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Multilateralism Is Back In Fashion At The White House

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden's administration is changing the way the U.S. works with other nations - maybe restoring is a better word, like when it restored funds for the World Health Organization. NPR's Michele Kelemen examines a less noticed effort.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For decades, the U.S. was the largest donor to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that runs schools and hospitals for Palestinians. That changed in the Trump administration, which cut off funding to Palestinians to pressure them to negotiate with Israel. UNRWA's Washington director Elizabeth Campbell is relieved that the Biden administration is reversing course.

ELIZABETH CAMPBELL: Once again, we're having a conversation with the world's most generous humanitarian donor as a humanitarian entity, providing humanitarian assistance on the basis of need. So that's an extraordinary departure from the previous administration.

KELEMEN: Israel's ambassador to the United States and the U.N., Gilad Erdan, is not happy.

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GILAD ERDAN: Israel is strongly opposed to the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity happening in UNRWA's facilities. We believe that this U.N. agency for so-called refugees should not exist in its current format.

KELEMEN: UNRWA denies those charges. And State Department spokesperson Ned Price says by restarting U.S. aid, the U.S. can have more influence to help shape UNRWA's work with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

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NED PRICE: Now, not only do we have a dialogue, but we have a seat at the table. We are able to help effect these reforms - these reforms that we think are necessary, these reforms that we think are important - in a manner that is much more - that will be much more effective going forward.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration used that argument about the need for a seat at the table when it rejoined the Paris climate accord, restored funding to the World Health Organization and decided to seek a place on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group puts it this way.

RICHARD GOWAN: U.N. diplomats say they've seen a massive change in the quality of American engagement in New York over the last two months. And the Trump administration was really just missing in action at the U.N. by the end of the president's term.

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Gowan said the Trump administration did manage to force some improvements at the U.N. by threatening aid cutoffs. But its overall approach gave an opening to China to gain more influence in the world body.

GOWAN: Trump's behavior, especially towards the World Health Organization, simply had alienated a lot of U.S. allies. And Biden is putting that right quite quickly.

KELEMEN: Critics say the White House is moving too quickly without getting anything in return, like making the WHO put more pressure on China or getting the Human Rights Council to stop focusing so much on Israel. Gowan says a more engaged U.S. will see results at the U.N., just not right away.

GOWAN: These are still early days. But what we're seeing is that governments at the U.N. are willing to talk about issues like COVID-19 and fighting climate change in a much more positive fashion than they did in the Trump era.

KELEMEN: But multilateral diplomacy, he says, is incremental. So it's a hard sell here in the U.S.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELGE LIEN TRIO'S "AXIS OF FREE WILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.