Biden heads to New York to reassure at the United Nations

He will make his first speech to the General Assembly as U.S. president on Tuesday

President Joe Biden walks toward Marine One for departure Monday from the White House to New York to attend the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the first one since he took office.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden walks toward Marine One for departure Monday from the White House to New York to attend the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the first one since he took office. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Posted September 20, 2021 at 5:41pm

President Joe Biden arrives in New York for United Nations General Assembly meetings Monday evening in the role of fence-mender-in-chief, needing to reassure the world about America's leadership at the end of a turbulent late summer.

The August conclusion of the U.S. withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan allowed Taliban forces to sweep to power across the country far more quickly than the U.S. anticipated. The Pentagon admitted an errant U.S. drone strike there killed 10 civilians and no terrorists.

And last week, the United States announced a security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom that the French government viewed as an affront.

While Afghanistan and the partnership are not related, both will require Biden to do some repair work, in public during his first speech to the General Assembly Tuesday morning and during various sidebar meetings.

Asked Monday about the challenges, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed that some disagreements, even with partners and allies, are part of the normal course of diplomacy.

"I think it's important to note that criticism of a decision is different from criticism of the credibility and leadership of the United States, broadly speaking," Psaki said, adding that countries disagree even with partners in the international community. "But the larger point here, and what you'll hear the president talk about tomorrow, is that we are committed to those alliances."

Pivot from war

A senior administration official told reporters earlier Monday that the president's formal address Tuesday will argue that the end of the U.S. and coalition war in Afghanistan represents a pivot point.

"The speech will center on the proposition that 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," the official said.

Among those priorities will be the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as climate change, global trade policy and counterterrorism efforts.

On the pandemic, the White House may have alleviated one of Biden's potential headaches for the week on Monday. COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients announced plans to lift restrictions on foreign travel to the United States from a number of countries, with new vaccine requirements starting in November for incoming foreign nationals prior to their arrival.

The senior administration official highlighted the virtual COVID-19 summit that Biden will be leading Wednesday on the margins of the U.N. meetings. The administration will announce new U.S. commitments to the international fight against the virus this week while also calling for more action from foreign governments, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations.

"The summit will involve setting bold goals, to hit on everything from vaccinations to the supply of lifesaving medications and technologies," the official said. "And it will also set out a pattern of high-level meetings through the coming months to ensure that we are holding ourselves and the world accountable to following through on achieving these goals."

Paris and China

Rudy deLeon, a former deputy secretary of Defense and current senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the question of whether Biden can restore U.S. credibility on the Paris climate agreement will be worth watching this week.

"I think the climate crisis is real for Americans and it's a global issue," deLeon said. "So, can President Biden with his commitments on this issue sort of restore and walk back the ill will that President Trump engendered with his position?"

Psaki told reporters that Biden also plans to “make absolutely clear that he is not looking to pursue a future — a new Cold War with any country in the world.”

"We will continue to pursue our interests. We will continue to lift up global priorities, but that is not the objective or the policy of the United States," Psaki said.

Psaki's statement came in response to an interview The Associated Press conducted with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who described the U.S.-China relationship as “completely dysfunctional.”

“We need to avoid at all cost a Cold War that would be different from the past one, and probably more dangerous and more difficult to manage,” Guterres said.

Biden was to meet with Guterres on Monday evening after arriving in New York.

Sub deal rescue

The partnership with the United Kingdom that will start the process for Australia to procure American nuclear submarine technology is viewed as a direct response to China in the Indo-Pacific. That's the same deal that has led the French government to recall ambassadors from both Australia and the United States.

Psaki said Monday that the White House was working to set up a call between Biden and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. Macron is expected to address the General Assembly virtually, which means there's no chance for a face-to-face encounter on the margins.

Anthony Cordesman, the chair emeritus of strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on a Friday press call that the submarine partnership needs to be viewed in context.

“[The French] ignored the fact that if you’re going to deal with a threat rising as quickly as China, you really do need the best nuclear submarines possible and you need to have allied commitment to meet them,” Cordesman said.