Senior Officials Concede Loss of U.S. Clout as Trump Prepares For U.N. Summit

State Department meeting highlights internal alarm at China’s growing influence in international organizations.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25, 2018. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On the eve of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, two top State Department officials voiced alarm about America’s loss of diplomatic influence as China mounts an ambitious effort to fill the vacuum, according to an account of a confidential internal staff meeting.

The concerns are emerging at a time when the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO)—which oversees U.S. relations with the U.N. and other international organizations—is enduring a sustained period of turmoil marked by sagging morale, staff flight, and difficulties in recruiting fresh talent. Meanwhile, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, who was confirmed on July 31, has yet to take up her assignment in New York. 

John Sullivan, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, and David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, touched on those issues during a closed-door town hall meeting on Aug. 29 with IO staffers. But they expressed particular concern about China’s strategic goal of deepening its influence in the U.N. and other international organizations.

The coming months will be “key times” for the bureau to promote U.S. national security interests in international institutions with the upcoming U.N. General Assembly, Hale said, according to an account of the meeting relayed to Foreign Policy. “It’s only gotten harder as we face the increasing attempts, campaigns, by China to gain greater and greater influence over these organizations,” he said.

Over the last two and a half years, the United States has struggled to rally support within the U.N. to contain the influence of rival powers from Iran to Russia to China, which has effectively mobilized U.N. backing for its Belt and Road Initiative, despite U.S. efforts to counter it. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has also largely dismissed repeated warnings from allies and others that its own retreat from multilateral diplomacy would create a vacuum that could promote chaos or leave room for the rise of authoritarian powers such as China. 

“President Trump and his policy of isolationism has left a giant vacuum around the world,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in June 2018. “Who will fill this vacuum? Authoritarian powers? Anyone at all?”

The rise of China on the world stage has been an inevitable byproduct of its increasing economic clout, which has enabled it to leverage massive foreign investment into broader support for its foreign policy. American allies, particularly from Europe, have been warning Trump administration officials that the relative U.S. retreat from international organizations and trade agreements would accelerate China’s growing influence. 

“The two most severe challenges to the multilateral order today are the relative decline of American power, and the emergence of China as a rival power to the US in global organisations,” according to a recent policy paper by Richard Gowan and Anthony Dworkin of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “[O]ver the last decade, there has been an observable decline in America’s capacity to shape multilateral affairs.”

Asia experts say that the lax U.S. response to China’s growing diplomatic influence in multilateral institutions is inconsistent with its own effort to contain the rise of a rival power. 

“The Trump administration has been all about sharpening the U.S. foreign-policy establishment’s focus on China,” said Kristine Lee, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security. “But to ignore a major component of this equation, of China’s rise in international organizations and multilateral institutions, is shooting yourself in the foot.” 

Last month, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General issued a scathing report accusing the bureau’s Assistant Secretary of State Kevin Moley and a top aide of “hostile treatment” of employees and “harassment” of career employees based on claims that they were “disloyal” due to their perceived political views. Some 50 of IO’s 300 domestic employees have left the bureau since Moley took up the assignment in 2018, and “nearly all of the former employees … stated that poor leadership of the bureau contributed to their decision to depart,” according to the report. Both officials adamantly denied the charges.

Under Moley’s leadership, the bureau has prioritized key issues that are important to the White House, backing efforts to limit access to reproductive health care, rolling back funding for refugees, and advocating budget cuts to U.N. programs. Regional and subject experts have been frozen out of meetings where decisions on policy are made.

On Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for the firing of Moley and anyone else responsible for retaliation against career officials for their perceived political views.

Trump is expected to highlight the global assault on religious freedom when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24. He has surrounded himself with aides who are deeply skeptical of the United Nations and have sought to pare back the U.S. role and funding in the institution. John Bolton, his national security advisor, has long railed against the international institution as an ineffective and bloated bureaucracy for much of his career, including his tenure as U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush. The head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, has advocated, unsuccessfully, billions of dollars in cuts to U.S. contributions to programs for the U.N. and other international organizations. Under Trump, the United States has withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council and pushed to cut off funding to the U.N. Population Fund and Palestinian refugee agency

Chinese nationals have seen increasing success competing for top jobs in the U.N. and other international organizations. In June, China outmaneuvered the United States in the campaign for the top job at the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization, delivering Washington a humbling defeat that U.N. watchers say is emblematic of Beijing’s growing clout in the international institutions the United States has pulled back from under Trump. Beijing’s favored candidate, Qu Dongyu, a Chinese vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs, won a rare first-round victory, receiving 108 of the 191 votes in secret balloting. A French candidate, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, supported by the European Union, captured 71 votes. The United States, which broke with its European allies, backed a Georgian candidate, Davit Kirvalidze. He won only 12 votes.

But with a victory for China looking assured, the United States circulated a paper shortly before the vote to delegates urging them to back any candidate capable of beating the Chinese.

“Our primary objective is to beat the Chinese candidate,” according to the U.S. paper, which was obtained by Devex, a news organization that covers humanitarian and development issues. A diplomatic source confirmed to Foreign Policy that the paper cited in the report was consistent with the U.S. negotiating position in the days running up to the vote.

The U.S. paper contended that “Chinese leaders at INTERPOL, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have demonstrated a bias towards Chinese foreign policy and a lack of transparency and accountability.” It also said “the Chinese DG [director general] candidate has shown a blatant disregard for critical issues, such as those involving sexual harassment and whistleblower protection.” 

Hale mentioned the Food and Agriculture Organization debacle in his discussions with the IO bureau, according to the account, noting that “we’ve got some lessons to learn from that experience that we’re now applying to some of the other battles coming up.”

At the same time, the bureau seems to have done little to promote American nationals for jobs at the U.N. When one IO staffer noted that the department’s five-member unit responsible for promoting jobs for U.S. citizens in international organizations had shrunk to zero and asked what strategy was being considered to change that, Hale seemed flummoxed.

“I’m not aware of the strategy, honestly,” Hale said. “I wasn’t aware that that office was completely unstaffed.”

An aide stepped in to assure the staff that he was working with senior bureau officials to get the office back up and running.

But Sullivan and Hale made it clear that pushing back on China’s ambitions in international organizations is a key priority of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Sullivan acknowledged the diminished role of the State Department since the early days of the Trump administration, recalling that the department was on its “back foot” with the White House during former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tenure.

Asked how the treatment of staff uncovered in the inspector general’s report meshes with Pompeo’s pledge, early in his tenure, to restore the “swagger” of the State Department’s diplomatic corps, Hale answered: “It doesn’t. It absolutely doesn’t. That’s why we are here.”

Sullivan conceded that implementing administration policy with the White House, the National Security Council, and other agencies “has been a challenge.”

Nevertheless, he said he continues to fight for the priorities of the State Department and the secretary of state, in interagency negotiations and in discussions with the White House. But he conceded that he has “probably lost more battles than I’ve won.”

But he also found that senior State Department officials are often paralyzed by a fear stepping out of line with the White House, particularly when it comes to politically sensitive relations with China.

Sullivan said he had detected a certain “timidity” by senior career officials and political appointees when it came to engaging more proactively on China, fearing they might get “crosswise” with the president or his trade representative if they promoted policies that threatened to disrupt trade negotiations with Beijing. 

“I wanted at a minimum to provide some top cover to say, ‘Look, we do our job, we talk about Xinjiang, we talk about human rights, we talk about what’s going on in Hong Kong,’” Sullivan said, referring to China’s mass internment of ethnic Muslim minorities in its Xinjiang province and widespread protests in Hong Kong over Beijing’s rule.

Hale and other staffers harkened back to the pre-Trump era, when the IO bureau was at the center of action in diplomatic negotiations at the United Nations. One staffer recalled that the bureau had been a principal player in U.N. summitry but that “over the last few years that power has withered away.” 

Hale sought to assure the gathering that the bureau could recover its standing but that it will depend on how they move forward. “People are going to be watching what we’re doing now,” he said. “If we get it right things will start to fall in place. If we get it wrong then obviously we’re going to continue to suffer.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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