To compete and win, the US needs to get into the game

The United States needs to engage more strategically in the global multilateral system. Our ability to project power — and influence outcomes — in the multilateral system is getting harder as other powers like China are rising.

For the U.S. to “win” we need to compete smarter and more aggressively. We must get far better at multilateral leadership campaigns, anticipating leadership changes, and identifying and placing qualified Americans or others who will champion the U.S. reform agenda in roles in these organizations.

This is not a Republican or Democratic problem. This is an American problem.

The multilateral system, for all its faults, is an effective vehicle for collective action and burden-sharing. The U.S. created the World Bank, regional development banks, the UN, and other multilateral organizations to advance broad U.S. interests. If we didn’t have these institutions, we would have to invent them — or, worse — they would be invented and led by others, such as China.

It doesn’t help our credibility when we don’t pay our dues and owe a massive amount of arrears to the UN. Not paying our dues could work 20 or 30 years ago, but in a world where we have less influence than we used to, this strategy impacts our ability to project U.S. influence and instead tempts others to fill the financial and leadership void. 

There is a sense in Washington that these institutions are not “ours” and thus we tend to favor bilateral solutions to problems. However, while bilateral engagement can be uniquely effective, we cannot underestimate U.S. leverage in the multilateral system and miss opportunities for low-cost and high-impact engagement.

Right now, it seems the Chinese are “winning” the UN appointments game. For example, in May, the Chinese at the World Health Organization (WHO) barred Taiwan from  participating in the WHO assembly, where Taiwan has observer status. In 2015, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was taken over by Chinese national, Fang Liu. The leadership position has historically been held by Europeans or Americans. The ICAO, with the appointment of Liu, now follows China’s “One China” policy and refuses to allow Taiwan to attend ICAO meetings.

It’s unclear if the Obama administration engaged too late or didn’t play its hand very well. But this is a part of a larger pattern across administrations and we need to get better at this.

More recently, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had an election and a Chinese national, Qu Dongyu, won over the American-backed candidate. The FAO runs the entire logistics systems of the UN system, elevating Chinese influence further. The FAO and WFP have an indirect but important relationship. The FAO head is one of the two deciders (the other being the UN Secretary General) on who leads the secretariat of the WFP. One could argue that the new Chinese head of the FAO is American David Beasley’s new boss.

Early next year, the CEO position for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) — “the Major League Baseball Commission” of patents and innovation — is coming open. The Chinese already have a candidate announced. If the Chinese win the WIPO race, WIPO could award a contract to Huawei to connect all global patent organizations to Geneva or award a separate contract to a cloud computing company based in Beijing so that every single patent or invention in the world would be stored in Beijing.

The U.S. will have to identify a credible candidate, assemble a voting bloc and a campaign if we want to beat China. Thankfully, we have a new and very capable U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN and IOs in Geneva, Ambassador Andrew Bremberg. Ambassador Bremberg will be an effective advocate for American interests. Unfortunately, between partisan fighting on the Hill and other issues, it took three years for the Trump Administration to place a qualified person.

What can the U.S. do?

First, we must recognize multilateral organizations as a force multiplier of our influence abroad. When we lose these fights, we diminish our influence on the world stage. Second, we must consider high-level vacancies in the same way that China does: high stakes theater for great power competition. Third, we need to get far more organized on tracking and filling vacancies. The files for the at least 180 multilateral organizations sit across a dozen or so U.S. agencies and are jealously guarded by mid-level civil servants or low-level political appointees at these agencies. Fourth, we need a non-classified Wikipedia-like website that tracks appointments and developments at these obscure but important agencies. Fifth, we need a formalized and deep pipeline of American candidates and qualified foreign national candidates developed years in advance and then actually supported by our representatives.

With China’s rising influence in the multilateral and UN system, we cannot afford to play this game how we have always played it.

As the 2017 National Security Strategy  states, “We will compete and lead in multilateral organizations so that American interests and principles are protected.”

We need to take concrete action — and soon — to make these words mean something and ensure our leadership role in the world.

article published in on December 1, 2019.

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