When Joe Biden makes his first presidential address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, his basic task will be obvious: to reassure world leaders that the U.S. is ready to embrace multilateral diplomacy again after the turbulent years of Donald Trump and “America First.” Biden should have no problem convincing his audience that he is friendlier towards the U.N. than his predecessor. But while the president talks a good game about international cooperation, his first few months in office have suggested that the Biden administration isn’t as committed to the U.N. as it would like the world to believe.
Judging by conversations with diplomats and international officials in Turtle Bay in recent months, Biden will face a General Assembly that is skeptical of his administration’s willingness to invest seriously in international cooperation. Indeed, on more traditional foreign-policy issues from Afghanistan to Israel to China, the administration has displayed a fairly typical ambivalence toward the U.N. But by focusing on climate change and Covid-19 — two genuinely global challenges that demand a multilateral response — Biden has an opportunity to win the doubters over and reassert American determination to solve problems through international cooperation.
Personally and politically, Biden seems well-suited to charm a U.N. crowd. He has a long history of working on the organization, having led a drive to resolve U.S. debts to the U.N. as a senator in the 1990s. His administration has reversed a lot of its predecessor’s unilateralist moves, such as by rejoining the Paris climate deal, as it promised during last year’s campaign.
Yet the Biden team has also demonstrated that there are limits to its multilateral instincts. It has sidelined the U.N. and disregarded the views of allies during crises in the Middle East and Afghanistan. It has made clear that competition with China is a top priority, raising questions about whether and how the two powers can cooperate in international institutions.
None of this is necessarily surprising. If Trump was egregiously unpleasant towards the U.N., most presidents have been lukewarm toward the organization, a critical diplomatic venue that can also be notoriously frustrating. Biden and his inner circle seem happy to work through the U.N. and other international institutions where possible. But when it comes to managing great affairs of state, they don’t feel obliged to include those institutions and often want them to get out of the way. Multilateralism is nice to have, but not a must-have.
There has certainly been a sea change in American diplomacy at the U.N. this year. In the final years of the Trump administration, the U.S. mission on First Avenue often seemed adrift,. The U.S. had become “invisible” at Turtle Bay, Sven Jürgenson, Estonia’s ambassador to the U.N., said earlier this year, but with Biden at the helm “it is back, it is visible and it is really good news for us.”
U.N. Security Council members credit the new U.S. team with handling certain problems, such as talks with Russia on sustaining U.N. aid supplies to rebel-held parts of Syria this summer, quite effectively. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s ambassador to the U.N., is popular with her counterparts, and has pushed the Security Council to engage on crises — such the coup in Myanmar and the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia — over Chinese and Russian objections.
But foreign officials say they do not see an overall American strategy for regaining influence at the U.N. after Trump. During the last weeks of the Trump administration, Biden’s transition team reportedly worked up proposals for a sweeping Security Council resolution on tackling Covid that would have highlighted the new president’s recommitment to the U.N. Once in office, the administration dropped these. The White House has also seemed disinclined to work through the U.N. during the most serious foreign policy crises it has faced so far.
The limits of the administration’s interest in the U.N. became clear during the upsurge of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians in May. Other Security Council members argued for some sort of ceasefire call, and Thomas-Greenfield reportedly favored this proposal personally. But the White House repeatedly blocked a statement calling for a ceasefire, believing this could complicate quiet U.S. diplomacy with the Israelis. As one European diplomat ruefully noted, the Biden administration’s calculations might be different to Trump’s, but the outcome — sidelining the UN — looked awfully similar.
While the US often goes it alone at the U.N. over Israel, Afghanistan’s collapse presented the Biden team with an unprecedented headache. While French President Emmanuel Macron talked about setting up a U.N. safe zone around Kabul airport, Security Council diplomats said Washington appeared wary of taking any steps that could upset the Taliban during the evacuation of tens of thousands from the Afghan capital. This compounded the broader sense among many U.S. allies that Washington just didn’t want to consult on the withdrawal. After the deadly bombing at Kabul airport, the U.S. was more willing to work through the U.N., and shepherded a resolution calling on the Taliban to allow aid into the country and respect women’s rights. It is now looking to U.N. agencies to play a role getting humanitarian assistance into Afghanistan. But when it comes to addressing the first-order crises, the administration seems to prefer to sidestep the U.N.
Biden’s audience on Tuesday will be listening perhaps most closely for how he frames relations with China. While Biden has made countering China the centerpiece of his foreign policy, U.S. officials worry that China is gaining outsize influence at the U.N., winning top jobs in multilateral agencies and pushing the organization to advance its own economic interests. They also recognize that the Trump administration’s mercurial approach to diplomacy gave the Chinese a chance to position themselves as a leader at the U.N.
Biden will likely use his speech to set out the need to defend a U.S.-led “rules-based order,” a theme that Secretary of State Antony Blinken hammered in an address to the Security Council in May. The president may temper his remarks because he still needs Beijing’s cooperation to handle some of the global issues that he would like to address via the U.N., such as climate change.
Despite the overall friction between Beijing and Washington, Chinese and U.S. officials have been conducting a careful diplomatic dance at the U.N. since Biden took office. The U.S. has refrained from publicly shaming China over its ties to the post-coup regime in Myanmar. The Chinese likewise deliberately limited their criticism of the Americans’ position in this spring’s Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Most of the presidents and prime ministers gathered in New York will be relieved if Biden takes a similarly conciliatory approach, as few want to see a complete Sino-American rift.
The administration — unlike Trump’s team — is aware that it is most likely to regain momentum at the U.N. if it actually delivers results on major international challenges, rather than just bashing China. Washington may be less inclined to include the U.N. in U.S. foreign policy crises, but it can’t dispense with international cooperation when it comes to global warming and Covid-19. And by leaning into those topics — and trying to minimize divisions with China — Biden may be able to reassert U.S. leadership despite his travails over Afghanistan.
While the U.N. is limbering up for a big climate change summit in Scotland in November, the U.S. has a chance this week to highlight its commitment to a multilateral approach to fighting the pandemic. Many leaders from developing countries will emphasize that the U.S. and other rich nations have hogged vaccine supplies. If the Biden administration wants to restore confidence in the U.S. as an international leader for addressing global crises, it has to have a substantive response.
The White House is working on it. On Wednesday, a day after Biden’s speech, the U.S. will convene an online summit for world leaders to make pledges of COVID vaccines and funds. The declared goal is to get 70% of the world’s population vaccinated by September 2022, on top of improving care for Covid patients and bolstering global health systems to meet future challenges. The sums involved are considerable, including some $10 billion for vaccinations, and $2 billion for oxygen supplies. It’s not clear that U.S. can corral other states to cough up such sums, especially as some are funding similar international schemes already.
The administration is keen to be seen as leading an international charge on vaccinations — but it wants to do so on its own terms. The U.S. summit encapsulates the mixture of support for and wariness of UN diplomacy. It is ostensibly a nod to the importance of the General Assembly and international cooperation. Yet in practical terms, Washington wants to run the show. If Biden and his team can cobble together a decent outcome from the Covid summit, it will be able to argue that the U.S. is once again setting the multilateral agenda.
That will not settle the contest for influence with China, and even if Biden scores some points on pandemic response, he is unlikely to pay the Security Council much heed the next time a crisis breaks. But the General Assembly is an opportunity for the president to clarify that, while the U.S. is and will remain skeptical of the utility of the U.N. in international security affairs, it does take cooperation seriously on long-term threats that require truly multilateral solutions. For many leaders grappling with the consequences of Covid and the worsening effects of climate change, hearing that message alone will be worth a trip to New York.