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International relations

From relentless war to relentless diplomacy, Biden declares new chapter

At debut U.N. speech, president makes no mention of China

U.S. President Joe Biden, addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, vowed to work with multinational institutions in pursuit of American foreign policy goals.     © Reuters

UNITED NATIONS -- After two decades of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is ready for a new chapter -- one that will focus on intensive diplomacy and only turn to force as a last resort, President Joe Biden said at his debut address to the United Nations Tuesday.

In line with his Aug. 16 speech after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the president expressed his distaste for military arm-twisting to achieve American foreign policy goals, further narrowing down the conditions of the use of force to missions that are clear, achievable and have the "informed consent of the American people."

In his 33-minute speech, the president did not mention China by name once, as opposed to his predecessor Donald Trump who mentioned "China" or "Chinese" 12 times in 2020 and 14 times in 2019.

Instead, the U.S. president made clear he does not want a new cold war with Beijing.

"All of the major powers of the world have a duty, in my view, to carefully manage their relationships so we do not tip from responsible competition to conflict," Biden said. "The United States will compete and will compete vigorously and lead with our values and our strength. We'll stand up for our allies and our friends, and oppose attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones, whether through changes to territory by force, economic coercion, tactical exploitation, or disinformation."

But the U.S. is "not seeking a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocs," he emphasized. "The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges even if we have intense disagreements in other areas. Because we'll all suffer the consequences of our failure if we do not come together to address the urgent threats like COVID-19 and climate change or enduring threats like nuclear proliferation."

Diplomats listen to U.S. President Joe Biden's speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21. The Israeli delegation was absent.    © Reuters

Biden sought closure on Afghanistan and declared the opening of a new phase of American foreign policy. "We've ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan. And as we close this period of relentless war, we're opening a new era of relentless diplomacy, of using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world."

Wearing a blue-and-white tie matching the colors of the U.N., Biden vowed to work with multinational institutions like the body he was addressing. His reserved tone stood in contrast to Trump, who used his U.N. speeches to slam globalism and call for each country to look out for their own interests rather than those of others.

On this cool Tuesday morning, Biden arrived at the U.N. headquarters in New York City's East Side after driving past the Trump World Tower and Turkey's new skyscraper Turkevi. A throng of onlookers recorded his entry into the venue with their cell phones.

But if the Biden team had hoped for an enthusiastic audience, they did not find one. Instead, the diplomats in the audience were trying to assess what the "Biden Doctrine" was. The administration had called for rebuilding the trans-Atlantic alliance, but France has recalled its ambassador from Washington following a recent AUKUS agreement that torpedoed its submarine deal with Australia.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday sided with France in the matter, breaking days of silence and telling reporters, "I can understand the anger of our French friends."

"What was decided and the way in which the decision was made is unsettling, and it is sobering, not just for France," he said.

Biden's claim of rebuilding alliances in the U.N. speech, therefore, rang hollow.  

"Over the last eight months, I prioritized rebuilding our alliances, revitalizing our partnerships, and recognizing they're essential and central to America's enduring security and prosperity," he said, omitting any mention of the recent collapse in diplomacy with France, a Security Council member.

And while he has put the Indo-Pacific at the heart of his foreign policy since taking office in January, the president mentioned the region just once in his speech, and broke no new ground. 

"As the United States turns our focus to the priorities and the regions of the world like the Indo-Pacific that are most consequential today and tomorrow, we'll do so with our allies and partners through cooperation and multilateral institutions like the United Nations to amplify our collective strength and speed our progress toward dealing with these global challenges," he said.

But if there was a positive takeaway from the American president's avowed approach to international diplomacy, it was a clear return to multilateralism. "We're back at the table in international forums," he declared, listing renewed engagements with partners such as ASEAN, the African Union and the World Health Organization. 

"We elevated the Quad partnership," Biden said, "to take on challenges ranging from health security, to climate, to emerging technologies." The leaders of that grouping -- the U.S., Japan, India and Australia -- will meet at the White House in person for the first time on Friday. 

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