WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is confronting no shortage of difficult issues as he travels to New York for the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly.
The Russian war in Ukraine is at a critical juncture. European fears that a recession could be just around the corner are heightened. Administration concerns grow by the day that time is running short to revive the Iran nuclear deal and over China's saber-rattling on Taiwan.
When he addressed last year’s General Assembly, Biden focused on broad themes of global partnership, urging world leaders to act with haste against the coronavirus, climate change and human rights abuses. And he offered assurances that his presidency marked a return of American leadership to international institutions following Donald Trump’s “America First”-driven foreign policy.
But one year later, global dynamics have dramatically changed.
Stewart Patrick, senior fellow and director of the Global Order and Institutions Program at the Washington think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an analysis that Biden’s task this year is “immense” compared to his first address to the U.N. as president.
“Last year, the U.S. leader won easy plaudits as the ‘anti-Trump,’ pledging that ‘America was back,’” Patrick said. “This year demands more. The liberal, rules-based international system is reeling, battered by Russian aggression, Chinese ambitions, authoritarian assaults, a halting pandemic recovery, quickening climate change, skepticism of the U.N.’s relevance, and gnawing doubts about American staying power.”
In a tightly packed visit to New York for the 77th General Assembly, Biden is set to address world leaders, meet with the new British Prime Minister Liz Truss and prod allies to do their part to help the U.N. meet an $18 billion target to replenish the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. He'll also host heads of state at a reception and plans to make a significant announcement on global food security.
Beyond diplomacy, the president is scheduled to squeeze in a pair of political fundraisers. This year's gathering comes less than eight weeks before pivotal midterm elections in the United States.
His Wednesday address is expected to have a heavy focus on Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops in recent weeks have retaken control of large stretches of territory near Kharkiv that were seized by Russian forces earlier in the nearly 7-month-old war.
But even as Ukrainian forces have racked up battlefield wins, much of Europe is feeling painful blowback from economic sanctions levied against Russia to punish Moscow for its invasion. A vast reduction in Russian oil and gas has led to a sharp jump in energy prices, skyrocketing inflation and growing risk of Europe slipping into a recession.
“The main thrust of his presentation when it comes to Ukraine will really be about the United Nations Charter, about the foundational principle at the heart of that charter that countries cannot conquer their neighbors by force, cannot seize and acquire territory by force,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said of Biden's plans for his address to world leaders.
Carrie Filipetti, executive director of the Vandenberg Coalition, a conservative foreign policy group, said it's important for Biden to make a robust case to allies — and U.S. lawmakers who will be watching his speech closely — that the investment they've collectively made in arming Ukraine and the pain that Europe's economy is enduring will ultimately pay off.
“He should be trying to compel and demonstrate how ... American support and allied support has been instrumental in helping to bring on this sort of renewed wave of success for the Ukrainians, but that it is very dependent on that continuing not only from the United States, but I think especially from European partners,” said Filipetti, who served as senior policy adviser for the U.S. mission to the United Nations during the Trump administration.
At the White House, there's also growing concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin might further escalate the conflict after recent setbacks.
Biden, in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview that aired on Sunday, warned Putin that deploying nuclear or chemical weapons in Ukraine would result in a “consequential” response from the United States. The administration first warned in March, just weeks into the war, that Russia might seek to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.
“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” Biden warned. “It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”
Biden's visit to the U.N. also comes as his administration's efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal appears stalled.
The deal brokered by the Obama administration — and scrapped by Trump in 2018 — provided billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for Iran’s agreement to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to extensive international inspection.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who is also set to address the U.N. assembly this week, told “60 Minutes” that Tehran would offer no concessions to reach a deal.
“The new administration in the U.S., they claim that they are different from the Trump administration,” Raisi said. “They have said it in their messages to us. But we haven’t witnessed any changes.”
Sullivan said no breakthrough with Iran is expected during the General Assembly. At the same time, Republicans, a few Democrats and Israeli officials are pressing the administration to abandon the nuclear deal.
Sullivan said that Biden would make clear in his speech that a deal can still be done "if Iran is prepared to be serious about its obligations." He added that administration officials would be consulting with fellow signatories of the 2015 deal on the sidelines of this week's meeting.
“I think our allies will be curious to see, does the president want to change direction?" said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on foreign policy and national security. “Does he want to return to some sort of a pressure path, reconstitute a multilateral campaign of pressure?”
This year's U.N. gathering is back to being a full-scale, in-person event after two years of curtailed activity due to the pandemic. In 2020, the in-person gathering was canceled and leaders instead delivered prerecorded speeches; last year was a mix of in-person and prerecorded speeches.
While China's Xi Jinping won't be present, his country's conduct and intentions will loom large during the leaders' talks.
Last month, the U.N. human rights office raised concerns about possible “crimes against humanity” in China's western region against Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic groups. Beijing has vowed to suspend cooperation with the office and blasted what it described as a Western plot to undermine China’s rise.
Meanwhile, China’s government on Monday said Biden’s statement in the “60 Minutes” interview that American forces would defend Taiwan if Beijing tried to invade the self-ruled island was a violation of U.S. commitments on the matter, but it gave no indication of possible retaliation.
The White House said after the interview that there has been no change in U.S. policy on Taiwan, which China claims as its own. That policy says Washington wants to see Taiwan’s status resolved peacefully but doesn’t say whether U.S. forces might be sent in response to a Chinese attack.
Tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan have been heightened since Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei last month, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to the island since House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited in 1997.
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