Repairing the Damage to U.S. Diplomacy in the UN Security Council
Repairing the Damage to U.S. Diplomacy in the UN Security Council
Nominated US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield participates as US President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a cabinet announcement event in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 24, 2020. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP
Commentary / Multilateral Diplomacy 12 minutes

Repairing the Damage to U.S. Diplomacy in the UN Security Council

The incoming Biden administration faces a tall order in Turtle Bay: healing the wounds its predecessor inflicted upon U.S. relations with fellow Security Council members while addressing differences that go back further than four years. Nevertheless, it has several opportunities for restoring Washington’s international engagement.

Diplomats at the UN have responded to Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. election with enthusiasm tinged with caution. The president-elect’s pledges to rejoin the Paris climate change agreement and keep the U.S. in the World Health Organization (WHO), marking a clear break with outgoing President Donald Trump’s disdain for multilateralism, are naturally welcome. It is “Christmas come early”, jokes one European ambassador. African officials are excited that Biden has nominated Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former ambassador to Liberia and assistant secretary of state for African affairs, to be the U.S. permanent representative in New York.

Yet the new administration will face considerable challenges in restoring U.S. engagement in Turtle Bay after Trump leaves the White House, and some of the most serious of these will lie in the Security Council.

A Jarring Act to Follow

The Trump administration has not treated the Council entirely dismissively. It pursued very seriously the tightening of UN sanctions on North Korea in 2017, and it has treated these as a pillar of its policy toward Pyongyang. Overall, however, the U.S. has developed difficult, and at times toxic, relations with other Council members over the last four years.

The poison is most obvious in the U.S. delegation’s spats with Russia and China, its traditional Turtle Bay rivals. In addition to arguing with Russia over Syria, Libya and Ukraine, U.S. officials have increasingly sparred with their Chinese counterparts, culminating in a fight over the origins and management of COVID-19 that blocked the Council from influencing the international response to the pandemic for months in early 2020. More mundane Council business, such as the discussion of peace operations, continues to grind on much as usual, although diplomats say the Chinese and Russian representatives have become more willing to pick fights over minor policy differences. They have also mounted a voluble campaign against Washington’s use of unilateral sanctions, highlighting their humanitarian impact in cases such as Venezuela.

The poison is most obvious in the U.S. delegation’s spats with Russia and China, its traditional Turtle Bay rivals.

It is not just relations with Russia and China that have been strained. Washington’s allies on the Council, including permanent members France and the UK, have also found the Trump administration unreceptive or actively hostile to their proposals for addressing international problems in New York. The U.S. has pushed hard to cut the costs of UN peacekeeping operations – sometimes appearing to ignore strategic concerns in search of savings – and created particular tensions with France over the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). It has shown only sporadic interest in efforts, led by Germany and the UK, to back a ceasefire in Libya, reflecting confusion in Washington over how to handle the war there. And earlier in 2020 it point-blank threatened to veto a resolution on managing the security implications of climate change drafted by Germany (a council member in 2019-2020) and nine other states.

Perhaps most jarringly, in August, it attempted to trigger a provision in Security Council Resolution 2231 of 2015 on the Iran nuclear deal to reactivate old UN sanctions against Tehran, despite having unilaterally quit the underlying agreement in 2018. The dispute over this “snapback” of sanctions had the unusual effect of unifying all the other permanent Council members against the U.S., with the UK and France standing shoulder to shoulder with Russia and China. On the basis of a contested reading of Resolution 2231 (which Crisis Group explored in detail at the time), the U.S. claimed that the snapback process was successful in September. Yet virtually all other Council members declared this claim to be invalid.

Under the Trump administration the U.S. has appeared thoughtlessly confrontational in its dealings with other major powers.

In short, under the Trump administration the U.S. has appeared thoughtlessly confrontational in its dealings with other major powers, insensitive to its friends’ concerns and ultimately unbothered by the Council’s institutional status as a bulwark of the international system. The question for the Biden team will be how to repair the damage.

Deeper Differences

Changing the tone of U.S. diplomacy will be a good place to start. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, whose nomination seems unlikely to face major objections in the Senate, will doubtless do that. A seasoned and highly regarded diplomat, she should also boost morale when she arrives at the U.S. mission on First Avenue, where many officials have carried out the Trump administration’s policy directives out of a sense of duty rather than conviction.

But it is not clear how simple it will be to reduce the accumulated tensions, for some of them predate Trump. Russo-U.S. relations at the UN were very bad during President Barack Obama’s second term, thanks to stark differences between the two powers over the wars in Syria and Ukraine. It is hard to see the Biden administration developing easier ties with the Russian delegation in New York given broader U.S. rifts with Moscow over cyber-espionage, nuclear proliferation and other matters.

It is not clear how simple it will be [for the next U.S. administration] to reduce the accumulated tensions, for some of them predate Trump.

It may be a little easier to limit Sino-U.S. friction. Chinese diplomats have exploited the Trump administration’s self-inflicted alienation at the UN to present themselves as alternative multilateral leaders, but nonetheless say they would prefer to work with a less mercurial U.S. Biden’s team will likely avoid pointless attempts to annoy China – such as the Trump administration’s insistence that the Security Council call COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” – that have marred diplomacy between the two powers in 2020. Yet the U.S. is unlikely to drop criticism of Beijing on substantive issues, like the repression of the Uighurs or the situation in Hong Kong, that have also soured ties.

On many of the crises that dog the UN, such as the wars in Libya and Yemen, the U.S. cannot transform diplomacy through talks in the Council alone. In such cases, Washington will need to address local and regional conflict dynamics before UN peacemaking efforts can have a greater chance of success. It will need to lean on Saudi Arabia to limit its military activities and articulate a clear endgame for its part in the Yemen war; it will also need to press both Turkey and Ankara’s Arab adversaries to ratchet down the tensions they have stoked in Libya. Thomas-Greenfield can nudge these processes in the right direction by ensuring that UN mediators have sufficient resources (and get full U.S. diplomatic support), pushing the Council to send supportive messages, and encouraging the UN secretariat and agencies to plan for post-conflict assistance. But the U.S. will need to engage primarily through bilateral and regional channels to create the conditions in which multilateral peacemaking can work.

Similarly, while Council members spent much of this summer fretting about the U.S. drive to invoke the Iran sanctions “snapback”, New York will not be the centre of diplomatic activity should the Biden administration seek to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal. Given the Trump administration’s failure to persuade the Council to reinvigorate sanctions, little has changed in how the UN monitors implementation of Resolution 2231. Should the U.S. and Iran reach agreement bilaterally, no action from the Council will be required. It should suffice for the new administration to send the Security Council a letter, early on, stating that it is rejoining the deal and clarifying that it rejects its predecessor’s claim to have triggered snapback.

Opportunities for Re-engagement

Still, the next U.S. administration can make a series of early interventions at the Security Council that would not only signal a more positive approach to multilateralism, but also improve the Council and the wider UN’s ability to respond to current and future crises. Moreover, it will have a platform to do so quite soon, as the U.S. will hold the Council’s rotating presidency in March.

The next U.S. administration can make a series of early interventions at the Security Council that would [...] signal a more positive approach to multilateralism.

The first of these interventions, in line with President-elect Biden’s overarching emphasis on curbing global warming, could be to reverse the Trump team’s refusal to address the security consequences of climate change. There is a solid basis for making progress on this front, as despite the U.S. veto threat, Germany and its allies worked out a detailed draft resolution on climate and conflict in the spring. Their text includes proposals, such as appointing a UN envoy to focus on climate-related conflicts and improving data gathering on the issue, aimed at providing better early warning of conflict risks exacerbated by intensifying climate hazards. The U.S. could either pick up a version of this text during its presidency or encourage other Council members to table something similar with Washington’s support.

The Council would not pass such a text by acclamation. Chinese officials expressed scepticism about the German draft resolution, saying they need clearer proof of climate’s effects on conflict, and the Russians were even more negative. India, which takes up a Council seat in 2021, has also signalled that it is unconvinced. Yet diplomats involved in talks on the German draft resolution say they think that if the new administration pushes hard enough on a comparable resolution – deploying figures such as Biden’s designated cabinet-level climate czar, John Kerry – the Chinese and Russian representatives would at most abstain from the vote, rather than get off on the wrong foot with Biden with an early veto.

A second potential U.S. intervention would be on COVID-19 and conflict. The U.S. and China angered other Council members by delaying the passage of a resolution on the pandemic – including a symbolically significant call for a global ceasefire – from April to June. The main obstacle to agreement was whether and how to refer to the WHO, as the Trump administration refused to accept any direct mention of it, claiming that the organisation had failed to hold China to account for how it managed the pandemic’s early stage. Even though the Council ultimately passed the resolution on 1 July, U.S. officials have used follow-up meetings on COVID-19 to challenge China over its role in the spread of the virus, rather than concentrating on more practical measures to track the contagion’s impact on conflict and international peacemaking initiatives.

Although coronavirus vaccines are coming online, the economic aftershocks of the pandemic – and popular grievances about the pain it has caused – have the potential to create instability in 2021. The Biden administration can therefore usefully signal renewed desire for cooperation regarding the pandemic in the Council. Rather than berate China, the U.S. should aim for a more substantive focus on the security implications of COVID-19 – including the consequences of the associated economic downturn – and its effects on UN peacekeeping and humanitarian work.

The economic aftershocks of the pandemic – and popular grievances about the pain it has caused – have the potential to create instability in 2021.

To stimulate discussion and flag gaps in the international response, Washington should request a high-level briefing on the evolution of coronavirus-related conflict risks by UN Secretary-General António Guterres when it holds the Council presidency in March. While the Council has only a limited part to play in global public health policy, and the Biden administration will need to work separately on rebooting U.S. diplomacy at the WHO, it offers a high-profile platform for Washington to demonstrate a new, more collaborative approach to countering the virus.

In the meantime, the administration should try to sort out recurrent sources of contention with its allies in New York. The most obvious of these is its debate with France over the role of the UN in stabilising Mali and the Sahel. Paris is a strong supporter of both MINUSMA in Mali and plans for the UN to provide more logistical support to counter-terrorist efforts led by the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger). But the U.S. has repeatedly questioned the performance and impact of these operations. In 2020, it insisted that the UN draft proposals to draw down MINUSMA – which the UN secretariat should complete in March – setting up a new dispute.

As Crisis Group has argued elsewhere, there are genuine questions about MINUSMA and the G5 Sahel’s performance and their failure to promote long-term political solutions to the region’s difficulties. Yet Franco-U.S. debates over the issue in New York have generated a lot of ill will without moving the UN toward a more effective strategy. As Crisis Group noted in 2019, it could be helpful for French and U.S. officials to launch a discussion – preferably involving regional players – aimed at ironing out their differences over the UN role in the Sahel and related issues. The Biden team could work with French diplomats to kick off such a process on the back of the March MINUSMA report. When all is said and done, Washington and Paris may continue to differ on the utility of international forces in the Sahel, which the Obama administration also queried. Certainly, the U.S. should not back counter-terrorist operations it believes to be misguided simply to mollify France. But a dialogue could serve the twin purposes of improving the tone of Franco-U.S. relations in the Council and defining a shared approach to improving governance and economic conditions in the region.

Doing the Hard Work

Looking further ahead, the new administration could make a broader effort to strengthen UN peace operations and conflict prevention, revitalising an Obama-era initiative. In 2014, then Vice President Biden hosted a meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York on how to improve force generation for blue helmet operations. President Obama hosted a bigger meeting on the same theme in 2015, persuading other leaders to pledge everything from helicopters to canine units to the UN. While other UN members followed up with ministerial-level summits on peacekeeping in the Trump period, the U.S. lost interest.


The new administration could make a broader effort to strengthen UN peace operations and conflict prevention, revitalising an Obama-era initiative.

The next of these ministerial summits is slated to be held in Seoul in December 2021. The U.S. could use the gathering as a chance to show that it still cares about UN crisis management by developing a serious pledge and challenging partners to do the same. It might, for instance, offer new types of training, logistical support and specialist advisers to help blue helmet missions (nobody expects Washington to put large numbers of U.S. troops under UN command). If a cabinet-level official can go to South Korea to announce the pledge, all the better.

African diplomats will also want to know what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield intends to do about long-standing proposals for the UN to fund African Union-led peace operations. The Obama administration, conscious of the financial difficulties involved in running AU missions like that in Somalia, suggested that it could be open to the UN paying 75 per cent of their costs in cases the Security Council authorises. In 2018, Ethiopia used a stint on the Security Council to promote a resolution endorsing this idea, but the Trump administration threatened to veto it. South Africa, which replaced Ethiopia in the Council in 2020, took up the issue a little more gingerly but was unable to make much progress on it. These repeated setbacks have fuelled AU resentment toward the Security Council, although African governments are themselves divided over exactly how a potential funding arrangement would work in practice.

With a Democrat back in the White House and an Africa expert at the helm of the U.S. mission in New York, there may be a window for African diplomats to push this topic again in 2021. As Crisis Group has previously argued, there is a solid strategic argument for sorting out a funding mechanism that would allow the UN to back the AU in this way – but there are also several knotty financial, administrative and operational issues about how it would work to resolve.

Thomas-Greenfield could gain good-will from her African counterparts by offering U.S. support for a new UN-AU working group – to be blessed by the Security Council and the African Peace and Security Council – to address these issues. There are no guarantees of success, and it could take time to hit upon the precise terms and conditions for processing requests for support from the AU. But the conversation could eventually help expand the UN’s crisis response toolkit.

Thomas-Greenfield could gain good-will from her African counterparts by offering U.S. support for a new UN-AU working group.

There is a chance, of course, that urgent crises will overshadow the institutional and thematic initiatives in the Security Council on topics like climate change and peacekeeping. Yet each of the proposals above would show that the U.S. understands other UN members’ priorities and concerns and that it is willing to do the hard work of strengthening the institution. After a period in which the U.S. has seemed aloof or allergic to the UN, that is an important message to send.

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