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What awaits Joe Biden at the United Nations

Rejoining agreements might not even be the easy part.

In 2014, then-Vice President Joe Biden led a panel on peacekeeping with global leaders at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

“America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for US ambassador to the United Nations said last month.

Biden has promised to rebuild America’s alliances and partnerships around the world. That includes a commitment to international institutions, the United Nations being the big one on that list.

But the shorthand for that — “America is back” — is likely going to be much harder to execute in practice. As Alynna Lyon, United Nations expert and professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, put it, this “isn’t like an Etch A Sketch that you can just shake and reset and clear the slate.”

President Donald Trump’s tenure, for better or worse, has irrevocably transformed America’s reputation and role in the world. His administration shunned a lot of multilateral cooperation, seeing it as holding America back. Trump withdrew from international pacts like the Paris climate accords and global bodies like the World Health Organization.

Biden is going to try to bring into these agreements, and reengage with these institutions. But the United Nations is no longer just America’s show, with China and some other countries having filled in the gaps left behind by America.

Challenges like the pandemic and climate change will require international cooperation, and how the administration approaches the United Nations, and the powerful players within it, might say a lot about Biden’s foreign policy over the next four years.

To get a sense of the challenges ahead, I spoke to Lyon, author of US Politics and the United Nations: A Tale of Dysfunctional Dynamics. We spoke about what Biden administration can do inside and outside UN headquarters to rebuild US credibility, and why — despite the UN’s shortcomings — the investment is still very much worth making.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to recommit to and re-engage with multilateral institutions. But what does that mean in practice — especially after four years of Trump’s “America First”?

Alynna Lyon

There are a lot of pieces to this. When I think through Biden re-engaging at the United Nations, I think: One, we’ve been here before. In some ways, this is old wine, new bottle.

For example, after the Bush administration, going into the Obama administration. Relations between the UN and the Bush administration had been really contentious at different points, particularly over the Iraq War. There were traditional allies that had really been marginalized, and were pretty grumpy with the Bush administration.

We know that Democrats tend to have a much more long-term commitment to the United Nations. That goes back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who actually got the [United Nations] charter ratified. But we also know that Democrats can have challenging times at the UN, like Bill Clinton did. So a [Democratic president] doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing.

The other thing I’ll just say, generally, is that the United Nations — and international politics in general — isn’t like an Etch A Sketch that you can just shake and reset and clear the slate. Biden comes in in 2021 in a very different context than Obama came in in 2009. He has to deal both with the global context and the issues that are pressing, and then with what the UN looks like in 2021, which is very different than what the UN looked like 2009. So there are broader issues that will challenge the Biden administration that are distinct.

Jen Kirby

But Biden has said: “America is back.” What does that mean when it comes to the UN — like, what is UN Secretary-General António Guterres thinking when he hears that?

Alynna Lyon

I think that there are a couple of pieces to that.

One is actually the presence. One of the things that’s different under the Trump administration than, say, the Bush administration, is that the Trump administration wasn’t really present at the UN.

The Trump administration had US ambassadors to the UN [Nikki Haley and Kelly Craft] who were novices for the most part, didn’t have a lot of diplomatic experience. The Trump administration often didn’t have a commitment to diplomacy to begin with. People that I’ve talked to said they felt that the UN, for the Trump administration, was kind of a publicity platform, rather than a place to problem-solve.

If the Biden administration is really willing to roll up its sleeves and do the work of global governance and help with things like global pandemics and nuclear proliferation and climate change, then that’s what folks at the UN want.

Then, when we talk about commitment, a huge piece of this is financial commitment. The Trump administration withdrew from many different UN agencies, and cut funds from others. The United States is the largest funder of many UN agencies; it has the largest assessed funds, both in general funds and peacekeeping.

And when you have budgets that disappear, it can be devastating to the organization and its work and its staffing. You have to fire people and close down programs, and those can have long shadows. So writing the check is one thing — but also helping those organizations like the World Health Organization come back online and have some capacity to do work is really important.

And then I think just the work of diplomacy. This is thinking about the UN as a venue for countries to cooperate. The world is not going to order itself. The position of Secretary General isn’t one of world organizer; he’s the facilitator of what the primary countries of the UN want to do. I think that both Guterres and most countries yearn for global leadership.

When the Obama administration came in, I was interviewing somebody at the French mission [to the UN]. And I remember them saying, “We can’t wait to be wooed.” I just thought it was interesting. The French wanted to engage, but they wanted the US to ask, and they wanted the US’s sense of purpose to come into that. So I think there’s that a sense of leadership in finding direction for working towards solving so many of these global issues.

Jen Kirby

Let’s start with what you call “presence.” Biden has nominated Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a longtime diplomat, to serve as UN ambassador. What do you make of that appointment?

Alynna Lyon

I think Biden is sending a pretty strong signal there. One, he wants somebody who knows how to do this work, he wants somebody who has a proven track record of success in doing this work, someone who’s got familiarity with diplomacy.

You know, you don’t just show up and tell people what you want. It takes a pretty fine instrument and somebody who’s balanced and someone who has insight into allowing other countries to have dignity in negotiations. I think that’s a really important thing.

The other thing is her area of expertise, particularly in Africa. That’s very, I want to say, refreshing, engaging. The US often doesn’t find Global South politics all that important. The Clinton administration certainly didn’t. [Note: The Global South is a term often used to refer to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and parts of Oceania — regions outside Europe and North America, many of which are low-income and often politically or culturally marginalized.]

President-elect Joe Biden listens as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, his US ambassador to the United Nations pick, speaks after the announcement of her nomination.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

There were pieces of this within the Obama administration, but not much. But there was never really a clear message that politics and the problems of the Global South were important to the United States. So there’s some important messaging in that nomination.

The other thing I’ll say is that there’s a little bit of a concern there’s a fine line that — if she’s confirmed — she’ll have to walk. Biden says that he’s going to elevate the UN ambassador to a Cabinet-level position. Susan Rice was in that same category. [Rice served as Obama’s UN Ambassador from 2009 to 2013].

The benefit of that is that it tells those at the UN: This individual has the president’s ear. They are in contact with the president on a regular basis. The president is prioritizing the relationship with the United Nations. All of those signals are very good.

But I do remember when I was engaged at the UN doing some research there, there was criticism of Susan Rice because of that Cabinet-level post — that she was spending all her time in Washington and not in New York [where the UN headquarters is located].

So there’s some logistics with that elevation: Does that mean that you are part of the foreign policy team? Or that you are part of the foreign policy team in New York? That’s a difficult needle to thread, to make sure that you are present at the UN physically, and then also engaged in what’s going on in Washington, DC. I have no doubt that Thomas-Greenfield will be able to do that. But there is that fine line that the UN envoys need to walk.

Jen Kirby

So that brings me to your second point: money. Is it really as simple as just writing checks and getting the US back into UN agencies the Trump administration left, like the WHO or the Human Rights Council? I have to say, if I were the United Nations, I would be a little wary of the US coming in, promising to rejoin agencies and filling out some IOUs.

Alynna Lyon

This is complicated. For some of these agencies, rejoining them is flipping a switch — you can write your check and go in. The Paris climate agreement, that’s very easy. The US basically just says, “Yes, we’re back in,” and reworks its 2030 goals.

Some of these agencies, it’s not that easy. To rejoin the Human Rights Council, the US has to be elected. It’s political in the UN. The US lost its election in May of 2001. So there is a history of the other countries in the UN saying, “No, you’re not quite the right country to do this work.”

If we talk about the World Health Organization for just a second, I think that one’s more challenging. For most diplomats I interview, credibility is absolutely essential. The US really needs to pick up the pieces here. It just can’t go forward as though nothing has happened. Now, some countries and some entities will be more welcoming and more forgiving than others.

And I think that there’s some significant damage there. One, the UN is made up of different entities and tools, and the US has damaged some of these tools, partly because of the lack of funding. The World Health Organization is one of those. It has to now rework or restore that in order for the tool to be effective.

The second piece is that in the void of the Trump administration — and this goes back to my original point earlier about the context really changing and how Biden can’t really get a clean slate — other countries moved in.

China is one of those countries that have done that. Germany as well. They’ve had a seat at the table, they’re writing the checks, they are able to shape and frame and spin what the priorities are. The US is late to the game on this. It’s very difficult for the US to just kind of waltz back in and say, “We’re back.”

One final thing there, too, is that the credibility of the organizations — both the UN and the World Health Organization — have really been under attack by the Trump administration. Sometimes they’re perceived as corrupt, they’re perceived as inept, they’re perceived as threatening. For me, it’s always ironic that the UN is framed as this really weak organization that can’t do anything, but yet threatens US sovereignty.

But, at least in my observations, I think that’s very damaging. And so when the World Health Organization is the problem, or the UN is the problem, it’s really hard to retool those organizations and engage them in a way that is really effective. There is long-term damage that needs to be addressed, rather than just, you know, showing up and writing a check.

Jen Kirby

This point about rhetoric strikes me as really critical. Because in order for the US to show up and write those checks, Biden needs Congress and the public to want him to do that. Do you think Trump’s attacks on these institutions make it more difficult politically for Biden to even start any sort of UN restoration project?

Alynna Lyon

I think yes and no. The American electorate is so split right now that some of this has to do with politics at the global level — China and Iran and all that.

But one of the things that I thought that was really interesting — at least my research has shown — is that the Trump administration had proposed budgets to basically gut many different agencies. And Congress is kind of the unsung hero, if you will, with Republicans in the Senate reinserting those funding levels. So at the domestic level, we have seen quiet, consistent support for most UN entities from Congress.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a simple story, right?

The other thing that I’ve seen is that if there is divided government — and we don’t know what the Senate is going to look like yet — funding for the UN can become a political football. We saw Republicans do this, especially with [former Senator and Foreign Relations Chair] Jesse Helms, under the Clinton administration, but also under the Obama administration, and use UN funding as leverage.

So we don’t know what that’s going look like. But I do think there are opportunities here, because if there was ever a point in the UN’s history that demonstrates the value of some kind of governance at the global level, it’s during a global pandemic.

Jen Kirby

And that it’s in US interests to be there, because as we’ve seen, with the US absence, other countries have moved in to fill that vacuum. China being the big example. If America tries to reclaim some of its assertiveness, what does that look like given China’s expanded influence within the UN?

Alynn Lyon

China has had an increasing impact in many, many different agencies. The places I see that are the Security Council and Human Rights Council.

There’s been almost no movement on human rights work. That sounds harsh, but there are those whom I’ve talked to that say there’s actually kind of been a retraction on human rights, and deliberately much of that work has been taken off the agenda. Because if it’s on the agenda, they’re afraid that with Russia and China [involved], it’s going to erode even further.

But even before the Trump administration, China has been subtly increasing its presence at the UN. Under the Obama administration, when I was doing interviews there, it was really interesting to me that — this even goes back to the Bush administration — that the UN assignment for many at the State Department wasn’t seen as all that exciting. The US wasn’t all that excited to really ramp up the personnel there, whereas the Chinese have lots and lots of people that they rotate through the UN.

Other pieces of evidence on this is the Chinese contribution to peacekeeping — not only financial contribution, but troop contribution. Great powers don’t usually contribute troops to peacekeeping. For a while there, China was at number 11. But China is now in the top 10 of troop-contributing countries. And I think that is a not-so-subtle message that “We are here, we are here to play, we’re here to engage.”

You know, the UN is an arena. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a democratic arena. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a liberal — in this case, meaning respecting human rights, promotion of democracy — arena. China can exert itself and try to move the needle, so to speak, in a non-liberal way to influence global policy and how we think about things like human rights.

Jen Kirby

But that seems to me the big dilemma: that China has expanded its influence, and now the US wants to be more engaged, and that sets up a potential clash. How concerned should we be that the United Nations will become a forum for the increasing global tensions between the US and China?

Alynna Lyon

I know I’m concerned. If you go back to the Cold War, we had 40 years of the Security Council being an arena for US-Soviet conflict, and it was able to paralyze much of the work of the Security Council for that time. History has shown that it’s not unreasonable to be concerned about that.

On the other hand, because of global interdependence, like pandemics and threats from increasing civil warfare and climate change, there are a lot of issue areas in which the US and China can work well together. There are places that they could partner.

The other thing is that it’s not just the US and China. The US traditionally has significant allies within the UN: the British and the French and the Germans and the Canadians, those traditional alliances. If the Biden administration does the work it needs to — and I actually don’t think it’s going to be too hard with those particular countries — the US has leveraged capacity.

At the end of the day, the US is not the global superpower that it once was. It has to deal with the operational realities of that in the UN and at the global level. At the same time, the UN is a great power source for the US. It provides an opportunity to lead, which it does very well when it does that work. And I think it provides that opportunity to the US much more than it provides that opportunity to the Chinese.

Jen Kirby

But that brings me to the question of the UN’s role, with the US and China competing to shape the agenda. The world has changed. Maybe it’s now a body that’s mostly focused on climate change, and it’s not really the venue for human rights, for example. Basically, does the UN have to become something different?

Alynna Lyon

I’ll say a couple things. One, the UN is an artifact of 1945. If you’ve ever picked up something that was made in 1945, it’s very difficult for it to interface with the 21st century.

At the same time, I just did this book on the UN at 75, and went entity by entity through all these different agencies, and so I feel like I’ve got a pretty good perspective on this. The UN has shown itself to be very innovative. For example, you have the United Nations Environment Program, something that was created in the 1970s. There are lots of places where you seen you see innovation and adaptation.

The other thing that I’ll say is that much of the work at the UN is done, often, in a quiet, behind-the-scenes way. What we tend to see are the debates and dialogue. Speeches for opening ceremonies in the General Assembly every September, or the narratives that go on in the Security Council.

Oftentimes, calling a country out publicly, naming and shaming — while many people want that, that may not be the most effective mechanism to, say, get China to be more considerate of its human rights practices. It may be much more effective in a quieter setting, a gentle nudging, carrots and quiet sticks, if you will. The UN still provides a venue for that, establishing relationships between diplomats.

Jen Kirby

I agree that United Nations entities do a lot of vitally important work that goes under the radar. But I’m not sure I can see the incentive for a country like China to be pressured from behind the scenes. The limitations of the UN aren’t necessarily new, but they seem more stark in this age of rising nationalism, and in a multipolar world. Is the UN worth investing in still?

Alynna Lyon

The mandate of the UN, and what it was originally intended to do, is to promote peace and security. There was an element of human rights. I think those pieces have been pretty effective, if you’re taking a 75-year-long perspective on the UN.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the second secretary-general of the UN, he says this very well. He says that the purpose of the UN isn’t to get us to heaven, but to save us from hell. It’s a really direct articulation of the fact that its infrastructure is built to help countries deal with global challenges to international peace and security. The infrastructure is in place; it’s up to the countries to turn on the nozzle.

Given that, it’s still effective. There are challenges, there are great opportunities. There are definitely some restraints. It is a 1945 artifact. The Security Council doesn’t reflect the power dynamics in the world today. And I don’t see it significantly being able to change.

You can’t change the global context of a rising China. You can’t change the global context of a US that has proven itself to be a less-than-reliable partner at times, and one that has diminishing commitment and diminishing capacity to provide leadership.

But if the Biden administration takes a realistic approach to try to work where it can — just show up and work where it can — I think that it can be a very valuable venue for us for issues dealing with security, for dealing with the existential threat of climate change.

I don’t even know if we have any other choice, right? Where else can we do this work?

Academics like to say if we get rid of the UN today, we’d have to rebuild it tomorrow. And we don’t really have the political will right now. I can’t see 1945 moment where the Chinese and the Russians and the British and the French all sit down and take an enlightened perspective. That’s not that’s not a practical expectation.

Jen Kirby

In some respects, rather than saying, “We need to change the UN, or reform it, or it’s not living up to its goals,” we’ve got to just accept that its a dilapidated old building, but one that does have a couple of cozy rooms where we can sit down and talk about climate change or peacekeeping. That might be the best we can hope for — which maybe isn’t such a bad thing, when you think about the state of the world.

Alynna Lyon

I hate to say this, but the UN is a bit like an old, clunky car. It’s still running. You could put in a new carburetor, and that would really help, and you could put in a new transmission, and that will help. But getting rid of the whole car or giving it a complete makeover probably isn’t in the cards.