U.S. President Joe Biden used his first address before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday to declare that the world stands and at an “inflection point in history” and must move quickly and co-operatively to address the festering issues of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and human rights abuse.
Without mentioning China directly, Biden acknowledged increasing concerns about rising tensions between the two economic and military powers. But he said, “We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocks.”
The president noted his decision to end America’s longest war last month, in Afghanistan, and set the table for his administration to shift U.S. attention to intensive diplomacy with no shortage of crises facing the globe. He said he is driven by a belief that “to deliver for our own people, we must also engage deeply with the rest of the world.”
“We’ve ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan,” Biden said. “And as we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy of using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world.”
Biden, who arrived in New York on Monday evening to meet with Secretary General Antonio Guterres ahead of Tuesday’s address, offered a full-throated endorsement of the body’s relevance and ambition at a difficult moment in history, a glaring difference with the speech given two years ago by former U.S. president Donald Trump.
Seeking to draw contrasts with his predecessor, Biden spoke about revitalizing alliances around the world, stressing U.S. support for NATO’s mission in Europe as well as reaffirming its desire to work closely with the European Union and the countries in its Quad group: Australia, India and Japan.
“We will stand up for our allies and our friends,” he said.
He also highlighted the American re-engagement with the Paris Accords, with the threat of climate change a recurring theme of his speech.
Afghan pullout, controversial sub deal still fresh
But Biden is likely facing a healthy measure of skepticism from allies during his week of high-level diplomacy. The opening months of his presidency have included a series of difficult moments with friendly nations that were expecting greater co-operation from Biden following four years of Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy.
Eight months into his presidency, Biden has been out of sync with allies on the chaotic ending to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. He has faced differences over how to go about sharing coronavirus vaccines with the developing world and over pandemic travel restrictions. And there are questions about the best way to respond to military and economic moves by China.
Biden also finds himself in the midst of a fresh diplomatic spat with France, the United States’s oldest ally, after announcing plans — along with Britain — to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. The move is expected to give Australia improved capabilities to patrol the Pacific amid growing concern about the Chinese military’s increasingly aggressive tactics, but it upended a French defence contract worth at least $66 billion to sell diesel-powered submarines to Australia.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday there was a “crisis of trust” with the U.S. as a result of the episode.
Last year, no leaders came to the UN because the coronavirus was sweeping the globe, so all addresses from leaders were prerecorded, though some resident ambassadors spoke. This year, the General Assembly offered leaders a choice — come to New York or remain online. More than 100 decided to appear in person in the General Assembly hall.
“I’m here to sound the alarm. The world must wake up,” Guterres said in his first words after convening the meeting.
Other pressing issues on the agenda of world leaders include ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region.
Others speaking Tuesday include Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in a surprise move will deliver a video address; and Iran’s recently elected hardline President Ebrahim Raisi.
Biden expressed America’s commitment to keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands, and he likely rankled Xi by mentioning alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang in his speech.