Every September, the annual UN general assembly session offers global leaders a prime opportunity to publicize their top priorities to an international audience – precisely what President Joe Biden did on the conclave’s opening day this week.
As Biden approached the podium, the representatives of China and Russia may have braced for an earful: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced Europe’s deadliest war in more than 70 years; and tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea and trade have made blame-laden volleys between China and the US routine. As it turned out, however, Biden’s half-hour speech barely mentioned the US’s two biggest rivals.
Biden’s address included familiar themes from prior speeches, some dramatic flair, and the occasional cliche. The world, he said, was at an “inflection point in history”. Bullies and rule-breakers were continually testing international values and rules. Democracies were under threat in the Sahel and west Africa, where military-led governments have been popping up like weeds in a garden.
Although both Biden and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who gave his own address, made appeals to globalism, Zelenskiy worked hard to place Moscow in the dock. In contrast, Biden seemed to have decided that a full-blown attack on Russia for invading Ukraine would not resonate with much of the global south, whose countries have been loth to openly condemn Moscow and have been anxious primarily about the war’s effect on critical imports, such as oil and food and the prospect that western support for Ukraine could diminish funding for their economic development.
Instead Biden devoted about 80% of his address to planetary problems – the climate crisis, economic inequality, unsustainable debt, poverty and disease – whose effects transcend borders. He praised multilateral institutions for their work on these fronts and pledged additional monetary support.
This was likely by design. These problems are pressing issues in the so-called global south, the developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America who have long viewed the post-1945 US-dominated world order as inattentive to their needs and unrepresentative of today’s geopolitical landscape.
To card-carrying realists, Biden’s fixation on multilateral solutions to global problems likely exemplified mushy “global-oney”. It would be wrong, however, to label Biden a romantic in the realm of foreign affairs. Notwithstanding the flowery rhetoric, he knows full well that competition among states and the resulting crises, arms races and wars that can spring from it will not be banished simply by appealing to our better angels.
In reality, Biden’s mistake isn’t naivety: it’s that he’s trying to explain today’s geopolitics with an overly simplistic framework.
The administration, for instance, continues to emphasize the idea that the US and its democratic allies around the world are up against an alliance of savvy authoritarian states conspiring to break the so-called rules-based order. Yet the reality is more complex.
Democracies collaborate with autocracies on any number of issues. Entities like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Brics grouping, to name just two, contain democrats and autocrats, friends and even adversaries. India may be a core member of the Quad alongside the US, Japan and Australia, but it’s also a member of the SCO, which includes China. The Brics contain democracies, like Brazil and India, but also autocracies like China and Russia.
And let’s face it: if the Biden administration truly buys into the democracy v autocracy paradigm, then the US is doing a terrible job implementing it. Indeed, the US and its allies have scarcely been reticent about embracing non-democracies.
The US provides Egypt, one of the most repressive countries in the Middle East, with $1.3bn in military aid every year. The Biden administration signed a security and economic agreement with Bahrain last week, despite the fact that the Bahraini monarchy crushed grassroots demonstrations during the 2011 Arab spring and continues to hold more than 1,000 political prisoners. The US is also reportedly flirting with granting Saudi Arabia a security guarantee to nudge Riyadh toward normalizing relations with Israel.
Biden’s remarks also gestured to the importance of defending the rules-based international order. This hardly came as a shock, since he has emphasized the point repeatedly since entering the White House.
Unfortunately, the US and its allies have had trouble living up to its rhetoric on this front as well. Presidents across numerous administrations have often bent, if not broken, the rules-based order when they believed doing so was in the US security interest. The examples are too numerous to cite: the establishment of a torture regime during the global war on terror, skirting the UN security council to invade Iraq in 2003, and exceeding the 2011 security council resolution on Libya to depose Muammar Gaddafi, to name just a few.
Countries from the global south no doubt had all of this in mind as Biden sought to convince UN member states that the US and its democratic allies, not their authoritarian rivals, have the resources and knowhow needed to address their concerns about food security, extreme weather events and crushing debt. In a nod to the global south’s desire for greater empowerment, Biden also noted the G20’s recent decision to include the African Union and called for an expanded UN security council that would give countries outside the west a greater voice.
Although packaged in globalism, Biden’s pitch was attuned to the realities of international politics, specifically what he sees as the contest underway for hearts, minds and strategic advantage in the developing world. Seen thus, his decision to devote no more than a few minutes to Russia’s war against Ukraine or to the lack of rights in China’s Xinjiang region is not surprising.
Rajan Menon is the director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities, a professor emeritus of international relations at the City College of New York, and a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies
Daniel R DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek