June 29, 2021 | Foreign Policy

Biden Needs an International Organizations Strategy

A U.S. State Department czar should lead a campaign to stop China and Russia from gaining control of multilateral agencies.
June 29, 2021 | Foreign Policy

Biden Needs an International Organizations Strategy

A U.S. State Department czar should lead a campaign to stop China and Russia from gaining control of multilateral agencies.

When U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the U.S. intelligence community to dig deeper into the possibility that COVID-19 might have spread from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, he underscored a basic truth: Multilateral agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) are frequently blocked or manipulated by authoritarian regimes and increasingly incapable of protecting either U.S. or global interests. The Biden administration and U.S. Congress face a fundamental question: What is the United States’ strategy to counter the systematic exploitation of international organizations by hostile countries while defending U.S. sovereignty, national security, allies, and democratic values?

Every year, Congress appropriates billions of dollars to the United Nations and related bodies, yet neither Congress nor the executive branch exercise sufficient oversight. This funding is also devoid of a comprehensive strategy to advance U.S. interests and counter manipulation by China, Russia, and other adversaries. It’s not a partisan issue: Republican and Democratic administrations have proven equally shortsighted.

China’s and Russia’s disruptive efforts are most visible in the U.N. Security Council, where both have used their permanent member veto power to block, for example, attempts to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people or hold the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad accountable for using chemical weapons. However, the actions of U.S. adversaries inside organizations under the U.N. umbrella pose an even bigger challenge.

China is currently seeking control of key standard-setting bodies to advance its Belt and Road Initiative, whitewash its oppression of minorities, and isolate Taiwan. Beijing’s power and influence within the U.N. system has grown dramatically in recent years, with China winning elections to lead specialized U.N. agencies, gaining seats on international tribunals and councils, and joining the U.N. Board of Auditors. Economic coercion—leveraging foreign direct investment and foreign debt holdings—plays a central role in China’s strategy to buy votes in the General Assembly.

One approach to this challenge is for the United States to dismiss this as a challenge or withdraw from such organizations altogether. They are ineffective by nature, or so the argument goes, and there is no cost to letting China achieve decisive influence. Yet a closer look illustrates the risk of this assumption.

During her confirmation hearing, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield pledged to make countering China and Russia among her top priorities.

Take the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), for example. Beijing won elections to head both agencies in recent years, providing China with two key platforms to advance its own standards—and block others’—in key technologies and economic sectors. As the United States worked to educate the private sector and key allies about the security threats posed by Huawei’s 5G network, the Chinese telecommunications giant leveraged Beijing’s leadership at the ITU to defend the company’s record. At the ICAO, the Chinese secretary-general tried to conceal a China-based cyber hack of the organization’s networks, leaving international airlines and aerospace companies vulnerable to further intrusions.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) and WHO offer two more examples of international bodies in need of U.S. leadership and major reforms. China wants to enjoy the benefits of WTO membership while skirting its rules and stealing Western intellectual property without consequences. The WHO stumbled badly in dealing with severe acute respiratory syndrome and Ebola yet has resisted the reforms that might have prepared it to deal more effectively with COVID-19. At the annual assembly of WHO member states, politically driven denunciations of Israel distract from more pressing business. At this year’s assembly, the members elected Syria to the WHO’s executive board, even though the WHO itself has documented the regime’s bombing of hospitals. But it is Beijing’s influence over the WHO that has emerged as a unique threat. The agency all but allowed China to set the terms for dealing with the current pandemic. Whether the lab leak theory proves true or not, one thing is certain: China covered up the origins and seriousness of COVID-19, and the WHO has largely gone along with it.

Russia, meanwhile, obstructs efforts to be held accountable for using banned chemical weapons while shielding rogue states like Syria and Iran from any consequences for their breaches of weapons prohibitions—chemical and nuclear, respectively. Specifically, Moscow has defended Iran from investigations into its undeclared nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency while spreading disinformation to prevent the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from taking action against Syria.

During her confirmation hearing, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield pledged to make countering China and Russia among her top priorities. More recently, the U.S. State Department announced it would back a U.S. candidate to lead the ITU, which is scheduled to hold an election later this year. But more will be needed to gain the upper hand on the political battlefield of international organizations. The State Department should appoint a czar for international organization elections to work with the White House in developing an ongoing war room-style operation to beat Chinese and Russian-backed candidates for leadership posts at the U.N. and other international organizations.

However, not all agencies can be fixed, and the United States needs a better strategy for handling these as well. Even if they were established with good intentions, some bodies have become so resistant to oversight and reform that no amount of U.S. participation, funding, or diplomacy can save them. Instead, they may need a comprehensive reboot or even dismantlement. Two examples are the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

UNRWA was established in 1950 to care for Arab refugees of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Had it adopted the mission of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—to resettle refugees if repatriation proves impossible—or had UNRWA been incorporated into the UNHCR after it became clear repatriation was unlikely, the agency would no longer exist. The few hundred thousand refugees of 1950 would have been resettled decades ago. Instead, the agency today claims to serve millions of people and demands hundreds of millions of dollars annually from U.S. taxpayers—all with no board of governors or mode of institutional oversight led by major funders, such as the United States.

The UNRWA has also produced schoolbooks that incite Palestinian students to violence against Israelis, which UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said were “mistakenly distributed.” And by holding out the possibility that millions of Palestinians descended from original refugees might someday relocate to Israel—the so-called right of return that would make Israel no longer a Jewish-majority nation and would never be accepted by Jerusalem—the UNRWA has become an institutional barrier to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. For these and other reasons, the Trump administration was right to cut off funding to the agency. The Biden administration, which has restored that funding without demanding any reforms in return, would be wise to press for a transition plan that takes Palestinians away from dependence on UNRWA bureaucracy and toward self-sufficiency.

Meanwhile, the UNHRC demonstrates the futility of U.S. engagement with an unreformable body. In its 15-year history, it has passed more resolutions condemning the Jewish state than all other countries combined, even as China, North Korea, Syria, and other countries perpetrate repeated crimes against their own people. Accordingly, Biden should work with like-minded nations to scrap the council—and instead form a new group with only democratic states as members.

Whether working with allies or mounting the fight alone, Washington must wage a campaign of reform battles, agency by agency.

Even though the U.N. General Assembly elected China, Russia, and Cuba to the UNHCR last October, Biden has chosen to stay engaged. When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the United States would run for a seat on the council, he argued “improving the Council and advancing its critical work is best done with a seat at the table.” The Obama administration made the same argument, but in neither instance did the United States deliver reforms. That oppressive regimes are routinely elected to preside over human rights is no accident: The General Assembly elects the council’s members by secret ballot, so no member state has to take responsibility for backing oppressive regimes.

The Biden administration must understand that mere engagement is not the same as actively pushing for outcomes that strengthen the United States’ national security and promote its values. This tendency to engage for engagement’s sake confuses the means with the end. You can’t win if you don’t fight—assuming winning is the goal.

Whether working with allies or mounting the fight alone, Washington must wage a campaign of reform battles, agency by agency, to restore the U.S.-led international order. That means fixing where possible and nixing when necessary. The battle to advance U.S. interests and counter adversaries inside international organizations will require tenacity and commitment. And that commitment must come from Democrats and Republicans alike.

It’s only a matter of time before a multilateral agency fails to address the next regional or global crisis. The United States must learn the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic’s cover-up perpetrated by China and enabled by the WHO. Failure to do so could lead to even greater loss of life and economic devastation. Policymakers can take critical steps to protect Americans now. But that will require a readiness to hold international organizations accountable rather than writing more blank checks and hoping for the best.

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, and as the governor of Illinois’s chief of staff. Follow him on Twitter @rich_goldberg. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.


China COVID-19 International Organizations Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Israel Palestinian Politics Russia Syria