Personnel Is Power: Why China Is Winning At The United Nations

In the new era of strategic competition, international organizations have become a battleground for amassing influence and establishing international norms. Countries compete against one another not only by asserting power through the United Nations General Assembly, the Security Council, or other UN organizations but also through employment of their nationals in the UN system.

While American citizens have historically enjoyed relatively high levels of employment at the United Nations, they have fallen short of expected levels of employment. Many UN organizations link staff recruitment to geographical distribution, membership status, financial contributions, and share of the global population. As the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted when it examined the issue more than a decade ago, “In 2009, the United States was underrepresented, based on formal and informal targets, at all five of the UN organizations GAO reviewed…. This follows general U.S. underrepresentation at most of these organizations from 2006 to 2009.”

The GAO is conducting an updated assessment, but UN statistics suggest that report will conclude, once again, that the UN system should employ more American nationals than it does.

In contrast, China has had remarkable success in increasing employment of its nationals in the UN system. In 2009, the UN employed 794 Chinese nationals. In 2021, it employed 1,471, an 85 percent increase. This increase coincides with Beijing’s increasing contributions, but also follows a concerted effort by Beijing to boost employment of Chinese nationals through regular means and by taking advantage of the UN’s Junior Professional Officer (JPO) program to subsidize access to UN employment.

Additionally, when Chinese nationals have been elected to lead UN organizations, Beijing has used these opportunities both to increase hiring of Chinese nationals and to use these organizations to promote their national interests. For example, in 2019, Secretary-General Fang Liu of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) advanced policies dictated by Beijing, including new air routes instituted in violation of ICAO procedures. Liu also concealed cyber security breaches linked to China that threatened the security of ICAO, its member states, and the aviation industry.

Seeking to address America’s shortfall, Congress and the previous and current administrations have sought to increase awareness and support for UN employment of Americans in the U.S. Department of State. The Trump administration sought to counter China’s influence by establishing an Office of Multilateral Competitiveness in the State Department’s Bureau of International Organizations and tasking it with tracking and supporting U.S. employment in UN system. With funding from Congress, the Biden State Department reconfigured and renamed the unit as the Office of Multilateral Strategy and Personnel (MSP) and charged it with similar responsibilities along with coordinating U.S. efforts in UN elections.

The effort to increase U.S. employment in the UN system is more than simple national pride or getting America’s share. Unlike nationals from China and other authoritarian countries, who can face grave threats and pressure to act in the interests of their governments even when it violates the purposes and mission of their organizations, U.S. citizens and those from many other democratic countries tend to respect the missions and responsibilities of the organizations and honor their oaths to serve as independent international civil servants. Hiring independent employees benefits the UN and, through the neutral, fair application of their missions, the member states.

On the positive side, the United States has expanded its support for JPOs. These entry-level UN positions are subsidized by governments and often lead to formal employment as participants’ familiarity with the organization gives them a head start on other applicants. But JPOS are expensive, approximately $400,000 for each officer. The expense limits this avenue.

Overall, the United States needs to be more effective at alerting U.S. citizens of UN employment opportunities, guiding their applications, and supporting them after they apply.

However, MSP has gotten off to a slow start. Modestly staffed, the Office’s personnel team created a website and database to encourage Americans interested in UN employment to submit their information. While well-intentioned, the website is anything but user-friendly. Buried deep within the State Department’s website, the database known as “Advocacy+” includes an intake form for candidates interested in receiving State Department advocacy for a UN position. Progress is slow-going. Despite the website being live for a year, it only started accepting data last December.

So far, only a few hundred candidates have submitted information. The candidates that the Department has advocated for have been, largely, brought to their attention through ad hoc State Department channels. Additionally, no data exist on the success rate for those candidates who have shared their data with Advocacy+. Given the Administration’s emphasis on this effort, the lack of data, follow-through, and impact is inexcusable.

Moving forward, the State Department should hone and expand its recruiting, focusing on those individuals whose experience or skills might make them attractive candidates. For instance, Foreign Service Officers who leave service or candidates who don’t make it through to FSO selection process, should also be considered as a potential recruiting pool. They often have language skills and backgrounds that lend themselves to work in international organizations. Similarly, congressional staff focused on foreign policy, former U.S. military, USAID professionals, and Peace Corps volunteers leaving service are potential candidates that should be made aware of UN employment opportunities.

Congress should also explore opportunities to expand the Department’s authority to consult and advocate for U.S. candidates seeking employment at the United Nations and scale up existing efforts through representational events. In a welcome step, the U.S. State Department and senior-level administration officials have stepped up advocacy for U.S. candidates in recent elections. Members of Congress should similarly consider campaigning on behalf of Americans seeking leadership positions in UN organizations.

The Biden administration has made progress in winning some key elections at international organizations, including at International Telecommunication Union. But the State Department needs to show the same level of commitment to boost American representation among the professional class at the United Nations.

Morgan Lorraine Viña is Vice President for Government Affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and the former chief of staff to U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki R. Haley. Brett Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Originally published in 19FortyFive.