State Department meeting highlights internal alarm at China’s growing influence in international organizations. By Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer

On the eve of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, two top State Department officials voiced alarm about America’s loss of diplomatic influence as China mounts an ambitious effort to fill the vacuum, according to an account of a confidential internal staff meeting.

The concerns are emerging at a time when the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO)—which oversees U.S. relations with the U.N. and other international organizations—is enduring a sustained period of turmoil marked by sagging morale, staff flight, and difficulties in recruiting fresh talent. Meanwhile, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, who was confirmed on July 31, has yet to take up her assignment in New York.

John Sullivan, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, and David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, touched on those issues during a closed-door town hall meeting on Aug. 29 with IO staffers. But they expressed particular concern about China’s strategic goal of deepening its influence in the U.N. and other international organizations.

The coming months will be « key times » for the bureau to promote U.S. national security interests in international institutions with the upcoming U.N. General Assembly, Hale said, according to an account of the meeting relayed to Foreign Policy. « It’s only gotten harder as we face the increasing attempts, campaigns, by China to gain greater and greater influence over these organizations, » he said.

Over the last two and a half years, the United States has struggled to rally support within the U.N. to contain the influence of rival powers from Iran to Russia to China, which has effectively mobilized U.N. backing for its Belt and Road Initiative, despite U.S. efforts to counter it. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has also largely dismissed repeated warnings from allies and others that its own retreat from multilateral diplomacy would create a vacuum that could promote chaos or leave room for the rise of authoritarian powers such as China.

« President Trump and his policy of isolationism has left a giant vacuum around the world, » Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in June 2018. « Who will fill this vacuum? Authoritarian powers? Anyone at all? »

The rise of China on the world stage has been an inevitable byproduct of its increasing economic clout, which has enabled it to leverage massive foreign investment into broader support for its foreign policy. American allies, particularly from Europe, have been warning Trump administration officials that the relative U.S. retreat from international organizations and trade agreements would accelerate China’s growing influence.

« The two most severe challenges to the multilateral order today are the relative decline of American power, and the emergence of China as a rival power to the US in global organisations, » according to a recent policy paper by Richard Gowan and Anthony Dworkin of the European Council on Foreign Relations. « [O]ver the last decade, there has been an observable decline in America’s capacity to shape multilateral affairs.»

Asia experts say that the lax U.S. response to China’s growing diplomatic influence in multilateral institutions is inconsistent with its own effort to contain the rise of a rival power.

« The Trump administration has been all about sharpening the U.S. foreign-policy establishment’s focus on China, » said Kristine Lee, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security. « But to ignore a major component of this equation, of China’s rise in international organizations and multilateral institutions, is shooting yourself in the foot. »