What Does Biden Have in Store for the United Nations?
By Maya Garner
On November 4th, 2020, the day after the election, the United States formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement. Three days later, Democratic candidate Joe Biden was pronounced the new President-elect, and he subsequently vowed to rejoin the Agreement. This rapid change of pace calls into question what the future will have in store for relations between the U.S. and the United Nations. To what extent will the coming presidency under Joe Biden be a continuation of U.S. foreign policy and international relations prior to President Donald Trump, and what may have irreparably changed? Much of this question comes down to the nature of multilateralism. First, it is important to understand what the U.S.’s relationship to the United Nations has looked like under Trump, and why this matters.
Since the U.N.’s establishment, the U.S. has played a prominent role for the organization. The organization was a U.S. initiative; the U.S. is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and holds veto power; the U.N. headquarters are based in New York City; and the U.S. is the largest contributor to the U.N.’s budget. While the U.S.-U.N. relationship has often been tumultuous, such as during the 2003 Iraq War, the various U.S. administrations had had an overall support for the continued presence of the U.N. and its established structure. By and large, the U.N. was recognized as an important tool for the advancement of U.S. international interests. The last four years, however, marks a significant deviation from this premise. Under President Trump, the U.S. has taken an aggressive, hardline approach toward the organization.
In 2017, the U.S. withdrew from UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), citing “mounting arrears,” a need for “fundamental reform,” and “continuing anti-Israel bias,” following a decision by UNESCO to declare the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank, a World Heritage Site in Danger. On the human rights front, the U.S. pulled out of the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018, letting the focus on human rights officially take a backseat. The U.S. also took part in watering down Resolution 2467, on sexual violence in conflict, through sheer conservatism, threatening to veto the draft proposal due to language surrounding reproductive healthcare facilities for women survivors. The U.S. further moved to defund the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), which has been vital to providing relief to Palestinian refugees in the form of human development and humanitarian services, such as education, infrastructure, and healthcare. Last year, when the U.N. announced a funding crisis, the U.S. showed little interest in stepping up to this challenge. Earlier this year, in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. announced its decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), claiming that the organization has been unduly influenced by the Chinese government. Finally, the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to combat climate change was formalized on November 4th, exactly a year after the U.S. made the announcement.
The Trump administration’s approach to the U.N. can be seen as an extension of the “America First” policy, which in reality is a new type of isolationism. The policy of “America First” has historical origins in the isolationist U.S. approach to foreign policy in the years leading up to World War II, the 1920’s and 1930’s, eventually becoming the non-interventionist policy that delayed the U.S.’s late entry into the War. Under Trump, however, the world looks different and the policy of isolationism has seemed specifically designed to weaken multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Trump, however, called this approach a policy of “principled realism.” It marks a stark break, however, from the U.S.’s previous approaches to foreign policy and multilateralism. While seemingly cozying up to authoritarian leaders, the President adopted a harsh rhetoric and confrontational approach toward many of the U.S.’s primary allies. A paper published by the United Nations University describes U.S. foreign policy under Trump as having a significantly more “Hobbesian” global outlook. In the case of the U.N., this new outlook ceases to view the organization as a tool for the advancement of U.S. international interests through cooperation and alliances and has rather become a platform that needs to be coerced into advancing these interests through more direct and forceful tactics of pressure and antagonism.
The US President Joe Biden, however, has already sought to ensure that his set of foreign policies will not be a continuation of Trump’s policies, but rather a reinstatement of international cooperation and support of multilateral organizations. Biden promised to combat many of President Trump’s policies, such as rejoining the Paris Agreement and reverse the decision on the W.H.O. While Biden served as Vice President under Obama, the international political landscape has changed since this time, which increases the likelihood that the Biden Presidency will break away from the Obama years on certain points. The paper published by the Centre for Policy Research at the United Nations University identifies “4 R’s” in U.S. foreign policy under a new Democratic administration, namely “reasserting US power and leadership, resurrecting US alliances and restoring and reforming the Rules Based International Order (RBIO).“ How these attempted restorations will manifest themselves has yet to be seen.
In stark contrast to President Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward China, the policies of isolationism under his administration has accelerated the Chinese government’s engagement with and presence in the United Nations, pushed into the void left behind by the United States. In a time of decreased U.S. unipolar power, the Biden Presidency faces the challenge of exerting multilateral leadership in a world in which the U.S. has practiced a policy of isolationism for the last four years. The United Nations University policy paper recommends an approach designed to “channel” Chinese influence and engagement with the U.N., rather than attempting to oppose it. Last, the Trump administration may have left a permanent mark on U.S.’s international relations. The upcoming Biden presidency is guaranteed to quench populism or secure another Democratic administration in four years.