When President Biden stepped up to the lectern at the 76th United Nations’ General Assembly this week, his administration was reeling from what critics have described as a pair of grievous self-inflicted foreign policy wounds. The first, most obvious wound was caused by his decision to pull the United States out of its 20-year-old war in Afghanistan; the second by his decision to join the UK in embarking on a new Indo-Pacific-focused alliance and nuclear submarine technology sharing deal with Australia.
Biden bet his 2020 run for president of the United States on the contrast between Donald Trump’s dictator-friendly brand of bombast — which often saw him shoving allies out of the way (sometimes literally) while berating them for not paying for America’s military presence in Europe and Asia — and his own respect for longstanding alliances, gleaned from many years of glad-handing world leaders.
His first speech to the General Assembly as president appeared to stick to the script, so to speak. Vowing to inaugurate an era of “relentless diplomacy,” Biden also promised that on his watch America would be “using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world” and “renewing and defending democracy” by proving that “government by and for the people is still the best way to deliver for all of our people”.
But after concluding his remarks and taking one bilateral meeting with one of the two leaders with whom he announced the AUKUS alliance last week — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — Biden was gone.
It was a far cry from his predecessor’s first appearance at the United Nations. Although the man he and his advisers prefer to call “the former guy” was often mocked (and at least once laughed at to his face) for the belligerent tone he adopted in his annual remarks to the General Assembly, Trump spent his first week representing the United States at the UN immersed in meetings upon meetings.
When he arrived at the UN on September 17, 2017 (a Monday) Trump met with Israel’s then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as France’s Emmanuel Macron, the latter of whom recalled his ambassador from Washington last week in protest of the AUKUS submarine deal (he and Biden spoke on Wednesday and agreed to meet in Paris next month). Biden’s Monday, by contrast, consisted only of travel to New York and a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres.
On the day Trump first addressed the General Assembly, he met with Gutteres, Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajčák (the General Assembly president that year), as well as the Amir of Qatar, a major US ally in the Middle East. The next day, he met with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, then-British Prime Minister Theresa May, and Egyptian President Mohammed al-Sisi.
All in all, Trump’s first trip to the UN concluded with eleven bilateral meetings conducted, as well as a number of receptions and meetings with other world leaders. By contrast, Biden’s meetings in New York this week included Guterres, Morrison, and Iraqi President Barham Selah, plus a White House bilateral with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which the president held after returning to Washington on Tuesday.
White House and National Security Council officials pushed back on the idea that Biden has had a light schedule this week and noted that he will host the leaders of India, Japan and Australia — the “quad” — at the White House on Friday. Yet even with the “quad” leaders coming to the White House, the 46th president’s light presence at the first General Assembly week of his term has insiders concerned that he is playing into Republicans’ hands by giving ammunition to bad-faith critiques of his fitness for office.
One foreign policy expert who regularly consults with administration officials — and who requested anonymity to protect their relationship with the White House — said there’s not much to be gained from comparing DTrump’s whirlwind first week at the UN to Biden’s premier at the General Assembly because the “former guy” was a novice at foreign policy compared to the former senator and vice president.
“He already knows many of the major players from his time as VP,” said the expert. “Joe Biden doesn’t need to go around introducing himself to everyone and glad-handing the entire United Nations when there’s still a pandemic raging.”
Sources close to the White House said Biden’s choice of meetings this week has been in keeping with the administration’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region. The meetings with AUKUS partners and the “quad” are meant to highlight the partnerships Biden hopes will serve as a significant counterweight and deterrent to China’s growing military ambitions.
But a political strategist who works with Republican Congressional candidates said Biden is giving their clients exactly what they want — a commander-in-chief who they can portray as out of his depth and afraid to be in the room. They pointed to a recent snafu during Biden’s Oval Office meeting with Boris Johnson, during which the British prime minister took questions while the president did not.
“Every single time Biden has an opportunity to be present and engage but doesn’t take the opportunity because he and his advisers don’t think it’s needed, we’re going to hit him,” they said. “Even if the reasons are valid, the drumbeat for the next year and a half is that we’ll need a Republican Congress to keep an eye on the tottering old man who can’t take more than a meeting or two a day. It might have been good politics to limit his appearances to contrast himself with Trump early on, but Trump has been gone for nearly a year now. Staying out of the spotlight no longer gives him a presidential look; it just makes him look like he can’t handle it.”
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