United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres congratulated President-elect Joe Biden and Vice president-elect Kamala Harris on their election win Monday, stressing the critical relationship between the world body and the United States.
“He congratulates the president-elect and vice president-elect and reaffirms that the partnership between the United States and the United Nations is an essential pillar of the international cooperation needed to address the dramatic challenges facing the world today,” Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
Dujarric said there has been no direct contact yet between the organization and Biden’s team.
Guterres, who took office three weeks before President Donald Trump in January 2016, has worked hard to manage relations with the leader of the U.N.’s largest donor country. It has not always been easy.
“Trump's acts of diplomatic vandalism at the U.N. left diplomats and foreign leaders perplexed and exhausted,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group.
From the outset, Trump pursued his “America First” agenda, which shifted the U.S. away from a multilateral path to a more isolationist one.
He also cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to U.N. agencies.
Among them, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which assists 5.7 million Palestinian refugees. That organization has been unable to fully close the gap since the U.S. — its largest single donor — cut funding by $300 million in 2018 and stopped it completely the following year.
On Monday, UNRWA said it had run out of money to pay 28,000 staff salaries. It needs $70 million by the end of this month to pay full salaries for November and December.
“Without their income, UNRWA staff, the vast majority of whom are refugees themselves, will see their source of livelihoods disappear, and they are very likely to descend into deep poverty,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said.
The Trump administration also withdrew the U.S. from UNESCO and the U.N. Human Rights Council and cut funding to some peacekeeping missions and the U.N. Population Fund.
“Guterres deserves a lot of credit for persevering with the U.S. since 2017, and I think he succeeded in protecting the U.N. against even more financial cuts and diplomatic aggression by Trump,” said Gowan. “The secretary-general must hope he can build a more constructive and normal relationship with the next administration.”
Trump directed his anger over the coronavirus pandemic toward the World Health Organization, which he said was too “China-centric,” freezing funding and announcing plans to leave the organization. That withdrawal will not become final until July 2021. Biden has said he would revoke Trump’s decision on his first day in office.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted his good wishes Sunday to Biden and Harris, saying he looks forward to working with them and their teams.
Early in Trump’s tenure, he declared that the U.S. would leave the Paris Climate Agreement. After a lengthy withdrawal process, it became official last week. Biden has made climate action a pillar of his campaign.
“By reentering the Paris Agreement on Day One, President-elect Biden can boost confidence in international cooperation and begin to restore U.S. standing in the world,” said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the Washington-based World Resources Institute.
The Trump administration has also cut refugee admissions to the U.S. to their lowest levels at a time when numbers are at historic highs — nearly 80 million people are forcibly displaced globally, including 26 million refugees.
U.N. Refugee Chief Filippo Grandi expressed his hope of working closely with the incoming administration on this issue.
On several occasions, the administration found itself isolated at the U.N.’s most powerful body, the Security Council, on issues including Iran and Israel. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal and took unilateral steps on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Analyst Gowan said one of the big questions now is how China will react at the United Nations to a Biden presidency. As the U.S. stepped back at the U.N., China looked to step into the vacuum.
“It has gained a lot of influence at the U.N. in the Trump era,” Gowan said of Beijing. “If a Biden administration wins back friends in multilateral affairs, it will be harder for Beijing to gain more power in the U.N. system. That could lead to more friction between Beijing and Washington, although I think Biden's team will look for ways to cooperate with China at the U.N. if it can.”
The Elders, a group of former world leaders and diplomats, offered their support to Biden, saying in a statement Monday they hope the incoming administration would renew America’s “commitment to the multilateral system at a time when U.S. leadership is urgently needed.”
“We need to restore cooperation and compassion as the necessary guides of world affairs, from climate action and nuclear nonproliferation to gender equality and respecting the rights of migrants and refugees,” said former Irish president and chair of The Elders, Mary Robinson.