Since President Joe Biden took office in 2021, U.S. diplomats at the United Nations have endeavored to show that Washington cares about multilateralism, aiming to rebuild relations that had suffered in the Trump era. Their efforts paid off handsomely in 2022, when the United States and its allies were able to muster large majorities of States to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the U.N. General Assembly and other international institutions. But the administration’s response to the war between Israel and Hamas has undone much of this painstaking work.
In the months since Hamas launched its October 7th attack on Israel, triggering a brutal Israeli military response, the United States has found itself increasingly isolated in the General Assembly and the Security Council, refusing to join the vast majority of U.N. member States in calling for an immediate end to hostilities. In the first weeks of the war, many New York-based diplomats expressed some sympathy for the U.S. position in light of Hamas’s atrocities. But as the conflict has ground on, and Palestinian deaths have mounted, the diplomatic mood has soured. Foreign officials complain that Washington has not only opposed a ceasefire, but also strung out negotiations on other aspects of the war that should not have been so controversial. Members of the Security Council were especially frustrated in mid-December, when the United States repeatedly stalled progress on a resolution calling for more aid to Gaza, before finally abstaining on a messy compromise text.
These have been stressful months at the United Nations, and many diplomats and international officials say that the Biden administration has done significant and lasting damage to its credibility. Russian representatives certainly see this as an opportunity to score points in New York, repeatedly accusing Washington of “double standards” in its policies toward Ukraine and the Middle East. European diplomats worry that it will be especially hard to persuade non-Western States that previously supported Kyiv in the General Assembly to do so again in future, given their anger over Gaza. Secretary-General António Guterres, normally a paragon of caution, has irritated Washington by repeatedly calling for a ceasefire.
U.S. officials are fully aware of the reputational damage they have sustained, although they argue that many U.N. members have postured over the war without doing much to resolve it. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s well-liked ambassador to the U.N., has lobbied the White House not to block humanitarian initiatives in the Security Council. Yet even humanitarian issues are becoming increasingly contentious. Last week, the U.S. froze its funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA, the longstanding relief organization assisting Palestinian refugees) after the organization announced it had terminated the contracts of some staff members and was investigating allegations by Israel that the employees participated in the October 7th atrocities.
While the Biden administration is liable to face more storms over Gaza at the U.N., as long as hostilities continue and the human cost escalates, it behooves U.S. officials to think about how to recover some of the goodwill they have lost. Doing so could involve attempting to forge international consensus over terminating hostilities and rebuilding Gaza, or it may mean focusing on unrelated topics – such as easing international debt levels – that are priorities for non-Western countries. One way or another, the United States should search for ideas for what one Western official calls the “recovery period.”
This Time May Be Different
Some longtime U.N. watchers may say this is unnecessary. The United States has been isolated at the U.N. in the past, often over violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Time and again, the crises have faded and the United States has regained its status as first among equals among U.N. members. In some cases, such as the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War debates, States such as France and Russia that battled the United States in the Security Council moved quickly to improve relations.
In recent months, there have certainly been signs that many U.N. members that disagree with Washington over Gaza do not want to do excessive damage to their U.S. ties. The African group of States, for example, has by and large supported calls for a ceasefire from early in the war. South Africa has accused Israel of genocide before the International Court of Justice. Yet in late December, amid tense negotiations on the Middle East, the United States. and African members of the Security Council agreed to adopt a resolution enabling the U.N. to fund peace operations led by the African Union in the future. This was not an easy process, mainly because of haggling over the exact financial details and concerns over the nature of the missions, but it showed that the United States can still do business at the U.N. on files other than Gaza – and other States still want to cut deals in their own interests.
The broader diplomatic recovery process may nonetheless be trickier than in the past. The diplomatic scene at the U.N. was not exactly a tranquil one before October 7th. Russia and the Western powers have sparred in the Security Council with mounting vehemence since Moscow’s all-out aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. In parallel, representatives from countries in the so-called Global South have been forcefully critical of the United States and other rich countries for failing to live up to their pledges on development aid and climate change. As I noted in Just Security last year, Biden did a decent job of speaking to non-Western countries’ economic and environmental priorities when he gave his annual speech to the General Assembly in September. But even absent the war in the Middle East, geopolitical and international economic rifts are liable to bedevil U.N. diplomacy for the indefinite future.
Possible Pathways Toward Multilateral Rapprochement
In this context, the United States does not have easy pathways to rebuild trust with the wider U.N. membership. But it could pursue a process of multilateral rapprochement along three tracks.
The first of these tracks relates to Gaza itself. To date, the United States, Israel, and other powers have apparently not come close to agreeing on a vision for post-war Gaza’s future. So long as those actors can’t agree, U.N. agencies are likely to remain the principal service providers in the Strip, albeit in a limited capacity owing to the constraints imposed by Israel’s military operation. Donors’ decisions to suspend assistance to UNRWA over the October 7th allegations now threaten to limit it further.
Yet if and when hostilities end, the U.N.’s role in Gaza is likely to grow anew. At a minimum, international agencies will play a significant part in expanded humanitarian relief efforts, related tasks such as clearing unexploded ordinance, and providing basic services. The U.S. will surely demand that the U.N. ensures that Hamas sympathizers do not infiltrate these operations, and Israel will continue to view the organization with deep distrust. Nonetheless, the U.N. is probably still the only entity able and willing to oversee civilian aspects of Gaza’s long recovery process. Some diplomats in New York posit that it could also play a security role – deploying or at least authorizing military observers or peacekeepers – although this would be very hard to sell to Israel indeed. Guterres has discouraged the idea that Gaza could become a U.N. “protectorate,” similar to Kosovo and East Timor in 1999, but the organization will remain engaged in a range of capacities.
The United States is likely to play a lead role in coordinating such multilateral efforts under any circumstances, and could use them as a means to dial back tensions at the U.N. This could involve tabling Security Council resolutions on steps toward a clear day-after scenario in Gaza (optimally, if perhaps aspirationally, tied to the prospect of a two-state solution), and convening donor conferences to speed up recovery funding. If the United States presumes to champion these issues, it will still face pushback at the U.N. In the Security Council in particular, China and Russia would surely ask why the United States should lead on the clean-up of a crisis that – in their view – it has encouraged. But if the Biden administration eventually cobbles together some sort of plan for Gaza with Israel and Arab states, Beijing and Moscow would not be likely to oppose it outright.
A second track for U.S. diplomacy at the U.N. could be to try to refocus attention on conflicts and crises where Washington is more likely to find common ground with other powers. In the wake of the Iraq War, the George W. Bush administration and other Security Council members cooperated on other files – such as deploying peacekeepers to end the civil war in Liberia – that were comparatively uncontentious. The number of such uncontentious topics on the Council’s agenda today is admittedly low. Big-power tensions have undercut diplomacy on cases ranging from Sudan to Myanmar, and the overall deterioration of security in the Middle East puts U.N. mediation and peacekeeping operations in the region at risk. Yet there may still be cases where the United States and other Council members can engage constructively, as December’s Council agreement on U.N. funding to African-led peace operations suggested.
A final track for U.S. engagement may lie through talks about the state of the multilateral system more broadly. In the general geopolitical commotion following Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has tried to present itself as a supporter of reforms to international institutions. Its initiatives have ranged from announcing a push to expand the Security Council to bring in new members like India (although this has still to deliver any reforms) to calling for the World Bank to invest more in climate adaptation. Although many non-Western countries would like to see more radical changes – like governance reforms to give them more power at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – the United States has at least indicated a willingness to tinker with the multilateral system that it still largely controls.
How far the United States is willing to go in terms of institutional reforms will be tested in September in New York, when the U.N. will convene a “Summit of the Future,” conceived by Guterres as an opportunity for reaching agreement on a new vision for multilateralism. The Secretary-General has put a huge variety of potential topics on the table for discussion, ranging from the international financial architecture to the governance of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Diplomats of all stripes in New York are wary of this event – which is supposed to result in a “Pact for the Future” by consensus – and worry that the preparations could become bogged down in bloc politics in the General Assembly.
But the process leading up to the summit could be a chance for the Biden administration to roll out more initiatives that address some of the core concerns of U.N. members – such as how to help debt-distressed nations raise financing – and launch some tentative dialogues on international cooperation on managing new technologies. The United States has already tabled a General Assembly resolution on sharing the benefits of AI. On the cusp of November’s presidential and congressional elections in the United States, Biden will not be able to finalize any grand plans to overhaul the U.N. – many diplomats in New York worry that a second Trump administration will blow up any multilateral agreements anyway, in the same way as Trump walked away from the Obama-era Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal. But the United States can at least use the summit as a hook for a set of smaller-scale reform initiatives and signal that, should Biden secure a second term, there may be more space to overhaul international institutions from 2025 onward.
All that said, incremental confidence-rebuilding measures are not likely to gain traction for as long as hostilities continue in Gaza. The best way for the United States to halt the slide in its credibility at the U.N. is to secure and solidify a ceasefire as a precursor to working out security and reconstruction mechanisms. Even after a ceasefire, the United States will likely face skepticism from other U.N. members when it raises issues in U.N. forums such as human rights and the protection of civilians, given its equivocations over Gaza. Nonetheless, the art of multilateral diplomacy is often to take the sting out of international disputes by establishing routines and procedures to dull the pain. The Biden administration can still try to win back some goodwill at the U.N. with careful steps to bolster a fragile multilateral system.