The United Nations (UN) celebrates its 75th anniversary this month during the first-ever virtual General Assembly meetings, marking one of the most consequential and complicated years of the organization’s history. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the perils of gridlocked international agencies charged with facilitating international cooperation.
The UN is emerging as a key arena for ideological competition as authoritarian actors seek to bend the organization toward illiberalism. China has joined hands with Russia to legitimize authoritarian models of online governance in the General Assembly through concepts such as “cyber sovereignty.” It has also maneuvered within the Security Council to fragment international sanctions regimes around Iran and North Korea, while using its growing influence to isolate Taiwan and silence criticism of its rampant human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Against this backdrop, CNAS experts are examining the risks of resurgent authoritarianism in the UN, while devising comprehensive solutions for managing these challenges. Continue reading this edition of Sharper to explore their ideas about how Washington can reassert leadership in the UN in ways that advance its values and interests.
People’s Republic of the United Nations
China is increasingly using its power to change the global governance system from within. If unchecked, these efforts will hasten the export of some of the most harmful aspects of China’s political system, including corruption, mass surveillance, and the repression of individual and collective rights. In a CNAS report, Kristine Lee and Alexander Sullivan investigated China’s approach to seven organs and functions of the United Nations (U.N.). The report yielded a number of critical insights into Beijing’s emerging strategy, which seeks to advance China’s interests in the context of international organizations.
Rising to the China Challenge
In January, CNAS released a major independent assessment, “Rising to the China Challenge,” as required by Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. The report prescribes a comprehensive approach to competition with China and offers nearly 100 specific, actionable policy recommendations across seven critical vectors of American competitiveness. “To ensure American competitiveness in the region,” the authors wrote, “the United States will need to increase its diplomatic investments and develop a nimble, innovative, and responsive diplomatic strategy.”
The Razor’s Edge: Liberalizing the Digital Surveillance Ecosystem
The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating global trends in digital surveillance. However, this global trend toward increased surveillance is taking shape differently in repressive regimes, open societies, and the nation-states in between. In a CNAS report, expert Kara Frederick warns, “China submitted every standard related to surveillance technology to the United Nations in the past three years, in an attempt to influence how this technology is used throughout the world and to displace existing U.S. influence.”
Experts from across the Center have offered timely analysis on America's role in the global governance system.
- "U.S. retrenchment empowers only China," Kristine Lee writes in Foreign Affairs. "Beijing is eager to expand its influence on the world stage to serve its narrow interests, and U.S. withdrawal has pushed beleaguered UN agencies further into China’s orbit, ultimately making the world less hospitable to U.S. interests."
- Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi warn in Foreign Affairs, "As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response. It is working to tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries, and even organize other governments. The sheer chutzpah of China’s move is hard to overstate."
- "Rather than a replay of the Cold War, a new kind of competition is emerging," Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner observe in The Washington Post, "one that eludes neat concepts such as containment and engagement that defined America’s previous approach to great-power politics."
- "Beijing’s leverage over the WHO cannot be understood independently of a much longer and broader campaign, one that aims to bend the arc of global governance toward a more illiberal orientation that privileges the interests of authoritarian actors," Kristine Lee argues in POLITICO Magazine.
- "Among the most glaring failures of the COVID-19 era," Edward Fishman and Siddharth Mohandas write in Foreign Affairs, "has been the near total absence of effective international coordination to fight the novel coronavirus."
- Anthony Vinci warns in The Atlantic, "The problem is that the United States and its allies currently lack the ability to respond to the type of geo-economic threats that China is making. Specifically, they need a means of taking collective action when Beijing attempts to use economic power as a tool of political coercion."
In the News
Featuring commentary and analysis by Kristine Lee, Ilan Goldenberg, Ely Ratner, and Peter Harrell.
Across the Center
America Competes 2020
This January, CNAS launched “America Competes 2020,” a Center-wide initiative to renew American competitiveness at home and abroad. Amid increasingly fractured and partisan policy debates, CNAS will produce specific, actionable policy recommendations for how the United States can compete more effectively across a range of vital national security arenas, including by revitalizing U.S. alliances and diplomacy.
About the Sharper Series
The CNAS Sharper series features curated analysis and commentary from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges in U.S. foreign policy. From the future of America's relationship with China to the state of U.S. sanctions policy and more, each collection draws on the reports, interviews, and other commentaries produced by experts across the Center to explore how America can strengthen its competitive edge.
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