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The US delegate's seat at the UN Security Council

The Biden Administration’s First Steps and the UN

Richard Gowan
Commentary, 22 January 2021
United Nations, United States
The new US administration is keen to regain its pivotal role in the UN. Not before time – and the agenda is daunting.

‘America is back. Multilateralism is back’, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Joe Biden’s pick to be US permanent representative to the UN, declared in November, adding, for good measure, that ‘diplomacy is back’. Diplomats at the UN, weary of sparring with the Trump administration, were delighted by these promises. In the coming months, Thomas-Greenfield, a widely respected State Department veteran whose confirmation by the Senate should be smooth, has to start the hard work of rebuilding US relationships and credibility in New York. 

Challenges

The ambassador faces three main challenges. The first is simply to restore some empowerment, confidence and energy to diplomats at the US mission opposite the UN on First Avenue following the Trump era. The second is to signal a clear break from the previous administration’s rejection of international cooperation on threats including Covid-19 and climate change, putting the US back at the centre of multilateral decision-making. The third is to work out if and how the US can cooperate with its main rivals at the UN, China and Russia on common challenges.

Thomas-Greenfield’s initial managerial task – getting the US diplomatic machinery at the UN back in full working order – should not be underestimated. The Trump administration treated its representatives to the UN poorly, sending them unclear instructions on how to deal with conflicts like those in Yemen and Libya. While Security Council ambassadors liked Thomas-Greenfield’s predecessor, Kelly Knight Craft, she enjoyed little real influence in Washington. 

The new ambassador will need to show that she is fully plugged in to the White House, and that she can deliver on the bargains she strikes in New York. She has the advantage that most of her foreign counterparts want her to succeed. Even Chinese diplomats, who regularly oppose the US on points of substance, say that they would like to deal with a more credible US representative. European officials are straining at the leash to find ways to collaborate with the incoming US team. African diplomats hope that Thomas-Greenfield – a former ambassador to Liberia and assistant secretary of state for African affairs – will listen especially closely to their positions. 

Promising Beginnings

The Biden administration has already guaranteed itself some goodwill at the UN with early proof of its commitment to multilateralism, pledging to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change and reverse Trump’s decision to quit the World Health Organization (WHO) over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Undoing some of the old administration’s handiwork, such as re-joining the Iranian nuclear accord, may take a little more time and negotiation. But the new team has made its commitment to multilateralism clear from the get-go. 

Thomas-Greenfield will have a useful opportunity to affirm this new strategic orientation at the UN in March, when the US happens to hold the rotating presidency of the Security Council. The council president shapes the agenda for the month, and the US could choose to convene debates or push for resolutions on a couple of symbolically significant themes.

One of these topics could be the security implications of the current pandemic, an issue which the Trump administration handled extremely badly in 2020. While the bulk of Council members pushed for a resolution calling for a global humanitarian ceasefire in response to the pandemic last year, the US held up its adoption for months, squabbling with China over whether the text should refer to the ‘Wuhan virus’ and if it should praise the work of the WHO. This spoiling behaviour, combined with Trump’s broader attack on the WHO, alienated US allies and ensured that the Council played no real role at all in the global response to the pandemic.

Longer-Term Tasks

While the idea of a global ceasefire to help the fight against coronavirus, always highly aspirational, lost steam long ago, the Security Council still has good reasons to focus on the disease. As the International Crisis Group noted in its annual publication on conflicts to watch, the economic fallout of the pandemic could well fuel outbreaks of violence in the year ahead. The Biden administration could break with the Trump era by putting name-calling with the Chinese to one side and pushing the Security Council to put its weight behind efforts – including the rollout of a vaccine to poor and fragile states – to mitigate these dangers. 

The new administration could also signal a break with the Trump era and advance a key part of its own policy agenda, with a new approach to discussing the links between climate change and conflict in the Council. The majority of Council members believe that global warming is likely to fuel future conflicts, for example by creating tensions over water and land. Last year, Germany led nine other members – including France and the UK – in hashing out a draft resolution calling on the UN to do more to plan for these threats. The Trump administration, doggedly opposed to cooperation on climate issues, flatly threatened to veto the text and Germany backed down.

The Biden administration might revive some version of the German text, or at a minimum insist that the Security Council does more to address risks associated with climate change in countries on its agenda. The UK, which is preparing to host a landmark UN climate conference in Glasgow at the end of 2021, also wants to elevate the issue and may host a high-level Council meeting – perhaps even at the level of heads of state and government – on climate and security next month. China and Russia question whether the Council should get involved in environmental issues, but diplomats in the Council who have worked on the file say they think Beijing and Moscow would not block an initiative in this area that has strong US backing.

Managing Chief Adversaries

Yet, beyond the climate change question, the single greatest strategic conundrum for Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is likely to be how to manage relations with Russia and China. After almost a decade of disputes over Syria in New York, US–Russia relations in the Security Council are extremely poor and are liable to remain so. Sino–US relations have deteriorated rapidly at the UN during Trump’s term, as Washington has tried to block Chinese efforts to gain more influence and top jobs in UN agencies. The US and its allies have also been increasingly critical of Beijing’s repression of the Uighurs in UN forums. 

To date, these arguments have not impinged too seriously on the day-to-day work of the UN on issues such as peacekeeping in Africa. Chinese and US officials have recognised the need to keep practical cooperation on such security issues separate from their battles over human rights and influence in the UN system. Likewise, while the US has accused Beijing of breaking UN sanctions on North Korea, both powers have avoided a major row over the issue at the Security Council that would throw the overall sanctions regime into question. But if the Biden administration wants to invest in deeper cooperation with Beijing on climate change, the pandemic and other global challenges, Thomas-Greenfield may ultimately face hard choices about how to balance criticising and working with China.  

Yet, before Thomas-Greenfield and other administration officials start to worry too much about precisely how to manage Beijing, they should get on with dealing with the first-order challenges of rectifying Trump’s disruptive (and destructive) behaviour at the UN. 

The outgoing administration’s persistent disdain for multilateralism, antagonism towards allies and lack of attention to the grinding work of UN diplomacy have sapped US credibility in New York. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s immediate goal must be to prove that the US retains the diplomatic skills and technical knowledge of UN processes to drive initiatives on topics such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic through the system – and so persuade other members of the organisation that the US and multilateralism are back for real.

Richard Gowan is United Nations Director for the International Crisis Group.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: The US delegate's seat at the UN Security Council. Courtesy of JD Lasica/flickr/CC BY 2.0.

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