January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph

International Organizations

January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph

International Organizations

Current Policy

The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) recognized “a competition for influence” in international organizations (IOs) authoritarian actors use to “advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens.” It warned that while the United States participates in IOs, it “must protect American sovereignty and advance American interests and values.” The NSS named specific targets for reform, including the United Nations, and declared the United States would “require accountability and emphasize shared responsibility among members.”1

In 2017, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley demanded two reforms of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to ensure continued U.S. support and participation.2 First, the United Nations must change how it elects UNHRC members to make it harder for human rights abusers to gain seats. Second, the United Nations should remove the council’s standing agenda item related to Israel, which ensures disproportionate criticism of the Jewish state. No other country has a permanent place on the UNHRC agenda. Haley said the United States was “determined to stand up to the UN’s anti-Israel bias.”3

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds a photo depicting a victim of an Assad regime chemical weapons attack, during a UN Security Council meeting on April 5, 2017. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

After the UN General Assembly rejected the proposed U.S. reforms, the United States withdrew from the UNHRC in 2018.4 In 2020, Russia, China, Cuba, and Pakistan all won election to the council for three-year terms.

In 2018, Haley outlined two conditions for continued American funding of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency for so-called Palestinian refugees that has long faced criticism for poor management, ties to terrorism, and antisemitic incitement.5 Specifically, she called on the agency to end incitement against Israel in textbooks used by UNRWA schools, and to provide an accurate count of refugees served by the agency – that is, the number of people UNRWA serves who were personally displaced by conflict in 1948. This number should not include millions of their descendants, who only count as refugees by virtue of the extraordinarily expansive definition the agency applies.

Ultimately, UNRWA rejected the proposed U.S. reforms, and the State Department halted all funding in August 2018, forcing other countries to increase their contributions.6

In 2020, following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of being “virtually controlled by China.” He threatened to condition U.S. participation in the WHO on undefined reforms that would prevent the organization from being unduly influenced by Beijing.7 Trump detailed U.S. concerns about the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus in a May 2020 letter to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.8 Trump later announced a U.S. withdrawal from the agency, effective July 2021.9

Also in 2020, the State Department moved a career diplomat to the Bureau of International Organization Affairs to spearhead efforts to counter China’s “malign influences” at the United Nations.10 The appointment came in response to a concerted multiyear campaign by Beijing to co-opt UN agencies so that they serve the Chinese Communist Party’s strategic interests. These interests include setting international technology standards, expanding China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and whitewashing Chinese abuses at home and abroad. With respect to IO elections, a U.S.-backed candidate for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) director general – a critical post in galvanizing multilateral action to confront rogue regimes such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria – won a hotly contested election in late 2019.11 The United States also succeeded in its campaign to defeat China’s nominee to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in early 2020.12 The administration did not take a position on several other elections, however, including the 2017 race for WHO director-general.


The Trump administration’s efforts to drive reforms and counter adversaries within IOs achieved mixed results – mostly due to a lack of a comprehensive IO strategy and the absence of a high-level lead interagency coordinator for IO elections. Instead, the administration relied on ad hoc campaigns targeting IOs of interest. Tellingly, when the White House released a summary version of its updated China strategy in May 2020, there was only a passing reference to countering China within IOs.13

The Trump administration also gets an incomplete grade for its campaigns to reform specific IOs. In both the UNHRC and UNRWA cases, the administration’s demands were reasonable, and the State Department engaged the organizations for a substantial period before concluding that reform from within was impossible. But both campaigns for reform effectively ended once the United States cut off its support, and the administration never took further steps to induce the reforms Haley outlined as a prerequisite for U.S. support.

The administration’s handling of the WHO perhaps most reflected the lack of a comprehensive IO strategy. In the 2017 campaign for WHO director-general, Beijing’s intensive lobbying efforts propelled Tedros, from Ethiopia, to victory over Dr. David Nabarro of the United Kingdom. This victory occurred even though a prominent public health scholar accused Tedros of trying to hide cholera epidemics during his time as Ethiopia’s health minister.14 Tedros’ close relationship to Beijing was well-documented at the time.15

In January 2020, Tedros would take actions that facilitated China’s attempt to conceal the outbreak of COVID-19 and tell the world that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.16 Tedros’ conduct illustrates the consequences of the administration’s failure to more robustly engage in the 2017 WHO election to prevent the victory of a pro-Beijing candidate. Instead, the administration reasserted itself only in reaction to a global crisis.

Cumulatively, these examples offer lessons that can help form the foundation of a comprehensive IO strategy for the Biden administration. The rules and governance of IOs matter. If a path exists for the United States to exert its diplomatic and financial influence to push through needed reforms, elect like-minded leaders, or otherwise achieve worthy objectives in a given IO, then U.S. participation in the organization has merit. If no such opportunities exist, U.S. funding and participation are unlikely to advance U.S. interests. Yet the alternative approach should not simply rely on cutting U.S. funding or ending U.S. participation if the IO will still exist without the United States. Doing so would merely allow adversaries to take advantage of America’s absence.

It is critical for the United States to compete in IO elections in which the rules and structures allow candidates that share U.S. values to win. In the case of the UNHRC, the rules and structure guarantee that the world’s worst human rights abusers win seats. UNRWA has no board of governors or election for its secretary-general. Ending U.S. taxpayer support and working proactively to undermine and degrade such organizations from the outside make perfect sense. But what about the IOs in which elections are competitive and U.S. interests are at stake? Here the administration achieved mixed results.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, President Trump, and other world leaders attend a meeting on UN reform at the UN headquarters on September 18, 2017. The Trump administration deserves credit for identifying the growing challenges facing the United States within the UN system. What the administration lacked was a comprehensive strategy to drive reform and counter China’s increasing influence. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The more recent IAEA and WIPO success stories followed China’s stunning mid-2019 victory in taking the helm of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization17 and the 2018 unopposed re-election of a Chinese official as head of the International Telecommunications Union.18 China also secured the 2017 re-election of a Chinese official atop the UN Industrial Development Organization19 – an organization in which the United States ceased participating in 1996. China was also elected to a six-year term on the UN Board of Auditors that began in July 2020.20


  • Task a senior director on the National Security Council (NSC) with coordinating strategies to elect IO candidates who align with U.S. policies and values. The NSC’s role in coordinating IO elections is critical because multiple departments may interact with IOs or conduct bilateral engagements during IO elections.
  • Given that oversight of U.S. missions to IOs varies across bureaus, appoint a special coordinator for IO elections who reports to the secretary of state. The special coordinator would work closely with the NSC directorate responsible for IO election strategy, represent the State Department at NSC Deputies Committee meetings on IO elections, and ensure the department is properly represented at NSC Policy Coordination Committee meetings.
  • Congress should request regular briefings from the administration on upcoming IO elections. Since members and staff interact regularly with foreign governments and IOs, the administration should enlist Congress to convey messages that align with the overall U.S. strategy.
  • The administration and Congress should work together to implement a comprehensive strategy to counter China’s influence within IOs. Key policies for consideration should include:
    • increasing the number of U.S. citizens working in high-level positions within UN agencies;
    • waging a campaign within the Security Council and other UN mechanisms to hold China accountable for human rights abuses;
    • pressing for Taiwan’s membership in UN agencies;
    • coordinating with the private sector to stop China from establishing international standards that create an uneven economic playing field or position Beijing to control future technological guidelines;
    • formalizing a list of Chinese ideological terms (“Xi’isms”) and working with allies to prevent the inclusion of these terms in official documents;
    • reviewing Chinese participation in UN peacekeeping operations; and
    • reviewing UN procurement of Chinese goods and services.
  • With China serving on the UN Board of Auditors, and given the lack of transparency and accountability at UN agencies such as UNRWA, Congress should prohibit funding for UN agencies that do not allow the United States to conduct independent audits (at U.S. expense) when requested.
  • The Biden administration and Congress should condition future assistance for UNRWA on changes to its outdated mandate, governance, and conduct and encourage U.S. partners to do the same. Whenever possible, the United States and its partners should consider shifting support for needy Palestinian populations from UNRWA to bilateral assistance channels until reforms are achieved.
  • The Biden administration and Congress should indicate that the United States is prepared to rejoin and fund the UNHRC if it undertakes reforms to prevent the election of abusive regimes and to treat Israel fairly. A state should not be eligible for election to the council unless it is rated “Free” by Freedom House; the council should remove its standing agenda item on Israel; and secret ballots in elections should be eliminated. Pending the implementation of such reforms, the United States should withhold contributions from the UN Regular Budget in an amount equal to the UN contribution to the council.
  • To further combat the systemic anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, the Biden administration and/or Congress should prohibit funding for any UN agency that sponsors, supports, enables, or engages in acts of antisemitism pursuant to the authoritative working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.21


International Organizations