May 31, 2023 | National Review

How Congress Can Fix Biden’s Failed U.N. Strategy

May 31, 2023 | National Review

How Congress Can Fix Biden’s Failed U.N. Strategy

Countries from around the world gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, over the past week for the World Health Organization’s annual assembly, but Taiwan was not among them. Pressure from Beijing thwarted requests from the United States and its allies that Taiwan be offered observer status, calling into question the Biden administration’s thesis that a carrots-only multilateral-engagement strategy can advance U.S. interests inside international organizations. With similar failures piling up across U.N. agencies, Congress should reestablish U.S. leverage by attaching strings to taxpayer funding for bodies such as the WHO that undermine American interests.

Following a closed-door meeting on Sunday, May 21, the assembly’s president announced that despite pleas from the WHO’s top donors, Taiwan could not attend. Welcomed to the World Health Assembly, meanwhile, were Russia and Syria. There is no vote scheduled to expel Syria from the WHO executive board or to suspend both countries’ voting rights, as is allowed under WHO rules, for attacking hospitals and health-care providers.

As has become standard practice at the World Health Assembly, countries instead devoted formal agenda time to castigating Israel, a democracy that has treated the Syrian regime’s victims in its own hospitals despite facing missile and drone threats from Iranian forces in Syria. The week ended with no answers about the origins of Covid-19 or how to prevent China from covering up the next threat to global health.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden reversed his predecessor’s decision to withhold funding from the WHO to force reforms. A year later, the Biden administration supported the WHO’s director general for reelection without first obtaining a single concrete change in the organization’s behavior. This strategy of abandoning pressure, giving up American leverage, and hoping that engagement and diplomacy alone will advance U.S. interests has failed profoundly wherever the administration has tried it.

In 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the U.S. would reverse the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council and run for a seat in the next election. Blinken outlined an ambitious reform agenda that could only be achieved through engagement: changing membership criteria to block human-rights abusers and ending the council’s bias against Israel. Nearly 18 months have passed since the U.S. rejoined the group, and there has been little progress toward either objective.

China and Cuba, two of the worst human-rights abusers in the world, serve as members of the so-called Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Blinken’s strategy has yet to rectify the lack of a requirement that members respect their citizens rights or the secret-ballot nature of UNHRC elections. The administration can point to one victory — rallying the U.N. General Assembly to suspend Russia — but that’s less an achievement in reforming the council than it is a byproduct of widespread condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In other areas, things are getting worse, not better. The U.S. stayed silent as China pressured the council to fire a whistleblower who’d exposed the agency’s practice of supplying information on dissidents to Beijing. An American-led request to merely debate an ongoing genocide in Xinjiang was voted down by the council’s China-led bloc. The U.S. has never put forward a single resolution to eliminate the antisemitic commission of inquiry seeking to falsely label Israel an apartheid state, or to remove the council’s standing agenda item focusing on Israel. To the contrary, officials appointed by the council now spew antisemitism at will.

A similar result is playing out inside the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides health care, education, infrastructure, and cash to millions of Palestinians. The Trump administration cut off funding for the UNRWA in 2018 because of the agency’s inefficiency, poor management, antisemitism promotion, and incitement to violence, as well as past evidence that members of designated terrorist organizations had been on the agency’s payroll. The Biden administration restored the funding without verifying any changes in the agency’s conduct. Two years and more than $700 million in taxpayer assistance later, UNRWA-run schools still teach Palestinian children to hate Jews and Israel, and the agency’s bloated 30,000-person staff is still not subjected to U.S. anti-terrorism vetting.

The Biden administration gets credit for running an American candidate in last year’s election to head the International Telecommunication Union, a little-known U.N. agency China has used for years to boost Huawei’s fortunes as a provider of 5G-network infrastructure. But the U.S. got lucky — the American was running against a Russian in the year of the Ukraine invasion. And since winning the election, there’s been no indication that the U.S. is working to clear out the agency’s mid-level staff and officials who may still be under Beijing’s influence. Indeed, the Biden administration did not bother to field a candidate to challenge China’s control of another U.N. body: The Food and Agriculture Organization, which Beijing can use to advance its Belt and Road Initiative and build a “Food Silk Road.”

Engagement for the sake of engagement is not a strategy. Just having a seat at a broken table will not advance U.S. interests or defend them from U.S. adversaries. The failing carrot-only approach to the U.N. must come to an end — and Congress can help change it.

Every year, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees allocate taxpayer funding for the U.N. and dozens of affiliated agencies. While the U.N. wants that money to come with no strings attached, appropriators have the power to condition U.S. assistance on concrete behavioral changes.

For example, Congress could decree that no U.S. funds may be provided to any organization that denies Taiwan membership or observer status. It could bar funding for any organization that unfairly targets Taiwan or Israel or engages in outright antisemitism. It could withhold funds for the U.N. until the General Assembly reforms the U.N. Human Rights Council or overhauls the UNRWA’s mandate. And it could ban funding to groups that promote the Belt and Road Initiative.

There are no doubt other ways Congress could attack this problem, as well. The point is that the Constitution gives legislators the power of the purse, and exercising that authority to defend U.S. interests inside international organizations should be a priority. During a global address from the State Department in early 2021, President Biden declared, “America is back.” Two years later, there’s still precious little evidence that it is. So Congress should declare that “taxpayers are back” — and start demanding change.

Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the governor of Illinois’s chief of staff, and as a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer. Follow him on Twitter @rich_goldberg. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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