A U.S. State Department czar should lead a campaign to stop China and Russia from gaining control of multilateral agencies.
When U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the U.S. intelligence community to dig deeper into the possibility that COVID-19 might have spread from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, he underscored a basic truth: Multilateral agencies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) are frequently blocked or manipulated by authoritarian regimes and increasingly incapable of protecting either U.S. or global interests.
The Biden administration and U.S. Congress face a fundamental question: What is the United States’ strategy to counter the systematic exploitation of international organisations by hostile countries while defending U.S. sovereignty, national security, allies, and democratic values?
Every year, Congress appropriates billions of dollars to the United Nations and related bodies, yet neither Congress nor the executive branch exercise sufficient oversight. This funding is also devoid of a comprehensive strategy to advance U.S. interests and counter manipulation by China, Russia, and other adversaries. It’s not a partisan issue: Republican and Democratic administrations have proven equally shortsighted.
China’s and Russia’s disruptive efforts are most visible in the U.N. Security Council, where both have used their permanent member veto power to block, for example, attempts to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people or hold the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad accountable for using chemical weapons. However, the actions of U.S. adversaries inside organisations under the U.N. umbrella pose an even bigger challenge.
China is currently seeking control of key standard-setting bodies to advance its Belt & Road Initiative, whitewash its oppression of minorities, and isolate Taiwan.
Beijing’s power and influence within the U.N. system has grown dramatically in recent years, with China winning elections to lead specialised U.N. agencies, gaining seats on international tribunals and councils, and joining the U.N. Board of Auditors.
Economic coercion leveraging foreign direct investment and foreign debt holdings, plays a central role in China’s strategy to buy votes in the General Assembly.
One approach to this challenge is for the United States to dismiss this as a challenge or withdraw from such organisations altogether. They are ineffective by nature, or so the argument goes, and there is no cost to letting China achieve decisive influence. Yet a closer look illustrates the risk of this assumption.
Take the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), for example. Beijing won elections to head both agencies in recent years, providing China with two key platforms to advance its own standards and block others in key technologies and economic sectors.
As the United States worked to educate the private sector and key allies about the security threats posed by Huawei’s 5G network, the Chinese telecommunications giant leveraged Beijing’s leadership at the ITU to defend the company’s record.
At the ICAO, the Chinese secretary-general tried to conceal a China-based cyber hack of the organisation’s networks, leaving international airlines and aerospace companies vulnerable to further intrusions.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) and WHO offer two more examples of international bodies in need of U.S. leadership and major reforms. China wants to enjoy the benefits of WTO membership while skirting its rules and stealing Western intellectual property without consequences.
The WHO stumbled badly in dealing with severe acute respiratory syndrome and Ebola yet has resisted the reforms that might have prepared it to deal more effectively with COVID-19. At the annual assembly of WHO member states, politically driven denunciations of Israel distract from more pressing business.
At this year’s assembly, the members elected Syria to the WHO’s executive board, even though the WHO itself has documented the regime’s bombing of hospitals. But it is Beijing’s influence over the WHO that has emerged as a unique threat.
The agency all but allowed China to set the terms for dealing with the current pandemic. Whether the lab leak theory proves true or not, one thing is certain: China covered up the origins and seriousness of COVID-19, and the WHO has largely gone along with it.
Russia, meanwhile, obstructs efforts to be held accountable for using banned chemical weapons while shielding rogue states like Syria and Iran from any consequences for their breaches of weapons prohibitions chemical and nuclear, respectively.
Specifically, Moscow has defended Iran from investigations into its undeclared nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency while spreading disinformation to prevent the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from taking action against Syria.
During her confirmation hearing, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield pledged to make countering China and Russia among her top priorities. More recently, the U.S. State Department announced it would back a U.S. candidate to lead the ITU, which is scheduled to hold an election later this year.
But more will be needed to gain the upper hand on the political battlefield of international organisations. The State Department should appoint a czar for international organisation elections to work with the White House in developing an ongoing war room-style operation to beat Chinese and Russian-backed candidates for leadership posts at the U.N. and other international organisations.