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Multilateralism: A Realist View


President Joseph Biden is reembracing President Barack Obama’s foreign policy strategy, making multilateralism a core principle of his own foreign policy. Biden’s foreign policy team includes Obama Administration veterans such as Antony Blinken, William Burns and John Kerry, all of whom believe in the efficacy of multilateral diplomacy. Biden has returned to the Paris Climate Accord, nullified President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the World Health Organization (WHO) and reengaged with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

If returning to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is also a possibility, Biden ought to take a close look at the U.S. experience with that organization because it is a good example of the difficulties that multilateralism can pose for the U.S.

The United States’ commitment to UNESCO began in 1946 when it helped found the organization. Because UNESCO’s member states assumed that the U.S. would never leave the organization despite its increasing politicization and alleged corruption, they ignored U.S. criticisms. When President Ronald Reagan withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, they were shocked. Reagan accused UNESCO of politicizing every subject it dealt with, exhibiting hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society and demonstrating unrestrained budgetary expansion. And he was right.

President George W. Bush rejoined UNESCO in 2003, six years before Obama embarked on his own era of multilateral engagement. Bush hoped that UNESCO would address the roots of terror, promote education and advance human rights. Managerial and administrative reforms made during the United States’ 19-year absence helped pave the way for that decision.

As the Ambassador in charge of the U.S. reengagement with UNESCO, I saw firsthand the opportunities and challenges of multilateral diplomacy. The enthusiasm with which the U.S. was greeted upon its return made us optimistic that we could advance a positive U.S. agenda at UNESCO.

Instead, we immediately found ourselves playing defense, mired in negotiating three new UNESCO normative instruments and debating numerous initiatives that reflected the agendas of UNESCO’s other member states. Some of those initiatives undermined U.S. interests.

We quickly learned that achieving success in a multilateral organization requires in-depth knowledge of that organization’s rules and procedures. This was demonstrated very clearly by St. Lucia’s very small UNESCO delegation. Because it knew more about UNESCO’s history and administrative procedures than any of its fellow delegations, St. Lucia wielded a great deal of power at the organization.

It was also the reason France was able to rush through the adoption of a legally binding international treaty entitled “The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions” in record time. We tried to slow down the negotiations so that we could explain to our colleagues why the U.S. strongly opposed that treaty. But it was impossible to stop the pro-treaty juggernaut. When the vote was held in October 2005, only the United States and Israel voted “no.” The French later admitted that they needed to get the convention adopted quickly, before the U.S. learned how to play the multilateral game effectively at UNESCO.

Of course, that debacle would not have happened at the UN itself, where the U.S. has a veto, a weapon it does not have at UNESCO or at most other multilateral organizations. A country concerned about a U.S. veto of an issue at the UN will simply bring it up at another UN agency. That is what Palestine did in 2011 when it wanted to change its UN status from observer to full member.

The UN is an organization of independent sovereign states, and because the

U.S. does not recognize Palestine as a sovereign state, Palestine’s UN initiative was certain to face a U.S. veto. Therefore, it applied for full membership at UNESCO and was duly elected as that body’s 195th member state, despite a warning from the U.S. Ambassador that that action would result in a ban of all U.S. government funding for the organization. By electing Palestine to UNESCO, 107 countries defied the U.S in spite of the financial consequences.

UN agencies are funded by assessed contributions from their member states. Because the amount of the assessed contribution is based on a country’s wealth and population, the U.S. pays 22 percent of the budgets of all UN agencies, vastly more than any other country. Palestine’s election meant that almost a quarter of the funds for UNESCO’s annual budget instantly disappeared. UNESCO also lost all U.S. government extra-budgetary funding, which was equally serious for the organization.

Although assessed contributions pay for the nuts and bolts of running UN agencies, the majority of those agencies’ activities and programs are funded by voluntary extra-budgetary donations. For example, more than 80 percent of the WHO’s 2020-2021 budget of $4.84 billion will be funded by voluntary contributions.

More than half of UNESCO’s 2020-2021 budget of $1.3 billion also relies on extra-budgetary funds. Countries use their voluntary contributions to strengthen UNESCO programs in which they have a particular interest, as well as to fund their own policy initiatives. As we saw over and over again at UNESCO, extra-budgetary contributions are an effective way for countries to pursue their own agendas and enhance their international reputations while getting the assistance and support of a large multilateral organization.

We also saw how useful extra-budgetary funding can be for a country that wants to improve its reputation in an area that it considers problematic. For example, China supported UNESCO initiatives that promoted freedom of the press and safety for journalists, while its internal policies did just the opposite. The same was true of Russia, which participated in programs that focused on human rights and civil society. Countries around the world have used multilateral forums as valuable tools in their foreign policy toolkits.

The U.S. has also achieved many of its own foreign policy objectives by making large extra-budgetary contributions to multilateral organizations. But the post-war era is now over, and the international community is facing new challenges in areas such as energy, migration and cyberterrorism. Addressing these challenges will require new partnerships and new organizations, as well as the reform of existing multilateral forums that have become bureaucratic and ineffective. Although multilateral diplomacy will continue to be as important as ever, the U.S. should not feel obliged to participate in any multilateral organization that does not advance its national interests.

This includes UN agencies that are unresponsive to U.S. criticisms and concerns despite receiving massive amounts of U.S. funds in both assessed and voluntary contributions. The WHO is a good example. During the 2018-2019 biennium, the U.S. gave $237 million in assessed contributions and $656 million in extra-budgetary contributions to the WHO, which amounted to 20 percent of its total $4.4 billion budget. The U.S. has always given significantly more funds to the WHO than any other donor. Yet recent events related to the COVID-19 pandemic have shown how little influence the U.S. actually has at that organization. Clearly, money itself does not always buy influence in a UN agency.


Clearly, money itself does not always buy influence in a UN agency.

The most effective way to achieve influence in UN agencies is for a country to get its nationals and sympathizers hired at all levels in the secretariats of those agencies. No country is better at doing that than China, especially in key leadership positions. For example, it is well known that the Ethiopian Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, got his position with Chinese support — which explains his public statements congratulating China on its handling of the coronavirus despite ample evidence to the contrary. Likewise, the Deputy Director of UNESCO is an experienced Chinese diplomat with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. “People are policy” is as true in multilateral organizations as it is in the U.S. government.

Although Americans do work in the secretariats of UN agencies, the U.S. is almost always underrepresented compared to other countries. In addition, with the possible exception of the UN itself, many U.S. Foreign Service Officers are not eager to work in multilateral organizations. Unlike the relatively straightforward nature of bilateral diplomacy, multilateral diplomacy is complicated and stressful, with an overwhelming amount of work. And despite all the rhetoric about the importance of multilateralism, working in a multi-

lateral organization does not usually help advance the career of a Foreign Service Officer.


Even with well-trained

diplomats experienced in multilateral diplomacy, success in multilateral forums is not assured.

But even with well-trained diplomats experienced in multilateral diplomacy, success in multilateral forums is not assured. Often the U.S. is either forced to go along with majority decisions it does not like or walk away from the entire process amid international criticism.

President Trump replaced Obama’s emphasis on multilateralism with reality-based “America First” policies that reinstituted President Reagan’s strategy of “peace through strength.” By restoring American leadership to the international community, Trump achieved many foreign policy successes. Destroying the ISIS caliphate, killing two of the world’s worst terrorists, (Abu Bakr al-Badgdadi and Qasem Soleimani), reducing tension in the Middle East by brokering the Abraham Accords, and initiating talks with North Korea were all achievements that had eluded the diplomatic efforts of the Obama Administration.

But Trump’s America First strategy did not mean America alone. The U.S. continued to participate in numerous multilateral organizations, including most UN agencies. And when it engaged with these organizations, the U.S. worked to make them stronger and more effective. For example, by insisting that NATO member states honor their commitments to increase their defense spending, Trump made NATO more capable of addressing future national security challenges. Results were what mattered, not endless discussions. And those results had to benefit the U.S., not just other countries. Although it is fashionable to criticize Trump’s non-traditional presidential style, many leaders around the world quietly admired all that he did to reduce international national security threats.

UN agencies are by definition political organizations in which decisions are made by consensus. That means that working with allies and building coalitions are essential. Even though consensus decisions usually reflect the lowest common dominator, consensus is better for the U.S. than votes because the U.S. almost always loses votes. But if a group of countries in a multilateral forum is determined to pursue an initiative that the U.S. finds objectionable, consensus will be forgotten and a vote will be called. In that case, the U.S. is subject to the decision of the majority. Attending meetings, making speeches and paying the bills will not always protect the U.S from harmful initiatives of other countries.

That was why the U.S. withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council. Although UNHRC is supposed to be the world’s top defender of human rights, its members include countries such as Cuba, China and Russia, all of whom were elected in October 2020 for three-year membership terms despite being some of the world’s worst violators of human rights. The U.S. is very committed to advancing human rights worldwide. But it should find other vehicles for pursuing that goal, not rejoin a hypocritical organization with members whose primary goal is to hurt Israel.

Anti-Israel bias was also a major reason for the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO in December 2018. Although UNESCO had been one of the friendliest UN agencies toward Israel before Palestine’s election, that all changed after Palestine became a UNESCO member state. In addition, unpaid U.S. dues had risen to almost $600 million, which resulted in its being stripped of its vote at UNESCO’s biennial General Conference. The U.S. is now a UNESCO “observer state.” This means it can give advice on UNESCO’s programs without spending U.S. taxpayer dollars at an organization that defies U.S. policy on Palestine and is in need of fundamental reform.

If the Biden Administration truly believes that multilateral engagement should be the central pillar of its foreign policy, it should do whatever is necessary to make that strategy a success. U.S. diplomats need to be given the knowledge, resources and professional and political skills that will enable them to provide U.S. leadership in multilateral forums. They also need clear, timely guidance from Washington on U.S. priorities at each multilateral forum in which it participates, as well as significant time and attention from senior State Department officials.

Moreover, State Department officials must be willing to bring U.S. bilateral diplomatic pressure on countries that misbehave on important issues in multilateral organizations. These countries will reconsider opposing U.S. positions in these organizations if they know that their bilateral relationships with the U.S. might be affected by their actions.

The Biden Administration must also insist that UN agencies hire more Americans in their secretariats. Because UN secretariats are responsible for implementing policy and programmatic decisions made by member states, individuals in these secretariats often have a great deal of power and influence. And the U.S. should not give funds to multilateral organizations that are unfriendly to American values and ideas, and that resist U.S. efforts to make them reform.

Equally important is making sure that another power does not dominate the policies and programs of multilateral organizations. In the past, Russia was the main threat, and in some cases, like the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), it still is. But in most others, the main threat is China. Working with its allies, the U.S. must keep China from using multilateral organizations to promote a Chinese agenda. That will require aggressively promoting an alternative agenda that reflects the goals and objectives of the U.S. and its allies. Finally, decisions that involve returning to a controversial multilateral organization should be bipartisan. Going in and out of multilateral organizations damages U.S. credibility.

During the five years I served at UNESCO, we learned from other countries how to play the multilateral game successfully, which resulted in some positive U.S. achievements. If done properly, multilateral diplomacy can be a valuable part of U.S. statecraft. But multilateral engagement itself should not be the goal. Advancing U.S. national interests through American leadership is the goal, and that is a goal that will benefit the entire world.


AMBASSADOR LOUISE OLIVER served as the Permanent Representative of the United States to UNESCO from 2004-2009. Previously, she held leadership roles with non-profit organizations in the philanthropic and public policy fields. She has also served as a Commissioner on the National Commission on Children, President of the French-American Cultural Foundation, a member of the Diplomatic Advisory Board of the U.S. WWII Centennial Commission, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of World Politics.


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