It is difficult to imagine a more inopportune moment for Joe Biden to debut on the largest world stage of his presidential term.
Biden goes before the annual United Nations General Assembly this week on a mission to restore credibility and trust in the U.S. as a reliable global partner following a series of disparate crises from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, to France and nuclear weapons deals, to COVID-19 vaccinations.
Administration officials insist their partnerships have not suffered permanent damage despite recent setbacks.
“Good friends have disagreements, but that’s the nature of friendship and that’s — because you’re friends, you can have disagreement and continue to work on those areas of cooperation,” the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters ahead of the start of the General Assembly meeting.
Many U.S. allies cheered the election of Biden as a return to normalcy and traditional alliances after the tumultuous Trump era, when the then-president eschewed international cooperation and promoted an “America First” policy that often translated into America alone.
Biden will address the assembly Tuesday, likely a different dynamic from 2018, when world leaders literally laughed out loud at Trump as he used his speech to brag about his great accomplishments.
But now many of those same allies, dismayed over the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan that abandoned thousands of at-risk Afghans to the new Taliban leadership, as well as other administration missteps or broken promises, are questioning how deep Biden’s departure from the Trump administration really is.
Several NATO nations said the U.S. failed to give them proper warning of the hasty, lethal U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The administration says that’s not true.
Another blow to U.S. credibility came Friday when the Pentagon acknowledged its last drone-controlled air strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed not an Islamic terrorist as first claimed but 10 civilians, including a charity worker employed by a California organization, and seven children.
And in the same week, the Biden administration ignited a huge row with the oldest ally of the United States, France. Biden announced it was sharing sensitive technology to help Australian build nuclear-powered submarines, which scuttled Canberra’s $66-billion sub deal with France. It was part of a new defense pact that also included Britain and was widely seen as a fortification against China’s rising aggression in the Indo-Pacific region, which Biden hopes to make a strategic priority.
Claiming it was blindsided, France was furious, and it seemed an unusual fight for Biden to pick, or obliviously trigger. France recalled its ambassadors to Washington and to Australia, accused Biden of being no better than Trump and cried betrayal.
In addition to losing out on a major military-sales contract, the French saw the U.S. teaming with Britain, which recently left the European Union, as a plot to undermine Paris’ long-standing investment in the Indo-Pacific — at a time the EU is attempting to build up its own international diplomatic heft.
French comments were scathing.
“We can see that this is a return to the American fold and a form of accepted vassalization,” French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clement Beaune said, according to Agence France Presse.
So Biden, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, may not find as much of a warm and welcoming reception at the U.N. this week as they may have at one time expected.
The General Assembly is an annual event that normally attracts dozens of world leaders in a ritual of keynote speeches, on-the-margin meetings and traffic gridlock in midtown Manhattan. Figures rarely seen in the U.S., like, once upon a time, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, might take the stage.
But last year, with the COVID pandemic, the event was reduced to a largely virtual event. This year is an attempt at a partial recovery, with “hybrid” conferences that will include leaders in person along with virtual participants.
Because of continuing COVID restrictions, however, the size of delegations will be severely restricted — bigger than last year but still much smaller than normal. About 100 countries are expected to have some sort of in-person representation, primarily at the level of foreign minister.
British Minister Boris Johnson will attend; France’s Emmanuelle Macron will not, nor will Chinese President Xi Jinping.
New York City officials are demanding all attendees be vaccinated against COVID-19, which has proved to be a problem for countries like Russia, because U.S. authorities don’t recognize its Sputnik vaccine. Brazil’s pandemic-denier President Jair Bolsonaro, whose country faces among the world’s highest death rates for the disease but who has dismissed COVID-19’s gravity despite contracting it himself, vows to attend.
The new president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, is not expected to attend although he will address the assembly virtually. A representative delegation will be in New York. Iran and the United States, through European mediators, have been locked in negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which was sealed during the Obama administration but jettisoned by Trump.
Since Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, Iran has steadily begun violations by increasing enrichment of uranium and other steps that experts say put it closer to developing nuclear weapons.
Biden will host a summit on COVID-19 on Wednesday, which will include how to make vaccines available globally. This comes as his own country has failed to vaccinate many of its people who resist inoculation for sometimes politically motivated reasons.
Climate change and the disasters it wreaks are also centerpiece issues at the summit, and the U.S. delegation will be participating with Mexican and Central American officials in a conference on immigration, an issue that dogs the Biden administration, which has proved unable to stem the flow of people seeking to enter the U.S.
Thomas-Greenfield and other administration officials stressed that human rights would also be at the top of their agenda. She is participating in a series of conferences on the use of rape in warfare. The U.S. is attempting to win a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, which the Trump administration abandoned three years ago, citing its purported bias against Israel.
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