How Joe Biden Could Restore US Leadership at the United Nations in His First 100 Days

The first 100 days of any new presidential administration offers a key inflection point, signaling the policies that the new administration will prioritize and champion. It is during those first 100 days that the new administration gets the most leeway from congress, the media, and the general public to set their agenda.  

Setting that agenda often includes a mix of new executive actions, supporting specific pieces of legislation, and releasing a federal budget request to congress which demonstrates the new administration’s funding priorities. 

This is the opportunity for the Biden administration when it takes office on January 20. In today’s episode, we take a deep dive into what a Biden-Administration’s first 100-day agenda may look like when it comes to re-setting America’s relationship with the United Nations and other multilateral organizations.

Peter Yeo is the President of the Better World Campaign and Senior Vice President of the United Nations Foundation. He has had a long career in congress, the federal government and advocacy; and he explains the various executive actions and legislative priorities that the Biden administration will likely pursue to signal the United States’ renewed commitment to multilateralism. 

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Today’s episode is produced in partnership with the Better World Campaign as part of a series  examining the opportunities for strengthening multilateral engagement by the new Biden-Harris administration and the incoming 117th Congress. To learn more and access additional episodes in this series, please visit


What Executives Orders Biden May Issue

Peter Yeo [00:02:38] When the president issues an executive order, it really gives him the ability to get stuff done without congressional approval. There are parameters around what can be in an executive order and what is a bridge too far, in terms of an executive order. But the concept behind an executive order is steps that could be taken unilaterally by the president of the United States related to, among other things, America’s role in the world that really can have an impact and can have, in many cases, an immediate impact.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:16] Presumably, the Biden transition team is preparing a number of executive orders that Biden could sign on day one, and we know from media reports what some of them might be like, say, returning to the Paris Climate Accords. What do you expect to see from Biden on day one?

Peter Yeo [00:03:35] Well, as we think about the day one agenda in terms of America’s relationship with the UN or multilaterally, more generally, there’s a bunch of items. Number one is withdrawing the letter that was presented by the Trump administration to the Secretary General that withdrew the US from the World Health Organization. So, if President Biden on day one withdraws this letter, then the US will once again be- will continue to be a full member of the World Health Organization.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:13] Because, correct me if I’m wrong, but that letter said something like, “on X day after this letter, we will withdraw from the WTO.”

Peter Yeo [00:04:22] Yeah, at the end of the day, the United States needed to give a one-year notice to the World Health Organization that it was withdrawing and we’re still within that one-year window. So if President Biden on day one basically revokes that letter, then the US membership in WHO remains intact. And now there’s an agenda that needs to happen there in terms of paying our dues to WHO and participating in COVAX, which is the WHO-led initiative to support the deployment of a COVID vaccine to countries around the world in partnership with the developed world. But in any event, I mean, that’s a day one action -is basically say to WHO, “don’t worry, we’re not withdrawing, we’re still a member.” And that’s a day one action.

[00:05:18] I think another day one action is Paris Climate Accord. We will have missed the deadline, unfortunately, to withdraw -to sort of stop the clock on Paris. But the US could signal that it is rejoining Paris. And the announcement that former Secretary of State, former Senator, John Kerry will be leading our global efforts on climate change is, boy, what a welcome development that is. And so as we think about rejoining Paris, as we think about going to Glasgow, which is the next meeting of the conference of parties to figure out the next steps on Paris implementation, John Kerry is going to be there and the US will be at the table. And so that’s an exciting element. We’re already seeing this. I mean, we didn’t need to wait until day one because John Kerry’s appointment has already been announced. So we have WHO, we have Paris, and with the UN Population Fund -that’s a day one action that needs to occur.

US Restoring Support for the UNFPA

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:34] Will you explain what that is? Because restoring US funding to the U.N. Population Fund is probably a less known day one item than World Health Organization Reentry and Paris Climate Accord. Can you explain a little bit of the background there?

Peter Yeo [00:06:49] Yeah, sure. I mean this has been, unfortunately, a political football between Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States. Democratic administrations fund our contributions to the UN Population Fund and Republicans generally remove all funding from the population fund, largely on specious and erroneous arguments about UNFPA’s role in China, particularly China’s previous one-child policy, which it no longer has and does not implement. But in any event, so as we think about the day one, UNFPA does amazing work around the world. I’ve seen it. I visited important UNFPA projects in Jordan. So, you know, UNFPA does family planning, does well the full range of sexual reproductive health services, although it does not perform abortions, fund abortions -which is what the Republicans say but it’s incorrect- and it does amazing work in terms of empowering women and girls around the world. So anyways, it’s exciting to see that on day one, the Biden administration will be refunding the UN population Fund.

What Executive Actions Require Congress?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:16] So those are three specific executive actions that we can expect on the very first day of the Biden administration and they’ve signaled as much already. Looking forward, the first 100 days are always a key inflection point for a new administration. I want to ask you sort of two baskets of questions. The first is, you know what further executive actions would you expect the administration to take in that first 100 days in terms of resetting or re-engaging the US approach to the UN and other aspects of multilateral cooperation? And then, what actions require US Congress and cooperation between the administration and Congress? So first, on that executive action basket of questions, what would you expect in the first 100 days to be accomplished?

Peter Yeo [00:09:11] Yeah, a couple of things. Which is, first of all, the US is currently not a member of the UN Human Rights Council. We withdrew our membership during the Trump administration. And so 2021 in the first 100 days would be an important moment for the US to signal that it wishes to run for the Human Rights Council. Again, the elections will be held at the end of 2021- a three-year term beginning in January of 2022. So there’s a lot of work that’s going to need to get done in that first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration to prepare for a US run for the Human Rights Council.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:53] Because I should say this could potentially be a competitive election in which the US would run against other countries in Western Europe.

Funding the United Nations

Peter Yeo [00:10:02] It should be a competitive election. You know, best practice is that countries should have to make the case for why they should be a member of the Human Rights Council. And so the US needs to run. We need to make the case as to why we believe that we’ll be a responsible member of the Human Rights Council. And so I think there’s a lot of work that needs to get done on that front. As you said, it’s a competitive election. I think the other element is we need to figure out how much the US owes the UN and in what buckets. There’s sort of a forensic accounting that needs to happen in the first 100 days because we think that the US owes at least a billion dollars in overdue bills to the United Nations. And frankly, you know, as we think about the first 100 days, we need to work closely with our partners at the UN and the State Department needs to work with them to figure out what do we owe for the peacekeeping? What do we owe for the UN regular budget? What do we owe to other UN funds, programs, and agencies? And then they include all of that in the president’s budget request. And that’s where Congress comes in, because Congress, of course, needs to appropriate the money- to pay our overdue bills, to pay our ongoing bills. So that’s an area of partnership.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:29] Can I stop you there and probe a bit deeper? Because I know you follow this issue very closely. What do you suspect are the big outstanding bills that the United States owes to the UN right now? And how is the fact that the U.N. is owed so much money impacting UN operations, if at all?

Peter Yeo [00:11:49] Yeah, we know that we owe at least a billion dollars for peacekeeping because we have been, for the past four years, we have been paying roughly 25 percent of the peacekeeping bills that the UN incurs. But we’re supposed to be paying, at the moment, 27.8. And that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up to roughly 250 million dollars each year in unpaid bills. Just as an important reminder, there’s not a peacekeeping mission that is created, changed, or ended without explicit US approval because of our veto on the Security Council. So the US is voting for all these peacekeeping missions. We’re just not paying the bills and that’s having an impact. It’s delaying all of the countries that contribute the troops to peacekeeping -they’re getting paid incredibly late. A lot of the UN contractors that contribute to the plane, the fuel for the planes, that type of stuff, they’re being paid late. So it’s encouraging the worst budget practices as a result of us paying late.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:04] Yeah, I’ve seen an increasingly dire tone from statements from Antonio Guterres about their cash flow and liquidity crisis. Every couple of months, it seems, I see a new press release or a new statement about how cash strapped and cash poor the UN is at the moment because of many of these outstanding bills.

Peter Yeo [00:13:26] Yeah and in that case, it’s not just UN peacekeeping. It’s the UN regular budget. The fact is the UN owes money for the UN regular budget. And a regular budget, of course, supports what’s happening in New York and supports a broader range of UN operations on the peace and security front. And so, it’s a real challenge that the US owes money to the UN regular budget and is paying- what it is paying is coming very late and it’s causing severe liquidity issues.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:00] So I’m glad we’re getting a little bit into the weeds here of how the US funds the UN because, it turns out that the guiding legislation for US funding for the UN contains the name of the President-Elect of the United States, the Helms-Biden law, which was passed, what? In the late 90s? Yeah. So so can you explain what that law is? Because it is now, of course, seemingly very relevant.

Peter Yeo [00:14:28] Yeah. So one of my jobs at the State Department was to serve on the State Department negotiating team that negotiated the Helms-Biden package in the late 1990s, in which now the President-Elect, then-Senator Biden, played a central role. And basically, it linked a billion dollars in overdue bills to the UN -it’s amazing how we tend to operate in billion-dollar increments- to a series of 40+ reforms, most of which have been implemented. But as part of the Helms-Biden package, it contained a cap, a 25 percent cap on the US share for peacekeeping. Now, Congress has frequently waived that cap, but for the last four years it hasn’t, and that’s what caused the arrears. So we need a real discussion with Congress on the importance of the US paying its dues in full. But the core assets of Helms-Biden were about reform and change, and that needs to be part of the -and I’m certain will be part of the- the Biden-Harris approach towards our engagement with the UN and the UN system. As we think about development forms, management reforms, peace and security reforms -all of which are part of the Secretary General’s reform agenda- the U.S. really needs to play a role in supporting reform and really working to develop coalitions of like-minded countries that are committed to change, are committed to cost-effectiveness, and are really committed to performance measurement, to make sure that the investments that we’re all making in the UN system, actually -it’s money well spent and it’s actually having the impact that we want in terms of our partnership with countries around the world. That was at the heart of Helms-Biden and will remain at the heart, I imagine, of our approach to the UN today.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:45] I mean, do you see the prospect of a new kind of guiding legislation, a la Helms-Biden, to guide US relationship with the United Nations in the coming years?

Peter Yeo [00:16:58] I don’t think it’s needed. I think what’s needed is we need to pay our dues to the United Nations, both current bills and existing bills. But the US already has a seat at the table in any discussion about management and reforms, any change in the way that the UN does business. And so if we pay our dues in full and pay our arrears, our ability to actually work with other countries toward change will increase if we actually link it to money that we already owe or, you know, that that reduces our credibility. And so I feel like, if we pay our dues, we already have a seat at the table.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:50] So we’re speaking at a time where we know that, you know, Biden will be president, that the Democrats will control the House of Representatives, though control of the Senate is somewhat up in the air. We’re awaiting these two runoff elections in Georgia in early January. Does the congressional agenda you just outlined hinge on, one way or another, on the outcome of those elections in January?

Peter Yeo [00:18:19] Well, I think that the outcome of the Georgia elections would certainly make it easier to get full funding for the UN moving forward. But it’s not essential, right? In the sense that any type of appropriations bill that Congress works on is a negotiation. And so Lindsey Graham, who is the current chairman and will continue to be the chairman of the State Foreign Ops Subcommittee, has been often a very positive partner on all things UN and has a very open door on these issues. So while the outcome of the Georgia races will have an impact, I wouldn’t say it’s so determined -determinative factor. I think the other element to consider is that we have a top-notch ambassador designate for the UN in Linda Thomas Greenfield. And her ability -she’s well-known on Capitol Hill. She’s very popular on Capitol Hill in Republican and Democratic offices and she’s going to have a real ability to deliver -to have substantive conversations about, the full range of issues in the US-UN relationship, including funding. And so that’s the Biden administration, frankly, is already starting ahead with such a thoughtful and strategic choice in terms of our ambassador to the UN.

Why Personnel Choices Matter

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:02] And what about the choice of Tony Blinken, Anthony Blinken as secretary of state? What does that suggest to you about Biden’s approach to multilateral engagement and what that first 100 day agenda might look like?

Peter Yeo [00:20:18] Well, of course, Secretary Designate, Tony Blinken, has been Biden’s chief foreign policy guy for many, many years. I worked with him when I worked on the Foreign Affairs Committee and he was staff director in Foreign Relations Committee. And I think what it signals is a commitment to multilateralism. Tony understands the power of the UN. He was Deputy Secretary of State and worked extensively with the UN on a wide variety of issues, including refugees and refugee policy. And it doesn’t mean that multilateralism is the only way to get stuff just done. It means that multilateralism will once again be a core element of the US diplomatic toolbox, along with our bilateral approaches to other countries, along with foreign assistance. But multilateralism is back, and Tony very much appreciates the role that not just the UN in New York plays, but that all of the UN agencies, like the UN refugee agency, the Human Rights Council, Population Fund. Tony instinctively understands from his years of service to the President-Elect why these investments we make the US makes actually matter to American interests.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:50] And I’m glad we spent a bit of time talking about Congress, because it to me, is interesting to note that someone who really cut their teeth in the weeds and trenches of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a staffer is now the Secretary of State Designate. I mean, that signals to me you’ll have someone just who has a deep understanding of the legislative process and of all the processes that you just described that would help reset US relationship with the United Nations.

Peter Yeo [00:22:19] Well, two things -you can’t reset America’s relationship with the UN and you can’t rebuild the State Department and America’s diplomatic platform without the active support of Congress. We need a partnership with Congress on all of this. And we have many strong supporters of both issues in Congress from the Republican and Democratic aisle. Tony Blinken and Linda Thomas Greenfield are uniquely positioned because of their close ties and experience on Capitol Hill to play an essential role in rebuilding this relationship and rebuilding these ties. And so these are a wise move. And in Tony’s case, it’s certainly the case of a congressional staffer doing good. He’s had a brilliant career since he left the Hill, serving with the Vice President, then serving as Deputy Secretary of State, the number two position at the State Department. So the Biden-Harris administration is really lucky to get him.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:24] Finally, are there any other action items or executive actions that you would expect or foresee the Biden administration to take on, either in the first 100 days or perhaps shortly thereafter?

Peter Yeo [00:23:36] You know, I think that there’s a lot of discussion about our re-engagement and refunding of UNRRA. As you know-.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:45] That’s the UN humanitarian agency that supports Palestinian refugees.

[00:23:50] Correct. And so under the Trump administration, all funding to UNRRA was ended and they are now experiencing a financial crisis as a result of this. So my guess is that will be a front-burner issue to figure out how to reengage with UNRRA. I think UNESCO is also out there as an issue for consideration. The US, under the Trump administration, withdrew from UNESCO, which UNESCO is the UN’s educational and cultural, and scientific organization. So I’m sure there will be an active debate, again, involving Congress as to whether the US should consider membership in UNESCO -a super complicated issue, will require congressional approval. And so but this will certainly be, I imagine, on the agenda for consideration.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:45] Well, Peter, thank you so much for your time.

Peter Yeo [00:24:48] My pleasure. And, as always, nice to speak to you.