Biden goes to the U.N. needing to salvage his global agenda

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President Biden’s foreign policy has taken considerable blows in the past month. The chaotic American and NATO withdrawals from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan caused a lot of anger among both domestic and international friends and foes. The myriad of critics of the Biden administration claimed , failed to properly consult its allies, had botched the exit and left Afghan minorities and women to be subject to Taliban rule.

So much, the thinking went, for Biden’s stated emphasis on human rights. The United States has succeeded in restoring trust between allies following the Trump-era’s reckless wrecking-ball nationalism. Biden and his lieutenants did not show any regret over their decision to leave Afghanistan. They insisted that an end of two decades worth of U.S. military deployments was needed and supported by a large portion of the U.S. population. Some European diplomats felt that the U.S. actions displayed a greater American arrogance than previous U.S. administrations.

Then came another geopolitical crisis. The new U.S.-Australian-British pact unveiled last week triggered a rupture in relations with France, which saw its existing contract to produce a fleet of submarines for Australia scrapped in favor of a nuclear-technology deal brokered between the three Anglo nations. The French government remains furious: It recalled its ambassador in Washington and has set about throwing a wrench into ongoing E.U. Australia and France are in trade negotiations.

“There have been lies, contempt and a breach of trust,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told media, pointing to how Paris was kept in the dark while the Americans, British and Australians hatched the deal in secret. We knew nothing about the negotiations until an hour ago. You do not deal with an ally like France with such brutality and unpredictability.” (The United States said France was aware of the agreement a day or two before it was announced. )

Le Drian even scoffed at the idea of a sit-down with his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, where dozens of world leaders are convening this week. He suggested instead that they may see each other walking down a U.N. corridor — passages that have witnessed decades of awkward interactions between geopolitical adversaries. This is a stark departure from the earlier summer when they stood side by side at the residence of the French ambassador in Washington and unveiled a miniature-Statue of Liberty. They also extolled their deep ties between each other.

This was not the atmosphere Biden wanted ahead of delivering his first speech at the United Nations as president on Tuesday. But he will use the moment to press ahead with his global agenda, calling attention to the fights both against climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

“By focusing on climate change and covid-19 — two genuinely global challenges that demand a multilateral response — Biden has an opportunity to win the doubters over and reassert American determination to solve problems through international cooperation,” wrote Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group.

Biden is also expected to join other world leaders in pushing more countries to make major commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Six weeks ahead of a U.N. conference on climate change in Glasgow, activists claim that the urgent climate crisis requires the world’s leaders to put aside narrower squabbles and push more countries to reduce greenhouse gas


“It’s a common threat,” Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and a key architect of the 2015 Paris agreement, told my colleagues. Climate change is not about power politics. No matter how many arms you possess, it doesn’t matter how many armies or how many guns you own. It is just as bad as the pandemic. Climate is just much worse.”

The Biden administration may also use the moment to reiterate its particular brand of internationalism and further distance itself from its predecessor. For four years, Donald Trump’s visits to the U.N. General Assembly dais were like those of an enemy combatant who is disdainful of international elites residing on American soil. Trump mocked climate change concerns and did not make any pleas for multilateral cooperation or global solidarity. Instead, Trump rattled his saber at China and Iran and boasted about his own record. Reaction to his diatribes was, at best, muted; on at least one occasion, the gathered dignitaries in the General Assembly laughed at him.

Biden is no Trump and will present a different vision of American foreign policy.

“The president will essentially drive home the message that ending the war in Afghanistan closed the chapter focused on war and opens a chapter focused on personal, purposeful, effective American diplomacy,” a senior U.S. official told reporters in a Monday briefing.

The official also added that Biden “will communicate tomorrow that he does not believe in the notion of a new Cold War with the world divided into blocks. In reference to Washington’s clash with Beijing, the official stated that he believes in intense, vigorous and principled competition.

That’s rhetoric that many at the United Nations may be relieved to hear, with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres warning that “we need to avoid at all cost a Cold War that would be different from the past one, and probably more dangerous and more difficult to manage.”

Biden and his team are eager to project the sort of sobriety Trump never showed. Monday was the end of months-long lobbying by E.U. diplomats, the Biden administration finally scrapped Trump-era travel bans imposed on some 33 countries, including the member states of the E.U., and will allow vaccinated travelers from everywhere to enter the United States starting in November.

“Trump made it clear that he intended to be a bull in a china shop while participating in overseas summits, hoping to bend allies to his will when it came to such things as funding NATO,” wrote my colleague Aaron Blake. “Biden’s approach is much more sugar than vinegar — a traditional approach to diplomacy.”

But the events of recent weeks are also a reminder for Biden that much can still go sour.

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