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America’s new multilateralism

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President Biden’s new UN envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, notably said, “multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.” 

Changing global power relationships — especially China’s rise — and emerging global health, climate and migration challenges will compel the U.S. to rely more on multilateral approaches to secure American interests out of necessity, if not conviction.

Multilateralism has long been a mainstay of U.S. security and that need will only grow. The NATO alliance is among the most important multilateral institutions for the U.S. and its significance endures, particularly in light of Russian resurgence.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, Australia and India — not a security alliance — uses a U.S. multilateral initiative to bolster security in Asia.

And one can imagine other multilateral groupings short of alliances to promote basic principles important to American security such as freedom of navigation and agreed rules on ocean territorial claims.  

The U.S. also faces a series of global challenges that require global responses. As COVID-19 demonstrates, pathogens, potentially an existential threat, cannot be stopped at the border in an era of global commerce. Instead, the U.S. needs “health forward defense” that relies on others to detect, report and stamp out emerging diseases far from our shores. American leadership is critical in multilateral efforts to update the International Health Regulations (IHR) to compel reluctant states to agree to a more assertive and automatic disease surveillance regime.

Climate change defies unilateral or bilateral solution. Unless super-polluters agree to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), no American unilateral action can effectively address this classic tragedy-of-the-commons problem. One can criticize the Paris Agreement for not imposing sufficiently balanced constraints. But we should not trash the climate agreement; we should make it better.

Unilateral American actions provide some relief from uncontrolled migration into the homeland, but cannot counter the destabilizing impact of mass migration in other regions, which threaten friends and allies. Multilateral global compacts on refugees and migration agreed in 2018 recognize sovereign rights to determine immigration policies and help refugee-hosting countries bear the burden of millions of displaced while they await return.

Multilateral diplomacy is a good deal for the U.S. The U.S. devotes two-thirds of its $10 billion UN tab to voluntary funding aimed at projects Washington chooses. As the largest donor, the United States enjoys outsized influence in setting global priorities. U.S largess ensured that Americans hold key positions: executive director of the World Food Program; executive director of UNICEF; the president of the World Bank; deputy high commissioner for refugees; and, until recently, director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

American funding also leverages others’ resources. Through the multilateral Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, other donors match a significant part of America’s unilateral investment to fight AIDS. 

U.S. leadership permits the U.S. to press for needed reforms, as the U.S. did to help then UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres reduce UNHCR’s back office expenses.

American businesses generate intellectual property that contributes over $6.6 trillion to the American economy and they gain immensely from the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) one-stop patent protections in 193 countries. The U.S. retains significant support for its goals in such venues, as demonstrated by the successful effort to beat back a Chinese WIPO director general candidate through a diverse multilateral coalition. 

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) provide technical standardization that extends the global reach of American companies. U.S. neglect of such bodies would enhance China’s efforts to advance standards beneficial only to its businesses. 

The U.S. is not naïve about cynical actions by authoritarian governments to produce Orwellian outcomes in international fora. America’s unparalleled global engagement and soft power influence debate and permit the U.S. to walk away from flawed fora, as the U.S. did in the Durban Racism conference in 2005 under the Bush administration and its review conference in 2009 under President Obama. Principled U.S. stands in the UN Human Rights Council score some wins, rally allies and provide a forum for our values. In our absence, outcomes will be worse.

Turning a cold shoulder to others is not free, either. Many countries see American diffidence in multilateral fora as disrespect for their voices. The American Founders recognized in the Declaration of Independence the value of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” The United States can maintain its principles and its autonomy while listening to others’ concerns. It is a small price to pay.

How can the U.S. retool American diplomacy for this broader multilateral engagement?

  • The United States should restate principled support for its values in all three pillars of the UN Charter — security, economic development and human rights — and fight malefactor efforts to bend institutions to perverse ends.   

  • Senior officials’ participation in multilateral fora can demonstrate our “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Biden’s choice of a seasoned career diplomat, Thomas-Greenfield, as UN ambassador is a step in the right direction. 

  • Money matters. The U.S. should make “catch up” contributions in multilateral fora to reestablish leadership. The Biden administration can work with Congress to update Helms-Biden legislation to bring the U.S. closer in line with its multilateral financial commitments and set a course for more reliable clearing of U.S. regular budget and peacekeeping UN arrears. Biden’s commitment of $2 billion for the COVID-19 global vaccine effort — with an additional $2 billion challenge to others is another important step.

  • The State Department can assign diplomats to early and repeat multilateral postings to strengthen the department’s cadre of multilateral specialists. Regional bureaus, which do less multilateral work, have advantages over functional bureaus that do the majority of multilateral diplomacy. That will need to change.  

Multilateral diplomacy is not easy, but the U.S. is far better at it than most Americans realize. Maybe that is why nearly two-thirds of Americans have a favorable view of the UN. The U.S. will serve its people best engaging energetically in multilateral fora.

Mark C. Storella is professor of the Practice of Diplomacy at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and previously served as an American diplomat for three decades. 

Tags biden administration climate crisis climate talks COVID-19 Diplomacy economic crisis global health crisis Joe Biden Linda Thomas-Greenfield migration Multilateralism Pandemic Paris Accord Paris agreement UN

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