According to Foreign Policy, prior to the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, two top State Department officials have raised alarm about the loss of diplomatic influence of the United States, as China mounts an ambitious effort to fill the vacuum.
The concerns are emerging at a time when the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO), which oversees US relations with the UN and other international organizations, is enduring a sustained period of turmoil marked by sagging morale, staff flight and difficulties in recruiting fresh talent.
US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, who was recently confirmed, has yet to take up her assignment in New York. John Sullivan, the US Deputy Secretary of State, and David Hale, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, touched on those issues.
They also expressed particular concern about China’s strategic goal of deepening its influence in the UN and other international organizations. The coming months will be ‘key times’ for the bureau to promote US national security interests in international institutions with the upcoming UN General Assembly. It has only gotten harder as the US faces more rigorous attempts, and campaigns by China to gain greater and greater influence over these organizations.
Over the last two and a half years, the US has been struggling to rally support within UN to contain the influence of rival powers from Iran to Russia to China, which has effectively mobilized UN backing for its Belt and Road Initiative, despite US efforts to counter it.
President Donald Trump’s administration has also largely dismissed repeated warnings from allies and others that its own retreat from multilateral diplomacy would create a vacuum that could promote chaos or leave room for the rise of China and other. President Trump and his policy of isolationism has created enormous vacuum around the world,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had said in June 2018.
A question is often raised, who will fill this vacuum?
The rise of China on the world stage has been an inevitable out of its increasing economic clout, which has enabled it to leverage massive foreign investment for broader support for its foreign policy. The US allies, particularly from Europe, have been warning Trump administration officials that the US retreat from international organizations and trade agreements would accelerate China’s growing influence.
At present the two most daunting challenges to the multilateral order are declining US power and emerging Chinese clout in global organizations. Over the last decade, there has been an observable decline in the US capacity to shape multilateral affairs. The muted US response to China’s growing diplomatic influence in multilateral institutions is inconsistent with its own effort to contain the rise of a rival power.
Last month, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General issued a scathing report accusing some of the top officials of hostile treatment of employees and harassment of career employees based on claims that they were disloyal due to their perceived political views. Some 50 of IO’s 300 domestic employees have left the bureau since 2018 and nearly all of the former employees stated that poor leadership of the bureau contributed to their decision to depart.
It is believed that the bureau has prioritized key issues that are important to the White House, backing efforts to limit access to reproductive health care, rolling back funding for refugees, and advocating budget cuts to UN programs. Regional and subject experts have been frozen out of meetings where decisions on policy are made.
Trump is expected to highlight the global assault on religious freedom when he addresses the UN General Assembly on 24th September. He has surrounded himself with aides who are deeply skeptical of the United Nations and have sought to pare back the US role and funding in the institution. Former NSA director John Bolton has long railed against the international institution as an ineffective and bloated bureaucracy. The head of the White House Office of Management and Budget has advocated, unsuccessfully, billions of dollars in cuts to US contributions to programs for the UN and other international organizations. Under Trump, the US has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council and pushed to cut off funding to the UN Population Fund and Palestinian refugee agency.
Chinese nationals have seen increasing success competing for top jobs in the UN and other international organizations. In June, China outmaneuvered the US in the campaign for the top job at the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization, delivering Washington a humbling defeat at UN.
Analysts say Beijing’s growing clout in the international institutions and the US pulling back is a growing concern. Beijing’s favored candidate, a Chinese vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs, won a rare first-round victory, receiving 108 of the 191 votes in secret balloting. A French candidate supported by the European Union captured 71 votes. The US, which broke with its European allies, backed a Georgian candidate who could secure only 12 votes. With a victory for China looking sure the US circulated a paper shortly before the vote to delegates urging them to back any candidate capable of defeating the Chinese.
The US contended that Chinese leaders at INTERPOL, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have demonstrated a bias towards Chinese foreign policy and a lack of transparency and accountability. It also said the Chinese candidate has shown a blatant disregard for critical issues, such as those involving sexual harassment and whistleblower protection.
At the same time, the bureau seems to have done little to promote the US nationals for jobs at the UN. One IO staffer noted that the department’s five-member unit responsible for promoting jobs for the US citizens in international organizations had shrunk to zero. It was also asked what strategy was being considered to change that. The US citizens have been saying that China’s ambitions in international organizations should be a key priority for Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. It is also being said that the Department was on ‘back foot’ during the tenure of former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Implementing administration policy with the White House, the National Security Council, and other agencies has been a challenge.
It has been found that senior State Department officials are often paralyzed by a fear stepping out of line with the White House, particularly when it comes to politically sensitive relations with China.
A certain timidity by senior career officials and political appointees have been witnessed when it comes to engaging more proactively on China, fearing they might get “crosswise” with the president or his trade representative if they promoted policies that threatened to disrupt trade negotiations with Beijing. The IO bureau was at the center of action in diplomatic negotiations at the United Nations. The bureau had been a principal player in UN summitry but that over the last few years that power has withered away.