Biden looks to turn page on 20 years of war in UN address

US president has already encountered controversy with allies over Afghan withdrawal, COVID policies, and now a submarine deal that has riled France

US President Joe Biden meets with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden meets with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

NEW YORK (AP) — US President Joe Biden began his first visit to the UN General Assembly ready to make the case to world leaders that after closing the book on 20 years of war, the US aims to rally allies and adversaries to work together on a slew of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and trade and economics.

The president faced a healthy measure of skepticism when he arrived in New York on Monday to start a week of high-level diplomacy. The opening months of his presidency have included a series of difficult moments with friendly nations that were expecting greater cooperation from Biden following four years of Donald Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy.

To that end, soon after arriving in New York Monday evening, the president’s first stop was to meet with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to offer endorsements for the body’s relevance and multilateral coordination.

Biden, in brief remarks at the start of the meeting, said the assembly’s commitment to achieving “prosperity, peace and security for everyone” was as important as ever with the coronavirus pandemic and climate change casting large shadows around the globe.

“The vision of the United Nations has never been short on ambition, any more than our Constitution,” Biden said.

But eight months into his presidency, Biden has been out of sync with allies on the chaotic ending to the US war in Afghanistan. He has faced differences over how to go about sharing coronavirus vaccines with the developing world and over pandemic travel restrictions. And there are questions about the best way to respond to military and economic moves by China.

Biden also finds himself in the midst of a fresh diplomatic spat with France, the United States’ oldest ally, after announcing plans — along with Britain — to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. The move is expected to give Australia improved capabilities to patrol the Pacific amid growing concern about the Chinese military’s increasingly aggressive tactics, but it upended a French defense contract worth at least $66 billion to sell diesel-powered submarines to Australia.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday there’s a “crisis of trust” with the US as a result of the episode.

Ahead of Biden’s arrival, EU Council President Charles Michel strongly criticized the Biden administration for leaving Europe “out of the game in the Indo-Pacific region” and ignoring the underlying elements of the trans-Atlantic alliance — transparency and loyalty — in the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the announcement of the US-U.K.-Australia alliance.

Despite such differences, Biden is looking to use his Tuesday address to the General Assembly as well as a series of one-on-one and larger meetings with world leaders this week to make the case for American leadership on the world stage.

“There are points of disagreement, including when we have disagreed with the decisions other countries are making, the decision points of when countries have disagreed with the decisions we’re making,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “But the larger point here, and what you’ll hear the president talk about tomorrow, is that we are committed to those alliances, and that always requires work from every president, from every global leader.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In an interview ahead of his meeting with Biden, Guterres told The Associated Press that he was concerned about the “completely dysfunctional” US-China relationship and that it could lead to a new cold war. Psaki said the administration disagreed with the assessment, adding that the US-China relationship was “one not of conflict but of competition.”

In his address Tuesday, Biden plans to put a heavy emphasis on the need for the world leaders to work together on the COVID-19 pandemic, meeting past obligations to address climate change, the need to head off emerging technology issues and firming up rules of the road on trade matters, White House officials said.

Biden is expected to release new plans to assist the global vaccination effort, and will talk about the US plan to meet its part of financial commitments that the US and other developed nations made in 2009 to help poorer nations adopt clean energy technology, assistance that was due to kick in annually last year, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the president’s remarks.

Ahead of his departure, the Biden administration announced plans to ease foreign travel restrictions to the US beginning in November. The US has largely restricted travel by non-US citizens coming from Europe since the start of the pandemic, an issue that had become a point of contention in trans-Atlantic relations.

US President Joe Biden arrives at the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, after returning from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The new rules will allow foreigners in if they have proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test, the White House said Monday.

Biden plans to limit his time at the UNGA due to coronavirus concerns. He’ll meet with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison while in New York before shifting the rest of the week’s diplomacy to virtual and Washington settings.

At a virtual COVID-19 summit Biden is hosting Wednesday, leaders will be urged to step up vaccine-sharing commitments, address oxygen shortages around the globe and deal with other critical pandemic-related issues.

The president is also scheduled to meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday at the White House, and also has invited the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan — part of a Pacific alliance known as “the Quad” — to Washington on Friday. In addition to the gathering of Quad leaders, Biden will sit down for one-on-one meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Biden is also expected to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron in the coming days to discuss the strain caused by the US submarine deal with Australia.

Psaki stressed the long ties between the two nations and said a disagreement about “a single decision” would not disrupt the relationship or harm the United States’ standing across Europe.

“You always have to work on your relationships and that includes global leaders,” Psaki said.

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