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Biden's UN speech shows the limits of his foreign policy

By Charles Tian | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-10-09 16:43

US President Joe Biden speaks during the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at UN headquarters on Sept 21, 2022 in New York City. [Photo/Agencies]

On September 21, US President Joe Biden delivered his widely-watched speech before the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly. He devoted the bulk of it to condemning Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, but he also included some words on several other aspects of his foreign policy, including his approach to a number of important global issues, and, of course, his approach to China, which he considers the most significant competitor of the US. While the speech was undoubtedly intended as an indication of what America can accomplish, a closer look at its words shows that the country and its president are limited in how far they actually can go; indeed, the first few weeks since the speech have already demonstrated that.

On Russia, Biden reminded his audience of how "141 nations in the General Assembly came together to unequivocally condemn Russia's war against Ukraine." However, the resolution to which he referred was a largely symbolic measure, one to which it was quite easy for many countries to sign on with no cost. Biden then remarked that "more than 40 countries… have contributed billions of their own money and equipment to help Ukraine defend itself." This, of course, is a far smaller number, and it goes to show that the majority of countries are not willing to follow the US in supporting Ukraine if that support comes at a significant cost to themselves. The roughly 40 countries to which Biden refers, the ones that have helped to arm Ukraine, the ones that have been willing to sanction Russia, are largely drawn from the ranks of close US allies and partners, who are more willing to align their policies with those of Washington.

And, while a majority of those who spoke at the GA used their speeches to condemn Russia's actions in Ukraine, 66 speakers, largely from the Global South, broke with the US in calling for peace. This was yet another indication that support for America's position on how Ukraine is limited outside its circle of close allies, and, even in Europe, where most countries have joined the US in rejecting peace talks without an outright Ukrainian victory, five countries lent their voices to the calls for peace at the GA.[ What media didn't tell you about the UN: 66 nations called for an end to Ukraine war.

Biden spent a large portion of his speech extolling various initiatives his administration has launched to address a variety of pressing global issues: climate change, health, food security, economic growth. While the US' efforts on these fronts aren't a bad thing, they are not as impressive as Biden may have liked to claim they are, and pale in comparison with China's efforts. For instance, the President mentioned that his country had provided more than 620 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to the world, but, as Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in his own speech, China has provided over 2.2 billion doses.

Biden also brought up the G7's Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which is intended to collectively mobilize $600 billion by 2027, as a rival to China's Belt and Road Initiative. However, as research conducted by Refinitiv shows, BRI projects have a combined value of $3.7 trillion[ refinitiv-zawya-belt-and-road-initiative-report-2019.pdf] – and it's not even clear how, or if, the G7 can come up with its far smaller number.

Turning to China, Biden broke with precedent by using a GA speech to bring up Taiwan, the nuclear buildup on the Chinese mainland, and Xinjiang. Given America's focus on China as its near-peer competitor, Biden undoubtedly couldn't have passed up the chance to criticize China, but his far greater focus on the issues mentioned above suggests that he knew his anti-China agenda wouldn't find nearly as much support from the global community as he would have liked and, indeed, on multiple occasions, there have been far more countries that have opposed US attacks on China in the areas Biden mentioned than those that have supported the US agenda. In fact, on October 6, only two weeks after Biden's speech, the UN Human Rights Council rejected a US-led motion to debate the situation in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Given that the HRC has long been a forum in which Western notions of human rights have been dominant, the US' failure there was truly a stinging setback to its attempts to rally the world against China.

Along with China, Biden, in his speech, also rattled off a list of global crises that have drawn the attention of the US: Ethiopia, Venezuela, Haiti, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, the DPRK, Iran, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. This was undoubtedly intended to show that the US' influence and interests stretch throughout the world, and that, as Biden promised after winning the presidency, "America is back."

However, as with China, he mentioned these countries almost in passing; here, his decision to do so seemed like an admission, however reluctant, that there was very little he could actually do to resolve these crises – he did not say more because he did not have significant achievements to report. To take one example, in the weeks since Biden's speech, Pyongyang has carried out a string of missile launches, continuing to advance its weapons program with remarkable speed, and Biden, like all of his recent predecessors, has been powerless to stop this progress. When it comes to the other countries he mentioned, he has been in no position to advance his human rights policy or to halt raging conflicts.

Overall, Biden's speech may have been intended to demonstrate America's strength on the global platform, but a close look shows the country's limits instead – limits that have been confirmed by post-GA developments. However, a US President must project an image of strength and action – few things are more important to the presidency than power and its apparent exercise. No President can afford to be seen as weak or indecisive in the eyes of his country, or those of its allies, or those of, in fact, the world. However, in politics, Western politics in particular, appearance and perception are very often more important than reality, even if they are flawed or incorrect. Biden needed to show his UN audience an image of himself and of America as strong global leaders, and his speech did only that – it created an image that was inconsistent with reality.

Charles Tian is an ABC who is interested in China and have an undergraduate political science/international relations degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from The George Washington University Law School. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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