Analysis

Biden, a Lifelong U.N. Advocate, Needs the Institution More Than Ever

From COVID-19 to climate, the U.S. president will focus his first General Assembly speech on the world body’s indispensability.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Then-U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden participates in a virtual fundraising event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 12, 2020.
Then-U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden participates in a virtual fundraising event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 12, 2020. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When Joe Biden steps up to the podium for his first speech as U.S. president to the U.N. General Assembly, he’ll have to do a lot more than dispel the memory of his predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden faces an international credibility crisis of his own at a time when he needs the United Nations more than ever.

Though a lifelong multilateralist, Biden has faced criticism of his largely unilateral military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left the country to the Taliban after a two-decade-long, billions-of-dollars effort by U.N. agencies and a 46-nation coalition to save it from extremism and poverty. 

It’s also clear that Biden has little choice but to work closely with the world body on critical issues from COVID-19 to climate change, as well as the U.N.’s role in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan and an Iranian nuclear weapons program. And the president knows it, aides say.

When Joe Biden steps up to the podium for his first speech as U.S. president to the U.N. General Assembly, he’ll have to do a lot more than dispel the memory of his predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden faces an international credibility crisis of his own at a time when he needs the United Nations more than ever.

Though a lifelong multilateralist, Biden has faced criticism of his largely unilateral military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left the country to the Taliban after a two-decade-long, billions-of-dollars effort by U.N. agencies and a 46-nation coalition to save it from extremism and poverty. 

It’s also clear that Biden has little choice but to work closely with the world body on critical issues from COVID-19 to climate change, as well as the U.N.’s role in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan and an Iranian nuclear weapons program. And the president knows it, aides say.

“The president views the U.N. as a vital forum—as the only place where the world comes together,” said a senior administration official who spoke about Biden’s forthcoming U.N. speech on condition of anonymity. He said the speech would highlight issues that “require a global response,” including climate change, global health, humanitarian aid, human rights, and democracy. He also confirmed reports that Biden plans to use his General Assembly speech to announce an international summit devoted to defeating the pandemic, for which invitations are already being sent. 

Biden has little choice but to work closely with the world body on critical issues from COVID-19 to climate change. And the president knows it.

The General Assembly is also a chance for Biden to reaffirm leadership of an organization that the United States, after all, had the biggest hand in inventing in 1945. The opportunity for Biden to do so is especially stark since many world leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and France’s Emmanuel Macron, are not expected to show up at this year’s hybrid, COVID-19-constrained event, which will include speeches both virtually from abroad and in person. 

“I think the president will use his first speech to reassert American leadership in terms of multilateralism,” the senior administration official said, adding that Biden plans to call for unity in addressing renewed threats of terrorism in Afghanistan as well as pressuring the Taliban to conform to international standards.

“I do think he’s taken a hit for that shambolic display of ineptitude in getting out of Afghanistan,” said Stephen Schlesinger, an expert in U.N.-U.S. relations and author of a 2003 book, Act of Creation, about the U.N.’s founding. “But Biden really fits into the classic post-World War II mold of presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy who embraced the idea of multilateralism. … I expect he’ll make a renewed commitment to the United Nations.” 

Biden has shored up a lot of credibility over the years as an advocate for the U.N. In the late 1990s, when a generation of ultra-conservatives led by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms made an effort to defund the U.N., Biden—then ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee—joined with then-U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to find a solution. The Republican-dominated Congress had held U.S. dues hostage to its whims, and by the late ‘90s, the United States was responsible for more than half of the world body’s $3.24 billion in arrears. According to Holbrooke and others, Biden worked the cloakrooms hard to batter through a compromise that reduced the still-dominant U.S. dues contribution, a deal that earned Helms’s reluctant approval. 

Biden later remarked that getting the cantankerous North Carolinian to acknowledge the U.N.’s necessity in that legislation had been one of his greatest accomplishments. “It was one of the few times that a member of Congress didn’t want to see his name on a bill,” Biden joked. Sadly, the U.N. is back in serious debt since the Trump years; according to Secretary-General António Guterres, member states owe more than $1 billion in unpaid dues, and about two-thirds of that is owed by the United States. Biden’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposal would pay most off within two years.

Above all, Biden will seek to dispense with the bleak legacy of Trump, whose UNGA speeches—when he bothered to show up—amounted to a litany of contempt for the world body. The 45th U.S. president rejected virtually every U.N.-authorized effort previously joined by the United States, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, and the Global Compact for Migration. Trump, at one point, was openly laughed at by the General Assembly; and in 2018 he declared, “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.”

Like many centrist Democrats, Biden has sought to balance such right-wing talking points about U.S. sovereignty with a recognition that on many issues there is no alternative to multilateralism, and the U.N. supplies the legitimacy for many of those policies. But he’s never been starry-eyed about the U.N.’s failings either, said his former Senate spokesman, Norm Kurz. Like many in Washington, Biden is leery of the General Assembly as an institution that gives voice to every tyrant around the globe and elevates them to the same standing as the democratic countries. “If you review his speeches you’ll see far more references by Biden to the Security Council as the body where U.S. leadership can be exerted most successfully,” Kurz said.

But the relentlessly optimistic Biden has always seen the UN as “an opportunity more than an irritant,” Mike Haltzel, another former Biden aide, said.

And while Biden hasn’t entirely retreated from Trump’s America First approach—embracing a quasi-protectionist focus on key issues such as jobs and the U.S. economy—he has also acknowledged that more issues than ever have today become unavoidably global. 

This is especially true of COVID-19: At a time when Biden and other leaders of wealthy nations are being criticized for stockpiling vaccines and being stingy with vaccination technology, the president plans to use his speech to propose a more aggressive approach as new strains of the virus spread worldwide. “We are going to be bringing together some of key leaders on addressing the COVID crisis,” the senior administration official said. 

Above all, Biden will seek to dispense with the bleak legacy of Trump, whose UNGA speeches amounted to a litany of contempt for the world body.

Another major U.N.-orchestrated effort is the forthcoming Glasgow summit on climate change. Biden’s special climate envoy, John Kerry, is devoting most of his time to getting leaders from 196 countries to make bolder commitments to reduce carbon emissions. In making his case, Kerry is mainly deploying an alarming report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that laid to rest any doubt that “human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years,” as the report put it. 

Beyond that, the U.N. is taking the lead in continuing to funnel large-scale humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and the emerging Taliban leadership has openly invited the U.N. to stay in the country, even as it refuses a U.S. presence. Though Biden is seeking to leverage foreign aid to pressure the Taliban to restrain their behavior, he also can’t afford to leave the Afghan people to fend for themselves amid a worsening food and health crisis. 

Although multilateral efforts to rescue the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are flagging, here too the U.N. is playing a central role. On Sept. 13, the latest effort by the International Atomic Energy Agency—the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog—to preserve U.N. inspections narrowly averted a new U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Tehran. 

Biden administration officials say they are also intent on using the Security Council to bring pressure to bear on Myanmar’s junta and perpetrators of abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, as well as to press Russia to keep humanitarian aid flowing to civil war-torn Syria.

Those who know Biden well say he has long sought to make the U.N. the central forum for major multilateral issues, even during the worst years of the world body’s postwar stumbles—in particular its many failed peacekeeping missions in the 1990s. In Somalia, a U.N. humanitarian mission turned into a disaster when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed—and the body of one was seen on TV being dragged through Mogadishu, a searing humiliation to President Bill Clinton. In Rwanda in 1994, the Security Council allowed a genocide to take place by failing to reinforce the U.N. contingent; and in Bosnia, Dutch peacekeepers were overwhelmed by Serb forces and stood by during the killing of some 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica. 

But after the Clinton administration relegated the U.N. to the sidelines, and other leading Democrats questioned whether the U.N. system had failed entirely, Biden’s response in the ensuing decades was to try to bolster U.N. peacekeeping. As vice president in 2014, he co-chaired a summit at which he said that “the demand for international peacekeeping has never been greater,” citing atrocities and sexual violence against civilians in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

For Biden, that reflects a practical understanding that the United States is simply incapable of going it alone in a world that, despite increasing skepticism about globalization, remains inextricably interconnected. 

“He believes those who argue organizations such as the U.N. diminish the U.S. have it exactly backwards,” Kurz said. “The support of other nations, working in coalitions under U.S. leadership, enhances America’s security.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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