Biden to UN: US is shifting from 'relentless war' to relentless diplomacy' amid COVID-19, climate change crises

·9 min read

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden used his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday to declare the United States is shifting from "relentless war" to "relentless diplomacy" as he urged world leaders to meet their greatest challenges: the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

"We stand, in my view, at an inflection point in history," Biden said. "Instead of continuing to fight the wars of the past, we are fixing our eyes and devoting our resources to the challenges that hold the keys to our collective future."

Biden called on leaders to quickly step up vaccination efforts and expand access to COVID-19 treatments. He touted the U.S. global response, which includes an investment of more than $15 billion, as a "dose of hope" and said he would announce additional commitments at a virtual COVID-19 summit Wednesday.

"Our security, our prosperity and our very freedoms are interconnected as never before. And so, I believe, we must work together as never before," he said.

"Our security, our prosperity and our very freedoms are interconnected as never before,"  President Joe Biden tells the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21.
"Our security, our prosperity and our very freedoms are interconnected as never before," President Joe Biden tells the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21.

He reiterated that climate change is a "code red for humanity," anticipating the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, next month. Biden announced he would work with Congress to double his commitment of $5.7 billion per year to help developing countries cope with the effects of climate change.

'Back at the table'

Biden, who's faced questions over U.S. credibility in the wake of the American military's withdrawal from Afghanistan, emphasized his administration's commitment to rebuilding alliances, including by reassuring NATO and European leaders and rejoining multilateral agreements that his predecessor, Donald Trump, left.

"We're back at the table in international forums, especially the United Nations, to focus attention and spur global action and shared challenges," Biden said.

The president also used the diplomatic speech to underscored that the United States is "not seeking a new Cold War," a message directly aimed at China.

"We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs," he said in a message probably aimed at China, though he didn't explicitly mention Beijing. "All the major powers of the world have a duty, in my view, to carefully manage their relationships, so they do not tip from responsible competition into conflict."

The shadow of COVID-19 looms large over the annual summit, which took place virtually last year. But the event also comes as the Biden administration also struggles to contain the fallout from a series of diplomatic blunders, including a chaotic and deadly evacuation in Afghanistan after the Taliban swept to power last month. The Pentagon acknowledged Friday that 10 civilians, including an aid worker and as many as seven children, were killed in a drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, in the final days of the 20-year war.

France recalled its ambassador to the United States and Australia after it was rattled by a new partnership between the two countries and the U.K. that rendered a French submarine contract obsolete. Foreign leaders have criticized Biden's campaign to give Americans a COVID-19 booster shot before prioritizing countries where people have yet to receive their first vaccine dose.

And Biden faces renewed scrutiny over his immigration policies as the administration deported Haitian migrants after thousands gathered seeking asylum at the southern border.

More: Criticized from all sides, Biden scrambles to address surge of Haitian migrants at southern border

"Our allies and adversaries have to make one judgment: Are these missteps a headline that will pass, or are they a trend line?" said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department adviser.

The president headed off some criticism Monday when the administration lifted a travel ban on vaccinated foreign nationals after European officials expressed frustration over his refusal to lift the restrictions, which were implemented under President Donald Trump.

Biden, a long-standing internationalist, will have convince allies the United States is committed to returning to its role at the head of the diplomatic table on crises such as COVID-19 and climate change, even as he remains focused on domestic priorities, including passing landmark legislation on infrastructure and expanding social programs.

"I think our allies – particularly Europeans – are increasingly persuaded of two things: that Joe Biden's bandwidth and ability to focus on foreign policy is narrower than they thought, and I think they are extremely concerned that we're going to toggle back to another political change in 2022 or 2024," Miller said.

The president kicked off a week crammed with diplomatic activities Monday night by meeting U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York before the summit.

The president met Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and later welcomed U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the White House. He will meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi later this week.

Biden will hold a virtual COVID-19 summit Wednesday and host the first in-person meeting with leaders of the "Quad" partnership in the Indo-Pacific – the United States, Japan, India and Australia – at the White House Friday.

Alynna Lyon, an expert on the United Nations at the University of New Hampshire, said expectations are high as Biden can't rely on some of the traditional relationships with allies who could create momentum for his global agenda and rally international partners around U.S. leadership.

"There is some real credibility issues there about working together because the administration has demonstrated a few times just in the last month or so that there are several places in which it will go alone and make decisions without collaboration," she said.

Biden's history with the UN

Biden's relationship with the United Nations dates back to the 1990s when a Republican-led Congress withheld contributions to the global body.

As the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden worked with his Republican counterpart and the committee's chairman, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to hammer out an agreement for the United States to pay its dues.

As vice president, Biden frequently met with foreign leaders at the annual summit and engaged in what Lyon described as "cocktail napkin diplomacy" on the sidelines of the General Assembly. He sat in for President Barack Obama in a number of sessions, including one on combating the Islamic State terrorist group in 2015, and co-chaired a U.N. peacekeeping summit in 2014.

"Biden himself is prone to cooperation and collaboration and values that work historically," Lyon said. "So a lot of us are puzzled that the Biden administration seems to contradict their own narrative, their own story about cooperation as being important and essential and yet not working multilaterally."

President Barack Obama, center, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, left, and United States United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, right, looks to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as he speaks to media during a bilateral meeting at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel in New York, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 19, 2016.
President Barack Obama, center, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, left, and United States United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, right, looks to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as he speaks to media during a bilateral meeting at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel in New York, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 19, 2016.

The president took office with years of foreign policy experience and global standing that provided a familiar balm to those alarmed by the four years of Trump's "America first" isolationist foreign policy.

In the early months, Biden tried to reassure allies by reversing some of his predecessor's policies, including recommitting to the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization and launching negotiations about rejoining the nuclear deal with Iran. In his first foreign trip abroad, Biden sought to rebuild international relations at the G-7 summit in Cornwall, followed by a meeting with NATO leaders at the headquarters in Brussels.

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"The goodwill generated by his election, as well as by his initial statements about America's renewed international engagement, has all been evaporated," said Brett Bruen, a former foreign service officer who worked on global engagement in the Obama administration.

The president acknowledged that "no democracy is perfect, including the United States," but he said the country would "continue to struggle to live up to the highest ideals to heal our divisions."

"Democracy remains the best tool we have to unleash our full human potential," he said.

Vice President Joe Biden attends the "Leader's Summit on Countering ISIL and Countering Violent Extremism" at the United Nations Headquarters,  on September 29, 2015 in New York City.
Vice President Joe Biden attends the "Leader's Summit on Countering ISIL and Countering Violent Extremism" at the United Nations Headquarters, on September 29, 2015 in New York City.

A diplomatic rough patch

The White House bristled at criticism that Biden will have to rebuild U.S. credibility in New York this week. A senior administration official insisted before the U.N. speech that the "picture is actually quite positive" despite the American exit from Afghanistan and the diplomatic spat with Paris.

"It's important to note that criticism of a decision is different from criticism of the credibility and leadership of the United States," press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday before Biden's speech. "And if you look back through the course of the last several decades prior to the last administration, there are points of disagreement, including when we have disagreed with the decisions other countries are making, when countries have disagreed with the decisions we're making."

Though Biden may aspire to be a transformative president abroad to course-correct his predecessor's policies, no single foreign policy issue is more critical than the crises he faces at home, according to Miller.

Aides have repeatedly said the president's focus is ending the pandemic and reviving the U.S. economy, but Biden's legacy will also be shaped by whether Congress will pass his infrastructure plan and a spending package that would expand the social safety net – two bills that Democrats vowed to bring to a vote by the end of the month.

"He understands that his bandwidth for pursuing grandiose foreign policy and transformative adventures abroad is very limited because governance is about choosing," Miller said. "He understands that the choices are much more consequential at home."

Lyon said Biden's recent foreign policy moves underscore the president's long-term strategic plan to counter the rise of China as a global power. The hasty Afghanistan exit was about consolidating resources and cutting ties to foreign wars, she said, and the Australian submarine contract is more about Beijing than a slight to the French.

That contradicts what Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman envisioned in the creation of the United Nations after World War II, according to Lyon. She said they thought the best way to counter global threats would be to work together through a global institution devoted to peace.

"There's an explanation (for Biden's actions), but it's not one that supports the agenda of the United Nations," Lyon said. "We're working on our second administration that the Americans generally aren't necessarily committed to working with us, and that's what Biden has to overcome."

Contributing: Michael Collins

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden 'America is back' foreign policy faces global test in UN speech

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