Biden may help US-UN relations. But there isn’t a magic wand to undo damage.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Photo by: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

NEW YORK — The incoming Biden-Harris administration can undertake several, quick U.N. policy and funding steps that will help the U.S. restore “good will with other leaders,” according to Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group.  

After taking office come Jan. 20, 2021, the new administration is expected to announce that the U.N. Population Fund is not in violation of the Kemp-Kasten amendment, making the agency again eligible for U.S. funding. It will likely rejoin the Paris climate change agreement. And it is certain to maintain its commitment to the World Health Organization.

But it will likely take time for the U.S. to return to its previous leadership role within diplomatic circles. And there is no guarantee that the U.S. will be able to fully regain the global trust it once held as a stable development and humanitarian partner, experts say.

“The world wants to see a more engaged, and a more cooperative U.S. presence in the world, [but] the reality is that, in some cases, people have moved on.”

— Conor Savoy, executive director, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network

“There is going to be a long term credibility issue and this is going to be a headache for Biden, especially if U.S. domestic politics remain so polarized. While everyone can be very pleased to see the U.S. re-engage at the U.N., they will remember that in some ways the best cooperation around the UN was in 2015, when you had the Paris climate agreement and the SDGs,” Gowan explained.

“The U.S. seemed like it really bought into the system, and with the space of just over a year you had a complete reversal with the Trump administration,” Gowan continued.

The Biden administration has already announced that it plans to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from WHO, which would have taken effect in July 2021, and to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Trump announced his decision to exit WHO following allegations of its allegiance to China, and its poor response to COVID-19. The U.S. also said that the Paris Agreement went against its economic interests.

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The UNFPA, which the U.S. defunded shortly after Trump took office, has largely averted the funding losses that could have come with splitting from its third-largest country donor. At the time, the U.S. maintained that UNFPA had participated in abortion services in China, without providing any clear evidence of this activity.

UNFPA’s funding has steadily increased since 2016, thanks to major donors including Australia, Canada, China, Ireland, Spain, and Switzerland, rising well above its levels during the Obama administration. Programs have expanded in recent years, but the pandemic could offset this progress, according to Klaus Simoni Pedersen, chief of UNFPA’s resource mobilization branch.

“In future years, UNFPA may not be able to generate an equivalent level of resource contributions from non-US donors owing to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the current, highly volatile environment resulting from COVID-19, a predictable and timely inflow of resources is critical for enabling UNFPA to sustain its operations and deliver on its strategic objectives,” Pedersen wrote in an email.

The U.N. Palestinian Refugee Agency, meanwhile, is hoping renewed U.S. funding will help it continue all basic services, which provide the bulk of available education and health care in Gaza. The U.S. government was previously UNRWA’s largest bilateral donor, and gave the aid agency $360 million in 2017. That figure dropped to $60 million in 2018, and down to $0 in 2019, according to Elizabeth Campbell, director of UNRWA’s Washington, D.C. office.

The U.S. government has said that it did not want to “shoulder the disproportionate cost” associated with funding UNRWA.

UNRWA announced earlier this week that its funding has largely dried up, and that it soon would not be able to pay the 28,000 staffers and contractors carrying out work in Gaza, the West Bank, and other regions hosting Palestinians.

“We have not been able to make up the loss from the US cuts,” Campbell said.

The agency is now hoping that the Biden administration will keep Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ word that it would restore economic and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians.

“We interpret that to also mean UNRWA, and this is something we would warmly welcome. It is much needed,” Campbell said.

But restoring funding to UNRWA will not guarantee a continuation of the relationship under a new president. And the same uncertainty can be applied to other areas of global development work, Gowan said.

“Whatever agreements you do make, there will always sort of be a risk of them falling apart if a Republican takes office in 2024 or 2028, and that is not Biden's fault. That is something which he is going to have to work around. But it is going to be a lingering complication,” Gowan explained.  

Enyseh Teimory, communications officer at UNA-UK expressed optimism that the Biden-Harris administration could introduce a “new chapter” to the U.S.’ fractured engagement with the U.N., and help guide its ongoing pandemic response and recovery work.

The U.S. now owes the bulk of the outstanding, annual membership dues that countries pay annually to the U.N., Teimory noted, feeding the organization’s ongoing liquidity crisis. But other countries, like China, have gained political influence at the organization over the last several years, as the Trump administration has taken a step back from multilateralism.

“The reality is that without funding from the U.S, the U.N. does struggle, but the U.N. is also always going to find alternative ways. If the U.S. wants to be able to further their foreign policy interests, it is really key that, especially as we build back, they work to regain a seat at the table,” Teimory said.

Conor Savoy, executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, echoed the point that it will take time to undo the diplomatic stances of the Trump administration, even if there is an “initial welcoming back” period.  

“I caution, though, that I think we need to recognize we cannot just undo the last four years with a magic wand. While clearly the world wants to see a more engaged, and a more cooperative U.S. presence in the world, the reality is that, in some cases, people have moved on,” Savoy continued.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.