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Joe Biden's UN speech: What to expect

President Joe Biden will address the United Nations

President Joe Biden will address the United Nations on Tuesday for the first time since taking office. Credit: Bloomberg / Stefani Reynolds

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is scheduled to deliver his first address before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday — an agenda-setting speech that comes as he faces continuing criticism over the chaotic United States withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan will be just one contentious issue facing Biden when he takes the stage at the UN headquarters in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday.

A pandemic heading toward its third year, China’s growing global influence, and newfound tensions between the United States and some of its closest European allies, particularly France, are some of the major foreign policy concerns confronting Biden, foreign affairs analysts told Newsday.

What to know

Because of the meeting of the UN General Assembly, through Sept. 30 there is the possibility of numerous street closings in Manhattan at times at the discretion of the NYPD and the federal Department of Homeland Security. Those areas include:

  • The FDR Drive between Whitehall Street and 42nd Street
  • The area bounded by 60th Street on the north, 34th Street on the south, First Avenue on the east and Third Avenue on the west
  • Area bounded by 54th Street on the North, 48th Street on the South, First Avenue on the East and Madison Avenue on the west 
  • Numerous other midtown streets at the discretion of the NYPD and Homeland Security

 

"This speech sets the tone for the international image of the president," said Jeremi Suri, a professor of Global Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.

"The speech will play more overseas than it will at home … It will get a lot of attention abroad, especially on the eve of the German election, at a time when Europe’s going through major transitions," Suri said.

"It will certainly get a lot of attention in China, and it’s a moment for Biden to differentiate himself from [former President Donald] Trump, and to explain in more depth what his multilateral, cooperative, less interventionist approach is going to look like," Suri said.

Here are three key things to watch at Biden’s first appearance as president before the General Assembly:

Will Biden’s ‘America is back’ message resonate after Afghanistan?

In his first foreign policy speech as president, Biden declared in February: "America is back."

The statement, repeated by Biden at several subsequent meetings with world leaders, was meant to draw a contrast with Trump’s "America First" doctrine.

But in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, some prominent European politicians are questioning Biden’s pledge to work in partnership with other countries.

"We thought America was back, while in fact, America withdraws," French parliamentarian Nathalie Loiseau, an ally of French President Emmanuel Macron, said in August, days after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom were among nations that pushed unsuccessfully for Biden to keep troops in Kabul past Aug. 31.

Politicians in those countries have complained that Biden’s unilateral move to withdraw under a Trump-negotiated deal with the Taliban left NATO troops scrambling to withdraw their own forces and citizens on the ground.

Biden has defended the U.S. exit repeatedly, saying it was not the role of the United States to "nation build" in Afghanistan or remain in a "forever war" first launched in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

European officials said not only the Afghanistan withdrawal, but also the announcement of a security pact between the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia that includes an agreement to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia are reminiscent of Trump’s tendency to take action without consulting allies.

As a result of the pact, Australia withdrew from a $66 billion deal to buy submarines from France.

"This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do," France’s foreign minister told reporters last Thursday. "I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies."

Julian Ku, a professor of international law at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, said Biden has "lost a lot of goodwill, " and Tuesday’s UN speech "is his chance to try to refocus everyone away from Afghanistan."

"His whole point of moving out of Afghanistan is to move on to these other international priorities and so I think he’s going to use his speech to try to highlight the other things he thinks are really important," Ku said.

Among those other issues, Ku said, is mounting tension between the United States and China over human rights, intellectual property theft and Beijing’s increased aggression toward Hong Kong and Taiwan.

"If he really devotes time in his UN speech to talking about China and the things that China has done that the United States believes are a threat to the world, or at least a problem to the world, that’s a sign that the Biden administration is going to make China the centerpiece of what they’re going to try to focus on countering," Ku said.

Will Biden commit to more COVID-19 vaccine donations?

The White House on Friday announced Biden will convene a virtual summit a day after the United Nations gathering urging other countries "to commit to a higher level of ambition" when it comes to combating COVID-19.

The seven G-7 member nations have pledged to donate 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses — including 500 million doses from the U.S. — but the World Health Organization has been pressing the United States and other countries to reconsider plans to offer booster shots and commit to sharing more of their supply of vaccines with developing nations.

The head of the WHO, the public health arm of the United Nations, has said that 11 billion doses are needed worldwide.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, responding to concerns raised by WHO about wealthier countries moving forward with booster shots, said Thursday, "We feel it’s a false choice to suggest it’s either give to the world or not."

Psaki said the United States was, "continuing to increase the supply of vaccines we’re giving to the world," while maintaining an ample supply for the United States.

On Friday, a panel of advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said booster shots proposed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE should be given to Americans age 65 and older and those at high risk. The experts rejected a request for wider distribution.

Will other countries heed Biden’s calls to act on climate change?

Addressing climate change has been a key part of Biden’s domestic and foreign policy agenda, and the president is expected to use his UN address to repeat his call for industrialized nations to commit to reducing carbon emissions.

On Friday, Biden convened another virtual meeting of world leaders, calling on them to sign a "global methane pledge" that would require member states to work together to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030.

In April, Biden committed the United States to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% below 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

However, that commitment relies on passage by Congress of Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure spending plan.

Moderate Democrats including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who hails from a coal-producing state, and Republicans have raised objections to the price tag.

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