WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s debut speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday marks a major test to his message that “America is back” on the world stage as he looks to defend a series of bruising foreign policy decisions that have raised questions about U.S. credibility.
The shadow of COVID-19 looms large over the annual summit, which took place virtually last year due to the pandemic, but it also comes as the Biden administration struggles to contain the fallout from a series of recent diplomatic blunders, including a chaotic and deadly evacuation effort in Afghanistan after the Taliban swept to power amid the U.S. military withdrawal last month.
The Pentagon acknowledged Friday that 10 civilians, including an aid worker and as many as seven children, were killed in a drone strike in Kabul in the final days of the 20-year war. Separately, France recalled its ambassador to the U.S. and Australia after it was rattled by a new partnership between the two countries and the U.K. that rendered a French submarine contract obsolete. The president will also face foreign leaders who have criticized his campaign to give Americans a COVID-19 booster shot before prioritizing countries where people have yet to receive their first vaccine dose. And Biden is facing renewed scrutiny over his immigration policies after the administration began deporting Haitian migrants after thousands gathered seeking asylum at the southern border.
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“Our allies and adversaries have to make one judgment: are these missteps a headline that will pass or are they a trend line?” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department adviser.
The president headed off some criticism Monday when the administration lifted a travel ban on vaccinated foreign nationals after European officials expressed frustration over his refusal to lift the restrictions, which were implemented under former President Donald Trump.
But Biden, a longstanding internationalist, will have convince allies the U.S. is committed to returning to its role at the head of the diplomatic table on crises like COVID-19 and climate change, even as he remains focused on more domestic priorities including bringing the pandemic under control and passing landmark legislation on infrastructure and expanding social programs.
The president Tuesday will lay out his vision for the United States’ global role on confronting a number of challenges including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, trade, counterterrorism and competition with adversaries like China, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity in order to preview his speech.
“I think our allies – particularly Europeans – are increasingly persuaded of two things: That Joe Biden’s bandwidth and ability to focus on foreign policy is narrower than they thought and I think they are extremely concerned that we’re going to toggle back to another political change in 2022 or 2024,” Miller said.
A new chapter of ‘intensive diplomacy’
The president’s remarks kick of a crammed week of diplomatic activities, which a senior administration official said will show the “depth and richness” of how the U.S. remains engaged on the world stage and mark a new “chapter of intensive diplomacy.”
Biden will hold individual meetings with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Biden will also hold a virtual COVID summit on Wednesday where he’s expected to set “bold goals to hit on everything from vaccinations to the supply of life-saving medications and technologies,” according to the official. The president is expected to announce further U.S. contributions to help bring an end to the pandemic and will reportedly urge global leaders to set a goal of vaccinating 70% of the world’s population in the next year.
Later this week, Biden will host the first in-person meeting with leaders of the “Quad” partnership in the Indo-Pacific – the U.S., Japan, India and Australia – at the White House.
Alynna Lyon, a United Nations expert at the University of New Hampshire, said expectations are high as Biden can’t rely on the some of the traditional relationships with allies who could create momentum for his global agenda and rally international partners around U.S. leadership.
“There is some real credibility issues there about working together because the administration has demonstrated a few times just in the last month or so that there are several places in which it will go alone and make decisions without collaboration,” she said.
Biden’s history with the UN
Biden has a longstanding relationship with the UN that dates back to the 1990s when a Republican-led Congress withheld contributions to the global body.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden worked with his Republican counterpart and the committee’s chairman, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to hammer out an agreement for the U.S. to pay their dues.
As vice president, Biden frequently met with foreign leaders at the annual summit and engaged in what Lyon describes as “cocktail napkin diplomacy” on the sidelines of the General Assembly. He sat in for former President Barack Obama on a number of sessions, including one on combating ISIS in 2015, and co-chaired a UN peacekeeping summit in 2014.
“Biden himself is prone to cooperation and collaboration and values that work historically,” Lyon said. “So a lot of us are puzzled that the Biden administration seems to contradict their own narrative, their own story about cooperation as being important and essential and yet not working multilaterally.”
The president took office with years of foreign policy experience and global standing that provided a familiar balm to those alarmed by the four years of Trump’s “America first” isolationist foreign policy.
In the early months Biden tried to reassure allies by reversing some of his predecessor’s policies, including recommitting to the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization and launching negotiations about rejoining the nuclear deal with Iran. In his first foreign trip abroad, Biden sought to rebuild international relations at the G-7 summit in Cornwall followed by a meeting with NATO leaders at the headquarters in Brussels.
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“The goodwill generated by his election as well as by his initial statements about America’s renewed international engagement has all been evaporated,” said Brett Bruen, a former foreign service officer who worked on global engagement in the Obama administration.
Bruen said the security blanket that America has provided to some now looks a bit shaky as Biden has put more distance between himself and international crises.
“Biden is going to face a very skeptical and in some cases quite hostile international community, not just because of the recent challenges with France and questions about how transparently we’re engaging with our allies,” Bruen said, “but also Afghanistan is the enormous elephant in the room, drawing into question not only our commitment to countries where we are dealing with security challenges but also old alliances.
For Biden, the annual diplomatic spectacle at the UN couldn’t come at a worse time, Bruen added.
A diplomatic rough patch
The White House bristled at criticism that Biden will have to rebuild U.S. credibility in New York this week. A senior administration official insisted the “picture is actually quite positive” despite the American exit from Afghanistan and the diplomatic spat with Paris.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a key part of Biden’s remarks will be about the importance of re-establishing alliances but doing so doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements.
“It’s important to note that criticism of a decision is different from criticism of the credibility and leadership of the United States,” Psaki told reporters Monday. “And if you look back through the course of the last several decades prior to the last administration, there are points of disagreement, including when we have disagreed with the decisions other countries are making, when countries have disagreed with the decisions we’re making.”
While Biden may aspire to be a transformative president abroad in order to course correct his predecessor’s policies and because he built his career as an internationalist, the reality is no single foreign policy issue is more critical than the crises he faces at home, according to Miller.
Aides have repeatedly said the president’s central focus is ending the pandemic and reviving the U.S. economy, but Biden’s legacy will also be shaped by whether Congress will pass his infrastructure plan and a spending package that focuses on expanding the social safety net – two bills that Democrats have vowed to bring to a vote by the end of the month.
“He understands that his bandwidth for pursuing grandiose foreign policy and transformative adventures abroad is very limited because governance is about choosing,” Miller said. “He understands that the choices are much more consequential at home.”
While the recent foreign policy moves have raised questions about the Biden administration’s credibility, Lyon said they underscore the president’s long-term strategic plan to counter the rise of China as a global power in an authentic way. The hasty Afghanistan exit becomes about consolidating resources and cutting ties to foreign wars in order to focus on China while the Australian submarine contract is more about Beijing than a slight to the French.
Still, it contradicts what presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman envisioned in the creation of the global body after World War Two, which was the best way to counter global threats, international peace and security is to work together in peaceful mechanisms using an institution like the UN, according to Lyon.
“There’s an explanation but it’s not one that supports the agenda of the United Nations,” Lyon said. “We’re working on our second administration that the Americans generally aren’t necessarily committed to working with us and that’s what Biden has to overcome.”
Contributing: Michael Collins
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