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Biden declares world at ‘inflection point’ amid crises

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United Nations, September 21

President Joe Biden used his first address before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday to declare that the world stands and at an “inflection point in history” and must move quickly and cooperatively to address the festering issues of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and human rights abuse.

Amid growing China tensions Biden also declared the US is “not seeking a new Cold War”.

Without mentioning China directly, Biden acknowledged increasing concerns about rising tensions between the two nations. But he said, “We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs”.

The president noted his decision to end America’s longest war last month, in Afghanistan, and set the table for his administration to shift US attention to intensive diplomacy with no shortage of crises facing the globe. He said he is driven by a belief that “to deliver for our own people, we must also engage deeply with the rest of the world”.

“We’ve ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan,” Biden said. “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.”

Biden, who arrived in New York on Monday evening to meet with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ahead of Tuesday’s address, offered a full-throated endorsement of the body’s relevance and ambition at a difficult moment in history.

The president, in brief remarks at the start of his meeting with Guterres, returned to his mantra that “America is back” — a phrase that’s become presidential shorthand meant to encapsulate his promise to take a dramatically different tack with allies than predecessor Donald Trump. In his remarks, he declared the United States was “back at the table”.

“We will lead not just with the example of our power but God willing with the power of our example,” Biden said Monday night.

But the president was facing a healthy measure of skepticism from allies during his 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 Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy.

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 was a “crisis of trust” with the US as a result of the episode.

Biden downplayed the tensions with France. Asked by a reporter as he arrived at the UN on Tuesday how he planned to repair relations with the French, Biden responded merely: “They’re great”. Before Biden’s arrival, EU Council President Charles Michel strongly criticised 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-UK-Australia alliance.

Despite such differences, Biden hoped to use his 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 … is that we are committed to those alliances, and that always requires work from every president, from every global leader.”

In an interview before 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”. The secretary-general did not back off his concerns about the US-China tensions as he addressed leaders at the opening of Tuesday’s gathering. “It will be impossible to address dramatic economic and development challenges, while the world’s two largest economies are at odds with each other.”

Biden put a heavy emphasis on a need for world leaders to work together on the COVID-19 pandemic, meet past obligations to address climate change, head off emerging technology issues and firm up trade rules.

“We will choose to build a better future. We, you and I, we have the will and capacity to make it better. Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford to waste any more time. … We can do this.” — AP

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