Over the past four years, the US withdrew significantly from its traditional leadership role at the United Nations. The former administration’s overall disdain for the multilateral system, which translated to numerous UN-related budgetary cuts and muted cooperation with traditional allies, has bruised perception of US leadership at the UN and created a power vacuum that China has been all too eager to fill. China is now second only to the US in providing assessed contributions to the UN, leads four of the fifteen UN specialized agencies, and has increasingly exercised its veto power in core institutions like the Security Council. American leaders on both sides of the aisle have observed these trends with alarm.
However, the Biden administration has pledged to renew the United States’ engagement with the UN and address China’s expanding footprint. On November 24, 2020, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield declared that “America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.” According to her, America will reestablish its leadership at the UN first by honoring its financial dues and secondly by ensuring that the US continues to actively take a seat at the table. Notably, this includes UN institutions, such as the Human Rights Council, that are increasingly perceived as leaning in favor of China and others that advocate for interests that oppose those of America and her allies. With US-China competition primed for increased friction, this begs the question of precisely how the US will counter Chinese influence in multilateral organizations.
Framing US-China competition within the United Nations
Beijing and Washington are entrenched in an ideological siege over the role of democratic values in governance. China’s leadership has argued that its state-led economic and diplomatic models are superior to those of Western democracies. The Biden administration, by contrast, has argued that refurbishing the fundamental foundations of US democracy, ranging from democratic institutions to economic inequality issues, will revitalize US soft power at the multilateral level.
The United Nations is an essential battleground for this war of principles. Many believe that China has used the UN Human Rights Council, for instance, to redefine many of these concepts to align more closely with its own system of governance. Critics also argue that China also leverages its position in the United Nations to advance other agendas, such as promoting domestic companies like Huawei for international development projects within the purview of its Belt and Road Initiative. Although it is expected that member states will promote their interests in multilateral settings, US leaders assert that allowing China to set the international standards for current and emerging technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and facial recognition would enable China to further undermine commonly shared values of civil liberties and cybersecurity.
Multilateralism under the Biden administration
Biden’s National Security Council and the State Department are fully cognizant of the extent to which China has taken advantage of the power vacuum left by Trump’s isolationist policies. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan outlined the Biden administration’s priorities, indicating that an initial emphasis on domestic issues is a critical first step: “Foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy…Right now, the most profound national security challenge facing the United States is… domestic renewal…We have to put ourselves in a position of strength to be able to face the challenges we deal with around the world.” From this “position of strength,” the US would then be able to adequately invest in traditional alliances and command a stronger voice at the international negotiating table. Key to these efforts, however, is the ability to speak clearly and consistently about US values and interests at all levels of government, something that critics of Trump argue was lacking during his administration.
Biden has indicated that the US will be most effective in advancing its vision at the UN if done in concert with US allies and partners in Europe and Asia. This chorus of voices would drive the notion that the US-led collective will stand up for a particular set of principles in the face of active aggression. In addition, Biden will stress to democratic allies the importance of leading the world on emerging technologies and forming global technological standards. Only by staying on the cutting edge and collaborating with allies and partners will it be possible to maintain leadership in these areas and more at the UN and beyond.
Addressing China at the United Nations
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has quickly moved to label China a “strategic adversary” and pledged to address the country in all areas, though with a particular emphasis on the Human Rights Council. She affirmed, “If I am confirmed, I commit to [countering] China at the UN, to fight against all efforts by the Chinese to government to add harmful language to the UN resolutions, and to resist China’s efforts to overfill key UN positions with Chinese citizens.” In this vein, Amb. Thomas-Greenfield could advocate for working with US allies and partners to propose making membership far more competitive. For example, she could push for elections to sit on the Human Rights Council to require a 2/3 vote rather than a simple majority vote, while the reverse could also be enacted – lowering the vote threshold from 2/3 to a simple majority when suspending sitting members. These actions, when leveraging US allies, has the potential to significantly weaken China’s ability to successfully push its agenda in this arena.
The US will also likely work outside the walls of the United Nations to address China. Congress, for example, plays a vital role in deciding how to leverage the UN to counter Chinese influence. Just as Congress limited Trump’s ability to reduce UN funding to the desired level, so too can it support or restrict Biden’s vision for multilateral efforts. Nonetheless, given the prevailing attitude in Washington surrounding the US-China relationship as well as cross-aisle support for Biden’s picks for key US-China representatives, it is anticipated that the current administration will enjoy stronger bipartisan collaboration on strategic issues pertaining to US-China competition. Although it remains unclear what specific measures the US will take to regain influence lost to China in the UN, once the USAID Administrator is confirmed, Biden’s multilateral policy at the United Nations should begin to take shape more clearly.