International organisations hopeful over Biden presidency

WHO among groups looking forward to more constructive engagement with US

US President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, cycling in Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware, last Saturday. Observers expect Washington under Mr Biden to re-engage with the international community, and to resume discussions on some issues bl
US President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, cycling in Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware, last Saturday. Observers expect Washington under Mr Biden to re-engage with the international community, and to resume discussions on some issues blocked by his predecessor. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

GENEVA • After years of US disengagement and confrontation, international organisations in Geneva appeared to heave a collective sigh of relief at Mr Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election - but the anticipated honeymoon could be short.

"I think everyone is basically waiting with open arms for the US government to come back," said international relations professor Manfred Elsig from the World Trade Institute of Bern University.

Republican President Donald Trump's administration has been a traumatic experience for international organisations that in many cases were created by the United States and accustomed to strong US support and leadership.

In Geneva alone, the US has, under Mr Trump, cut its ties to the UN's top rights body, hamstrung the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and begun withdrawing from the World Health Organisation (WHO) even as the body strives to coordinate the global response to Covid-19.

After the election was called for Democratic challenger Biden last weekend, "there was a huge sigh of relief" within international organisations, said a Geneva trade official who asked not to be named.

Observers expect Washington under Mr Biden to re-engage with the international community, and to resume discussions on some issues blocked by his predecessor.

"I think there will be a bit of a honeymoon," Professor Elsig said, warning though that the blissful period could be "short".

The narrative - pushed hard for four years - that international organisations are taking advantage of the US remains deeply ingrained, especially among Republicans, he said.

"Every step that the Biden administration will take towards engaging with the world and international organisations will be critically monitored in the US."

While stumbling blocks remain, there is optimism that discussions within international forums will become more constructive.

The WHO has particular reason to celebrate, after suffering relentless US attacks in recent months.

Accusing the United Nations health agency of mishandling the Covid-19 response and of kowtowing to China, Mr Trump has begun withdrawing the US - traditionally the WHO's top donor - from the organisation.

But Mr Biden has said in a tweet: "On my first day as president, I will rejoin the WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage."

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus struck an upbeat tone in his congratulatory tweet to Mr Biden, saying: "I look forward to working with you and your teams. Crises like the Covid-19 pandemic show the importance of global solidarity in protecting lives and livelihoods."

The WTO will certainly also welcome a change of guard in the US.

The global trade body is facing multiple crises, with the US blocking its budget, crippling its dispute settlement system and impeding the selection of its new leader.

A second Geneva trade official said Mr Biden could conceivably reverse course and give approval to Nigeria's Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becoming the first woman and first African to lead the WTO.

There will not be the same "gratuitous aggressiveness", he said.

While international organisations can now perhaps look forward to more constructive engagement with Washington, Prof Elsig stressed that not all of Mr Trump's attacks had been bluster.

"Maybe 10 per cent of the criticism is to be taken seriously," he said, pointing to growing agreement that reforms at the WHO and other international organisations were needed.

In the short term, he said, Mr Biden should enjoy goodwill among international partners and will be "in a strong position" to push legitimate demands for change.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2020, with the headline 'International organisations hopeful over Biden presidency'. Subscribe