Biden at the UN: Old-school internationalism faces a test

Cooperation Foreign Policy

Biden at the UN: Old-school internationalism faces a test

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President Joe Biden’s United Nations speech Tuesday offers him the opportunity to convince his audiences, both foreign and domestic, that his brand of traditional internationalism is not a relic of a bygone American century.

He and first lady Jill Biden will host a glittery leaders reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Tuesday evening. (Monday it’ll be a “Broadway for Biden” campaign fundraiser featuring “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.)

But there will also be something unprecedented about Mr. Biden’s appearance on the New York diplomatic stage. This year for the first time the U.S. president will be the only leader of the five permanent members of the Security Council to attend the General Assembly’s opening sessions.

The leaders of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France decided for various reasons to skip traveling to New York to offer their perspectives on issues ranging from climate change and global security to the United Nations’ faltering sustainable development goals. When the Security Council takes up Russia’s war against Ukraine in a session Wednesday, only Mr. Biden will be there among the “P5” leaders to make his case.

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For some, this presents Mr. Biden with an opportunity to shine and assert his brand of leadership at a time when audiences both at home and abroad are doubting his capacities for stewarding his vision of America’s role in the world.

Authoritarianism and isolationism – two forces antithetical to the president’s conception of international affairs – are on the rise, abroad and at home. Mr. Biden can be expected to hit back by spotlighting the war in Ukraine as a struggle for the freedoms that democracy affords, and an example of cooperation based on principles and internationalist values essential to addressing global issues like climate change, security, and equitable development.

But at the same time, some experts say, the absence of other major-power leaders risks underscoring how Mr. Biden, as one of the last of a generation of American internationalist leaders, represents an era of U.S.-led multilateralism that no longer fits a multipolar world of rising big-power competition.

“With the other P5 leaders absent, Biden could well make this his UNGA, where he puts upfront and unchallenged his vision for what he wants to do internationally and with the U.N., and how American leadership remains an essential part of addressing pressing global issues,” says Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, an expert on multilateral and U.N. issues at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

“But on the other hand, this moment of Biden alone among big powers at UNGA could also highlight how in some ways the really interesting things in development are happening outside the U.N., and how the Security Council is unable to seriously address many of the essential security issues of the day. In that sense,” he adds, “this could be an inflection point … where the U.N. is starting to lose its preeminent role as the arena for taking up global issues.”

Indeed, some experts see Russia and China prioritizing other coalitions of countries – China the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) grouping of developing countries, Russia countries like North Korea and Iran that are willing to deliver arms for use in Ukraine – over the postwar, U.S.-led institutions like the U.N.

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In Washington, critics on the left and right fault Mr. Biden’s foreign policy for reasons ranging from a weak record on human rights and democracy – they cite the coups across Africa’s Sahel region and his tendency to overlook the human rights shortfalls of partners like India and Saudi Arabia – to the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal and what some call a too-timid approach to China.

Record of accomplishments

Among foreign publics from Europe to Japan, doubts over Mr. Biden’s vitality and ability to vigorously assert American leadership reflect similar misgivings among U.S. voters, polls show.

But many U.S. foreign policy experts say that in less than three years as president, Mr. Biden has racked up an enviable record of international accomplishments that surpasses anything done by recent presidents.

“Biden has to his credit a series of striking successes in Asia, from his leadership on the critical relationship between our Japanese and South Korean allies to … the AUKUS [Australia-U.K.-U.S.] partnership, and he’s done all of that that while being quite effective on Ukraine,” says Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States in Washington. “You’d have to go back a number of administrations, to the senior Bush and [his Secretary of State] James Baker to find that kind of foreign policy success.”

Enter Mr. Biden’s U.N. speech on Tuesday, which offers the president an opportunity to present a robust case for both his vision of global affairs and his leadership abilities.

A key task for Mr. Biden, some international relations experts say, will be to use his U.N. speech to convince his two audiences – the foreign and the domestic – that his brand of traditional internationalist leadership is not a relic of a bygone American century.

“He needs to say to the American people that our efforts to defend an international order that is competitive and promotive of U.S. values and interests are still relevant in the world today,” says Michael Doyle, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a former U.N. assistant secretary-general.

But he says Mr. Biden must also explain how and why America’s postwar conception of international leadership – including the assembling of coalitions of like-minded allies so that the U.S. is not acting alone – continues to be relevant and effective.

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“He can make the case by citing the example of Ukraine, because there is a broad middle of America that doesn’t want to see Ukraine abandoned to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” says Dr. Doyle, author of the recent “Cold Peace: Avoiding the New Cold War.”

“But it can’t just be Ukraine,” he adds. “Biden has to go beyond that to explain how this strategy of fortifying allies and assembling like-minded coalitions to join us also applies to climate and development, so that these other major challenges are not on our shoulders alone.”

Need for humility

Others cite the deepening instability and disorder internationally – what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres calls the “cascading crises” of climate disruption, food insecurity, and mass migrations. They conclude that Mr. Biden might draw upon his long experience to woo his audiences, as long as he eschews the arrogance some associate with American leadership.

“The administration and the president can use this particular moment in history to lean into a calm leadership and humility” that focuses on “universality” over any sense of American superiority, says Noam Unger, director of the Sustainable Development and Resilience Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Recent history has shown that we too have our challenges, especially with democracy,” he adds. “And so for President Biden to basically lean into that narrative, while also leaning into the point that … he is actually of the mold of a statesman long on the scene and in international affairs, I think he can balance both: the American commitment to continued progress and the repair that is built into democratic systems.”

Given the weaknesses displayed in American democracy and the clear signals the U.S. has absorbed over the Global South’s development priorities and fatigue with a Western focus on Ukraine, Mr. Biden can be expected to temper his “democracy versus autocracy” theme that dominated his U.N. speech last year with a more “realist” approach, some experts say.

“Biden will still make his point that democracy works best at meeting people’s aspirations and delivering a secure international environment, but he’s not going to hammer countries on the head about it,” says NYU’s Professor Sidhu. “As we saw him do recently in India and Vietnam, and with this infrastructure initiative that challenges China’s Belt and Road Initiative and includes a country like Saudi Arabia, he’s not going to make democracy a requisite for doing business with a wide range of countries.”


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