New York City
President Joe Biden returns to the green-marbled United Nations stage Wednesday prepared to show renewed American leadership on Ukraine and the environment, even as the combined effects of a prolonged conflict and economic uncertainty create a dark mood among world leaders.
Biden’s second speech to the United Nations General Assembly is a moment for him to herald the US-led effort to back Ukraine and punish Russia for its invasion, along with a new, historic investment in combating climate change.
After making his debut UN address last year under the cloud of a messy Afghanistan withdrawal and stalled domestic ambitions, Biden enters his sophomore outing with a stronger hand.
“We believe that the President heads to New York with the wind at his back,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.
Still, even as Biden proclaims renewed US leadership, deeper questions persist over his ability to maintain that position in the years ahead, as the specter of a global recession looms and threats to American democracy fester.
Biden has spent ample time underscoring those threats in recent weeks, primarily for a domestic audience but with foreign capitals also listening intently. He has recounted in recent speeches sitting around a table at last year’s Group of 7 summit in Cornwall, England, telling fellow leaders that “America is back.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden has told audiences, asked him: “For how long?”
That question still hangs over Biden’s efforts on the world stage, even a year-and-a-half into his term, as his predecessor continues to wield influence over the Republican Party and prepares to mount another run for the White House. Biden himself said in an interview that aired Sunday that while he intends to run for reelection, a final decision “remains to be seen.”
One of the issues currently at the forefront of global affairs – the pained negotiations to restart the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew – only underscores the effects of pendulum swings in American leadership.
For Biden, the annual UN speech is another stab at explaining to the world how he has steered the United States back into a position of leadership after the “America First” years of Donald Trump.
In it, he will offer a “firm rebuke of Russia’s unjust war in Ukraine,” according to Sullivan, and deliver “a call to the world to continue to stand against the naked aggression that we’ve seen these past several months.”
He also plans to unveil “significant new announcements” towards combating food insecurity and “lay out in detail how the US has restored its global leadership and the integrity of its word on the world stage,” Sullivan said.
After his speech Wednesday morning, Biden will host a pledging session for the Global Fund to Fight HIV, AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In the evening, Biden and the first lady will host a leaders’ reception at the American Museum of Natural History.
This week’s schedule was thrown into flux as world leaders assembled in London for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, one of the largest gatherings of heads-of-state in recent memory. Many flew from the British capital to New York for the UN meetings.
Instead of his usual Tuesday morning speaking slot, Biden’s address was pushed back a day. Unlike the past several years, when the UN General Assembly was scaled down due to Covid-19, this year’s gathering is back to its usual in-person capacity.
Biden and his aides have been drafting the address for several weeks, a period that coincided with Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive taking back some Russian-held territory after months of occupation. The initiative had been coordinated with American officials, including through enhanced information and intelligence sharing, and sustained by weaponry provided by the US and its allies.
US officials have cautioned Ukraine’s current gains do not necessarily signal a wider change in the outlook of the war, which remains likely to be a prolonged conflict. A day ahead of Biden’s speech, two Russian-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine announced plans for referendums on officially joining Russia, votes the US has previously warned would be “shams.”
One of Biden’s objectives in his speech Wednesday will be to stress the importance of maintaining unity among western allies in supporting Ukraine in the uncertain months ahead.
That effort is made more difficult by a looming energy crisis as Russia withholds supplies of natural gas to Europe as winter sets in. Higher costs spurred in part by withering western sanctions on Moscow have led to an economic calamity that is causing political turmoil for many leaders in Biden’s coalition, including himself.
The President meets with one of those leaders, British Prime Minister Liz Truss, later Wednesday. It will be their first formal in-person talks since Truss entered office earlier this month following the decision of her predecessor, Boris Johnson, to step down.
She inherited a deep economic crisis, fueled by high inflation and soaring energy costs, which has led to fears that the UK could soon enter a prolonged recession. While few in the Biden administration shed tears at Johnson’s resignation – Biden once described him as the “physical and emotional clone” of Trump – the US and the UK were deeply aligned in their approach to Russia under his leadership.
White House officials expect that cooperation will continue under Truss, even as she comes under pressure to ease economic pressures at home.
Less certain, however, is whether Truss’s hardline approach to Brexit will sour relations with Biden. The President has taken a personal interest in the particular issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit arrangement that requires extra checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The rules were designed to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open and avoid a return to sectarian violence. But Truss has moved to rewrite those rules, causing deep anxiety in both Brussels and Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is not expected in person at this year’s general assembly, although his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will be in New York for the event. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also not planning to attend the UN in person this year.
The two autocratic leaders, who met in person last week, have deepened ties between their countries as relations with the West deteriorate. Biden has warned Xi against supporting Putin in his invasion of Ukraine, a theme he is expected to reiterate in Wednesday’s speech.
Putin and Xi’s absence underscores the limits of venues like the UN to resolve the world’s most serious problems. With permanent seats on the UN Security Council, Russia has resisted approving resolutions on Syria and Ukraine, leading to inaction.
Efforts to reform the Security Council have gained more steam under the Biden administration, although the prospects of breaking the body’s stalemate seem slim. Biden’s aides are still weighing how specifically he will speak to the US desire to reform the Security Council during his visit to the UN this week, but he is expected to make his views known at least in private with other leaders.
“We are committed to finding a way forward to make the UN fit for purpose for this century. And, currently, there is an attack on the UN system. There’s an attack on the charter. And that’s by a permanent member of the Security Council,” Biden’s ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“I can’t change the fact that Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, but I can continue the efforts that we have succeeded in, and that’s isolating them, condemning them, and making sure that they know and understand it’s not business as usual,” she told Jake Tapper.