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28 July 2021
The Biden-Harris Administration's Approach to Foreign Affairs

By Hank Burke-Manwaring, UNA-NCA Program Assistant

On Tuesday July 20th, UNA-NCA, in collaboration with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) held a moderated panel discussion that delved into expectations of the Biden-Harris Administration’s approach to foreign policy and international organizations such as the United Nations. The Panelists also reflected on Biden’s successes since his inauguration.

The two panelists for the discussion were UNA-NCA’s Advisory Council Member Ambassador Sarah Mendelson, Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and head of CMU's Heinz College in DC, and Ted Piccone UNA-NCA Advisory Council Chair; Chief Engagement Officer at the World Justice Project.

The panel started off looking at the Administration’s impact in broad strokes. Ambassador Mendelson discussed four topics that the Biden Administration has addressed thus far. First, she has looked at issues such as social and racial justice and have begun the new task of linking the work on those issues both at home and abroad. Second, there has been a focus for the Administration on combatting the rise of authoritarianism, with special focus on the interference of China and Russia in other countries. And “When they talk about Russia it is about a form of hybrid warfare.” This hybrid warfare has become a threat as seen in many places such as Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Third, there is also a strong focus on elevating the combat against corruption which goes hand in hand with the fight against authoritarianism. She pressed that the administration needs to make sure we are not creating and enabling an environment for corruption through our financial institutions. And finally, she felt that the Administration has responded boldly to the emergencies they inherited, especially regarding climate issues, and COVID-19.  

Ted Piccone mentioned Biden’s key phrase “America’s back” in reference to the United States working its way back into the international community. He proclaimed that the Administration was off to an “overall encouraging start” to reviving America’s role on the world stage with bilateral and multilateral channels amid a tremendous crisis. He praised the Administration for actions such as rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, committing funds to COVID vaccine distribution, and renewed support for the United Nations Population Fund and United Nations Human Rights Council. He also noted that with Congress in democratic hands, future support of international organizations looks promising in the years to come.

Diving more in depth on the multilateral approach of the Biden Administration, Ambassador Mendelson noted that all the actions mentioned previously by Piccone “somehow related to the Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs). She also mentioned that what puzzled her was that the Administration has many policies that they have rolled out that dovetail into the SDGs, however the actual SDGs themselves have seldom been mentioned. In addition, she pointed out that there has been no discussion of a voluntary review of America’s progress with the SDGs, which is how countries measure their success in sustainable development. She questioned why this was the case given that “the Obama-Biden Administration helped shape the SDGs.” However, she did mention that many cities, universities, and even the state of Hawaii have been working on sustainable development, and how to make it effective. She sees this as a positive change in the United States, because by having domestic support for sustainable development, it gives leverage to make Congress prioritize sustainable development both domestically and internationally.

Ambassador Mendelson did warn that while this progress on sustainable development is positive, we are running out of time to make changes that we need to make during this Administration. One of the tasks that remains is to start naming ambassadors. She said that Congress is slow to admit people into ambassador roles, however she qualified “that some of the slowness is because the Administration is really focused on making sure the candidates are diverse” as they want the U.S. Department of State to be representative of the US population.

Mr.  Piccone went on to discuss The United States and their involvement in the Human Rights Council (HRC). He stated that the United States’ involvement in the HRC “has become increasingly politized here in the United States. And has become a bit of a political football between the Administrations (Republican/Democrat).” He also spoke about the current issues with the HRC membership. One of those issues was the fact that authoritarian regimes have been elected to the Council. Another issue he found important was the inherent bias towards Israel, as it is the only standing item on the HRC docket. He believes at the Israel bias worsens when the United states is not a part of the HRC council.  

The last issue mentioned by Mr. Piccone was the rising power of China. He stated that “when the US walked away under Trump, what happened? China and its allies filled the void.” This is the first time that we've seen China go on the offensive on the international stage. It is introducing resolutions to undermine the role of the HRC, which could potentially weaken the success of the Council. Along with China's influence in the HRC there's also using its economic power to influence other countries interaction. One example of this he mentioned was regarding China using vaccine diplomacy to influence countries to quiet down on their criticism of their treatment of Uyghurs. Ukraine was one of the countries who's on the list to sign a statement that was critical of China, however after receiving vaccinations from China they removed themselves from the list of signees. Piccone, while critical of China and their actions on the international stage, did clarify then in order for us to be critical of them, The United States must too be willing to go under the scrutiny of the HRC.

From there, Ambassador Mendelson picked up on the issue of universality. She mentioned that while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to us all, it may be difficult to implement in our country. However, she stated that “universality is as relevant today, as it was, I would say in 1948.” She also made note of the fact that the international issues of security during the Cold War times are not the same issues as today. Today, international issues need to be focused more on socioeconomic issues, development, and the full spectrum of the SDGs.

Regarding the United States regaining power on the international stage, Ted Piccone said that the United States has to “practice what it preaches,” it needs to not only drive for international support of democracy, but also be a prime example of a successful democracy. Piccone said that we have been in a democratic landslide, with January 6th being the low point. So, we as a country have work to do to show evidence of our resilience and self-improvement. He finished the panel by saying that we have the multilateral systems in place with things like the SDGs, and the voluntary national reviews, now it is time to comply with them.

From there, the event moved from the panel discussion to a Q&A session. The first question asked was “Are there any spillovers of Biden’s policies on Russia and China that protects religious freedoms for locals in both countries?” Ambassador Mendelson in response touched on Secretary Blinken’s response to the Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs. Piccone picked up on that point and said that the United States and other democratic countries need to step up to impose sanctions on China as it’s a religious freedom, as well as a cultural, linguistic, and historical minority protection issue. He did also note that he found it surprising that the Islamic conference states have been quiet on the defense of Uyghurs.

The second question posed to the panelists was “a lot of the discussion focused on international development. The FY 2022 [budget] also discusses a lot of increases in humanitarian assistance funds. Do either of you have thoughts on that regarding the Biden administration?” Ambassador Mendelson responded, talking about the paradigm shift in aid implementation towards focusing on the needs of the local communities. She pointed out that often what we think local groups need is not what they want, nor need, as she showed with her example of Syrian refugees in Southern Turkey.

The next question, regarding the impact youth can make was “What do you think are the most general ways for young people such as YPFP and UNA-NCA members who are already engaged in this work to push the Biden administration to comply with the SDGs as well as implement them in our own communities?” Ambassador Mendelson said that one way was to show support for bills in Congress that support the SDGs and show them that these issues matter to the youth of our country.

Next came a question regarding a critique of the United Nations, “Can you speak on the reforms that need to be made by the United Nations and the multilateral system to become more relevant in a post-COVID system?” Piccone took the lead on this question mentioning the re-election of António Guterres as Secretary-General of the United Nations. He said that in Guterres’s first term he was dealt a weak hand with the combination of a lack of support from the Trump Administration, as well as Russia and China making it difficult to make any impactful change. But Piccone is hopeful for success in Guterres’s second term. Ambassador Mendelson on the other hand mentioned the need for reform of the UN Security Council. While she did not have an answer to how to fix it, she mentioned United Nations General Assembly’s growing frustration with the lack of efficiency as evidence for the need to change.

The final question of the night touched back on Israel asking, “What would you suggest the U.S. do to address the UNHCR’s bias against Israel?” Piccone suggested that Israel be treated like any other country, as opposed to simply a constant item on the docket. Ambassador Mendelson said that in her time in New York she saw the anti-Israel bias as intense and widespread.

In Ambassador Mendelson’s closing remarks, she implored the young people listening to understand that the scope of international relations is becoming more and more fluid, and that the SDGs are crucial to prioritize. Piccone finished with a warning that China is a serious competitor on the international stage that poses a direct threat the universal human rights, the United Nations, and multilateralism.