America has had an evolving relationship with the United Nations and the organizations that mushroomed up around it in the decades since World War II. After the war, the United States found itself the preeminent military and economic power and decided to support the creation of the United Nations to facilitate America’s efforts to prevent another world war, promote human rights and freedoms, and foster deeper economic relationships to bolster the post-war recovery.
As both the main financier of the U.N. system and its most influential member, the United States was able to focus the organization on its founding principles and garner support for policies and positions it favored. But as membership grew to include less democratic countries and newly formed nations with different priorities, America increasingly found itself in the minority. Odious actions like the adoption of Resolution 3379 determining that “Zionism is a form of racism,” mismanagement, and growing budgets soon made clear that the United Nations had veered off its original course: to develop friendly relations among nations; to suppress acts of aggression; to settle international disputes; and to encourage respect for human rights, self-determination, and fundamental freedoms.1
Today, too few nations and groups value the original purposes and principles of the United Nations. Instead, powerful countries like China and others wish to reshape international organizations and the international system to better fit their vision.
Pushing back against these attempts and ensuring that the United Nations and other international organizations do more good than harm requires strong American leadership. That doesn’t mean avoiding hurt feelings and subordinating U.S. interests to those of other nations or the “international community.” Nor does it mean causing needless discord or disregarding the concerns of other governments, particularly those that share our goals and values.
Leadership requires understanding America’s interests, rallying support from other governments who share them, focusing scarce resources on the international organizations essential to protecting those interests, and using the tools available to promote them.
How Did the United Nations Get Off Track?
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles observed, “The United Nations was not set up to be a reformatory. It was assumed that you would be good before you got in and not that being in would make you good.” The organization’s founding document, the U.N. Charter, makes clear that members must pledge to uphold the U.N.’s purposes and principles. Those that violate them can be expelled.2
However, from the start, the United Nations abandoned any pretense that prospective members should demonstrate a commitment to its founding principles, instead admitting members such as the Soviet Union and South Africa that embraced polices diametrically opposed to them. Standards after admission were not much higher. Rhetorical condemnations and sanctions were not unusual, but the ultimate punitive action — expelling a member state — was never taken.
In the early years, when most member states were democratic, America faced less opposition to its efforts to advance the principles in the Charter. That changed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when membership nearly tripled to 152 nations. Newer members, particularly newly independent former colonies, cared less about civil and political rights and were often suspicious of Western governments. They also tended to vote in ideological or regional blocs heavily influenced by the Soviet Union. As a result, over time, America was increasingly in the minority. From 1946 to 1979, voting coincidence with the United States in the U.N. General Assembly averaged 68.2%. Since 1980, it has averaged 34.4%.3
A similar dynamic has played out in the U.N. Security Council, the most powerful body in the United Nations. Each of the five permanent members can cast a veto to block resolutions even if every other member of the Security Council supports the action.4 In the first couple of decades of the United Nations, the United States was able to drive the agenda in the Security Council, forcing the Soviet Union into the role of spoiler. Specifically, the Soviet Union cast 107 vetoes from 1946 to 1969.5 During that same time span, other countries used the veto only eight times.6 The United States did not cast a veto in the Security Council until 1970. Since then, however, we have cast 83 vetoes — far more than any other permanent member.7
The U.S.’s growing dissimilarities and disagreements with its fellow U.N. members have manifested in harmful policies. These include sharp increases in the U.N. budget for activities of dubious merit or to support hostile political agendas, held in check only when the United States has threatened to withhold funding and, later, through an agreement to adopt the budget only by consensus (an agreement subsequently violated).8 Another consequence has been resistance to U.S.-proposed reforms to increase transparency and effectiveness, reduce waste, and punish misconduct and corruption.
This split has also led to the deliberate abuse and undercutting of the U.N.’s. human rights mechanisms, which manifests most acutely through the U.N. Human Rights Council’s resolutions that focus disproportionately on Israel while failing to confront human rights atrocities like China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.9 Our friend and ally Israel has also suffered from efforts to condemn and attack it in both the General Assembly and the Security Council.
In contrast to John Foster Dulles’ quote above, today’s U.N. proponents do view the organization as a reformatory. They downplay the obvious flaw of counting repressive governments as U.N. members by arguing that participating and interacting with those members will cajole improvements.
It is through this lens that the Human Rights Council, a body mandated to promote human rights, sees no problem in welcoming the world’s worst human rights violators into its ranks. Astonishingly, some claim it gives “the council legitimacy when speaking out on human rights violations in all countries.”10 The council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which routinely involves governments making claims and promises belied by reality, is defended as a “process” for improving human rights through reports, dialogue and procedure. Never mind the fact that the United States has received more “recommendations” under the UPR than any other nation, surpassing China, Cuba, Iran and Russia.
With a majority of members neither politically nor economically free, it should come as no surprise that even the U.N.’s positive actions are tainted by politics and bureaucratic corruption, whether that be yielding to Chinese pressure on the World Health Organization (WHO) during the COVID-19 pandemic, heaping disproportionate condemnation on Israel, or failing to take responsibility for the cholera outbreak introduced into Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers. Conflicting interests and values among nations frequently undermine collective action to address international peace and security, advance human rights and alleviate poverty.
Attempts to shape the United Nations to better fulfill its mandates and U.S. expectations have swung between two opposing approaches.
One approach regards multilateral action as only one of several viable options and sees U.S. pressure and financial leverage as a legitimate tool to force change. The goal is not to undermine the United Nations or to undercut its useful work. Instead, it is to oppose policies and positions adverse to U.S. interests and to ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars are not squandered.
Although this approach was broadly used historically, in recent decades it has been increasingly used by the right. No U.S. administration embraced this strategy more than President Donald Trump. Under the Trump administration, the United States formally withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2019 (after accruing over $500 million in arrears) because U.S. law prohibited funding after the organization granted full membership to the Palestinians in 2011.11 President Trump also withdrew the United States from several international agreements, including the Paris climate accord. While these decisions did not change UNESCO behavior or the treaties, they did extricate the United States from circumstances deemed harmful to American interests. In other cases, Trump’s pressure tactics resulted in useful reforms, such as the threat of withdrawal from the Universal Postal Union, which led to renegotiation of reimbursement rates for high-volume developing countries like China that were exploiting subsidized shipping rules. 12
The second approach, the one currently embraced by today’s left, is accommodation. Owing to concerns that pressure tactics might impede the work of these organizations or alienate potential allies, this approach seeks to advance U.S. priorities in international organizations solely through diplomatic engagement — or more often, capitulation. An idealistic yet naïve view, this “all carrot, no stick” strategy is better suited to the Model United Nations than the real world.
Yet President Joe Biden has fully embraced it. Among his administration’s first actions were to restore U.S. funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), reverse Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the World Health Organization and disengage from the Human Rights Council, recommit to the Paris agreement on climate change, and pledge to pay U.S. arrears to the United Nations accrued under his predecessor. The Biden administration deliberately chose not to link reengagement or restoration of funds to any specific organizational improvements.13 The theory is that such actions will generate goodwill that, aided by diplomacy, will translate into support for reforms.
Biden’s approach ignores that other governments have their own priorities at the United Nations. Sometimes they coincide with U.S. priorities, but often they do not. They are not moved by aspirational appeals to their better natures or abstract benefits of the “rules-based international order.” They make decisions based off their perceived interests.
Unsurprisingly, Biden’s reengagement and financial support garnered statements of appreciation from other governments but little tangible progress. Reforms to eliminate anti-Israel bias and establish stronger membership standards in the Human Rights Council, force China to cooperate with an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, and require independent oversight of UNRWA were left by the wayside.14 An American administration that shies away from confrontation and instead relies solely on diplomacy may achieve small changes, but it rarely succeeds in reshaping international organizations.15
Leveraging Multilateral Engagement
As disappointing and frustrating as it can be to work through the United Nations and other international organizations, America has too many interests abroad to pull back. It must strongly defend its political, strategic and economic concerns.
Our position as one of five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council gives the United States considerable influence that we must use to our advantage. With our veto, the United States can single-handedly block Security Council actions deemed detrimental to U.S. interests as well as positively influence its resolutions. The veto also allows the United States to shape U.N. peacekeeping operations to better meet their mandates and improve discipline and accountability or else risk dissolution.
Similarly, the United States wields considerable influence as the largest financial contributor to the United Nations and its subsidiaries. In 2019, the United States contributed nearly 27% of all U.N. system revenues from governments.16 The runner-up — Germany at 9.65% — was not even close. China, which increasingly shapes the agenda in the United Nations, contributed only 4.14% — one-sixth the level of U.S. funding. In fact, the United States in 2019 contributed more than the combined contributions of 182 of the 193 U.N. member states.
These huge financial contributions give the United States important leverage to force reform, as we have done for decades.17 When we do withhold funds, however, we should do so in good faith and clearly link our actions to specific goals. Otherwise, other governments do not know what needs to be done to satisfy U.S. discontent.
Moreover, the United States cannot be everywhere and do everything with equal vigor — at least not if it wants to assert influence effectively. Not every international organization is critical, or even important, to our interests. The United States should conduct a regular evaluation of the costs and benefits of membership in international organizations and use this analysis to increase support where our interests are served while reducing funding where they are not. Critically flawed organizations that cannot be reformed should not benefit from the legitimacy of U.S. membership and U.S. taxpayer dollars. We should also exit organizations with little relevance to American interests.18
At times, the United States may also need to engage bilaterally to make progress multilaterally. China has made inroads in international organizations through its bilateral engagement and economic incentives through its “Belt and Road Initiative.” If it is to counter Chinese influence, the United States needs to make sure that other governments know that their U.N. votes can affect our bilateral relationship.
Additionally, the United States should court unlikely allies and partner with them on single interests if it wants to succeed in the majoritarian environment of international organizations. Within the U.N. system, there is a strong tendency to vote in blocs. On issues that are important to it, the United States needs to consciously fracture these groups through diplomatic engagement, financial enticement and appeals to self-interest. The United States will lack allies unless governments begin to act more individually.
Finally, the United States must be more consistent. Changes in Congress and the White House often bring wholesale reversals in policy. When organizations and other governments know they can wait out our policies, it dramatically undermines America’s leverage.
The United States was instrumental in establishing the United Nations and shares its founding values of peace and security, human rights, and freedom for all people. Although these principles are too often ignored or willfully violated by U.N. bodies and members, they remain admirable and worthy of pursuit.
But America cannot be wedded to multilateral approaches. The United States should not undermine its interests and must not adopt a default position of supporting and engaging with international organizations and agreements regardless of their performance or contribution to the country’s interests.
International organizations and treaties are tools, not ends in themselves. If the tool works, then we should utilize it. If the tool can work but is flawed or damaged, then we should seek to repair it using pressure, diplomacy or incentives. If the tool is broken or unsuited to the task, then the United States should not be shy about abandoning or replacing it. Such a decision is not yielding the field to other nations; it’s choosing not to lend U.S. legitimacy and support to a counterproductive or harmful institution.
American leadership can be decisive in improving the performance of international organizations and advancing U.S. goals through them. If the United States is to succeed, it must be willing to work through international organizations to address genuinely shared concerns. But it must not hesitate to use the tools available to it, including withholding its financial support, to bolster its efforts to reform these organizations and advance U.S. interests.