Amid Skepticism, Biden Vows a New Era of Global Collaboration – The New Yorker
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Joe Biden made his début at the elegant green-marble rostrum of the United Nations this week, as the coronavirus infected more than half a million people each day worldwide, as wildfires and floods aggravated by climate change ravaged the Earth, and as the U.S. struggled to prevent a new cold war with China. In lofty language, the President tried to redirect the world’s focus away from the calamitous end to America’s longest war, in Afghanistan, and a recent bust-up with its most longstanding ally, France. Just eight months into his Presidency, Biden is already trying to hit reset on his foreign policy. “I stand here today for the first time in twenty years with the United States not at war. We’ve turned the page,” Biden told the chamber. “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, of renewing and defending democracy.” The words were welcome, but there are lingering issues of credibility regarding America and its new President’s leadership.
“Biden has one overwhelming advantage at the U.N., and that is that he’s not Donald Trump,” Richard Gowan, of the International Crisis Group, told me. “In the U.S., we’ve gotten used to that. But, for leaders who had to put up with four years of inane speeches, anything that Biden says will be a massive improvement.” At the same time, Gowan noted, the spate of recent crises meant that Biden wasn’t going to get the hero’s reception that he might have expected when he first took office, with more foreign-policy experience than any other U.S. President. World leaders already have doubts about how far Biden will go to make international coöperation—rather than America First policies—actually work.
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, America’s power and place in the world have been defined primarily by its military deployments, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in the growing use of special forces to counter terrorists and other threats worldwide. At the U.N., Biden tried to frame a new postwar peace agenda. “U.S. military power must be our tool of last resort, not our first, and it should not be used as an answer to every problem we see around the world,” he said, during a half-hour address. Bombs and bullets, he noted, cannot defend against COVID-19 or its future variants, or ease the problems created by rising temperatures, devastating storms, and deadly famines. Biden emphasized that America’s fate depends on collaboration and the success of other nations. “To deliver for our own people,” he said, “we must also engage deeply with the rest of the world.”
The General Assembly summit this year has an apocalyptic air, especially with the fewer delegates present, all masked and spaced apart. The cavernous chamber looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. The U.S. had urged delegations to stay at home, for fear that the deluge of visitors to New York would become a superspreader event. After each head of state spoke, a masked attendant quietly wiped off the dais and changed the microphone head. Biden warned that the world is at an “inflection point in history”—the dawning of a “decisive decade” that will “determine our futures.”
Presidents like to frame their first year in office as a historic juncture or a new era. But this annual summit feels particularly sobering. In an opening address on Tuesday, the U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, used cataclysmic language to describe the challenges facing the world. “We are on the edge of an abyss—and moving in the wrong direction,” Guterres said. “Our world has never been more threatened. Or more divided. We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes.” The world, he said, “must wake up.”
The lingering question is whether leaders will heed his warnings and generate the requisite political will. During the pandemic, global momentum has been sapped and international muscle atrophied, as governments across six continents shifted their focus to mere survival. Last year’s General Assembly was virtual. This year, top-tier leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping, opted to give virtual speeches. The normal array of bilateral or group meetings on the U.N. sidelines—where most of the real business is done—was drastically cut back.
A major Biden proposal—to be delivered at a virtual meeting on the pandemic, which he will host from Washington, on Wednesday—is to insure that seventy per cent of the world’s 7.8 billion people are vaccinated before the next General Assembly, in a year. It’s an ambitious and perhaps unrealistic target, especially because developed countries are already starting to administer a third dose. The World Health Organization reported last week that 5.7 million doses had been administered globally—but that seventy-three per cent of them went only to ten of the hundred and ninety-three U.N. member states. The inequity is staggering. “This is a moral indictment of the state of our world,” Guterres said. “It is an obscenity.” Across Africa, roughly three per cent of the population has been vaccinated. In the U.S., by comparison, fifty-five per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, and more than two million have already had a third shot. Vaccination rates across much of Europe are even higher.
On climate change, Biden’s challenges are even broader. A new U.N. report prepared for this year’s General Assembly warned that, by 2030, the emissions of gases that heat the Earth’s climate are expected to increase by more than sixteen per cent over 2010 levels. Scientists say that emissions should decrease by at least a quarter by the end of the decade in order to avoid greater natural disasters. Last week, the U.S. and the European Union announced a pledge to reduce global emissions of methane by thirty per cent in the next nine years. But those are just words, with no binding commitment. And countering the current trajectory will require action by far more countries, notably China. John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy on climate, has so far been unsuccessful in winning any commitment from Beijing, which argues that it does not want to have to cede to Washington’s proposals without concessions favoring its own global agenda. At the U.N., Biden announced plans to double U.S. funding to help developing countries combat climate change and make America “the leader in public climate finance.” He called on other industrialized nations to “bring their highest possible ambitions to the table” at the next U.N. Climate Change Conference, in November. But, on Monday, Guterres warned that there is already a “high risk of failure.”
For Biden, the timing of the U.N. assembly couldn’t have been worse. Many NATO allies are still miffed at the abrupt and frenzied withdrawal from Afghanistan. The final decision was made unilaterally by the Biden Administration; the timing provided other NATO nations virtually no notice to withdraw their forces, citizens, or Afghan personnel. Biden’s U.N. speech was also almost overshadowed by the abrupt rift with France, which was triggered when Biden announced, last week, that the U.S. and Britain would help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines—undermining a longstanding deal in which France would sell sixty-six billion dollars’ worth of conventional submarines to Australia. The first-time sale of nuclear technology to Australia—mainly to build up capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region, to counter China—has vast strategic implications. But it also burned an ally—again, with no notice. President Emmanuel Macron immediately recalled the French Ambassador to Washington, a first in a relationship that dates back to France’s pivotal military aid during the Revolutionary War. “This brutal, unilateral, and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do,” the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said.
For Paris, the dispute hit at the very heart of the rules-based order that has long been the basis of the Western alliance. In June, Biden and Macron walked down a seaside boardwalk in Cornwall, during the G-7 summit, with their arms entwined, like lovers. Macron tweeted a picture of the two of them: “Now that we are together, united, determined to make a difference, it’s time to deliver. I’m sure we will, @JoeBiden!” And, at a gala party in July, France unveiled a ten-foot bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty on the front lawn of the French Ambassador’s residence in Washington. Le Drian flew over for it. “For more than two centuries, across the Atlantic, from one shore to another, from one generation to another, from one ordeal to the next, we have been writing a history together under the sign of freedom and fraternity,” Le Drian told a gathered audience, which included Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Fraternity not only of arms but also fraternity of the heart.” U.S. officials have tried to dismiss the Australia incident as a kerfuffle. But, in a sign of the current tensions, Macron cancelled his virtual appearance at the General Assembly, and his foreign minister refused to meet with Blinken.
The challenges on so many fronts mean that a lot of legwork lies ahead for the U.S. President. “Biden is a friend to the international system,” Gowan, of the International Crisis Group, told me. “But his overwhelming interest seems to be competition with China—and a pretty clear version of realpolitik, rather than idealist internationalism.” Looking back at the past eight months, America’s envoys deserve credit for “constructive” diplomacy, he said. “But diplomats from other countries, including allies, say, ‘Where is the strategic vision?’ It’s one thing to behave diplomatically—it’s astonishing how bad Trump undercut the U.S. in New York—but there’s a difference between getting back to business as usual and showing real leadership,” Gowan added. “We’ll see if Biden can do it.”