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Why Biden and Sanders should articulate how they’ll work with the UN to enact their agendas

At the next Democratic presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders are more likely to rehash dated stances on Cuba and the Iraq war than they are to outline a vision of U.S. engagement at the United Nations.

Though Biden and Sanders vow to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the JCPOA, neither has articulated how the U.N., central to both of those agreements, should be utilized to support global stability. The oversight is in plain sight: while both candidates profess a sorely-missed commitment to multilateralism, diplomacy, military restraint, and human rights, the foreign policy pages on both Biden and Sanders’ websites fail to once mention the United Nations.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, however, recently introduced the “Pathway to PEACE” initiative – a package of bills that represent an important step in reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the U.N. A responsible U.S. foreign policy must re-center the Rooseveltian vision of the world, anchored within the U.N.’s international peace and security architecture. To do so comprehensively, presidential candidates should endorse “Pathway to PEACE” and go beyond, committing to adhering unconditionally to international law regarding the use of force, halting arms proliferation and stymieing the militarization of new arenas, and strengthening and expanding U.S. human rights commitments.

Adhering unconditionally to international law regarding the use of force

Biden and Sanders promise to end “endless” wars, stressing the need for Congressional approval for the use of force. Neither cite, however, the U.N. Charter as a prerequisite for U.S. military action. The Charter, which obligates the U.S. to refrain from the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state…” (Article 2.4) without U.N. Security Council authorization (Article 42), is reinforced by the U.S. Constitution (“all treaties made… under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land”). The U.N. Charter provides a strong safeguard from military adventurism.

Additionally, Biden and Sanders loudly criticized the Trump administration’s assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani as unnecessary provocation. Missing was a call for respecting international law, an explanation of how the assassination breached international norms, and a discussion of how targeted killings (“drone strikes”) are problematic under the Geneva Conventions. In this case, strict compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law would have prevented a serious escalation that threatened war.

The U.S. has violated the U.N. Charter and laws of war multiple times in recent decades, weakening international institutions and their ability to prevent conflict. This has resulted in deliberations about and flagrant violations of international law, increasing global instability. To reverse this, Biden and Sanders must enforce the U.N. Charter and Geneva Conventions regarding the use of force in the world. 

Halting arms proliferation and stymieing the militarization of new arenas

The Trump administration has exited nonproliferation treaties while the world has witnessed arms escalation and the Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight than ever. Biden and Sanders support returning to working toward nuclear nonproliferation. In addition to expanding multilateral nonproliferation frameworks, a responsible foreign policy should utilize the U.N. to halt the militarization of cyberspace and outer space.

In cyberspace the threat of a cyberattack triggering an international crisis is well-documented. To prevent such an escalation, the U.S. must join global initiatives and bilateral agreements that are building a consensus on this critical issue. In addition to these initiatives (and others at the U.N.), the U.S. should press for a U.N.-brokered cyberspace code of conduct. All together these initiatives could halt escalation in cyberspace.

In an era when a number of countries have signaled interest to compete in outer space, the U.S. should lead the U.N. to de-conflict. The Trump administration’s Space Force has done the opposite, cavalierly breaking U.S. obligations under the U.N. Outer Space Treaty. That 1967 treaty, championed by the U.S., commits the U.S. to the “use of outer space for peaceful purposes” and bans the placement “in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” A foreign policy committed to multilateralism, diplomacy, and military restraint must reinvigorate U.N. negotiations and related measures to prevent an arms race in space.

Strengthening and expanding U.S. human rights commitments

Today U.S. foreign policy embraces authoritarianism over human rights. Biden and Sanders both commit to re-prioritizing human rights, but both candidates should specify exactly how they will support human rights.

Rep. Omar’s “Pathway” does this, introducing three bills focused on specific international treaties seeking to protect the rule of law and vulnerable populations (The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Criminal Court (ICC); and a proposed Global Migration Agreement Act). In addition to these three bills, a comprehensive vision for human rights and inclusion should include the following initiatives: Re-joining the U.N. Human Rights Council, ratifying the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women, delivering on the U.N. Women, Peace, and Security resolution through the development of a feminist foreign policy, protecting refugees by enforcing the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, and signing the Global Compact on Refugees.

Decades of work have built an international human rights system that helps to protect individual and community rights. To demonstrate their commitment to human rights, international law, and multilateralism, Biden and Sanders must reinforce this system and build a humane foreign policy that respects individual and communities’ dignity.

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The urgent challenges of today – COVID-19, climate change, and the refugee crisis – all require multilateral responses and prove that the U.N. is needed more today than ever. Amidst the Trump administration’s attacks on the U.N. system, however, alternative international systems (e.g. Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Collective Security Treaty Organization) have expanded and may continue to without a major shift in U.S. policy.

The U.N. system is grounded in principles Biden and Sanders value: multilateralism, conflict resolution, and human rights. Sanders identified the U.N. as one of the greatest U.S. accomplishments, though he has yet to outline how his administration would engage the U.N. beyond climate change. Biden calls for American leadership but needs to define how America would lead the U.N. in building a more peaceful world. “Pathway to PEACE” along with the three dimensions outlined above should be the cornerstones of a new administration’s U.N. policy.

Because of its American-linked origins, the U.N. is arguably linked more to the U.S. than any other nation. If the two Democratic candidates for president do not embrace the U.N., who will?