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America first: Trump was all talk — Biden is actually doing it

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US President Joe Biden addresses the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2021 in New York.

Former President Donald Trump talked about putting America first; President Joe Biden is doing it.

Biden’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday reflected the concerns and vision of a president asserting U.S. leadership in a world desperately in need of it. The contrast to his predecessor was clear. Gone was schoolyard bullying and adolescent name-calling. In its place was an appeal for partnership and shared responsibility. The applause at the end of the president’s speech was the sound of relief.

Admittedly, the bar was dreadfully low. World leaders do not inspire much confidence these days, and recent events have tarnished Biden’s own image in the eyes of many. Nevertheless, he filled his role well and took an important step toward reestablishing the United States as what former Secretary of State Madeline Albright termed the world’s “indispensable nation” and in doing it set an agenda worth pursuing.

The individual themes Biden raised in New York were well known to the delegates and might as easily have been background noise. Everyone knew them by heart and likely shared the same diplomatic talking points. Biden himself was a familiar figure on the international stage and did not step out of character. In most ways, the event was more symbolic than substantive, except that it was a welcome return to normalcy. The speech’s most important theme, what members of the General Assembly listened to most carefully and evaluated against their own expectations, was Biden’s embrace of “relentless diplomacy.”

The term itself is unclear. Fans of the previous administration’s “America First” approach heard a rhetorical flourish that promised more talk, more concessions and less action. They are predisposed to the hammer and nail analogy for solving complex problems. At the same time, radical multilateralists welcomed a denunciation of unilateral action and military intervention. They tend to mistake good intentions for sound strategy. They also missed the point.

Biden delivered his message against the backdrop of the chaotic departure from Afghanistan and U.S. involvement in the scuttled French submarine deal with Australia. Many critics discounted his pledge of cooperation and partnership in light of those events. They concluded that Biden’s UN appeal was no more than a wink and a nod at diplomacy while his actions signaled something else. More astute observers understood that Biden’s refusal to revisit his Afghanistan decision indicated welcome resolve — Biden did what his predecessors promised but failed to do — and his conclusion of a military partnership with Australia represented clear-headed, unsentimental strategic thinking.

Words only matter in diplomacy when they are credible and linked to coherent objectives. The unraveling of France’s submarine deal with Australia reflects a serious turn toward Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, although difficult to watch, was pre-ordained more than a decade ago and demonstrated mature willingness to accept reality and focus on the future. In that context, Biden’s promise to engage in “relentless diplomacy” should be understood as his recognition that the United States is and must behave like “the indispensable nation” the world needs. Cooperation is the starting point. Results are the goal.

Trump’s idea of putting America first meant asserting primacy and demanding compliance; Biden is instead offering a promise and a guarantee. What he said to the General Assembly is that he values cooperation above coercion. They can believe him. They can also believe that he will not be paralyzed waiting for their response. 

Ambassador David Robinson (Ret.) is a former emissary to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Guyana. He was assistant chief of mission in Afghanistan in 2013-2014 and served as assistant secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations in the Obama administration. 

Tags Afghanistan David Robinson Diplomacy Donald Trump International Joe Biden Middle East UN General Assembly White House

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