The World of International Organizations

Biden U.N. pick signals U.S. return to alliances

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, then U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, visits Namibia in October 2016 (AN/U.S. Embassy Namibia)

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s announcement on Monday that veteran diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield will serve as a Cabinet-level U.S. ambassador to the United Nations signaled America’s pivot back to multilateralism.

Biden chose the 35-year State Department veteran, who worked at diplomatic posts around the world, to be part of a foreign policy and national security team that leans heavily on longtime establishment insiders committed to restoring the United States to a global leadership role after four years of President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies that have antagonized and alienated even strong allies.

Thomas-Greenfield pledged to restore America’s standing in the world and renew relationships with allies. “America is back,” she said. “Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.”

The team’s other key figures include Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state with strong transatlantic ties, to serve as the next secretary of state, and John Kerry, the former secretary of state who helped clinch the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change that the Trump administration renounced, to carve out a new role as a Cabinet-level special presidential envoy for climate.

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris promised on their transition team website that their foreign policy and national security nominees will work quickly to “renew and reimagine American leadership” on everything from infectious diseases and climate change to terrorism, nuclear proliferation and cyber threats. The nominees must first gain confirmation to their posts from the U.S. Senate.

“I need a team ready on day one to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity and values,” Biden said in a statement.

“These individuals are equally as experienced and crisis-tested as they are innovative and imaginative,” he said. “Their accomplishments in diplomacy are unmatched, but they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet the profound challenges of this new moment with old thinking and unchanged habits — or without diversity of background and perspective. It’s why I’ve selected them.”

Current and former world leaders welcomed the incoming Biden administration’s promise to return to usual channels of diplomacy, treaties and international organizations.

“Congratulations to my dear sister @LindaT_G for your selection as the nominee for US Ambassador to the @UN,” tweeted Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Liberian president and first African female head of state, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Thomas-Greenfield served as U.S. ambasador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012. “You have long been a friend to Liberia and to Africa, and [are] eminently qualified to represent the United States on the world stage.”

‘Against all the headwinds’

Despite Biden’s election win of about 80 million votes, the most in U.S. history, Trump still received the second-most votes in history, about 73 million. That is a 51 percent to 47 percent margin, not enough to be considered a “landslide” victory, and an uncomfortable sign to foreign leaders that almost a fifth of the U.S. population would have preferred a continuation of Trumpism and its populist nationalism agenda.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who championed multilateralism in Trump’s absence of global leadership, told reporters America remains Germany’s closest ally but her nation and Europe knows “that in this partnership in the 21st century we have to take on more responsibility.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that while U.S. voter turnout “was historically high in this election — unfortunately also the polarization” ran high as Trump’s supporters pushed his “Make America Great Again” slogan and false claims of widespread election-rigging.

“America is a strong democracy, which, with its ‘checks and balances,’ has proven several times in the past that it works even in difficult situations, and that it can clarify critical questions in accordance with democratic principles,” he added.

Along with promising to return to the Paris climate treaty, Biden said the United States will rejoin the World Health Organization and strengthen relations with NATO. His administration is also likely to restore ties with the U.N. Human Rights Council, UNESCO, the Universal Postal Union and other major international organizations and treaties shunned by the Trump administration.

French President Emmanuel Macron, another outspoken defender of multilateralism and critic of Trump’s nationalist policies, also welcomed Biden’s victory and the prospect of America rejoining the Paris climate treaty. Biden promised to invest $2 trillion in a transition to cleaner energy, and leaders of a U.N. climate summit in November 2021 at Glasgow, Scotland, hope U.S. action will inspire others to cut emissions.

“It is proof that we had to stand firm against all the headwinds,” Macron told an online summit hosted by his government. ” ‘Make our planet great again’ is a possibility, not just in words but also in deed.”

Merkel and Macron stood in while Trump abdicated America’s traditional post-World War II role as global leader of democratic alliances. But Biden faces stiff challenges in reasserting U.S. democracy as the foremost brand of global governance. Russia’s brand of autocratic leadership lodged itself in other European governments such as Belarus, Hungary and Poland, posing a severe test for European Union leaders. China’s totalitarian system and global influence spread, partly due to its Belt and Road Initiative and to Trump’s trade wars and general disregard.

“It’s pretty obvious: the world cannot get a lot done without the U.S., and there is little the U.S. can do better alone than with others,” said Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “The case for multilateralism is strong; what remains is to design an approach and select participants for each global challenge.”

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