September 24, 2020

Sharper: America and the United Nations

Analysis from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges in U.S. foreign policy.

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.”


Rising to the China Challenge

The United States and China are locked in strategic competition over the future of the Indo-Pacific—the most populous, dynamic, and consequential region in the world....

Indo-Pacific Security

People’s Republic of the United Nations

China is increasingly using its economic, political, and institutional power to change the global governance system from within....

Technology & National Security

The Razor’s Edge: Liberalizing the Digital Surveillance Ecosystem

Democracies must resist the impulses to build permanent digital surveillance infrastructures or risk losing a broader global contest between open societies and repressive regi...


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."
Indo-Pacific Security

The United States Can’t Quit on the UN

U.S. retrenchment empowers only China....

Indo-Pacific Security

The Coronavirus Could Reshape Global Order

With hundreds of millions of people now isolating themselves around the world, the novel coronavirus pandemic has become a truly global event. And while its geopolitical impli...

  • "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.
Indo-Pacific Security

The U.S.-China confrontation is not another Cold War. It’s something new.

With U.S.-China relations in free fall, the Trump administration’s chief arms control negotiator recently proclaimed that "we know how to win these races and we know how to sp...

Indo-Pacific Security

It's Not Just the WHO: How China Is Moving on the Whole U.N.

President Donald Trump has decided to halt U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, accusing it of kowtowing to China in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic by...

  • "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."
Indo-Pacific Security

A Council of Democracies Can Save Multilateralism

The world desperately needs a new institution that is both global in reach and unified in vision....

Technology & National Security

How to Stop China From Imposing Its Values

The United States and its allies currently lack the ability to respond to the type of geo-economic threats that China is making....

In the News

Featuring commentary and analysis by Kristine Lee, Ilan Goldenberg, Ely Ratner, and Peter Harrell.

Indo-Pacific Security

Trump’s critique of WHO may be a diversion, but it resonates beyond the White House

President Trump is not happy with the World Health Organization. He is not the only one. On Tuesday, in the middle of a global pandemic, Trump announced that he is freezing f...

Middle East Security

Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran

The Trump administration’s Iran strategy will face a key test this week as the United States calls for a vote at the United Nations on its resolution to extend an arms embargo...

Indo-Pacific Security

As U.S. struggles to stem coronavirus, China asserts itself as global leader

With Italy in dire need of medical equipment, an economic superpower stepped in to help. No, not the United States. It was China. Beijing last week promised Rome a thousand ...

Energy, Economics & Security

Trump steps up Iran fight in final election stretch

President Trump is ramping up a fight with both Iran and U.S. allies with just weeks to go before the presidential election.The Trump administration insists all United Nations...

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.


America Competes 2020

America Competes 2020 is a Center-wide initiative featuring cutting-edge CNAS research, publications, events, and multimedia aimed at strengthening the United States’ strategi...

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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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    • Reports
    • May 14, 2019
    People’s Republic of the United Nations

    China is increasingly using its economic, political, and institutional power to change the global governance system from within....

    By Kristine Lee & Alexander Sullivan

  • Commentary
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    • April 3, 2024
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    The importance of securing the maritime domain is rapidly increasing. From the South China Sea to the Red Sea, the U.S. and its allies are experiencing escalating challenges t...

    By Anna Pederson & Charles Horn

  • Reports
    • March 29, 2024
    Countering Coercion

    The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC or China) has been engaging in gray zone activity—coercive behavior that is aimed at changing the status quo but that is below a threshol...

    By Lisa Curtis & Nilanthi Samaranayake

  • Congressional Testimony
    • March 26, 2024
    Deterring the Powerful Enemy

    It is a privilege to testify here on matters that are important to the vital national security interests of the United States, as well as those of our other allies and partner...

    By Tom Shugart

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