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Did The U.S. Get Rolled Again at the FAO?

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image Credit: CCP.
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image Credit: CCP.

In the 2019 election for the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Chinese candidate, Qu Dongyu, won a resounding victory with 108 of the 191 total available votes. In comparison, the French candidate, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, earned 71 while the U.S.-backed Georgian candidate, Davit Kirvalidze, earned only 12. The staggering electoral defeat of the West at the hands of China during this 2019 election was a watershed moment. It was a signal to the United States and its allies that moving forward, mainland China would put forward credible candidates and knew how to run effective international political campaigns to get them elected. Qu Dongyu is up for reelection in about 2 months.  Incumbent candidates in multilateral system elections almost always unanimously get reelected. However, Qu Dongyu should have been challenged by a credible candidate and defeated. Unfortunately, it looks like the U.S., and our allies, may have gotten rolled: after having a couple of challengers, Qu is now running unopposed and will sail to re-election.

Although the FAO is a lesser known international organization based in Rome, it plays a critical role in driving international efforts to address food insecurity and setting international standards for food and animal safety and quality. It is not what one might call the “commanding heights of the multilateral system” such as the IMF or the World Bank. Two organizations were spun out of the FAO: IFAD (a specialized international financial institution) and the World Food Program (delivers food aid). FAO is a standard setter and a repository of critical data and intellectual property. For example, the FAO sets standards for what counts as a “potato” or a “strawberry.”  This may sound silly but this influences national and international research & development monies, and what counts in the context of global trade. The FAO also plays a role in pandemics because many pandemics stem from so-called “zoonotic transmission,” the transmission of diseases from animals to people. Additionally, the FAO’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture maintains and facilitates access to a gene pool of roughly 64 crops that make up 80 percent of the world’s plant-based food.  The FAO also keeps a database of where the most fertile land is in the world-something useful if you were considering “land grabs” for agriculture.

Iraq and Tajikistan put forward two candidates, seeking to challenge Qu, but the Iraqi candidate, Khalaf Ahmed, withdrew from the race on March 6th, followed by the withdrawal of Tajikistan’s Dilshod Sharifi on April 3rd.  The deadline for nomination submissions passed on February 28th, removing the possibility of alternate candidates.

Qu’s leadership of the FAO has been controversial, and he has towed a pro-Russian line at the FAO. In 2021, Qu postponed an independent review of FAO management by the U.N.’s independent Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), requesting that it be delayed until 2024 conveniently after the 2023 reelection period. Secondly, and more importantly, the FAO under Qu’s leadership, took a clearly favorable Russian position on the food crisis generated by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and their subsequent war crimes. Qu has refused to support international sanctions on Russian exports, parroting Russian concerns and reflecting the Chinese position. Taking the Russia-China line, the FAO initially referred to Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, a phrase used by Vladimir Putin, instead of calling it the illegal invasion that it is. The FAO was initially and noticeably reluctant to make direct links between the food and fuel price spikes that have affected poor people in developing countries and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Incredibly, Qu has repeatedly identified Western sanctions against Russia as a significant problem.

There is, however, another possibility to consider. The World Food Program (WFP), which has historically been led by an American, was conceived and launched by the FAO in 1961. Ambassador Cindy McCain, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome, was appointed as Executive Director of the WFP on March 2nd and officially took the helm on April 5th. With her appointment date falling so closely to the withdrawal of the Iraqi and Tajikistani candidates from the FAO race, could there be a potential linkage? The United States traditionally puts forward a candidate for Executive Director and the UN Secretary General and the FAO Director General vet the candidate with the ability to decline the US nominee. It is possible that a deal may have been struck to ensure that Ambassador McCain was confirmed as executive director at the WFP in exchange for a clearing of the field for Qu. This is mere speculation, but the timeline of events makes a deal plausible.

Ultimately, the good news is that, while at one point China held leadership in 4 of the top 15 international technical agencies, today they only hold the FAO, a useful organization but not one of the most strategically important multilateral organizations. Given the economic influence of China as the second-largest economy in the world, perhaps there was a calculated decision by the administration that allowing China to hold one agency in exchange for Ambassador Cindy McCain’s easy accession to the WFP was an acceptable, although distasteful, deal.

Daniel F. Runde is a Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is also the author of the book The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership Through Soft Power (Bombardier Books, 2023).

Written By

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development (PPD), and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading global think tank. Mr. Runde also served as the acting director for the CSIS Americas Program from 2020-2022. His work is oriented around U.S. leadership in building a more democratic and prosperous world. Among his many other contributions, Mr. Runde was as an architect of the BUILD Act, contributed to the reauthorization of the U.S. EXIM Bank in 2018, and was an architect of Prosper Africa, a U.S. government initiative to deepen the United States' commercial and development engagement in Africa.