Tasked with preventing and suppressing threats to international peace and security, encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and facilitating cooperation on a broad suite of international economic, social, and humanitarian issues, the UN became a core component of the international order that the U.S. helped build and maintain after World War II. And while the world has changed significantly since 1945, the UN’s role as a force-multiplier for the U.S.—a key mechanism for multilateral diplomacy to mitigate conflict, as well as for marshalling the necessary resources and political will to address challenges that no country is capable of resolving alone—remains as vital as ever.
The work of the UN and its large family of affiliated agencies, programs, and initiatives covers a comprehensive set of issues and advances core American national interests in myriad ways. These include:
- Peacekeeping operations tasked with protecting civilians from violence, facilitating humanitarian assistance, supporting democratic elections, and helping to lay the foundation for sustainable peace in countries undergoing conflict. More than 120 countries contribute troops and police to these missions, which are authorized by the UN Security Council. As one of five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Council, the U.S. effectively has final say over the decision to deploy UN peacekeepers, and U.S. diplomats play a central role in crafting the mandates they are expected to carry out.
- Efforts to address threats to international peace and security through the imposition of legally-binding multilateral sanctions measures by the Security Council. From its seat on the Council, the U.S. has successfully pushed for the adoption of robust sanctions—including asset freezes, travel bans, arms embargoes, trade restrictions, and other measures—targeting the malign activities of terrorist groups (Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban) and rogue states that seek to obtain weapons of mass destruction (North Korea).
- The World Health Organization (WHO), a UN specialized agency, which works to coordinate the international response to public health threats, including the COVID-19 pandemic. From the outset of the crisis, WHO has distributed diagnostic kits and personal protective equipment to dozens of countries with weak health systems; formulated technical guidance for communities, hospitals, private sector partners, and public health authorities; carried out public awareness campaigns in dozens of languages in 149 countries; and, through its “Solidarity Trial,” worked to enable rapid and accurate research on the effectiveness of potential therapeutics. WHO is also at the center of a cooperative effort to distribute COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, launching a facility known as COVAX, to invest in vaccine development and distribution.
- UN humanitarian agencies, which provide lifesaving assistance to tens of millions of people around the world every year impacted by armed conflict, political instability, natural disasters, and other calamities. The World Food Programme, awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for its work, is seeking to scale up its operations to help nearly 270 million people left food insecure by the economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other UN agencies, including the UN Refugee Agency, UN Children’s Fund, and UN Population Fund (UNFPA) are also responding to crises around the world—including in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, and the Sahel region of West Africa—providing shelter, clean water, protection, vaccines, and reproductive health care to vulnerable communities.
- UN human rights mechanisms, which investigate and expose systematic abuses in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Iraq, Belarus, Myanmar, Eritrea, and other countries. The work of the UN Human Rights Council, High Commissioner for Human Rights, and other entities help raise public awareness of human rights violations, magnify the voices of dissidents and civil society organizations on the ground, and provide a tool for pressuring repressive governments and holding abusers accountable.
Despite the tremendous amount of influence the U.S. wields over these activities (as a permanent member of the Security Council, host of UN headquarters, and the organization’s largest financial donor), and their relevance for advancing key U.S. foreign policy interests and values, the last four years witnessed a sustained American retreat from key components of its traditional leadership role at the UN. The U.S. has accrued more than $1 billion in peacekeeping arrears, withdrew from the Human Rights Council, moved to pull out of the WHO, defunded key agencies like UNFPA, and abrogated its participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, which was negotiated under UN auspices.
At the same time, some authoritarian governments—particularly China—moved to fill the vacuum, using increased financial contributions and other forms of engagement to try to move the organization’s agenda in a direction that reinforces their own interests. For anyone who cares about longstanding U.S. economic and security objectives, as well as the continued protection of international human rights norms, these are alarming and unwelcome developments.
It does not need to be this way, however. Moving forward, 2021 provides us with an opportunity to reinvigorate a tradition of strong, consistent, and constructive multilateral diplomacy as a cornerstone of U.S. leadership abroad. The new Administration has already begun to take these steps, restoring U.S. membership and funding in UN bodies that we shunned. This work will not always be easy, but it is essential if the U.S. and the UN are to continue as reliable partners in efforts to make the world safer, healthier, more prosperous, and more democratic.