For good but mostly ill, presidential addresses to the United Nations General Assembly are the equivalent of State of the Union addresses. They’re delivered annually and meant to cover a wide range of topics, which means they have a dutiful, laundry-list quality. Climate? Check. Global cooperation? Got it. In fact, the only memorable presidential addresses to the UNGA tend to be the ones that are nuts. Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” speech in 2017, in which he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and its leader, “Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un, was the most memorable because it was so, well, un-UN. I was covering the White House in 2003, and was at the UN when George W. Bush celebrated the ouster of Saddam Hussein—a war that notably did not have the UN’s blessing and which, of course, was based on a false premise of weapons of mass destruction. (You can read about my involvement in WMD and the CIA leak case here and here.)
Joe Biden’s first address to the General Assembly was a return to normalcy, in a way. It lacked the great symbolism of America’s first Black president, but as an old foreign policy hand with decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is a president the General Assembly knows as well as any president since George H. W. Bush, who was himself a former UN ambassador.
Biden used the address to reiterate familiar but essential American principles. He stood up for democracy: “No matter how challenging or how complex the problems we’re going to face, government by and for the people is still the best way to deliver for all of our people.” He called for global cooperation to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change: “We are reengaged at the World Health Organization and working in close partnership with [the international vaccine consortium] COVAX to deliver life-saving vaccines around the world. We rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement.” He also ticked off all the ways in which the U.S. is now neighborly toward NATO, the African Union, the Organization of American States, and other multilateral organizations.
This kind of bonhomie sounds pro forma, but it matters coming out of the madness of the Trump years, when America’s commitment to global norms was, shall we say, a bit shaky. Retired General Barry McCaffrey said Biden sounded like Aristotle compared to Trump, which sounds about right. After the Trump administration’s obliviousness toward, or encouragement of, Russian efforts to destabilize American and Western democracy, it was good to hear the president display an understanding of the crossroads of science and democracy. “We’ll work together with our democratic partners to ensure that new advances in areas from biotechnology, to quantum computing, 5G, artificial intelligence, and more are used to lift people up, solve problems, and advance human freedom,” Biden declared, “and not to suppress dissent in minority communities.” (The last reference was clearly about China and the Uyghurs.) He vowed that “relentless diplomacy” would replace “relentless war.”
It wasn’t all diplo-speak. Biden engaged in the kind of muscle flexing that’s inevitable at these things: “The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.” In addition to the swipe at Beijing’s crackdown on its Muslim population, he obliquely hit China’s “One Belt, One Road” foreign aid strategy, touting Western-style development—from Burma to the Bahamas—free from the Chinese Communist Party’s heavy hand. He reasserted his commitment to the increasingly distant possibility of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
The 78-year-old president sought to allay fears that the U.S. and China were lurching toward conflict: “We’re not seeking—I’ll say it again—we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocks,” he said.
Biden’s declaration that this period in time is the first in 20 years that the U.S. is not at war and the fact that we’ve “turned the page” was welcome and vital. But page turning is a bit of a fallacy. The president did the right thing by finally ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan and resisting the foreign policy establishment’s call for residual forces or staying in the fray just a bit longer. “The Blob,” as the big global thinkers have come to be known, has been congenitally wrong. But Biden elided and obfuscated when it came to Afghanistan. We remain committed to women’s rights, he noted, and touted a UN Security Council resolution calling for upholding gender equality there, which is fine but meaningless. The Taliban won’t seek our approval before they return to the subjugation of women; it’s a central and hardly tangential component to their movement. Biden can talk about international cooperation, but the $90 billion submarine mess with France, Britain, and Australia isn’t entirely inspiring. It’s never good when permanent members of the Security Council recall ambassadors to each other.
Of course, most of our allies are glad that America’s back and Biden’s in charge, but the uncoordinated withdrawal from Afghanistan and the tough stance toward China make them nervous, as does the submarine problem. “A basic principle among allies is we talk to one another. We can’t hide and put together some alternative strategies,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday. “This is surprising and shocking; this is why there is a crisis of trust beyond the fact that the contract is being broken.”
After rightfully attacking the Trump administration’s build-the-wall hatred toward migrants and refugee seekers, Biden is struggling to deal with the waves of population displacement across the globe. The triumph of the Taliban is that the exodus of people fleeing Afghanistan now could lead to a renewed refugee crisis in Europe, akin to the wave years ago that destabilized centrist parties across the continent and fueled an anti-immigrant backlash.
On the Mexican border, the U.S. has responded to Haitian immigrants’ quest for asylum not by processing them but by deporting them en masse on flights to Port-au-Prince, which James North recently examined in the Washington Monthly, even though most of the masses yearning to breathe free were coming from South America, where they’d fled after the 2010 earthquake. No one expects the administration to have the U.S.-Mexican border working with the efficiency of Swiss customs agents in Zurich. But we’re eight months into the border surge, eight months into Biden’s administration, and the infrastructure to process Central Americans, let alone Haitians, is proving infuriatingly slow to establish.
A new American foreign policy begins at home, and here, at home, the page turning isn’t happening nearly fast enough.