Inside Biden’s Presidential UNGA Debut
The U.S. president has yet to convince the world that a post-Trump America is here to stay.
Welcome to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Welcome to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Here’s what’s on tap for today: U.S. President Joe Biden gives his debut UNGA speech, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visits old stomping grounds, and a look at which countries contribute the most U.N. peacekeepers.
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Biden’s Big, Bold Message to the U.N.
Joe Biden’s debut as U.S. president before the world’s most representative body, the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, was supposed to mark the end of the isolationist forces of former U.S. President Donald Trump—at least for the time being.
But Biden’s speech in New York on Tuesday morning comes amid major controversies, including the diplomatic row with France over submarine sales to Australia and the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden’s break with the rest of the world on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, where the United States initially blocked an effort in the Security Council to halt Israeli military operations in Gaza, has also helped fuel a perception in Turtle Bay that Washington is still committed to going it alone when it sees fit.
What is Biden’s message? Biden will seek to dispel that criticism in his speech. According to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the speech will center on rallying allies to address global challenges—pandemics, climate change, and new technologies—and closing the chapter on 20 years of forever wars.
Biden is also expected to address global competition with China in some form, although the White House is careful to avoid characterizing this as a “new cold war.” “President Biden will communicate … that he does not believe in the notion of a new cold war with the world divided into blocs,” the senior administration official said. “He believes in vigorous, intensive, principled competition that does not tip over into conflict.”
Post-Trump hangover. Foreign dignitaries hoping Biden could cure their post-Trump hangover appear to be left wanting, and it’s unclear whether a speech at the U.N. General Assembly can change that. U.S. foreign-policy developments in recent months have reinforced existing anxieties about the United States, struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic and gripped by poisonous hyperpartisan acrimony.
“After four years of Trump, the Biden administration was seen as competent and decent people, but that image was bruised by Afghanistan in particular,” said Sarah Cliffe, an expert on U.N. matters at New York University. “The U.S. needs a good UNGA to [shore up its leadership credentials] and to be seen as able to pull off something, like a vaccine plan.”
What’s on Today’s Agenda?
Speech lineup. In addition to Biden, other notable speakers on Tuesday include: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will also address the General Assembly on Tuesday morning but through virtual pre-recorded remarks.
Europe unnerved by the Afghanistan crisis. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has invited world leaders, the United Nations, and international relief agencies to lunch and an off-the-record discussion on the humanitarian, economic, and human rights crisis in Afghanistan.
“The impending risk of famine, an economy in free fall, loss of livelihoods as well as the suspension of basic services, further exacerbate the existing political, security and humanitarian crisis,” according to the invitation, which was obtained by Foreign Policy.
“With more than 18 million Afghans in need of humanitarian aid, the international community is called to examine ways to support the people in Afghanistan.”
The G-20 and Afghanistan. Italy, which holds the chairmanship of the G-20 this year, is organizing a virtual Afghanistan meeting with foreign ministers on Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
In what city did the conference that founded the United Nations take place in 1945?
A) San Francisco
D) New York
Scroll down for the answer.
Mini Profile: ‘Minister Nyet’ Returns to His Stomping Grounds
In late 2003, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan tried to institute a ban on smoking at the world body’s headquarters in New York. Most chain-smoking diplomats rolled their eyes and complained about the move, but one senior diplomat fought back.
Sergey Lavrov, then the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, lashed out at Annan and proudly flaunted the ban, continuing to light up at the headquarters building. “The U.N. building is owned by all the member-nations, while the secretary general is just a hired manager,” he said at the time. The move was vintage Lavrov, seasoned diplomats say, and foreshadowed the blunt and acerbic approach to diplomacy he would later come to master as Russia’s top diplomat.
Lavrov is scheduled to return to his old stomping grounds, no doubt to deliver the same type of diplomatic digs at the United States and its Western allies, in his address to the U.N. General Assembly this week.
During his decades-long diplomatic career, Lavrov has honed the practice of body blocking U.S. and European diplomacy at almost every major turn and turned it into a grim art form. Russia has blocked humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in Belarus, Ukraine, and Syria, with Lavrov extending diplomatic cover to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria after Assad committed war crimes against his own citizens.
Lavrov has defended Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests, including the forced grounding of a European passenger plane to arrest a prominent opposition journalist in May. Most recently, he has rebuffed U.S. efforts to station troops in Central Asia after the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.
Even so, Lavrov commands begrudging respect from some of his Western counterparts, who concede his diplomatic experience and prowess is tough to match. “He’s about as expert a foreign minister as there is in the world today,” said John Negroponte, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state who overlapped with Lavrov at the United Nations as George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador from 2001 to 2004.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor and U.N. envoy John Bolton described Lavrov as “knowledgeable,” “professional,” and “assertive on behalf of Russia” in an interview with U.N. Brief.
Lavrov navigated the transition from neophyte Soviet diplomat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s right-hand man on foreign policy over the decades—no small feat in the Machiavellian world of Kremlin politics. Most experts agree it is because Lavrov is careful to stay in his lane as a foreign-policy bureaucrat and avoid any hint of posing a threat to Putin’s grip on power.
Of course, being a humble bureaucrat in Putin’s Russia always comes with perks: Lavrov has real estate worth millions of dollars and a longtime female companion who happens to work at the foreign ministry and has over $13 million in unexplained assets, as a recent investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found.
Lavrov started out as a junior diplomat in the Soviet Embassy in Sri Lanka in the early 1970s before steadily climbing the ranks of the Soviet and then Russian foreign ministry. Even early in his career, he stood out to his supervisors. “In the ministry, he was one of the bright guys,” said Andrei Kozyrev, who was Russia’s foreign minister from 1990 to 1996 and has known Lavrov since his university days.
But the image of a chain-smoking, debonair diplomatic pro has begun to slip away in recent years, as Putin tightens his grip on power and the Kremlin increasingly relies on trolling, disinformation, and skullduggery to undercut U.S. foreign-policy objectives.
“When he was at the United Nations, I think he was very much known as quite urbane, witty, implementing what the Russian government wanted him to do,” said Angela Stent, a former top U.S. intelligence officer on Russia now at Georgetown University. “Increasingly as the relationship with the West has gotten worse, his reputation has changed. He will now make speeches which reflect the reviews of the one person who is important to him—President Putin.”
Kozyrev, once seen as a bold reformer coming out of the Soviet era of glasnost and perestroika, said he was surprised by Lavrov’s trajectory. “I’m surprised, personally, because as I said he’s smart enough to know at the back of his mind that the Russians now are on the wrong side of history, so to say,” Kozyrev told U.N. Brief. “He cannot but understand that. So in that sense I am surprised.”
But if Putin needs to rely on any one man to deliver Moscow’s biggest messages at the United Nations, it remains Lavrov. “Speaking of his professionalism, he is one of the best,” Kozyrev said. “And Putin probably understands that.”
Infographic: U.N. Peacekeepers
Which countries contribute the most to U.N. peacekeeping missions? The answers may surprise you.
EU Chief: U.S. Sub Deal Is a Snub to All of Europe
The U.S. decision to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, sinking a $66 billion French deal with the country, has weakened trans-Atlantic relations, European Council President Charles Michel told a small group of reporters Monday.
Speaking at the EU mission on the eve of the U.N. annual summit, Michel said the establishment of a new strategic alliance to share sensitive technologies between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States raises disturbing questions about America’s commitment to—and loyalty toward—all of Europe.
“It is very strange in my opinion that the United States, and with some other countries, would have made the choice to weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance,” Michel said. “It is very strange to put Europe out of the game in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Michel said European leaders will meet in the coming weeks to discuss how to respond to the AUKUS submarine deal. But he said he views it as a broader affront to Europe, not just France, and that it reinforces the need for greater strategic autonomy. “I want to make clear this is much more than only a bilateral topic between France and the United States or Australia,” he said. “The elementary principles for an alliance are loyalty and transparency. … I can only observe that in those circumstances this was not the choice made by our ally.”
“To be frank with you, it’s difficult for me to understand this announcement made by the United States and Australia and the United Kingdom,” Michel said. “Now we have questions: What does it mean ‘America is back’? ‘America is back’ in America or somewhere else? We don’t know.”
What are you curious about? Send us an email and let us know, and we’ll try to answer!
Today’s question comes from Sami:
How do you think that various countries will address the problems in Asia [including] the flyovers by China and the mutual test launches by North and South Korea?
Thanks for the question, Sami! The short answer is we’re not tracking any major UNGA events related to East Asian security tensions. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a major topic of conversation in private discussions and in U.S. officials’ closed-door bilateral meetings with foreign counterparts.
China has made clear it will continue flyovers near Taiwan, while the United States is increasing its military and diplomatic support for Taiwan with new arms sales. Meanwhile, North Korea’s and South Korea’s recent ballistic missile tests point to a new arms race and indicate diplomatic talks between the two countries are at a standstill.
You’re right in connecting all those dots: All this adds up to East Asia becoming a geopolitical pressure cooker and top security concern for the United States.
One thing you should watch this week outside of the U.N. General Assembly: Biden hosts leaders from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—which includes the United States, Australia, India, and Japan—in Washington on Friday, where all this could be discussed in more depth.
Odds and Ends
K-pop diplomacy. Two acronyms that we never thought would go together: BTS and UNGA. The hit Korean pop group made a presentation at the U.N. General Assembly opener on Monday morning alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Then they performed a catchy music video in the headquarters building.
If the aim was to draw new viewers to UNGA, it worked. The U.N. YouTube channel was flooded with hundreds of comments from BTS fans, and at one point, there were more than 172,000 viewers watching—even a full 20 minutes after BTS’s performance ended and the livestream had moved on to a panel discussion on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
And the Answer Is…
A) San Francisco.
The city hosted a major conference in the spring of 1945 with delegates from 50 countries that led to the founding of the United Nations. Read more about that conference in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Amy Mackinnon and Anna Weber contributed to this report.
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack
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