U.S. State Department Appoints Envoy to Counter Chinese Influence at the U.N.

The Trump administration’s retreat from multilateralism left a political void that China is seeking to fill. Now, the United States wants to turn back the clock.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2018. Andy Wong/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department has appointed a new special envoy with a mandate to stall China’s growing influence at the United Nations and other international organizations that the Trump administration has, until now, largely snubbed or ignored.

The new envoy, Mark Lambert—whose appointment has not been publicly announced—served until recently as the U.S. special envoy for North Korea. His departure comes as U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to close a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has stalled, and as Trump’s top negotiator for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, has transitioned to a new role as deputy secretary of state.

The United States has grown increasingly alarmed at China’s success at rallying the United Nations behind key foreign-policy initiatives—including the Belt and Road Initiative and efforts led by Russia and backed by Beijing to establish a new cybersecurity treaty—and securing top positions of influence in international organizations.

Critics say that the United States has inadvertently helped pave the way for China’s rapid ascent at the United Nations and other world bodies by retreating from its leadership position in multilateral organizations and by promoting poor candidates for top jobs at international agencies. The decision to confront China directly over its rising role, rather than competing directly for influence, may alienate some potential allies, which may be anxious about picking a fight with Beijing.

“The Trump administration’s failure to lead at the U.N. has created a vacuum that China has been happy to fill,” said Richard Gowan, the U.N. representative for the International Crisis Group. “Rather than crudely try to counter China, the U.S. should get back to showing some leadership and regaining credibility in New York.”

“This decision will make a lot of U.S. allies very uncomfortable,” he added. “The Europeans in particular are very nervous about Chinese influence at the U.N. but don’t want a headlong collision with Beijing.”

But others think it makes sense to concentrate U.S. efforts in one office.

“The administration is right to focus on China’s increasing influence at the United Nations, but it is an issue that extends beyond New York, to Geneva and the specialized agencies and funds and programs,” said Brett Schaeffer, a U.N. expert at the Heritage Foundation. “Having somebody take a look at the issue across the entire U.N. system might provide an opportunity to weigh how best to advance U.S. interests and counter Chinese influence where the U.S. views it to be detrimental.”

This past December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a Chinese- and Russian-backed U.N. General Assembly cybersecurity resolution, setting the stage for international negotiations on a new cyber-treaty. The United States and its Western allies opposed the move, voicing fears that China, Russia, and other autocratic government would use the measure to strengthen their grips on internet use.

In June 2019, China’s then-vice minister for agriculture, Qu Dongyu, routed the U.S.-backed candidate, Davit Kirvalidze of Georgia, in the race to lead the Food and Agriculture Organization, gaining 108 votes to Kirvalidze’s 12.

“We’ve got some lessons to learn from that experience that we’re now applying to some other battles coming up,” David Hale, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, told State Department staffers at a town hall meeting late last year. An account of the confidential briefing was reviewed by Foreign Policy.

Lambert’s first major challenge in the new special envoy role will be to prevent a Beijing-backed Chinese candidate, Wang Binying, from winning the March 5-6 election for a new director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization, which is currently headed by an Australian, Francis Gurry, who will step down in September. Wang is one of 10 candidates vying for the top job.

On Dec. 16, 2019, four lawmakers, including Sens. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and Tom Cotton, a Republican, wrote to Trump expressing “concern” about China’s bid to lead the intellectual property body.

“Given China’s persistent violations of intellectual property protections, including through trade secret theft, corporate espionage, and forced transfer of technology, the United States and its allies must stand firmly against such a move,” they wrote.

“We cannot let a regime, which continues to blatantly undermine the rules-based system by failing to ensure open markets or respect for intellectual property rights, ascend as the leader of global intellectual property policy,” they added.

The idea of appointing Lambert as “special envoy for multilateral integrity” was noted in passing last week by State Department officials during a briefing on Taiwan to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Another U.S. official referred to it as the “special envoy for countering malign influences” and said that it was focused on China’s role in international organizations.

The disclosure about Lambert’s appointment irked some lawmakers who say they have been pressing the administration for years to consult with Congress on the appointment of special envoys—or to at least explain why they are needed. Lambert did not respond to an email request for comment. A State Department spokesperson emailed Foreign Policy a statement saying:

“Multilateral institutions and their leadership need to reflect the principles of transparency, rule of law, and democracy under which they were established.  Mr. Lambert, a career Foreign Service Officer, has been assigned to the Bureau of International Organization Affairs as a member of a diverse team of diplomatic professionals working to ensure the integrity of multilateral institutions.  This includes countering the malign influences of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and others in the UN system.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to shrink the number of special envoys during his time in office, saying they duplicated the work of State Department officials. Tillerson’s effort to scrap multiple special envoy positions was one of the few proposals that had popular support among diplomats amid his controversial push to overhaul and reform the department.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reversed that trend, appointing a raft of senior envoys to run point on some of the administration’s top foreign-policy priorities: Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and North Korea. The State Department also has special envoys for Sudan and the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate share the State Department’s concerns about the rise of China. But they have faulted the administration for turning away from international organizations and creating a political opportunity for countries like China and Russia to fill the gap.

“This is not exactly what winning looks like,” said one Democratic congressional aide. “This is all extraordinarily predictable. You create a vacuum by threatening to cut funding or by actually cutting funding and then what do you expect is going to happen? These are unforced errors and turnovers; we are creating space for the Chinese and Russians and they are taking advantage.”

“This administration has not exactly been in the forefront of fighting for international organizations; just the opposite,” said the congressional aide. “The Chinese and the Russians are cleaning our clocks on a regular basis.”

Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this story.

This story has been updated to include the State Department’s official response.

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

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