The United States Senate is set to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations this week, a major step in the administration’s drive to take a multilateral approach to foreign policy and mend Washington’s relationship with the international body.
While the country has held an outsized role at the UN since its inception in 1945 as the largest financial contributor to the organisation headquartered in New York City, relations sunk to a low point during former President Donald Trump’s term.
But the US government’s closeness to the UN has historically “waxed and waned” at the will of domestic politics, particularly during the last 10 to 15 years, said Alanna O’Malley, chair of United Nations Studies in Peace and Justice at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Biden’s nominee, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, will be entering a UN that has seen four years of “poor relations” with the US under Trump, but O’Malley said the UN had already begun to see a shift away from US leadership under Biden’s former boss, former President Barack Obama.
“What we saw most recently, with Trump of course, but also with Obama, was this kind of turn away from this impression of the United States as leading the liberal world order through the UN,” O’Malley told Al Jazeera.
While Biden has started to reset many of the Trump-era actions related to the UN, “it remains to be seen whether or not he takes a fundamentally different role in framing American global leadership through the UN,” she added.
Thomas-Greenfield, who as assistant secretary of state for African affairs served as the top diplomat to the continent, laid out her vision for what the US’s role would be at the UN during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on January 27.
“When America shows up, when we are consistent and persistent, when we exert our influence in accordance with our values,” Thomas-Greenfield said, “the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for advancing peace, security, and our collective well-being.”
Her comment echoes Biden himself, who has promised to re-engage on the international stage and has already moved to rejoin several multilateral agreements from which his predecessor withdrew.
Biden has rejoined the Paris Agreement that Trump withdrew from in 2017; the UN Human Rights Council, which Trump left in June 2018, and the UN’s World Health Organization, which Trump withdrew from last year.
Biden has also announced plans to restore funding to the UN Population Fund, which Trump paused starting in 2017, and aid to Palestinian refugees. Trump halted funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) in 2018.
UNAIDS, the body’s HIV/AIDS programme, and the WHO also suffered major funding cuts under Trump, which Biden is expected to restore. Secretary of State Blinken announced on February 17 the US would pay $200m to the WHO in fees withheld under Trump.
Nevertheless, overall US funding for the UN remained stable at about $10bn a year under Trump, despite his efforts for deeper cuts.
But overturning Trump’s policies will likely prove more difficult than just “writing a check”, said O’Malley. “America also lost a lot of strategic partnerships, and strategic alliances, and a lot of political goodwill,” she said.
Mark Seddon, director of the Centre for United Nations Studies at the University of Buckingham, said there has been a “palpable sense of relief” among many UN members, particularly Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, after Biden defeated Trump in last November’s elections.
But Biden has also pledged to continue Washington’s staunch support for Israel – a position that at the UN historically translates to the US using its Security Council veto power to stifle resolutions critical of Israeli actions.
From 1946 to 2018, the US also voted 787 times against resolutions related to Israel in the General Assembly, far outpacing other countries and second only to Israel itself, according to an Al Jazeera analysis.
“And there will be member states that will be rather discouraged by the Biden administration’s disavowal of the International Criminal Court’s “change in jurisdiction that could pave the way for “investigations into alleged Israeli and Palestinian war crimes”, Seddon said.
The ICC is not part of the UN, but maintains close ties with the body.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also said the US will seek reforms at the “flawed” UN Human Rights Council, although it will maintain observer status until it can seek full membership in a vote next year.
The US has accused the 47-member council of anti-Israel bias and observers have criticised the body for allowing chronic human rights abusing countries, including Eritrea, Venezuela, China, Russia and Uzbekistan, to join.
Biden will also have to compete for influence with China, which has taken an expanded role at the UN, Jeffrey Feltman, a visiting fellow in international diplomacy at the Brookings Institution, said in a 2020 report.
Beijing is the UN’s second-largest funder for peacekeeping operations, rising steadily since the early 2000s to provide 15 percent of contributions for 2020-2021, second only to the US, which provides about 28 percent. The third-highest contributor, Japan, provides about 8.5 percent.
Beijing also provides the 10th-most personnel to UN peacekeeping operations in the world – making it the only country to rank among the top contributors in both categories, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank.
China’s influence – and what Feltman called its “tactical alignment” with Russia – is particularly felt on the UN Security Council, which is perennially paralysed by the veto-power of its five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US.
Thomas-Greenfield, whose confirmation vote was delayed due to Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s charge that she would not be tough on China, has said that countering Beijing at the Security Council will be her highest priority.
The Biden administration could have more success in the 193-member UN General Assembly and its various committees, where O’Malley said “the vacuum of American power” has been most felt on human rights, including women’s issues.
“The lack of US support for those issues really created a lot of factions and a lot of problems and a lot of challenges for effectiveness of those UN committees,” she said. “So, if Biden really wants to reinvigorate the UN, I think he has to start with providing strong American leadership on those issues.”
During her confirmation hearing, Thomas-Greenfield said the US “must have the courage to insist on reforms that make the UN efficient and effective, and the persistence to see reforms through”.
Some have called for the Biden administration to champion the expansion of the Security Council, including Stewart M Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who said a bigger UNSC “reflects the world of today, as opposed to 1945”.
“If nothing else, staking out this position will place American adversaries, including both China and Russia, on the defensive,” he wrote.
Still, Thomas-Greenfield herself may be the biggest indication that Biden is looking for a new approach to the UN, said O’Malley.
The diplomat grew up in segregation-era Louisiana and does not boast the Ivy-League college credentials common among State Department personnel. Her experience is deep and varied, including working for the State Department in Rwanda during the 1994 Genocide.
Biden has also said Thomas-Greenfield, unlike her predecessor Kelly Craft, will have a cabinet position, saying he wants “to hear her voice on all the major foreign policy discussions we have” – a signal to UN members that Thomas-Greenfield will have a direct line to the president.
“I think [Biden] has selected somebody who kind of thinks differently to a lot of the State Department officials that have gone before her, who has very different range of experiences to draw on, and who has really experienced things that have fundamentally impacted her view of what America’s role in the world should be,” O’Malley said.
“Biden has made an extremely interesting, and I think quite provocative, choice.”