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In his first UN General Assembly speech since entering the White House, US President Joe Biden underscored the importance of alliances in countering the global challenges posed by ongoing conflicts, climate change and Covid-19. But his remarks came on the heels of the controversial US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a US-UK submarine deal with Australia that has angered France.
Biden pledged cooperation with America’s allies and partners to work towards a “collective future” of peace and prosperity in his address to world leaders at the 76th UN General Assembly in New York.
“We stand at an inflection point in history,” said Biden, before calling for a new era of global unity to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and emerging threats.
The US president noted his decision to end America's longest war, in Afghanistan, last month had set the table for his administration to shift attention to intensive diplomacy, with no shortage of crises facing the globe.
“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.”
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”.
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. “We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” he said.
Biden’s speech was focused on presenting the US as a reliable ally to its partners around the world after years of "America First" policies pursued by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump.
Biden vowed to defend US national interests, but said any military missions must be transparent as well as "achievable".
"The mission must be clear and achievable, undertaken with informed consent of the American people and, whenever possible, in partnership with our allies," Biden said.
The US military "must not be used as the answer to every problem we see around the world", he said, adding that military force "must be our tool of last resort – not our first".
Biden also told the General Assembly that the United States would return to the Iranian nuclear deal in "full" – if Tehran does likewise: "We're prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same.”
He said the United States was working with China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany to "engage Iran diplomatically and to seek a return to" the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which America left in 2018.
Turning to the Middle East, he said that a sovereign and democratic Palestinian state is the best way to ensure Israel's future.
"We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East," Biden said.
"The commitment of the United States to Israel's security is without question and our support for an independent Jewish state is unequivocal," he said, adding: "But I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign and democratic Palestinian state.”
Earlier on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres opened the weeklong event with a call for a more equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, describing it as an "obscenity".
Guterres said images from some parts of the world of expired and unused vaccines in the garbage told "the tale of our times" – with the majority of the wealthier world immunised while more than 90 percent of Africa has not even received one dose.
"This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity. We passed the science test. But we are getting an 'F' in Ethics," said Guterres.
Biden has called for a virtual summit on Wednesday on defeating the pandemic and teased that he will announce "additional commitments".
"We seek to advance the fight against Covid-19 and hold ourselves accountable around specific targets on three key challenges: saving lives now, vaccinating the world, and building back better," Biden said.
He also said Washington would double financing on climate change – a key element in reaching an ambitious new accord in November at a UN conference in Glasgow as temperatures and severe weather rise dangerously.
The United Nations says there is a $20 billion shortfall in the $100 billion fund that developed countries promised to mobilise annually from 2020-2025 for helping poorer nations adapt to climate change.
No leaders came to the UN last year because the coronavirus was sweeping the globe, so all addresses were pre-recorded. This year, the General Assembly offered leaders a choice – come to New York or remain online. More than 100 decided to appear in person in the General Assembly hall.
By tradition, the first country to speak is Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, isn’t vaccinated. He reiterated last Thursday that he doesn’t plan to get the shot any time soon, justifying his refusal by saying he already had Covid-19 and therefore has a high level of antibodies.
The General Assembly opened as diplomatic tensions are already high among some permanent members of the UN Security Council. France was outraged when Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a plan last week for Australia to get nuclear-powered submarines using US technology. The deal effectively scuttled a prior $66 billion diesel-powered submarine contract Australia had with France. France recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia in protest.
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, for his part, has 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”.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP and AFP)