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During his first visit to the U.S. Department of State as president, Joe Biden acknowledged the “growing ambitions of China to rival the United States” and pledged to push back against China’s attack on global governance. To reach this laudable goal, the State Department will have to build on the previous administration’s efforts to address Chinese influence, leadership, and employment in the United Nations.

Opinion on China has changed significantly over the past four years. Both sides of the political aisle now recognize that China is an adversary and has increasingly used the United Nations as a vehicle to promote its national interests. 

China currently leads four of the 15 UN specialized agencies. Under Chinese leadership, these organizations have adopted pro-Beijing positions. For example, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, blocked Taiwan’s participation, even though the latter is a major air traffic hub. As COVID-19 spread globally, the ICAO refused to share information about aviation operations with Taiwan. When ICAO was called out publicly on Twitter, one of the organization’s Chinese communications officers blocked profiles that were critical of its policies. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese leader of the International Telecommunication Union championed Beijing’s priorities in violation of his obligation to be a neutral international civil servant. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization likewise championed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while China is using the Food and Agriculture Organization to promote its influence in Asia and Africa. 

International organizations are also being influenced from the bottom up. In 2009, the UN system employed 794 Chinese nationals.  Ten years later, it employed 1,336 Chinese nationals—an increase of 68%. 

Upon their hiring, all UN employees take an oath of office to “not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization.” Employees from many countries take this oath seriously.They often act independently of the wishes of their governments, and often even counter to them. 

This is not the case for China. Beijing expects its nationals to serve China’s interests above those of the United Nations, such as when former Under-Secretary-General Wu Hongbo bragged of expelling human-rights activists critical of China from the UN. Chinese nationals who fail to bow to Beijing are punished, as former Interpol President Meng Hongwei learned after being arrested and sentenced for refusing to “follow party decisions.”

But it is not enough merely to focus attention on Chinese malfeasance. The United States also needs to work to ensure that it has the means to set itself up for success when getting Americans into international organizations. While the Trump administration did not get everything right, it did America a great service by focusing on China, highlighting the threat it poses to the international system, and taking steps to counter Chinese influence. 

At the State Department, this included setting up an Office of Multilateral Competitiveness in the Bureau of International Organizational Affairs to focus on UN elections and to counter Beijing’s malign influence. Obviously, a major focus is to support qualified American candidates. However, the broader goal includes supporting candidates who will put the interests of the organization and, most importantly, its mission ahead of the interests of any one nation. If an American candidate is not available, the United States should throw its support behind a like-minded candidate. Last year, the United States did just this by leading a successful effort to defeat the Chinese candidate for Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization. 

The office is also charged with promoting and advocating for U.S. employment in international organizations. Increasing U.S. employment in the UN system is more than parochial self-interest. Americans across the political spectrum support institutional fairness, accountability, transparency, neutrality, and integrity. Increasing U.S. employment in these institutions helps lift the bar by bringing these expectations to the international bodies.         

The Biden administration should build off its predecessor’s work and prioritize getting more Americans into the UN system. This starts with empowering the Bureau of International Organizational Affairs to lead recruiting, assisting, and advocating for U.S. nationals interested in UN employment. Currently, this authority is spread across State and among other departments, which undermines prioritization and coordination. 

This strategy should encompass UN Secretary-General appointments. The United States should develop a robust list of prospective candidates for envoys, experts, and various Under-Secretary-General and Assistant-Secretary-General positions in the Secretariat, as well as equivalent positions in UN funds, programs, and specialized agencies. This will reduce recruitment and vetting time and allow speedy advocacy.  

The United States also needs to focus more resources on the Junior Professional Officer program. Under this program, governments provide funding for young professionals to work in the UN system. Junior professional officers often find it easier to secure permanent UN employment because they are familiar with the system and have experience and established relationships. 

The United Nations reports 303 JPO and similar positions. Only a handful are funded by the United States. The Trump administration identified funding for and sought to fill JPO positions in the second half of 2020, but the future of this effort is in limbo.   

Despite the work to get the office up and running, the clock ran out before the Office of Multilateral Competitiveness could be fully launched. Secretary of State Antony Blinken should finalize its creation and work with the U.S. Congress to secure funding.   

This should be an easy lift. Congress has historically asked State and the Government Accountability Office to report on U.S. employment in the UN system and explain why the United States is underrepresented. If Congress wishes to address this problem, it must fund efforts to address it, along with renewing the reporting requirement on the status of U.S. employment in the United Nations.

Congress could also assist by tasking Congressional Representatives to the United Nations to inquire about efforts to increase American employment and advocate for American candidates to UN appointments and elections. Having Congress and the executive both focused on this issue would underscore the importance of this matter in UN circles.

President Biden often says “America is back.” Even under President Trump’s so-called unilateralist foreign policy, the U.S. remained highly engaged in dozens of international organizations. So in truth, America never left, but Washington could be more effective in fighting for American interests. This begins with countering Beijing’s efforts to subvert the international order from within and expanding the presence of America’s most valuable resource, the American people.

Morgan Lorraine Viña is the former Chief of Staff to United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki R. Haley.  Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation. The views expressed are the authors' own.