Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In his first speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Joe Biden committed America to eschewing a new cold war, pledging instead to lead with its allies in a spirit of unity and resolve to tackle and overcome two of the world’s greatest challenges: climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. The address was as transformative and expansive as any president has laid out in recent years.
If only words could actually walk and get things done.
Beneath the high-sounding aspirational rhetoric of the internationalist Biden is, however, lay some harsher truths. Biden’s overriding priority is domestic. And right now, he is an embattled president with dropping approval ratings and a hugely ambitious domestic social and economic agenda hanging in the balance.
Abroad, recent actions – including a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan conflict, an errant deadly drone strike in Kabul and his French-fried diplomatic row with Emmanuel Macron over the sale of submarines to Australia from which France is now excluded – have raised questions among allies and adversaries alike about America’s competency, reliability and commitment to play the role Biden outlined in his speech Tuesday.
The challenge for the President is now to deliver and to close the widening gap between his words and deeds. If he can’t, American credibility will fall into the gap he himself helped to create.
Biden isn’t Trump
Judging by the applause at the UN following Biden’s speech, his reception might be described as courteous but not overwhelmingly effusive. But it’s a far cry from any of the appearances of his predecessor Donald Trump, who in 2018 was openly mocked by delegates’ laughter – and not with him. Unlike Trump who viewed the UN as somewhere between irrelevant and hostile, Biden has a long history of supporting the institution, and that was on display again Tuesday.
Some analysts have suggested too many of Biden’s foreign policies follow Trump’s. But anyone listening to the President lay out his actions, from rejoining the Paris climate accord to returning to negotiations with Iran to recommitting to the World Health Organization and NATO, could hardly confuse the two.
Moreover, Biden’s words regarding leading together – multilaterally – and his focus on assisting and supporting poorer countries, human rights and democracies, were the antipode from Trump’s “America first” approach. Indeed, whatever problems US allies have with the Biden Administration, they clearly prefer him over Trump. And American allies and adversaries cannot simply afford to ignore US power and influence. With neither Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping attending in person and Macron unwilling to speak even virtually, Biden’s address likely dominated the day.
Biden’s real priority
As important as Biden’s maiden UN speech may have been to the first year of his presidency, especially in the wake of the recent missteps on Afghanistan and with the French, Biden’s overriding goal is to be a transformative president at home. He would never articulate this publicly, but there is little doubt there is no foreign policy issue in his mind that poses a greater danger to the US and to his presidency than managing Covid-19, expanding the social and economic safety net, growing the economy, maintaining the integrity of voting rights and countering the extreme political and racial polarization in the country nowadays.
Clearly, two of those issues – Covid-19 and climate – are foreign policy issues too. But his party’s success or failure in keeping control of Congress in 2022 and the results of the 2024 presidential election won’t turn on his ties with France, or even China, in contrast to the bread and butter as well as health issues.
Indeed, Biden promised “relentless diplomacy” in the wake of Afghanistan, which represented “relentless war.” But it’s hard to imagine the administration has the political bandwidth or the currency – let alone opportunities –to deal with conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine or Israel and Palestine. Despite his high-sounding commitments to build back a better world at the UN session, for Biden, to paraphrase the late Tip O’Neill, his politics are primarily local.
From the frying pan into the fire
Biden’s dilemma is obvious. To regain and recapture the confidence of allies and adversaries alike and to make good on his high-sounding rhetoric, he needs to deliver. And not on issues that have traditionally defined a foreign policy agenda such as Israeli-Palestinian peace, the ongoing civil war and terrorist threat in Syria or Russian encroachment and influence in Ukraine, but on two of the galactically difficult transnational issues he prioritized in his speech: climate and Covid-19.
Granted, he’s wrapped himself in the mantle of multilateralism and partners, thereby realistically sharing the responsibility for addressing them with others. But Covid-19 is the greatest world-altering event since the Second World War, and the international community isn’t rising to the challenge. Climate change represents the gravest planet-altering event now and in the future. And there’s little reason to believe that the UN nor the vaunted international community can do enough to address the challenges.
As for Biden, without passage of the climate component of his infrastructure bill – especially the clean electricity performance program that seeks to promote renewable energy and which is now threatened by West Virginia moderate Sen. Joe Manchin who’s protecting his state’s coal and natural gas interests – it’s hard to see how the US makes good on its climate commitments.
Add to that tensions with China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, which diminish the chances of a US-Chinese accord before the Glasgow climate summit, and the US climate initiative is further handicapped.
Biden’s speech at the UN seemed like a blueprint for a world transformed. Sadly, he’ll be lucky if – in cooperation with allies and partners – he can find a way to manage some of its myriad challenges and complexities.