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Feeling Spurned by Trump, U.N. Sees Redemption in Biden and Team


After four years of disparagement and disengagement by the Trump administration, the United Nations is infused with expectations that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will restore much of what his predecessor dismantled.

Mr. Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change immediately after taking office on Jan. 20, reviving U.S. participation in a signature U.N.-led collaboration to fight global warming that President Trump abandoned.

The president-elect has vowed to reverse Mr. Trump’s widely criticized decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization, the U.N.’s public health arm, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He has pledged to restore the funding that Mr. Trump ended to the United Nations Population Fund, a leading provider of family planning and women’s reproductive services, a cut that was part of a conservative-led policy to penalize groups that offer abortion counseling.

Mr. Biden’s choice for U.N. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a veteran American diplomat with vast experience in Africa — and his plan to restore that position to Cabinet rank, another reversal of Trump administration policy — have also sent powerful signals about the president-elect’s views toward the United Nations.

“The big picture is enormously encouraging and a huge relief for a lot of U.N. members,” said Richard Gowan, a former United Nations consultant who directs the U.N. advocacy work of the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that promotes peaceful resolutions to conflicts.

“People were quite exhausted at the prospect of another four years of Trump,” Mr. Gowan said. “Biden faces a very difficult world, but a very easy pathway to gaining some political good will at the United Nations. Biden and his U.N. ambassador just need to be human, and they will be treated as conquering heroes.”

Even diplomats from American rivals like China have privately expressed hope that Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, if confirmed, will speak and negotiate with an authoritative voice. Mr. Trump’s unpredictability, some said, hurt the effectiveness of his U.N. envoys, Nikki R. Haley and her successor, Kelly Craft, neither of whom had extensive prior diplomatic experience.

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, by contrast, spent decades in the State Department’s foreign service and was its top African affairs official during the 2014-16 Ebola crisis. She was threatened with death while traveling in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide and talked her way out of it, she once explained in a TED Talk. She was the ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012 and was named its first honorary citizen by Liberia’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Mr. Biden’s choice of Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, announced on Nov. 24, was acclaimed by American diplomatic veterans. Madeleine K. Albright, the first female secretary of state and chairwoman of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm that had hired Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, said on Twitter that she was “a valued colleague and veteran diplomat who will restore US leadership and cooperation.”

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield

is among the highest-ranking Black members of Mr. Biden’s team, with a seat on the National Security Council. Her nomination was widely seen as a sign of Mr. Biden’s respect for career diplomats, and his commitment to picking a racially diverse leadership team.

Still, it may not be easy for Mr. Biden or Ms. Thomas-Greenfield to quickly undo the isolation that the United States has faced in the Trump era.

Mr. Biden’s plan to reverse Mr. Trump’s repudiation of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, an accord endorsed in a U.N. Security Council resolution, could prove impossible. Prospects for any improvement in U.S.-Iran relations may have been poisoned last Friday when Iran’s top nuclear scientist was assassinated in what Iran has called an Israeli operation abetted by the United States.

Mr. Biden’s goals remain unclear concerning some other United Nations agencies and agreements renounced during the Trump years — the Human Rights Council, UNESCO, the Palestinian refugee agency and accords on global migration and arms trade. Mr. Biden also has not specified how he intends to deal with the International Criminal Court, created through U.N. diplomacy two decades ago to prosecute egregious crimes like genocide.

The United States is not a member of the court, but cooperated with it until the Trump administration sanctioned its chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and other court officials for efforts to investigate possible American crimes in the Afghanistan war and possible crimes by Israelis in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, said the sanctions order had cast a chilling effect on the court, with penalties usually reserved for “drug kingpins and terrorists.” Mr. Biden, he said, must repeal the order “as part of rejoining the community of nations that support the rule of law.”

Others are hopeful that Mr. Biden’s stated positions on human rights and international cooperation will have far-reaching effects.

“Under Joe Biden, the international human rights community and beyond will breathe a sigh of relief,” said Agnès Callamard, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special investigator on extrajudicial killings.

Ms. Callamard expressed hope that the Biden administration would seek to regain the seat at the Human Rights Council abandoned by Mr. Trump in 2018 because of what Ms. Haley, then U.N. ambassador, called its heavy bias against Israel.

“The absence of the U.S. there in some of the council’s difficult debates and issues has led to a weakening of those espousing positions supportive of human rights protection,” Ms. Callamard said. With other countries failing to step up, she said, the council’s discussions are now “largely taken by countries whose primary interest is to weaken international scrutiny over their human rights records.”

Some diplomats have privately criticized Secretary General António Guterres for what they described as his reluctance to confront Mr. Trump, partly because the United States, for all of Mr. Trump’s disregard for international cooperation, remains the biggest single donor to the U.N. budget. Mr. Gowan, for one, rejected that view.

“Now he has a chance to work with a far more sympathetic Biden team, and there are signs that Guterres will be pushing much more ambitious plans to fight inequality and climate change than he was able to risk before,” Mr. Gowan said. “Guterres has faced accusations of being too cautious around Trump, but he can say that Biden’s win vindicates his strategy.”

Mr. Guterres sought to maintain the appearance of impartiality through the 2020 presidential campaign and aftermath, although he was among the international figures to congratulate Mr. Biden in the days immediately after major news organizations declared him the winner.

Asked recently if Mr. Guterres was “doing cartwheels in his office” over Mr. Biden’s choice of Ms. Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador, the secretary general’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, delivered a diplomatic answer.

“I have never known nor can I ever imagine the secretary general doing cartwheels in his office or anywhere else,” he said. “What I can tell you is that the secretary general has always worked very closely with every U.S. permanent representative that has been sent by Washington and will do so in the future.”


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