When President Joe Biden mounts the iconic green marble rostrum inside the hall of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, he will face an audience skeptical he really is as different from his predecessor as he likes to claim.
For world leaders who were alternately addled and amused by former President Donald Trump – who once encountered mocking laughter from the UN crowd in the middle of his big speech – Biden represented hope for a different era in American foreign relations. He spent his first foreign trip in June declaring across Europe that “America is back.”
He continued that message in his first appearance in New York when he met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“The strong partnership between the United States and the U.N. is based on common values and principals, and at this moment, those bonds are more important than ever. America’s back and we believe in the United Nations and its values,” Biden said.
Yet this week he finds himself under intense scrutiny from allies who have been disappointed his election has not done away entirely with the “America First” policies Trump espoused during the former President’s annual speeches to the UN. They have complained bitterly about being left out of key decisions. In increasingly public fashion, foreign officials have begun unfavorably comparing Biden to Trump – an insult to a President who ran as the capable and experienced alternative to Trump’s global tumult.
In his first address as President to the General Assembly, Biden will seek to allay those fears, making the case for a collective approach to simmering world problems like the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. He will argue for a wholesale recalibration of priorities away from the wars of the past two decades and toward threats emerging today.
The President is expected to make the case for “rallying allies and partners and institutions to deal with the major challenges of our time,” a senior administration official said. Like in almost every aspect of his foreign policy, China will loom large, and Biden will warn in his speech against the world devolving into a new Cold War that divides the globe into spheres of influence.
Still, the growing wariness of once-enthusiastic allies isn’t lost on the President or his aides.
“I think the President’s view, having been on the world scene for 50 years, is that you always have to work on your relationships. That includes with global leaders,” press secretary Jen Psaki said. “He believes our relationships are sustaining over the course of many decades, and every step he has taken since the moment he took office was with the intention of rebuilding alliances and rebuilding those partnerships that were frayed over the last four years.”
Psaki said that didn’t mean countries would always agree with each other, but argued over the long run, global relationships would be made stronger by Biden’s approach.
A high-profile moment on the world stage
The annual appearance at the UN is one of the highest-profile opportunities for any president to spell out his foreign agenda, though this year’s gathering has been scaled down due to the pandemic. Biden will not engage in the usual flurry of pull-aside sessions in the corridors of UN headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side and he will return to the White House by Tuesday afternoon.
Officials view Biden’s speech and the other events surrounding it – including a Covid summit on Wednesday and a meeting of Pacific leaders on Friday – as a critical moment for the President to articulate his foreign policy vision and lay out what he believes should be the world’s priorities.
He arrived in New York reeling from setbacks in his quest to restore American leadership. France is fuming over a deal to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which deprived Paris of a lucrative contract for conventional subs and, in the telling of French officials, came as a total surprise to America’s oldest ally. Biden has asked to speak soon with French President Emmanuel Macron to lower the temperature.
Uncertainty surrounding Biden’s domestic agenda will have ramifications for his designs on harassing the global initiative to combat climate change. Democrats remain divided on the massive spending bill that amounts to the bulk of Biden’s plan to cut carbon emissions.
And his decision to end the war in Afghanistan, which resulted in a messy evacuation, created waves of refugees in Europe and the United States and left some allies frustrated at how the exit was planned. Biden’s vows of continued effective counterterrorism efforts were undercut by the revelation last week an American drone strike in the war’s final days killed 10 civilians instead of ISIS-K targets.
Still, Biden will not shy away from his decision to end America’s longest war during his speech, according to senior administration officials. Instead, he will place the war’s end at the center of his message, arguing it was a necessary decision to propel the world into a new, more cooperative era of confronting the challenges of today.
“The President will essentially drive home the message that ending the war in Afghanistan closed the chapter focused on war and opened a chapter focused on purposeful, effective, intensive American diplomacy,” a senior administration official said in previewing the speech.
Biden aims to show off a shift in priorities
Downplaying rifts that are emerging with foreign allies, the White House said Biden’s multiple summits this week – on Covid-19, climate change and partnership in the Indo-Pacific – were evidence of a multilateral approach that contrasts directly with the approach of the previous administration.
And the announcement Monday that the United States would ease travel restrictions on all fully vaccinated foreign visitors, replacing a patchwork of bans that had begun to cause fury in Europe, was cheered in foreign capitals.
The travel ban had been expected to be a major point of contention in a meeting later Tuesday afternoon with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will make his first visit to Biden’s White House.
Biden also plans to convene a virtual Covid-19 summit on Wednesday, calling on leaders of developed nations to step up vaccine sharing commitments and boost the global supply of oxygen. And he’ll end the week hosting his first in-person summit of the QUAD nations – Japan, Australia and India – to discuss the pandemic and security in Asia.
That summit underscores Biden’s broader goal of shifting focus away from places like Afghanistan and toward the threat from China, whose military and economic moves have caused a deterioration in ties with the West.
Biden’s decision to partner with the United Kingdom and Australia on the nuclear-powered submarines was a sign of his willingness to look beyond traditional alliances – like with France – to better address security challenges in Asia.
Spat with Paris surprises White House
That approach hasn’t been welcomed in Paris, where officials accused the Biden administration of operating in secret to deprive France of important defense contracts. France’s outsized reaction has been surprising to some in the White House, and one official said France’s behavior, including recalling their ambassador for consultations, was an overly dramatic response to the rift.
For now, there is a general belief that the dust-up will not permanently damage relations with France, but officials acknowledge the spat remains in its early days. Biden has asked to get Macron on the phone to “directly” address the matter, an official said.
“We understand the French position,” the official said. “We don’t share their view in terms of how this all developed.”
The submarine spat underscores larger differences between Biden’s approach to China and the views of certain European leaders, who have sought a more conciliatory approach to a major trading partner. Those rifts were on display at this summer’s G7 summit, though eventually the grouping emerged with a collective statement admonishing China for its human rights abuses.
In his speech on Tuesday, Biden will seek to underscore the US isn’t seeking conflict with China or its leader Xi Jinping, with whom he spoke by phone earlier this month.
“President Biden will communicate tomorrow that he does not believe in the notion of a new cold war with the world divided into blocks. He believes in vigorous, intensive, principled competition that does not tip over into conflict,” the official said.