With promises of "aggressive diplomacy," and a vow to not seek "a new Cold War," U.S. President Joe Biden used his first address before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday to push a globalist agenda, saying "U.S. military power must be our tool of last resort, not our first."
Biden used his half-hour speech to push for aggressive actions against COVID-19 and climate change. On Wednesday, he will host a virtual COVID-19 vaccine summit with other world leaders.
On Tuesday, he spoke of the many challenges facing the 193-member assembly.
"This is a clear and urgent choice that we face here at the dawning of what must be a decisive decade for our world, a decade that will quite literally determine our futures," said the president, who took his place for the first time as head of state before the U.N.'s distinctive green marble rostrum. "As a global community, we're challenged by urgent and looming crises wherein lie enormous opportunities if — if — we can summon the will and resolve to seize these opportunities."
Without mentioning his nation's greatest adversary — China — by name, Biden also vowed that he would not seek to escalate conflict. In an earlier speech before the General Assembly, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it would be "impossible to address dramatic economic and development challenges while the world's two largest economies are at odds with each other."
"We're not seeking — I'll say it again — we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs," Biden said. "The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up to pursue a peaceful resolution to shared challenges, even if we have intense disagreements in other areas, because we'll all suffer the consequences of our failure if we do not come together to address the urgent threats like COVID-19, climate change or enduring threats like nuclear proliferation."
'We've turned the page'
Biden also defended his controversial decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of American involvement there. Those comments were noted by Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.N., Ghulam Isaczai, who was appointed by the previous government before the Taliban seized power last month.
The White House has said that they are in "no rush" to recognize the Taliban as the official government.
"I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war," Biden said. "We've turned the page."
The Taliban appear to be moving to consolidate their position, this week announcing a slew of appointments, including nominating a Taliban spokesperson to the U.N. seat. That process is likely to stir up lively discussion on the U.N. credentials committee. The last time the Taliban held power, from 1996 to 2001, the U.N. allowed the representative of the government the Taliban deposed to hold the seat.
The leader of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which has hosted diplomatic talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, urged the international community to continue discussions on Afghanistan.
"We emphasize here the importance of the international community's continued support to Afghanistan at this critical stage and to separate humanitarian aid from political differences," said Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. "We also stress the necessity of continuing dialogue with the Taliban because a boycott only leads to polarization and reactions, whereas dialogue could bring in positive results."
'Bumper sticker garbage'
Biden's appearance on Tuesday was a direct rebuke to the aggressive "America first" doctrine of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
"As we look ahead, we will lead," he said. "We will lead on all the greatest challenges of our time from COVID to climate, peace and security, human dignity and human rights. But we will not go it alone. We will lead together with our allies and partners in cooperation with all those who believe as we do, that this is within our power to meet these challenges, to build a future, to lift all of our people and preserve this planet."
But those words did not sit well with Biden's Republican detractors, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee lead Republican Michael McCaul. "President Biden's speech today does not match his actions," he said.
"President Biden's foreign policy is bumper sticker garbage," U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement. "His platitudes about women's rights don't protect the Taliban's rape victims. His throwaway lines about 'relentless diplomacy' don't comfort the hundreds of American citizens and thousands of American green card holders he left behind. His empty promise to 'stand up for our allies' doesn't stop a single beheading. The president's happy talk remains disconnected from reality."
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, said that Biden needs to use global platforms like the U.N. to reassure U.S. allies after two recent White House decisions ruffled feathers: the rushed, messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the controversial pact the U.S. announced with Australia and Britain.
"It's ironic in the sense that when President Biden first took office, he indicated that restoring U.S. leadership and U.S. alliances was a key goal for him," he said. "And yet, that goal has become even more acute, for reasons of his own doing."
The annual assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York is arguably the biggest global stage for world leaders, with participants using their time to expound on topics of global and regional interest. This year, only about 100 heads of state announced they would attend in person: the leaders of China, Iran, Egypt and Somalia are among a handful of those delivering pre-recorded comments.
Ideals vs. reality
Biden's globalist, cooperative, optimistic vision clashes with awkward reality.
On Friday, America's oldest ally, France, recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia, expressing anger over the "stab in the back" delivered by those two nations when their nuclear submarine deal nullified a nearly $70 billion French-Australian deal for conventional submarines.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would soon hold a phone call with his French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, who did not travel to New York.
Biden also met Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. event with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In that meeting, the White House said in a statement, the two leaders "affirmed their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region, based on shared values and mutual interests, and agreed on the importance of working with allies and partners around the world, including through historic partnerships and organizations and new configurations, to defend against threats to the international rules-based order."
Returning to Washington, the president then met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In a tweet, Johnson described the two nations as "staunch allies and the closest of partners."
Later in the week, separate from the U.N. meeting, Biden will meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Those two are members of the so-called "Quad," a strategic dialogue grouping that also includes Australia, and is seen as a bulwark against growing Chinese influence.
Margaret Besheer and Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.