An obscure UN agency guides digital communications — Congress must endorse US leadership

An obscure UN agency guides digital communications — Congress must endorse US leadership
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Too often, Congress takes a back seat to the administration when it comes to foreign policy. However, Congress can amplify and provide critical support for key foreign policy objectives. One such instance is in generating support for Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the United States candidate to lead the United Nations agency known as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).  

The ITU is a little-known specialized U.N. agency that was initially formed in 1942 to regulate radio frequencies between countries. Today, it is responsible for global standards surrounding telecommunications, including the internet and radio. It ensures member states work across borders to manage complex and interconnected digital information flows. Decisions from the ITU matter: from the positioning of weather satellites overhead, to Wi-Fi access, to how your cell phone works.

Aside from Bogdan-Martin, Rashid Ismailov of the Russian Federation is in the race for the top slot at the ITU. Who leads the agency matters, not only the top position but also the deputy and the directors of the three main bureaus: standards, radio, and development. For the last eight years, the ITU has been led by Chinese national Zhao Houlin. Many have raised concerns about Zhao’s preferential treatment of Chinese firms. The most alarming example of this is related to Chinese proposals for a “new internet protocol (IP)” that would effectively bifurcate internet systems around the world: offering one platform that is free and open and one characterized by state control of information.  

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Understanding the stakes of the election, the U.S. mission in Geneva has launched a diplomatic campaign to garner support for Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy. However, support from other stakeholders is necessary to ensure her victory.   

Recent Center for Strategic and International Studies research has found that building coalitions among like-minded countries is the best way to support candidates at the highest levels of international organizations. While Russia and China will line up the votes of other authoritarian regimes and conversely the U.S. will do so for democratic allies and partners, the key to victory will be the votes of many countries in Latin America and Africa. China undoubtedly will use the leverage it has gained through its Belt and Road Initiative and other aid and economic incentives to pressure countries to vote with them. However, many of these countries also maintain important aid and economic ties to the U.S.      

Members of Congress should coordinate with the administration to identify and engage with ambassadors from countries that can be persuaded to support the U.S. candidate. Leadership of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees and State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittees are particularly well positioned to take on this task. Staff can also play a critical role by reinforcing the importance of this issue in their conversations with political officers at embassies and in exchanges with foreign government officials in D.C. and while on official travel.   

Oftentimes, ambassadors serving in their respective missions in D.C. are unaware of how their counterparts at the U.N. are voting on key issues, or if they are aware, assume that these votes will not have a significant impact on their relationships in Washington. Members of Congress should make clear that the ITU vote is of critical importance. This issue should also be raised with visiting delegations of parliamentarians and other officials when they call on members of Congress as they visit D.C.      

Who ultimately controls the ITU will have a profound effect on U.S. businesses, and should therefore be of keen interest to members of Congress. Private sector entities have a considerable stake in the elections given the importance of ITU decisions on private sector regulations. The approximately 700 private sector members of the ITU also play a significant role in ITU elections, where many actively participate in the standard-setting process. While private sector members will not have a direct voting role in the election, their support for a candidate can be meaningful. 

As the world grapples with how to regulate global communications, international mechanisms for standard setting such as the ITU are already playing an increasingly important role. The Chinese government has recognized this reality and maneuvered to place allies in key decision-making posts. If the U.S. hopes to preserve a digital sphere that respects democratic norms and values, policymakers must start paying more attention to the bodies outside the Beltway that will shape the landscape going forward. Doreen Bogdan-Martin is the most capable and qualified candidate to lead the ITU. Congress and the administration should work hand in glove to ensure her victory.   

Elizabeth Hoffman is the director of Government Affairs and a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kristen Cordell is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.