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WASHINGTON — Four years ago, then-President Donald Trump opened his first address to the United Nations General Assembly by boasting about the stock market and American military might. He acknowledged the world leaders before him, then promptly put them in their place. “As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else,” he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, in his own first speech before the United Nations in New York, President Biden struck a markedly different tone, promising to lead a global renewal modeled on his own domestic policy. The speech included references to infrastructure spending and “good-paying jobs,” popular refrains when Biden is speaking at a manufacturing plant in Ohio or before reporters in the White House.
He alluded to Build Back Better World, a global infrastructure plan modeled after Build Back Better, its domestic progenitor. “Infrastructure can be a strong foundation that allows societies in low- and middle-income countries to grow and to prosper,” he said of that partnership between the world’s seven leading economies.
As the president spoke in New York, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., remained sharply divided over his domestic agenda, with fights over the debt ceiling and spending on social programs dominating Capitol Hill, where lawmakers returned to work on Monday. Should Biden’s agenda collapse in the coming weeks, he could see his clout as an international leader sharply diminished.
Standing before other world leaders on Tuesday, though, Biden relished the opportunity to demonstrate a clean break with Trumpism. References to infrastructure were punctuated with moments of more sweeping rhetoric. “Simply put, we stand, in my view, at an inflection point in history,” Biden said, echoing — if only faintly — the New Frontier vision evoked by John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Describing the severity of what he called a “borderless climate crisis,” Biden announced he intended to double U.S. support for the financing of climate-related projects in the developing world to about $11 billion. And he said the United States will make “additional commitments” in fighting the coronavirus around the world, details of which are expected when he meets with world leaders to discuss the pandemic on Wednesday.
After four years in which the United States was often at odds with its long-standing partners, Biden heralded a return to normal, at a time when normalcy seems like a distant dream for a world caught in the tumult of a pandemic. In remarks ahead of a bilateral meeting with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, he previewed the main theme of his speech: “America is back. We believe in the United Nations and its value.”
Such assurances aside, the United States has recently fallen out with several allies. The World Health Organization has asked the U.S. and other nations to hold off on coronavirus booster shots, urging them to donate doses instead to countries where few, if any, people have been vaccinated at all. The Biden administration has denied that request, describing it as premised on a “false choice.”
France is furious with the United States over a canceled submarine deal with Australia. Anger at the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to reverberate among allies who had invested in the military and reconstruction effort there.
In Tuesday’s speech, Biden defended the withdrawal from Afghanistan, though without the defiance that characterized earlier remarks on the same topic. “I stand here today for the first time in 20 years with the U.S. not at war,” he said.
Biden assured his listeners in Tuesday’s speech that the United States was “not seeking a new Cold War,” in an apparent reference to China. But tensions between Washington and Beijing have hardly eased since he took office, and Biden often uses competition with China as an argument for selling his domestic agenda.
In contrast to Trump, he promised an era of “relentless diplomacy,” including a renewed effort to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew, and peacefully resolve the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula — presumably without the kind of overtures to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, in which Trump regularly engaged.
His broader vision of a U.S.-led global renewal could be imperiled back in Washington, where a handful of centrist Democrats — namely, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — could ruin the prospects of his infrastructure package, which contains the kinds of investments Biden wants made around the world.
As the president flew to New York, aides and Capitol Hill surrogates continued to furiously shore up congressional support for his domestic agenda, which is threatened not only by moderates like Manchin and Sinema but by progressives who believe that agenda is not bold enough.
Biden has argued in the past that authoritarianism thrives when democracies show themselves to be ineffectual and ineffective, incapable of keeping the promises they make. He made a similar point on Tuesday. “Democracy remains the best tool we have to unleash our full human potential,” he said. It was a hopeful premise that Washington routinely puts to the test.
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