At U.N., Biden Calls for Diplomacy, not Conflict, but Some Are Skeptical

President Biden, fighting mounting doubts among America’s allies about his commitment to working with them, used his debut address to the United Nations on Tuesday to call for “relentless diplomacy” on climate change, the pandemic and efforts to blunt the expanding influence of autocratic nations like China and Russia.

In a 30-minute address in the hall of the General Assembly, Mr. Biden called for a new era of global action, making the case that a summer of wildfires, excessive heat and the resurgence of the coronavirus required a new era of unity.

“Our security, our prosperity and our very freedoms are interconnected, in my view as never before,” Mr. Biden said, insisting that the United States and its Western allies would remain vital partners.

But he made only scant mention of the global discord his own actions have stirred, including the chaotic American retreat from Afghanistan as the Taliban retook control 20 years after they were routed. And he made no mention of his administration’s blowup with one of America’s closest allies, France, which was cast aside in a secret submarine deal with Australia to confront China’s influence in the Pacific.

Those two foreign policy crises, while sharply different in nature, have led some American partners to question Mr. Biden’s commitment to empowering traditional alliances, with some publicly accusing him of perpetuating elements of former President Donald J. Trump’s “America First” approach, though wrapped in far more inclusive language.

Throughout his speech, Mr. Biden never uttered the word “China,’’ though his efforts to redirect American competitiveness and national security policy have been built around countering Beijing’s growing influence. But he laced his discussion with a series of choices that essentially boiled down to backing democracy over autocracy, a scarcely veiled critique of both President Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

China’s top leader Xi Jinping in a prerecorded message to United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.Credit…United Nations Web TV, via Associated Press

“We’re not seeking — say it again, we are not seeking — a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” he said. Yet in describing what he called an “inflection point in history,” he talked about the need to choose whether new technologies would be used as “a force to empower people or deepen repression.” At one point he explicitly referred to the targeting of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of western China.

The president’s senior aides, at least publicly, have been dismissing the idea that China and the United States, with the world’s largest economies, were dividing the world into opposing camps, seeking allies to counter each other’s influence, as America and the Soviet Union once did. The relationship with Beijing, they have argued, unlike the Cold War rivalry with Moscow, is marked by deep economic interdependence and some areas of common interests, from the climate to containing North Korea’s nuclear program.

But in private, some officials concede growing similarities. The American-British deal to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines is clearly an effort to reset the naval balance in the Pacific, as China expands its territorial claims and threatens Taiwan. The United States has also been attempting to block Chinese access to sophisticated technology and Western communications systems.

“The future belongs to those who give their people the ability to breathe free, not those who seek to suffocate their people with an iron-hand authoritarianism,” Mr. Biden said, leaving little doubt who he meant. “The authoritarians of the world, they seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong.”

A few hours after Mr. Biden left the podium, Mr. Xi also addressed the General Assembly, in a prerecorded video, rejecting American portrayals of his government as repressive and expansionist, asserting that he supports peaceful development for all peoples.

Mr. Xi’s language was restrained, and like Mr. Biden he did not name his country’s chief rival, but he made a clear allusion to China’s anger over the Australian submarine pact. The world must “reject the practice of forming small circles or zero-sum games,” he said, adding that international disputes “need to be handled through dialogue and cooperation on the basis of quality and mutual respect.”

He also announced that his country would stop building “new coal-fired power projects abroad,’’ ending one of the dirtiest fossil-fuel programs. China is by far the largest financier of coal-fired power plants.

Mr. Biden’s debut at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York was muted by the pandemic. Many national leaders did not attend, and there were few of the big receptions and relentless traffic gridlock that have traditionally marked the September ritual.

He stayed only a few hours and met only one ally there: Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. Later in the day, back in Washington, Mr. Biden, met Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, the other partner in the submarine deal.

Last week, the three countries revealed the nuclear submarine agreement they had negotiated in secret. Australia said it was abandoning a previous deal to have France build conventionally powered submarines, enraging French leaders who felt betrayed by their allies. The surprise announcements tied Australian defense more closely to the United States — a huge shift for a country that, just a few years ago, aimed to avoid taking sides in the American-Chinese rivalry.

Mr. Biden meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Until Tuesday, the last time Mr. Biden had seen Mr. Johnson and Mr. Morrison was at the Group of 7 summit meeting in June, when they were deep in negotiations that were hidden from President Emmanuel Macron of France, who was at the same event.

On Tuesday there was no conversation between Mr. Biden and Mr. Macron, who was so infuriated over the submarine deals, and the silence of his closest partners, that he recalled the French ambassador from Washington, a move with no precedent in more than 240 years of relations, as well as the envoy to Australia. It was unclear if there were simply scheduling difficulties preventing the two men from getting on the phone, or if Mr. Macron was being deliberately hard to reach.

The speech Mr. Biden delivered sounded much like what he would have said before the Taliban took Kabul without resistance, and before the pivot to Asia became a hindrance to relations with Europe.

The president has bristled, aides say, when the French have compared him to his predecessor, as Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, did on Tuesday, telling reporters that the “spirit” of Mr. Trump’s approach to dealing with allies “is still the same” under Mr. Biden.

Other allies have objected to how Mr. Biden set an Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan — with minimal consultation, they contend. (The White House tells a different story, arguing that NATO allies were fully consulted.)

The Afghanistan deadline likely would have created only back-room grumbling if the rapid fall of the country to the Taliban had been anticipated. Instead, the August scramble to airlift foreigners, and the Afghans who helped them, created an image of American carelessness.

World leaders listening to Mr. Biden at the United Nations.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Biden tried on Tuesday to turn to the larger picture — “We’ve ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan,” he said — making the case that the United States was now freer to pursue challenges like the climate crisis, cyberattacks and pandemics. And he delivered a far more conciliatory message than his predecessor, who disdained alliances, insulted friends and adversaries alike, and at various moments threatened military action against North Korea and Iran.

“U.S. military power must be our tool of last resort, not our first,’’ Mr. Biden said, “and it should not be used as an answer to every problem we see around the world.”

He ran through a litany of international arrangements and institutions he has rejoined over the last eight months, including the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. He talked of the United States running for a seat on the U.N. human rights council and re-establishing the Iran nuclear deal, both of which Mr. Trump exited.

In fact, Iran was the centerpiece of a lot of back-room diplomacy, as its new foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, met with European leaders, who urged a return to the nuclear talks in Vienna that ended in June. Iranian officials indicated that talks are likely to resume in coming weeks.

But American and European officials expect the government of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, to seek a high price for returning to the accord, pressuring the West by moving closer to bomb-grade uranium production than ever before.

Mr. Raisi did not come to New York, but he delivered a fiery speech by video. “Today, the world doesn’t care about ‘America First’ or ‘America is Back,’” he said. He added, “Sanctions are the U.S.’s new way of war with the nations of the world.” But he did not rule out returning to the accord — in return for sanctions relief.

Mr. Biden cast the coronavirus pandemic as a prime example of the need for peaceful international cooperation, saying, “bombs and bullets cannot defend against Covid-19 or its future variants.” And he pushed back against arguments that the United States, which is moving toward giving booster shots to some vaccinated people, is doing too little for poorer countries where vaccination has barely begun.

The United States has “shipped more than 160 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to other countries,” he said.

“We need a collective act of science and political will,” he added. “We need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible, and expand access to oxygen, tests, treatments, to save lives around the world.”

Mr. Biden leaving New York for Washington.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Michael D. Shear and Rick Gladstone contributed reporting.

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