President Joe Biden’s first address to the 76th UN General Assembly (UNGA) on September 21 provided the world with an almost infinite supply of fresh-sounding US policy pronouncements that emphasized global cooperation, a stark contrast compared with Donald Trump’s “America-first” approach. Biden has long been considered a multilateralist and strong UN supporter, so little of this came as a surprise to the global community.
However, Biden’s well-received UNGA address promising “relentless diplomacy” and describing the use of military strength as a “tool of last resort,” was not equaled in the way of presidential-level American engagement with world leaders in New York, as President Biden spent barely a complete 24-hour cycle – he stayed one night – in New York.
promoted by Biden’s extremely positive messages that the US would be “using the strength of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world” and the US would be “renewing and defending democracy,” those world leaders and foreign ministers who truly came to New York this year were left with few options other than to attempt to discuss the new US’ approach with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his team in New York.
Blinken developed a reputation in his early months in office for being overly focused on Europe, not global issues, and for frequently dashing off to meetings in Europe already as the situation in Afghanistan came apart in complete view of senior US officials.
Blame the schedulers?
President Biden’s New York UNGA-related meetings in New York included UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on September 20, Australian chief Minister Scott Morrison – in connection with the new AUKUS alliance and submarine deal, and Iraq’s President Barham Selah. After returning to Washington on September 21, Biden then presided over a White House bilateral with UK chief Minister Boris Johnson.
Supporters of Trump have pointed out – in almost exuberant terms – how then-incoming President Trump devoted close to a complete week at the UNGA back in 2017 with a packed schedule of meetings. These included bilateral meetings with leaders of Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Egypt, The Palestinian Authority, the UK, France, Slovakia and, of course, the UN Secretary-General.
While most world leaders understand Biden’s priorities are overwhelmingly domestic in view of the Covid-19 pandemic and that energies must be focused on those issues, his short New York stay raises unavoidable questions about US global engagement and Biden’s fitness for office. Biden’s defenders point out, quite precisely, that Biden knows many of the world’s top leaders from his service as Vice President and consequently needs few if any of the “get acquainted” sessions Trump required in 2017. It should not be forgotten that many foreign visitors to the New York UNGA will find their path to Washington after their UN speeches for bilateral meetings with senior US officials and Congress.
Nevertheless, the spectacle of the rushed US Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden’s noticeably short New York stay and European fury over the Australian submarine deal all combine to project an image of US disengagement or impotence, already without throwing the basic issues of Iran, China, and climate change into the mix.
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