the other parties to the agreement are so eager for a deal that Iran will pay no price.
Trump relied too heavily on the stick in his approach to U.N. agencies, and his diplomatic engagement was often inconsistent. In truth, he made only a few half-hearted attempts to pressure other members to address the most glaring abuses.
Biden, however, seems to value only the carrot. If seven decades of experience with the U.N. teaches anything, it is that diplomacy and engagement alone are insufficient to achieve efficiency or effectiveness, reform organizations that have faltered, or refocus those that no longer adhere to their mandates.
This is particularly the case now that other governments are questioning the Administration’s competence. In February, Biden announced, “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” Yet allies are unnerved by the Afghanistan debacle and offended by Biden’s failure to consult with them. In August, Biden stated, “I’ve been clear that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy,” yet he abandoned U.S. citizens, Afghan allies, and millions of Afghan women and children to the tender mercies of the Taliban.
Diplomacy and engagement are crippled when America’s partners lack confidence in us.
The temptation for Biden will be to try and paper over these problems in his U.N. speech with conciliatory words and/or admissions of America’s flaws. But other nations need to know where the U.S. stands, what it wants to accomplish, and why other governments should support our efforts.
Biden should seize this opportunity to reset policy misfires and global perception through specificity, resolve and frankness.
This starts by recalling the original purposes and principles of the United Nations and asserting that the U.S. expects the organization and its member states to live up to them. Specifically, that the U.S. will defend the international rules-based order and oppose efforts by China or other nations to subvert it.
This expectation extends to increased transparency, accountability, and effectiveness in the U.N. and its affiliated organizations and a willingness to allow participation by non-member governments like Taiwan. Financial leverage is not a panacea in this regard, but it can be effective. More fundamentally, an organization that rejects basic good governance or undermines U.S. interests does not merit unconditional U.S. support.
Biden should condemn China’s refusal to cooperate with a thorough follow-up investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and state that U.S. support for the WHO will focus predominantly on changes to better prepare for the next pandemic, including consequences for countries that are not forthright, transparent, and cooperative.
Inevitably, Biden will discuss America’s problems. Indeed, his administration is wrongly convinced that self-flagellation is a virtue that benefits the nation. Instead, he should unapologetically and proudly defend America’s progress and accomplishments, which far outweigh those of most other U.N. members. Statements like that of U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Green, who said that she had seen for herself “how the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles,” have little currency in the U.N. where some members practice slavery or genocide to this day. Biden should bluntly address the failures of the Human Rights Council—including its anti-Israel bias and inability to confront terrible human rights violations by powerful countries like China—and lay out a specific reform agenda to address.
He should back up his claims that human rights are at the center of U.S. foreign policy by announcing that the U.S. will not recognize a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan. A scorpion can’t change its nature, and the Taliban will not respect human rights and will, again, partner with terrorist groups.
He should announce in no uncertain terms that the U.S. will not tolerate a nuclear Iran and is prepared to take action to ensure it. Restoring the Iran nuclear deal is the wrong course of action. As Blinken originally insisted, a “longer and stronger agreement” is necessary.
He should overcome his allergy to Trump and acknowledge the historic achievement of the Abraham Accords and not excuse Palestinian intransigence in efforts to negotiate a peace agreement.
He needs to reassure allies that the U.S. will stand with and defend them whether that be in Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. The world is changing, and the U.S. needs to support and expand its ties with nations threatened by our shared adversaries.
Finally, Biden should make clear that, while climate change is a concern to the U.S., it does not outweigh other U.S. priorities and the U.S. will not compromise its prosperity, national security, human rights, or allies in pursuit of commitments on emissions.
No nation’s leader should pointlessly antagonize, but leadership is not primarily about getting along. It is about unabashedly defending the nation’s interests, coaxing allies into joint action to defend common interests, and confronting governments who threaten them. Sadly, Biden doesn’t seem interested in leadership so much as he is in the approbation of the international community.
So don’t look for Biden to champion America in Turtle Bay – it’s too Trumpian. Far easier to regurgitate what the audience wants to hear. It may get applause, but at the cost of U.S. influence. When an administration does not believe that America is exceptional, with a special role in the world, we should not be surprised when other nations see the United States as, in the words of President George H.W. Bush, just “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.”
Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.