Analysis | Back at the table: Revitalizing U.S. multilateralism through State Department reform

Carly Kabot

If the Biden administration wants to make good on its promise to revitalize U.S. multilateralism, the President must prioritize diplomatic reform that transforms the U.S. role in international organizations.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks and signs a U.S.-Japan Space Cooperation Framework Agreement at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. on January 13, 2023. (Image: U.S. Department of State on Flickr/Cropped from original)

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2021, President Biden pledged that the United States is “back at the table,” promising to lead the fight against the many challenges facing the international community. From mitigating climate change to championing health security amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden set an ambitious agenda founded on shared interests and common threats. To effectively “bring multilateralism back to U.S. foreign policy,” Biden must envision a State Department ready to take on the increasingly complex challenges of the twenty-first century.

Strengthening U.S. multilateral leadership is as much about peace, freedom, security, and prosperity as great power competition. China’s increasing activism in international organizations threatens the rules-based international order, which the Biden administration aims to uphold. In re-envisioning American multilateralism, the United States can position itself to take on a rising China while leading responses to many of the world’s problems.

The China challenge

President Xi Jinping’s more assertive foreign policy jeopardizes the already fragile liberal world order established in the wake of the Second World War. From taking a more active role in the Security Council to spreading conspiracy theories online, China is exerting its influence in a significantly more aggressive way than under Deng Xiaoping. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s opposition to key international bodies, including WTO, WHO, UNHRC, and UNESCO, weakened global institutions, ideals, and norms, deeply damaging U.S. credibility among its allies and adversaries alike. As the Biden administration attempts to reassert global leadership, the President faces a two-fold challenge: relegitimize U.S. leadership while countering China’s.

What the Chinese have already done — improving the quantity (but not necessarily the quality) of their diplomatic presence — the United States must do better. Beyond securing leadership positions across U.N. specialized agencies, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has strategically placed “its nationals in multilateral standard-setting bodies and through the use of economic and political leverage to reshape” global norms to “accommodate its authoritarian system of governance.” Though “Chinese nationals only represent a small portion of overall U.N. staff,” the key takeaway is that while Chinese “employment is growing…U.N. employment for the other permanent members of the Security Council has fallen or remained steady as a percentage of total U.N. system employment.” China’s increasing power in the United Nations should not be overstated, but its commitment to gain influence must compel U.S. leaders to shift their priorities.

Shifting power, changing focus

In his October 2021 speech on modernizing American diplomacy, Secretary Blinken called for a “reorientation of U.S. foreign policy” that prioritizes transnational security challenges. While Blinken recognized the need to ramp up “our expertise, our skills, and our training,” the State Department’s “policy orientation, training, and assignment incentives are heavily weighted to bilateral, not multilateral, diplomacy.” In a world where none of the above challenges can be tackled “effectively alone,” current reforms in the International Organizations Bureau do not go far enough. It’s time to recognize that bilateral and multilateral diplomacy must be “strategically coherent and complementary.” The recent creation of the Office of Multilateral Strategy and Personnel is an important step in countering China’s influence at the United Nations. However, offices are only as effective as their diplomats are skilled.

Breaking down the “separate silos” of multilateral and bilateral diplomacy requires a “cadre of multilateral diplomats,” according to the American Academy of Diplomacy. The Foreign Service Institute should better integrate multilateral diplomacy into its curriculum by emphasizing how transnational challenges affect U.S. bilateral relationships with countries like China, covering issues from nuclear nonproliferation to international trade. For example, while the United States focuses less on bilateral relationships in Africa and Latin America, China’s influence on international finance issues could negatively affect the U.S. relationship with much of the developing world. As multilateral challenges grow in scale and scope, tacking on more offices — which often end up understaffed and underfunded — is not sustainable.

(For more information on State Department reform, check out ISD’s section on A Better Diplomacy)

When joining the Foreign Service, new officers select a “cone or career track:” Administrative, Consular, Economic, Political and Public Diplomacy.” By adding Multilateral Affairs as a sixth cone, the department can ensure better coordination and communication on multilateral issues across functional and regional bureaus. Many U.S. allies, including France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, have specialized offices or training programs for multilateral diplomacy. In addition, the Foreign Service Institute should support tailored programs that focus on how to “work with and influence international organizations” and “reach out to other parts of the U.S. government.” While greater education on multilateral issues is essential for all Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), understanding how to effectively leverage U.S. participation in international organizations will be indispensable for preparing a successful Multilateral Affairs Officer.

Finally, mid-level and senior FSOs assigned to a multilateral mission for the first time should have mandated training on the specific mission to which they are posted. Diplomats assigned to multilateral missions are the face of the United States. Yet, a study from the American Academy of Diplomacy revealed that many of these FSOs are tasked with speaking on behalf of the United States without any formal training in multilateral negotiations. The department needs to change the “nearly universal perception” that assignments to multilateral missions are not career-advancing by rewarding FSOs at international organizations rather than disadvantaging them. As the world undergoes profound change, promotion boards must place a higher value on the “complexity and impact of multilateral diplomacy.” Diplomats should be encouraged to specialize in multilateral diplomacy — and the promotion system should reward them appropriately.

Reimagining multilateral engagement

Successfully reimagining U.S. multilateral engagement hinges on better positioning Foreign Service Officers and civil servants within international organizations. In the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, the department “should identify positions in multilateral missions that could be filled by civil service employees,” according to the American Academy of Diplomacy, and offer the same specialized training received by Foreign Service Officers. Investing in training across the department will serve bilateral relationships more effectively as challenges abroad converge.

Within the IO Bureau, three offices would significantly benefit from an expansion of civil service positions: the Office of Management Policy and Resources (IO/MPR), the Office of Public Affairs and Outreach (IO/PAO), and the Office of Economic and Development Affairs (IO/EDA). Given China’s influence on the issues IO/EDA covers, including financing, trade, and development, this office requires a more all-hands-on-deck approach. Together, IO/MPR and IO/PAO should establish a formal way of tracking and communicating vacancies in United Nations agencies to compete with China more proactively — beyond participating in the United Nations Junior Professional Officer Program. Across the United Nations’ five regional economic commissions, many entry-level positions are open to citizens of any country. However, these commissions focus on issues highly relevant to great power competition, including financing for development, trade and investment, energy and science, technology, and innovation. The United States cannot expect to be back at the table if it locks itself out of the room.

To reform IO/EDA and to reflect shifting power dynamics in the United Nations more accurately, the department should dedicate more attention to combatting China’s influence across the United Nations system by identifying gaps in strategic engagement. Across these five economic commissions, Beijing has gained significant leverage over G77 countries that have felt neglected by major powers like the United States. As countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), more than 60 countries and two-thirds of the world’s population, rack up more debt, China will continue to strengthen its grip on voting power throughout the United Nations system. While China’s BRI poses as a way for the country to make investments in infrastructure globally, the project has been widely criticized for debt-trapping developing economies. The PRC has not been shy to use intimidation to align the BRI with the 2030 Agenda, converting “growing economic stature” into “more resources for bargaining and coercion.”

Decisive, diverse, and inclusive leadership in international organizations is only one of the many ways the United States will have to adapt its diplomacy to combat rising Chinese authoritarianism. Still, it represents a strategic and moral opportunity for the Biden administration to fulfill current promises and secure future objectives. The United States must reimagine what leadership looks like in a changing world and inspire others to join the call. The fate of the international community, of people, planet, and global prosperity, hangs in the balance.

Carly Kabot is a senior at Georgetown University majoring in International Politics and minoring in Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs. As a Humes Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, she explores the effect of the PRC’s increasing influence in international organizations on international security and how the United States can strengthen multilateral leadership.

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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit for more.

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