Against the backdrop of renewed great power competition and an emerging multipolar world, it is crucial that the United States prioritize its engagement within multilateral institutions, including those in the United Nations system. As China looks to supplant the U.S.-led rules-based order, Washington should foster better relations with developing nations and emerging powers, particularly those in the Global South. Even as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies, Washington should avoid putting countries in a position where they must make zero-sum choices. How can Washington do this?

President Joe Biden speaks during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 21, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden speaks during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 21, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The answer lies in the multilateral order Washington designed and has led since World War II. While “minilateralism” is all the rage in international politics these days, the United States should avoid excessively relying on these smaller blocs, which cannot take the place of multilateral organizations and may alienate nonaligned countries. The foundations of the multilateral system are based on norms and laws established and influenced by the United States. With China expanding its influence in that very system and intending to mold its future, it is vital for the United States to proactively engage and outcompete an authoritarian China in the system the United States designed. 

Minilateralism: Pragmatic but Counterproductive?

As great power rivalry intensifies, Henry Kissinger has called for pragmatism through non-permanent alliances instead of “tying up a country in big multilateral structures.” There is something to be said for such realism, with expedient agreements among major powers allowing for the maintenance of peace and security. Indeed, it has perhaps this thinking that has fostered the growing trend of "minilateralism."

As Husain Haqqani and Narayanappa Janardhan put it, minilateralism is a foreign policy strategy between bilateralism and multilateralism, and it is on the rise with middle powers preferring a multi-aligned world instead of choosing sides in the U.S.-China competition. Prominent examples of these smaller, adaptable groupings of like-minded countries include the QUAD, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS or the G7. They focus largely on specific technical and economic agendas, such as technology infrastructure, and seek to overcome the decision-making complexities of larger organizations. Unlike regional organizations like the African Union which are formally, and critically, part of the multilateral system — these minilateral arrangements are often not legally binding and can provide effective means for limited strategic cooperation, making them attractive for countries seeking to maintain nonalignment, such as India, and resource-rich regions, like the Middle East.

Many of the players within these blocs are described as “middle powers,” which includes developed nations with a significant global role such as Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Singapore and South Korea; “petro-powers” like Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and the UAE; and large developing countries like Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey and Vietnam. These states increasingly desire a greater influence and decision-making power in the global order.

Additionally, today’s minlateralism often works hand-in-hand with expansive export controls, sanctions and protectionist policies. Recently the Economist cautioned that these types of U.S. trade restrictions had the potential to weaken American influence in global norms and multilateral institutions. This argument contends that Washington is taking a more insular posture that could fail to counter the narrative of American decline and foster more transactional foreign policy trends, particularly in emerging economies, jeopardizing the U.S. role as the liberal order “linchpin.” Economist Paul Krugman has warned that in a world of multiple equal international players, protectionist policies can result in a “beggar-thy-neighbor” situation, where the short-term gains of one nation come at the expense of others, escalating into trade wars. These policies impede global economic growth by disrupting the intricate web of global supply chains and hindering the efficient allocation of resources, ultimately causing more harm than good.

Amid the resurfacing of great-power politics and new minilateral economic alliances, a number of commentators have suggested that U.S. policymakers should move beyond a zero-sum view of global relations. This proposition is based on the idea that we should draw upon historical diplomatic tactics to manage international rivalries, by setting up shared rules for the entire globe, working together on mutual problems and thus, mitigating the potential for devastatingly violent confrontations. Indeed, this is what much of the world would like to see. From Africa to Southeast Asia to Latin America, many countries have made clear that they do not want to be stuck in the middle of U.S.-China competition and fear what could come out of U.S.-China conflict.

U.S.-China Tensions Are a Global Concern

People around the world are calling for greater cooperation and reducing the threats posed by U.S.-China competition. In a recent survey conducted in Singapore, South Korea and the Philippines, over 90% of participants expressed apprehension over escalating U.S.-China tensions. Earlier this year at G7 summit in Japan, Indonesian President Joko Widodo denounced the existing polarization in geopolitics and urged greater international cooperation based on equality, inclusivity and mutual understanding. Given the very real potential for armed conflict in the South China Sea, it is easy to understand the concern in the region.

Even in the United States, people are increasingly anxious about the possibility of a military confrontation between the world’s superpowers. Majorities in Europe and Australia prefer neutrality in a hypothetical war, indicating a preference for peace during these dangerous times of mounting strategic rivalry.

How China Wields Influence

For the United States and China, multilateral institutions are a frontline for competition — as well as potential forums for cooperation on a multitude of issues that affect the whole world. Working within the U.N., the United States can better counter the Chinese narratives of U.S. malign hegemony. Though China and Russia often criticize the "rules-based order" — a term they use derogatorily to describe the U.S.-led system — it's merely another label for the multilateral system in which they are both active participants.

In Daniel Runde’s new book “The American Imperative,” he compellingly advocates for a spirited competition with China inside multilateral institutions. Runde explains that China is actively working to modify global systems to advance its interests. He argues, however, that the potential obsolescence of the current multilateral systems will more likely be due to Western complacency and lack of insight into the motivations of rising powers like China, rather than a malicious intent on the part of Beijing or other competitors to undermine the West. (For more, watch this conversation with Runde and the author on his book and competition with China.) 

The United States and its allies set the rules of the current international systems, in large part as a champion of the aspirational principles embodied in its own constitutive documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Proudly owning this history and working within these frameworks should be part of a fulsome strategy for healthy competition with China. To do so, the United States should first consider China’s approach toward wielding influence through the multilateral system. 

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) officially entered the U.N. in 1971. Prior to that, the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwan) held China’s seat in the U.N as a founding member. In 1971, the General Assembly passed Resolution 2758, recognizing the PRC as “the only legitimate representative of China” to the U.N., marking a significant diplomatic shift in international recognition of the Chinese government. Since then, China has progressively strengthened its involvement with the U.N. and many of its subsidiary agencies, funds and programs.  

As a veto-holding permanent member of the UNSC, China — along with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Russia — holds outsized influence over the only international body with binding authority to enforce decisions through the legitimate use of force. However, China has proven to have far broader ambitions that reach well beyond the Security Council.

China is using its influence throughout the multilateral system through “sharp power” — designed to infiltrate and disrupt political and information environments by piercing and penetrating multiple institutions. Rosemary Foot explains that China has deployed a multi-faceted strategy, influencing parts of the U.N. system through enhanced financial contributions, a larger representation of Chinese nationals as U.N. civilian staff (particularly in leadership positions), and notably, increased allocation of resources to peacekeeping operations, among other things.

Courtney Fung and Shing-hon Lam have found that when countries in the General Assembly side with Beijing on particular votes, they are subsequently more likely to secure U.N. leadership posts — suggesting that China’s support helps to win these posts. This research also shows that China is significantly influencing international institutions, particularly the U.N., by directly engaging with international civil servants to shape the language and documents that form the basis of multilateral activities around the world.

The United States is Not Out of the Game

Maintaining and improving the global systems, largely created and shaped by the United States, requires great attention throughout all levels of the various bodies and institutions. The Biden administration has been working hard to bolster U.S. engagement and counter China’s growing influence within the multilateral system.

In September 2022, forceful U.S. campaigning resulted in the election of American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, as secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Bogdan-Martin’s win against Russian candidate Rahsid Ismailov, president of the Russian telecom VimpelCom and a former executive at Huawei, highlighted the increasingly politicized nature of internet governance, just one of the domains supported by multilateral institutions where battles in the great power competition are taking place.

This year, the United States also successfully advocated for the election of American Amy Pope to head the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Beyond just a key humanitarian agency working on migration within the U.N. system, IOM works on a variety of other peacebuilding and development initiatives in countries of great strategic importance to the United States. Moreover, IOM is known for its deep field penetration into subnational locations in some of the most remote and difficult environments around the globe.

The United States recently rejoined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Paris-based body best known for its World Heritage Sites. "This is a strong act of confidence, in UNESCO and in multilateralism," UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay said in a statement. Undersecretary of State for Management John Bass indicated in March that rejoining would enable the United States to better compete globally with China.

Doubling Down on Multilateralism

The United States should step up to the competition inside the system by playing by the rules and beating China at our own game. U.S. policymakers from across the political spectrum should find common ground to counter China’s growing influence within multilateral institutions.

To start, the United States should add to its recent high-level political appointments in the U.N. by securing more influential positions at the senior and middle-management levels of international civil service. American leaders throughout the U.N. system should be unabashed champions of our cherished values, like the rights of women and minorities, freedom of speech and religious tolerance. At the same time, this U.S. cadre should show the world the effectiveness of U.S. leadership.

The United States should actively work within the U.N. system and other multilateral institutions to address global challenges and to promote values and approaches to global cooperation, human rights, conflict resolution and sustainable development that resonate around the world. Washington should also ensure that its policies comport with and reinforce the rules-based order it champions. Such an effort will advance U.S. interests, preserve U.S. global leadership and undermine Chinese narratives of American hypocrisy.

Washington should also carefully weigh its emphasis and reliance on minilateralism. To be sure, these smaller groupings play an important role in today’s multipolar world. But they should not supersede or replace the multilateral system in U.S. foreign policy. Similarly, there must be a careful, nuanced consideration of the short-term benefits and long-term consequences of protectionist economic policies.

After experiencing extensive devastation in Europe and the unprecedented use of nuclear weapons during World War II, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods international financial institutions were formed. These multilateral systems are the framework and underpinning of one of the most peaceful, prosperous eras in human history. As the U.N. inevitably reforms to better face 21st century challenges, the United States should lead efforts to implement multilateral programs to help ensure global peace and security. This is not the time to give up that role.

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