Biden steps onto global stage with high-stakes UN speech

President Biden faces high stakes on the global stage as he takes his plea for international cooperation on pressing issues like climate change and the coronavirus to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. 

Biden’s first speech as president to the annual meeting comes at a time when he is facing questions from allies on U.S. commitments abroad and fury from France, America’s oldest ally, over a nuclear submarine deal with Australia. 

The president plans to use Tuesday’s speech to rally nations behind confronting common threats, explicitly tying the recent U.S. exit from Afghanistan to a broader shift from traditional military conflict to “intensive” U.S. diplomacy, a senior administration official said. 

“The speech will center on the proposition that we are closing the chapter on 20 years of war and opening a chapter of intensive diplomacy by rallying allies and partners and institutions to deal with the major challenges of our time,” the official told reporters Monday on a call previewing the speech. 

Atop Biden’s agenda are climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to delivering in-person remarks at the gathering, Biden will host a virtual COVID-19 summit Wednesday during which officials say he will press countries and the private sector to increase their commitments to vaccinate the global population. 

Biden, whose administration has already committed to sending 500 million vaccine doses to lower income countries, is expected to announce additional U.S. contributions to fighting the pandemic. 

“He believes that it is high time for the world to come together,” the senior administration official said. “He is going to call for an all-hands-on-deck effort that can end this pandemic much more rapidly than if we allow for things to unfold without the focus, sustained energy and effort required.” 

Biden is also expected to encourage nations to address economic inequality and emerging technologies, take a modern approach to counterterrorism and rally around rules of the road on trade. He will also describe “vigorous competition with great powers but not a new Cold War,” the senior administration official said, a thinly veiled reference to tensions with China and Russia. 

While Biden has pledged to reassert America on the world stage after four years of the Trump administration, the president has entered a rocky stretch with allies because of recent foreign policy decisions. 

Other countries have been wary of U.S. reliability following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left thousands of at-risk Afghans in the country under Taliban rule. More pressing, perhaps, is the very public row between the U.S. and France because of a new partnership between the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia to counter China’s military footprint in the Indo-Pacific. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted Monday that the disagreements were not a sign of a decline in U.S. credibility abroad. 

“You always have to work on your relationships and that includes with global leaders, but [Biden] believes that our relationships are sustaining over the course of many decades, that every step he’s taken from the moment he took office was with intention of rebuilding alliances and rebuilding those partnerships that were frayed over the last four years,” Psaki said. 

“That doesn’t mean that the bar is we will always agree with everything our partners and allies do, nor will they agree with everything we do, but that our relationships are stronger, they have a stronger basis, and that we have an opportunity to work together on the global issues that the world is facing,” she said. 

France, which was in talks with Australia for a similar defense agreement, has described the trilateral deal as a betrayal and recently recalled its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia. 

White House officials expect Biden to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron in the coming days to communicate his commitment to the partnership with France and desire to work together on security issues including in the Indo-Pacific. 

As of Monday evening, there were no plans for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to talk one-on-one with his French counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting, though a senior State Department official stressed that the schedule was fluid.

“France is our longest ally, our longest friend and partner and continues to be an extremely valuable ally across a range of issues,” said Erica Barks-Ruggles, a senior official at the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs.

Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security and a former foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said the Biden administration should be seeking ways for France to have more involvement in the Indo-Pacific in order to smooth over the diplomatic tensions. 

“Time is going to have to work some magic on this,” Fontaine said. “In diplomacy you have reassuring words and reassuring actions. I think the administration would do well to look at both of those when it comes to France.” 

As he enters the global gathering, Biden will likely be aided by his administration’s announcement Monday that the U.S. will ease restrictions on foreign visitors who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Countries in Europe have already loosened rules on vaccinated Americans, and the White House faced pressure from abroad to ease its own restrictions. 

Biden administration officials rejected the notion that the move was designed to be an olive branch to foreign countries and said the timing of the decision was based on science. 

“If we were going to make things much easier on ourselves, we would have done it prior to June when the president had his first foreign trip or earlier this summer,” Psaki said Monday. “We’re basing it on science and when the process concluded, and here we are today.”

Tags Antony Blinken Emmanuel Macron Jen Psaki Joe Biden John McCain

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