“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities.
The 78th Session of the UN General Assembly commenced on Sept. 5, 2023, with plenty of topics to address. The ongoing war in Ukraine, climate change, financing for development, and global health are all top-of-mind for the UN’s 193 member states. But with recent reports showing an overall decline in freedom around the world, it is essential for member states to prioritize global democracy. As one of the largest convenings of governments, civil society, and businesses, the UN General Assembly is a unique opportunity for a broad group of stakeholders to build support for strengthening democratic norms and reform at the UN and beyond.
Although the UN has historically avoided endorsing a specific form of democracy, it is regarded as a “core value” of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also viewed as being essential to making progress on many of the organization’s goals. As a founding member of the UN, the United States has special influence and should take the lead on advancing democratic ideals. But to do so, US rhetoric at the UN General Assembly needs to be matched with action, specifically domestic policies that strengthen its own democracy.
A History of Support
The United States has been one of the largest donors, contributing over $12.5 billion in 2021, which accounts for 22% of the entire UN system budget. Although not without criticism, these contributions ensure that the lights can be kept on for the UN’s 30 affiliated organizations, programs, and funds, as well as the over 125,000 staff members.
The United States has consistently been the largest contributor to the UN Democracy Fund, the only UN body with the word “democracy” in its name. It plays an essential role in supporting democratization projects. Established by then-Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan in 2005, the fund has supported close to 900 projects across 130 countries, focusing on a range of issues that include enhancing public support for electoral processes, freedom of the media, and ensuring the participation of women and young people in elections.
The unique features of the multilateral system — including the fact that different forms of democracy are represented — allow for the United States to publicly indicate that it wants to work in partnership to support global democracy, not simply export its version to other countries.
Other UN actors with specialized mandates that tackle poverty, human rights, and economic development issues are also critical partners in the fight for democracy among both new and emerging democratic countries. These UN organizations also benefit greatly from US financial support. For example, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which primarily focuses on eliminating poverty and supporting sustainable economic growth, has a long history of supporting elections across Africa. In post-conflict countries like Kenya, UNDP funding provided critical technological support through computerized voter registration systems, which ensured efficient and transparent national election management. In Ghana, UNDP played a crucial role in overseeing the country’s $25 million election budget while providing technical assistance to civil society organizations to monitor election results through social media.
Last year, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) — which received $1.8 million from the United States — played a critical role in supporting Chile’s historic constitutional process to ensure the drafting committee incorporated legal protections for the country’s most marginalized including Indigenous populations, LGBTI communities, and Afro-descendants.
Yet, threats of ending US financial support for the UN are as old as the institution itself. Throughout the 1960s, the John Birch Society played a pivotal role in galvanizing public opposition to US membership to the UN through their “Get US Out!” campaign. This opposition was echoed by then-Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) during his 1964 presidential campaign and future Republican administrations. These objections are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, with US House members introducing several bills to defund the UN in recent years. In addition, continued work toward reforming the UN Security Council and the overall functions of the UN system have garnered questions about how US support for the institution will continue to evolve. Despite these criticisms, this year’s UN General Assembly serves as an opportunity for the Biden administration to publicly and privately urge the United States to be a core funding partner of the UN’s programs, many of which have a unique role in supporting global democracy.
Using the Unique Platform Effectively
Using the UN General Assembly to elevate how the US government prioritizes “democratic resilience and respect for human rights” demonstrates how the Biden administration seeks to draw upon the multilateral institution in ways that have not always occurred. The unique features of the multilateral system — including the fact that different forms of democracy are represented — allow for the United States to publicly indicate that it wants to work in partnership to support global democracy, not simply export its version to other countries.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) — a key representative of the US government at the UN General Assembly — highlighted its Democracy Delivers initiative through a flagship event this week. The initiative seeks greater international attention and funding to support democratic “bright spots” in countries committed to advancing democratic reforms. By bringing together the Department of State and the US International Development Finance Corporation, the event indicated how the US government as a whole will use its various foreign policy tools to achieve these stated goals. It also reinforced the value of multi-stakeholder partnerships with the private sector, philanthropy, and independent media to strengthen democratic governance.
This initiative comes at the same time that USAID is expanding its efforts to support democracy beyond elections and address inequality, corruption, and economic development while including more local actors across all of this work. In many USAID partner countries, particularly those in the Global South, many citizens have not seen the value of democracy in terms of greater economic security and responsive government. By showcasing this work at the UN General Assembly, a forum that plays a major role in crafting the global agenda, the United States is making clear that the issue of effective and inclusive democracy should remain a top priority for member states.
Learning From Others
Undoubtedly, the United States plays a pivotal role in the UN General Assembly and democracy promotion worldwide. But to remain a legitimate actor in promoting democratic norms, values, and practices, the Biden administration needs to prioritize fixing things at home. Freedom House and The Economist Group have highlighted the decline in America’s democratic institutions. There is also a growing contingent of Global South countries who question the United States’ ability to promote democracy.
If the Biden administration wants to push back on these criticisms, it must redouble its efforts in reversing America’s democratic setbacks. This includes building on President Joe Biden’s executive orders to expand voter access while increasing the number of voting rights attorneys within the Department of Justice. In Congress, this means allocating greater federal funding to protect election workers and officials ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Longer-term strategies will include taking concrete steps against gerrymandering and the increasing power of politicians to choose their voters. The United States must also address the pervasive issues related to excessive influence from special interests and the rampant spread of online disinformation that erodes public trust among democratic institutions.
Despite these problems at home, the United States plays a vital role at the UN General Assembly, and this week’s meetings are not just a chance for the Biden administration to lead but to learn from the democracies facing similar challenges.