At UN, Biden calls for diplomacy, not conflict, but some are skeptical
President Biden, battling growing doubts from US allies about his commitment to work with them, used his first United Nations speech on Tuesday to call for “relentless diplomacy” on climate change, the pandemic and efforts to mitigate the growing influence of autocratic nations like China and Russia.
In a 30-minute speech in the General Assembly Hall, Biden called for a new era of global action, arguing that a summer of wildfires, excessive heat and a resurgence of the coronavirus requires a new era of unity.
“Our security, our prosperity and our very freedoms are interconnected, in my opinion like never before,” Biden said, insisting that the United States and its Western allies would remain essential partners.
But he made little mention of the global discord his own actions sparked, including the chaotic US retreat from Afghanistan as the Taliban regained control 20 years after their rout. And he made no mention of his administration’s explosion with one of America’s closest allies, France, which was sidelined in a secret submarine deal with Australia to deal with to China’s influence in the Pacific.
These two foreign policy crises, while very different in nature, have led some US partners to question Mr. Biden’s commitment to strengthening traditional alliances, with some publicly accusing him of perpetuating elements of the approach. America First ”by former President Donald J. Trump. wrapped in much more inclusive language.
Throughout his speech, Mr. Biden never uttered the word “China,” although his efforts to reorient US competitiveness and national security policy were built around combating Beijing’s growing influence. . But he associated his discussion with a series of choices that essentially boiled down to supporting democracy over autocracy, a thinly veiled critique of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin.
“We are not looking – repeat it, we are not looking – for a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocks,” he said. Yet, in describing what he called an “inflection point in history”, he spoke of the need to choose whether new technologies would be used as “a force to empower people or to deepen repression.” At one point, he explicitly referred to the targeting of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region in western China.
The president’s top aides, at least publicly, have rejected the idea that China and the United States, with the world’s largest economies, are dividing the world into opposing camps, seeking allies to counter the influence of the United States. other, like America and the Soviet Union once did. The relationship with Beijing, they argued, unlike the Cold War rivalry with Moscow, is marked by deep economic interdependence and certain areas of common interest, from the climate to control of North Korea’s nuclear program.
But privately, some officials concede growing similarities. The US-UK deal to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines is clearly an effort to restore naval balance in the Pacific, as China expands territorial claims and threatens Taiwan. The United States has also attempted to block China’s access to sophisticated technologies and Western communication systems.
“The future belongs to those who give their people the opportunity to breathe freely, not those who seek to suffocate their people with iron authoritarianism,” Biden said, leaving no doubt who he meant. “The authoritarians of the world, they seek to proclaim the end of the era of democracy, but they are wrong.
Hours after Biden left the podium, Xi also addressed the General Assembly, in a pre-recorded video, dismissing his government’s U.S. representations as repressive and expansionist, saying he supports development. peaceful for all people.
Xi’s language was withheld and, like Biden, he did not name his country’s main rival, but he clearly hinted at China’s anger over the Australian Submarine Pact. . The world must “reject the practice of forming small circles or zero-sum games,” he said, adding that international disputes “must be dealt with through dialogue and cooperation on the basis of quality and mutual respect ”.
He also announced that his country would stop building “new overseas coal-fired power projects”, ending one of the dirtiest fossil fuel programs. China is by far the biggest funder of coal-fired power plants.
Mr Biden’s debut at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York has been mitigated by the pandemic. Many national leaders did not attend, and there were few of the big receptions and relentless traffic jams that have traditionally marked the September ritual.
He only stayed a few hours and only met one ally: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Later that day, back in Washington, Biden met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the other partner of the submarine deal.
Last week, the three countries revealed the nuclear submarine deal they had negotiated in secret. Australia said it was renouncing a previous deal for France to build conventionally powered submarines, angering French leaders who felt betrayed by their allies. The surprise announcements have tied Australia’s defense more closely to the United States – a huge change for a country that just a few years ago aimed to avoid taking sides in the US-China rivalry.
Until Tuesday, the last time Mr Biden had seen Mr Johnson and Mr Morrison was at the Group of 7 summit meeting in June, as they were immersed in negotiations that were under wraps to French President Emmanuel Macron, which was at the same time an event.
On Tuesday, there was no conversation between Mr Biden and Mr Macron, who was so enraged at the submarine deals and the silence of his closest partners that he reminded the French ambassador to Washington, a decision unprecedented in more than 240 years of relations, as well as the envoy to Australia. It was not clear whether there were simply scheduling difficulties preventing the two from phoning each other, or whether Mr Macron was deliberately difficult to reach.
Mr Biden’s speech was very similar to what he would have said before the Taliban took Kabul without resistance and before the pivot to Asia became an obstacle to relations with Europe.
The president bristled, according to collaborators, when the French compared him to his predecessor, as Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, did on Tuesday, telling reporters that “the spirit “Mr. Trump’s approach to the allies” is still the same “under Mr. Biden.
Other allies have objected to the way Mr Biden set an Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal from Afghanistan – with minimal consultation, they argue. (The White House tells a different story, claiming that NATO allies have been fully consulted.)
Afghanistan’s deadline would likely have created nothing but grumbling behind the scenes if the country’s rapid fall to the Taliban had been anticipated. Instead, the August rush to airlift foreigners, and the Afghans who helped them, created an image of American recklessness.
The Taliban have appointed an ambassador, Suhail Shaheen, spokesperson for the movement based in Doha, Qatar, to represent Afghanistan at the United Nations and demanded that he be allowed to address this year’s General Assembly. UN officials said on Tuesday. The Taliban’s request, which is to be assessed by the General Assembly’s credentials committee, sets up a confrontation with the current envoy, appointed by the overthrown Afghan government.
On Afghanistan, Biden on Tuesday tried to look to a bigger picture – “We have ended 20 years of conflict,” he said – arguing that the United States was now more free to face challenges such as the climate crisis, cyber attacks and pandemics. And he delivered a much more conciliatory message than his predecessor, which scorned alliances, insulted friends and adversaries, and at various times threatened military action against North Korea and Iran.
“US military might must be our tool of last resort, not our first,” Mr. Biden said, “and it should not be used as an answer to all the problems we see in the world.”
He has traveled through a litany of international arrangements and institutions that he has joined over the past eight months, including the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization. He spoke of the United States vying for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council and reinstating the Iran nuclear deal, which Mr. Trump left.
In fact, Iran was the centerpiece of much of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy, as its new foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, met with European leaders, who called for a return to nuclear talks in Vienna which ended in June. Iranian officials have indicated that talks are expected to resume in the coming weeks.
But U.S. and EU officials expect the government of new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi to demand a high price for reverting to the deal, putting pressure on the West to move closer than ever to the production of bomb grade uranium.
Mr. Raisi did not come to New York, but gave a fiery speech via video. “Today, the world doesn’t care about ‘America First’ or ‘America is Back’,” he said. He added, “Sanctions are America’s new means of war with the nations of the world. But he did not rule out returning to the deal – in exchange for sanctions relief.
Mr Biden presented the coronavirus pandemic as a prime example of the need for peaceful international cooperation, saying “bombs and bullets cannot defend against Covid-19 or its future variants.” And he rebuffed arguments that the United States, which is about to give boosters to some vaccinated people, is doing too little for the poorest countries where vaccination has barely started.
The United States has “shipped more than 160 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to other countries,” he said.
“We need a collective act of science and political will,” he added. “We need to act now to get the arm shots as quickly as possible and to expand access to oxygen, to tests, to treatment, to save lives around the world.”
Michael D. Shear, Rick Gladstone and Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.