In his first speech to the United Nations, President Biden reprised a line from his inaugural address, pledging Tuesday that the United States would not lead by the “example of our power,” but, “God willing, with the power of our example.”
Rhetorically, it’s a beautiful, idealistic phrase meant to directly contrast the go-it-alone brute force and chest-beating of the Trump era. But eight months into this new administration and fresh off serious foreign policy blunders, the U.S. is struggling to instill confidence in some of our closest allies, let alone influence our adversaries and bad actors to change their ways.
Addressing those skeptical allies and adversaries alike, Biden called on nations to come together to take on the global issues of COVID-19, climate change, cyberthreats and human rights abuses, promising to solve them through “relentless diplomacy,” while using the U.S. military only as a last resort. Some might call it the opposite of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly but carry a big stick” philosophy.
“Today, many of our greatest concerns cannot be solved or even addressed by the force of arms,” he said. “Bombs and bullets cannot defend against COVID-19 or its future variants.”
Instead of the U.S. serving as the world’s police force, Biden offered a vigorous endorsement of the United Nations’ relevance at what he described as a turning point in history while trying to reassure world leaders of U.S. cooperation. The message upended the Trump model of calling out the U.N. as corrupt and too dependent on U.S. money and military might, but it was a particularly tough sell against the backdrop of two foreign policy crises playing out in real time.
The U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan was so chaotic it created an opening for terrorists to kill 13 U.S. Marines and scores of Afghans waiting to flee their disintegrating nation, and left a still-unknown number of Americans citizens and legal permanent residents behind enemy lines. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the U.S. and NATO remain stranded. Those who served as interpreters and allies are now under a constant threat of being hunted down and killed by the Taliban, while all women and girls in Afghanistan face a future of likely oppression, where they can no longer determine their own fate and futures through education and hard work.
What’s more, four days before Biden addressed the 193 member states assembled for their annual conference in New York, his top generals admitted to killing an Afghan civilian aid worker and nine others, including seven children, in a mistaken drone strike.
Over the weekend and into Monday, through private airlifts, charter planes were rescuing more Americans and Afghans after private entities’ negotiations with Pakistan, the UAE and other nearby countries — not via sophisticated U.S.-led international diplomacy. The evacuation effort is a show of U.S. strength of a different kind: the sheer will and determination of former military veterans, special operators and charities. Still, it’s doing more to demonstrate the success of nimble, private enterprise in times of need rather than shore up faith in international diplomacy or Uncle Sam’s leadership to save the day.
Just a few weeks ago, Biden strangely claimed to have heard no criticism from America’s closest allies about his administration's fiasco in Afghanistan, but that’s only because he was tuning it out. Officials from Britain, Germany, Italy and France all publicly complained about the lack of U.S. consultation during the withdrawal.
Then, heading into the U.N. gathering, Biden managed to stir up a diplomatic tempest with France over his decision to form a strategic Indo-Pacific alliance with Australia and Britain to counter China. France and the European Union are feeling left out and viewing it as a broken commitment reminiscent of Trump’s America First policies. (The U.S. sale of nuclear submarines to Australia — upending France’s expected deal to supply the ships — poured salt on the wound.)
During his U.N. speech, Biden exhorted world leaders to work together but avoided addressing the criticism from allies about the withdrawal from Afghanistan or the diplomatic uproar with France. He described an inflection point when it comes to protecting “human dignity and human rights” around the world – but did not say how “relentless diplomacy” would prevent the Taliban from reverting to its oppressive ways once the U.S. and other international entities help solve an immediate humanitarian crisis that has put an estimated 1 million children in danger of extreme hunger.
Senior Biden administration officials told reporters that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would participate in a Wednesday virtual meeting of G-20 leaders focused on Afghanistan and the future of women and girls’ access to education there. The officials responded more carefully to the Taliban’s request to speak at the United Nations this week, emphasizing the need for Afghanistan’s new leaders to uphold the international expectations set out in a U.N. Security Council resolution promoting the free movement of people and commitments to counterterrorism.
“We have quite a bit to talk about to assess where we are in those commitments that the Taliban has made,” an administration official told reporters Tuesday night.
While the U.S. is rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Council after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from it, Biden didn’t address how it can help solve the most pressing human rights issues around the world as long as some of the worst actors — China, Russia, Venezuela and Cuba — remain members. The same goes for cybersecurity attacks.
Referring to China without mentioning it by name, Biden insisted that the U.S. is not “seeking a new Cold War” or a “world divided into rigid blocs.” Sadly, how the U.S. wants to see the world doesn't change how our adversaries view us or operate.
In a passing condemnation of “the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities” around the world, Biden managed to single out China’s Xinjiang region where rights groups estimate that 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been interned in reeducation camps. In response, China’s mission to the United Nations hit back, telling Reuters: “It’s completely groundless. We totally reject. The U.S. should pay more attention to its own human rights problems.”
Instead of Biden making news with an unexpected policy announcement, it was Chinese President Xi Jinping who surprised global leaders with a climate-change commitment to stop building new coal-fired projects abroad. Xi also used his video address to the U.N. assembly to obliquely take shots at the U.S.
“Recent developments in the global situation show once again that military intervention from the outside and so-called democratic transformation entail nothing but harm,” he said.
Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres started the General Assembly meeting off with a warning about the growing tensions between China and the United States, the world’s largest economies. "I fear our world is creeping towards two different sets of economic, trade, financial and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence — and ultimately two different military and geopolitical strategies," he said. "This is a recipe for trouble. It would be far less predictable than the Cold War."
While Biden tried to tamp down the tensions, China sensed weakness and chose to go on offense instead.
Biden also vowed not to let Iran develop a nuclear weapon while renewing the U.S. commitment to protect Israel. Back in Washington, however, progressive Democrats on Tuesday successfully removed $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system from a bill to keep the United States government funded. The funds are expected to be approved at a later date in a defense spending bill, but the action still made headlines, muddling Biden’s message on Israel at the U.N.
Republicans are expected to criticize a Democratic president’s foreign policy – but this time, their complaints packed more of a punch.
“President Biden’s speech today does not match his actions,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “His failed leadership led to the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan that abandoned our partners, angered our NATO allies and emboldened our adversaries.”
Biden now has the tough task of selling the nation and the world on the “relentless diplomacy” he said can solve our most vexing problems. Just how successful that approach is in shaping the future of Afghanistan and preventing another terrorist attack from there will be the first test case.
As Biden often says, the eyes of the world are watching.