Biden Says 'America's Back.' The World Has Some Questions

Sep 20, 2021
Originally published on September 21, 2021 6:16 am

Updated September 20, 2021 at 12:40 PM ET

As President Biden prepared for his maiden speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, his White House was reeling from a trifecta of bad news stories — headlines that underscored questions about U.S. leadership in the world.

"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," a senior Biden administration official told reporters, describing the theme of the speech.

But it comes after the Pentagon acknowledged it had killed an aid worker, seven children and two other civilians in a drone strike in Kabul during the tumultuous withdrawal of U.S. troops last month from Afghanistan. One of America's oldest allies, France, pulled its ambassador from Washington, angry about being left out of a new defense partnership in the Indo-Pacific and about losing a valuable submarine contract with Australia.

And an important scientific advisory body failed to give a ringing endorsement to Biden's plans to give Americans COVID-19 vaccine booster shots — plans that the World Health Organization has criticized as people in many parts of the world have yet to receive a single dose.

It's against this backdrop that Biden will make this key address to members of a global audience to try to convince them of his pledge that "America's back," an assurance he is committed to working with allies and partners in a way that his "America First" predecessor, former President Donald Trump, was not.

"I think the picture is actually quite positive despite the differences in perspective on Afghanistan and the issues we're dealing with with France right now," the senior official told reporters, arguing that Biden's week of activities would show "the depth and richness" of how he works with allies and partners.

Then-President Barack Obama with Biden at a summit on refugees during the U.N. General Assembly in 2016.
Julie Jacobson / AP

Biden's U.N. history may buy him some goodwill

At the U.N. General Assembly, Biden will be working to secure meaningful commitments from the world on two of his top priorities: fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing climate change.

The White House believes these challenges require countries to work together, roping in the private sector, nongovernmental organizations and institutions, the senior administration official told reporters on a conference call.

While it's his first time there as president, Biden is no stranger to the institution. That history will likely buy him some goodwill.

Biden was the top Democrat on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s, a time when the United States had held back contributions to the United Nations. He was instrumental in brokering a funding deal with his Republican counterpart on the committee, Jesse Helms, a staunch opponent of the U.N., in exchange for reforms.

As vice president, Biden often made the rounds with world leaders at the General Assembly meeting and sat in for then-President Barack Obama in different sessions. He helmed a U.N. peacekeeping summit in 2014.

"Joe Biden probably knows more about the U.N. than any other president in recent years, with the exception of George Bush Sr. who had actually been an ambassador to the U.N.," said Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group, an advocacy organization.

After Trump's open antagonism to the U.N., Gowan said many world leaders would be breathing a sigh of relief to hear from a more traditional U.S. president. But he said Biden needs to do more than just not be Trump.

"Biden really does have to convince other leaders," Gowan said, noting the president needs to show that "he's getting a grip on U.S. domestic politics."

Biden will hold one-on-one meetings this week with leaders from Australia, the United Kingdom, India and Japan. On Friday, he will host leaders of what's known as the "Quad" — India, Japan and Australia — at the White House to talk about COVID-19 vaccines and other shared goals in the Indo-Pacific region, where the countries view China as a key competitive threat.

But there will be no in-person meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is not attending the U.N. in person. "President Biden has asked to be able to speak with President Macron, to talk about the way forward," the senior official told reporters.

Then-President Donald Trump drew laughter during his 2018 speech to the U.N. General Assembly when he bragged about his accomplishments. "I didn't expect that reaction, but that's OK," he said.
John Moore / Getty Images

Explaining the Biden doctrine

While Biden is a well-known internationalist, he faces questions about his approach to working with allies after the chaotic exit from Kabul, said James Dobbins, a longtime diplomat. Biden had framed his decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan as being in the U.S. national interest, sticking to it despite reservations from some allies.

"The United Nations has additional burdens as a result of the U.S. departure," said Dobbins, who served under multiple presidents. Dobbins saw Biden's approach to foreign policy firsthand when Biden was a senator and also during the Obama administration, when Dobbins was special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Dobbins recalled running into Biden on an Amtrak train headed to Washington, D.C., shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "He stopped reading his newspaper and asked me to sit down across from him," said Dobbins, now a senior fellow at the Rand Corp. "And for the rest of the trip, from Wilmington to Washington, he probed me on what we should be doing in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Years later, when Biden was vice president, Dobbins was a part of a group of about a dozen experts invited to have dinner with him at his residence. Biden still had questions but had become decidedly skeptical of the military mission in Afghanistan.

"He's pretty open-minded, at least initially," Dobbins said. "And then when he made his mind up, he tended to stick to that position."

Biden, in an address about the end of the war in Afghanistan on Aug. 31, said it was no longer in the U.S. national interest to be there.
Evan Vucci / AP

COVID-19 concerns

Biden has said he wants to rally the world to boost the pace of global COVID-19 vaccinations, and the White House has planned a virtual summit on the topic for Wednesday to coincide with activities at the United Nations.

The administration has faced criticism for its preparations to give Americans a third booster shot, even as millions of people in the world's poorest countries are still waiting for an initial dose. The WHO and other groups have urged the U.S. to hold off on broad plans for booster shots, arguing that other countries need the vaccines more. The White House has pushed back, countering that the U.S. has enough doses to vaccinate Americans even as it donates more doses than any other nation.

Biden's speech to the U.N. may give him the opportunity to "reset the agenda" with countries concerned about the U.S. commitment to multilateralism, said Alynna Lyon, a University of New Hampshire professor who has written extensively about the relationship between Washington and the United Nations.

But it also needs to be accompanied by actions and resources, she said.

"Words are pretty hollow right now," Lyon said. "He can't just say he wants to work with other countries. He really needs to bring in, particularly the allies, into both planning what the U.S. agenda and what the U.N. agenda could be and also implementing it."

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When President Biden came into office, he victoriously declared, America is back. That line was a pledge to work together with partners around the world, in contrast with the America First mantra from Donald Trump, which was a direct affront to U.S. allies. Today, as President Biden made his first address as president to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, he faced some tough questions over his foreign policy. He called on countries to put aside their differences, though, and he said the U.S. would lead.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: But we will not go it alone. We'll lead together with our allies and partners and in cooperation with all those who believe, as we do, that this is within our power to meet these challenges, to build a future that lifts all of our people and preserves this planet.

MARTIN: We're going to turn to NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, who is following the president's address and the U.N. meeting. Hi, Ayesha.


MARTIN: So the U.N. General Assembly started with searing criticism from the U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, about the international response to the pandemic, right? What'd he say?

RASCOE: Yes. He spoke before Biden, and he talked about, really, his disgust over seeing photos of expired COVID vaccines and vaccines left in the garbage.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: The surplus in some countries, empty shelves in others, a majority of the wealthier world vaccinated, over 90% of Africans still waiting for the first dose. This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity. We pass the science test, but we are getting an F in ethics.

RASCOE: There has been a lot of criticism over Biden's - over President Biden's plan to give Americans a third booster shot when most of the world can't even get the first one.

MARTIN: There have been other criticisms of President Biden, as well - right? - leading up to this speech. The way the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan is top of the list. And, of course, the breakdown with France over this new defense partnership that the U.S. has struck up with Australia, essentially cutting France out. How did Biden use this speech to respond to those criticisms?

RASCOE: Well, he didn't really respond to any of the criticisms, but he tried to make the case that the U.S. is closing the chapter on 20 years of war in Afghanistan and is now going to focus on diplomacy. He talked about what he thinks the world needs to do together on the pandemic and climate change. He stressed that these problems can't be fixed with the military, but he did talk a little bit about competition in the world. He alluded to China and said the U.S. will stand up for itself and its ideals.


BIDEN: The United States will compete and will compete vigorously and lead with our values and our strength. We'll stand up for our allies and our friends and oppose attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones, whether through changes to territory by force, economic coercion, tactical exploitation or disinformation. But we're not seeking - say it again - we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.

RASCOE: So his speech was full of Biden's broad vision. But so far, the White House has not necessarily been living up to all of this rhetoric, especially when it comes to allies. And he didn't really address that disconnect in his speech.

MARTIN: I mean, to some degree, does Biden, just by not being Donald Trump - doesn't that give him some baked in support among this ever-important U.N. crowd?

RASCOE: I mean, it does. He's a known quantity at the U.N. As a senator, Biden was instrumental in brokering a deal on U.N. funding. I spoke with Richard Gowan, who is U.N. director for the International Crisis Group.

RICHARD GOWAN: Joe Biden probably knows more about the UN than any other president in recent years, with the exception of George Bush Sr., who had actually been an ambassador to the U.N.

RASCOE: That history earns Biden a certain amount of goodwill, especially after Trump was so hostile to the U.N.. Still, Gowan says, there are two things that Biden needs to show world leaders.

GOWAN: First, he's getting a grip on U.S. domestic politics and that we're not going to see a return to Trumpism in a few years' time. And secondly, that he is still willing to provide U.S. leadership on global issues like COVID and climate change.

RASCOE: The honeymoon for Biden on the world stage is over. Countries want answers about how Biden views global engagement at this point. James Dobbins is a long-time diplomat who served under multiple presidents. He says Biden's previous speeches about the withdraw from Afghanistan had been aimed at a domestic audience.

JAMES DOBBIN: He said we didn't have a national interest in preserving the status quo in Afghanistan. And therefore, we should leave and cut our losses. That's not an argument that's going to carry a lot of weight with the United Nations.

RASCOE: This moment at the U.N. gives Biden the opportunity to reset with allies and partners, says Alynna Lyon of the University of New Hampshire. She's written extensively about the partnership between Washington and the U.N.,

ALYNNA LYON: But at the same time, words are pretty hollow right now. And so there's going to need - there's going to need to be some action on the part of President Biden and the Biden administration. They can't just talk the talk. They actually have to walk the walk.

MARTIN: So, Ayesha, what's that walk going to look like?

RASCOE: What Biden is going to have a big virtual summit tomorrow about the pandemic. The White House has invited leaders and NGOs in the private sector to try to make commitments to boost vaccination rates around the world and help out poorer countries. During his speech today, Biden did hint at the idea that the White House might be making some more pledges tomorrow. There's going to be a meeting with Quad leaders, which is - that's India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. They're going to be at the White House later this week, talking about how to counter China. And then also on France, where there has been that breakdown, the White House says Biden wants to talk to French President Emmanuel Macron on the phone to help smooth over some of these differences. But we don't know yet when that will actually happen.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.