Over the last four years, the Trump administration has taken a series of actions that have undermined American leadership at the United Nations and, by extension, undermined the work of the United Nations and its agencies around the world. Many of the actions of the Trump administration were malign, like exiting the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accords. Other actions were just neglectful.
On January 20th, the new Biden administration will have the opportunity to reset America’s relationship with the United Nations — and it could do so through a series of executive actions. With these seven strokes of the pen, the Biden administration can advance American interests through the United Nations and strengthen the UN’s ability to take on global challenges in support of American foreign policy goals.
Restore funding for the UN Population Fund
The UN Population Fund, UNFPA, is the UN agency most responsible for supporting sexual and reproductive health around the world. This includes supporting the provision of modern contraception and family planning services to women in the developing world and supporting the safe delivery of babies in humanitarian crises. UNFPA does not provide abortion services, yet it is caught up in domestic American debates over abortion. Accordingly, when Donald Trump took office he immediately froze US funding for UNFPA, which amounted to over $40 million. This has happened every time a Republican president has taken office since Ronald Regan. Every time a Democrat is in the White House, American support for UNFPA is restored. With the stroke of a pen on January 20, Joe Biden can release American funding for UNFPA, which would go a long way to meeting an unmet need for modern contraception around the world.
Restore Funding for the UN Refugee and Works Agency, UNRWA
Unlike UNFPA, the UN agency that supports the health and welfare of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has typically enjoyed bi-partisan support in the US. The entity provides a life-line for Palestinian refugees in what is formally known as the Occupied Territories and in neighboring countries, like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Republicans and Democrats alike have traditionally considered it in America’s national interests to prevent a humanitarian crisis from befalling the Palestinian people, and to essentially have a UN-entity run their schools. That was until about mid-way through the Trump administration, when American funding for UNRWA was frozen. According to media reports, then US-Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley lead the charge, over the objections of the State Department.
Today, UNRWA is facing a dire funding crisis. On November 7th, UNRWA announced that they have basically run out of money and are unable to pay the full salaries of some 28,000 employee — the vast majority of whom are local Palestinian staff, including teachers and frontline medical workers. Joe Biden could unfreeze these funds as soon as he takes office.
Signal Intent to Join the UN Human Rights Council
When the Trump administration took office, the United States was a member of the UN Human Rights Council, having won election to a two year term while Barack Obama was still president. But the Trump administration vacated America’s seat on the Council in June 2018, before the US term ended. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley justified the move by arguing that the composition of the Council and its focus on certain issues (like Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories) made the council irredeemable.
The Human Rights Council may be an imperfect institution, but it works better when the United States is engaged. Also, expressing an intent to join the Human Rights Council would be an important signal to the world that the United States respects (and intends to uphold) international human rights standards and laws.
Sign the UN Migration Compact
The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is a non-binding agreement between countries that sets certain standards and rules-of-the-road for how countries should approach international migration. The Compact was born from a September 2016 initiative supported by the Obama administration, but when negotiations over the compact began in earnest in 2017 and 2018, the Trump administration signaled that it would never join the agreement. This was also around the time that the Trump administration was systematically separating migrant children from their parents at the Southern US border. (Incidentally, the agreement includes certain standards and procedures that countries should follow regarding unaccompanied minors). The Biden administration should join this effort both as a rebuke to Trump’s inhumane migration policies and also because the non-binding agreement provides a useful platform for multilateral cooperation on an inherently multi-lateral challenge.
Rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and Submit an Enhanced “INDC”
This is an easy one. Joe Biden has already stated he would rejoin the Paris Climate Accords on day one. But simply rejoining is not enough. The core of the Paris Accords are each countries’ pledge to reduce their own emissions and take other steps to prevent catastrophic climate change. These individual country pledges are called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” or INDCs. After the Paris Accords were signed in 2015, countries publicly released their INDCs, but also agreed that five years time they would meet again and submit more ambitious climate targets. That meeting was supposed to happen in Glasgow this year, but was postponed due to the pandemic. To signal its commitment to the Paris Agreement, the Biden administration needs to do much more than just re-join it, but also lead by example and submit a more ambitious plan to get to net-zero emissions than was submitted by the Obama administration in 2015.
Cooperate with the WHO and Join COVAX
This is also a no-brainer. The Biden administration has already said that on day one it would once again cooperate with the World Health Organization. But beyond overturning Trump’s cynical move against the WHO, the Biden administration should take the additional step to join the global cooperative effort to secure equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine, called COVAX. COVAX is a way for countries to invest in a pool of potential COVID-19 vaccine candidates, thereby hedging their bets on any single vaccine. COVAX is also the mechanism by which countries that cannot afford to purchase sufficient doses of vaccines for their own population can still access the vaccine. The Trump administration refused to join this effort, citing its affiliation with the WHO. But such is the nature of a pandemic that Americans will not be safe from COVID until most of the world also access to the vaccine, and COVAX is how most of the world will receive a safe and effective vaccine when it’s ready.
Pay America’s Arrears to UN Peacekeeping
There are some 80,000 UN Peacekeepers deployed to 13 missions around the world. These missions are paid through assessed contributions from UN member states. However, during the Trump years the United States was not paying its share of the UN peacekeeping budget on time and in full. Today, the United States is about $900 million in arrears to UN Peacekeeping — a significant amount that is contributing to an ongoing liquidity crisis at the UN. Much of these arrears are due to Congress refusing to appropriate an amount equal to the United States obligation; but some of this shortfall can be covered through executive action at the State Department — essentially by shifting around some account balances. Given the severity of the cash-crunch facing the UN Peacekeeping, any attempt to repay American arrears would be impactful to one of the UN’s core missions.