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The United Nations has much promise – and many problems. Understanding this strange dynamic is necessary for the United States to make the most of its membership in that flawed organization and its many satellite agencies.

Any discussion of the United Nations must start with a simple fact: The United States has nothing to prove at the United Nations. We have already saved the world multiple times in multiple ways. Thanks to our leadership, humanity has risen to historically unimaginable heights of peace, prosperity, and personal freedom. We do not need the United Nations to validate or even support our efforts to spur even greater progress. Conversely, the United Nations is too dysfunctional, too divided, and too mired in tyranny for us to rely on it. Even so, we must continue to wield the United Nations to make our case. And whatever the reaction, we should push forward with what we know is right.

As history shows us, and as I personally saw at Turtle Bay, the United States is at its best at the United Nations when we stand strong. We must stand up to our adversaries, unmistakably and unapologetically. We should stand by our friends, boldly and bravely. And we must stand for our principles, confidently and clearly. The moment we fail at any of these tasks, we undermine our interests and our ideals. That is never a good thing, but it is especially dangerous when so many other countries are using the United Nations for evil purposes.

Our adversaries know how to use the United Nations’ structure and flaws to their advantage. Take Russia. As a permanent member of the Security Council, it can stand in the way of almost anything serious we pursue at the United Nations.

I saw it happen many times. In 2017, Russia covered for Syria’s chemical attack, which killed about 400 people, including 25 children. Knowing full well that Russia would veto our resolution condemning the attack, I stood in the Security Council chambers and showed the world the pictures of those dead children. It would not change the Russian ambassador’s mind, but it did demonstrate that the United States would shine a spotlight on their crimes and complicity. Moscow will continue to thwart efforts to hold Russia and its minions accountable. When it does, the United States must confront Russia and criticize it as forcefully as possible.

The United States must also be wary of Communist China. Like Russia, Beijing uses its seat on the Security Council to block justified and moral measures. Equally concerning, China is quietly working to corrupt the United Nations from top to bottom. Beijing is pursuing control of virtually every UN agency. Its actions are malicious and often disastrous.

There is no better proof than the World Health Organization (WHO). For years, China gained significant leverage over the WHO through a combination of funding and pressure. Beijing then manipulated the agency during the coronavirus pandemic. The WHO adopted the Chinese party line despite being banned from entering the country during the initial outbreak. It praised China’s response despite clear evidence of a cover-up. And it continues to cooperate with China despite the country’s unwillingness to share key information on the virus’ origins and spread. China’s stranglehold on the WHO contributed to the death of more than 3 million people, including at least 500,000 Americans.

The United States must call out China’s attempts to co-opt the United Nations and its agencies. We should rally other countries to oppose China’s influence. As ambassador, I lost track of how many countries expressed their fear of China’s bullying. They are counting on us to have their backs – and to push back, hard.

The WHO’s struggles illustrate another sad reality: Many UN agencies are broken. The United States should try to fix them where possible. Yet we cannot fall into the trap of mistaking process for progress. Some parts of the United Nations just cannot be salvaged. Sometimes we are better off leaving them behind.

An obvious example is the UN Human Rights Council, which is a cesspool of human rights violators – from Cuba to China to Venezuela to Russia. I pressed our allies and partners to demand reforms, but they were content with the status quo. So I led the effort to withdraw the United States from the council. We care too much about human rights and individual freedom to be part of a group that undermines both. Our principles are too important to get lost in the endless and pointless process that UN bureaucrats prefer.

We also withdrew from the Human Rights Council because the United States stands with our friends. The council spent the vast majority of its time condemning Israel – a free and democratic country. It has a standing agenda item devoted to Israel. It has passed 10 times as many resolutions condemning Israel as it has for China, North Korea, Iran, and Cuba combined. Friends do not sit still while their friends get attacked, so we walked away. We stopped funding the UN Relief and Works Agency for similar reasons. That agency does more to foster hatred toward Israel than it does to support actual Palestinian refugees. So much of the United Nations has an insane fixation on Israel. In fact, when it comes to Israel, there is no clearer sign of the United Nations’ profound shortcomings.

It was my privilege to tackle those shortcomings as ambassador. We made headway in many areas. But I have no illusions that we can solve all the United Nations’ problems. We should make progress where we can, walk away when we cannot, and hold the line when we must.

Amb. Nikki R. Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, 2017–2019

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