The Memo: Biden seeks to reassure aggrieved allies
President Biden ’s debut speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday could have been boiled down to a single sentence: Remember, I'm not Trump.
Whether that sentiment will be enough to reassure restive allies in Europe and beyond remains to be seen.
The specifics of Biden’s speech dealt primarily with the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and human rights.
“We stand, in my view, at an inflection point in history,” he said.
The broader thrust of the address was to promise a return to normalcy after the tumult of former President Trump ’s four years in office. Biden’s favored phrase that “America is back” is in many ways the international-facing complement to his domestic promise to “restore the soul of America.”
Biden made a point of praising NATO, the European Union and the World Health Organization — all bodies that Trump and his administration had taken pride in disdaining. He noted that his administration had signed up for the Paris climate accord, which Trump had trashed.
The speech was also an expression of faith in the international community itself. Biden talked about the importance of reacting to challenges in a way that would “amplify our collective strength and speed.”
Moments later, he added, “Our security, our prosperity and our very freedoms are interconnected ... as never before. And so, I believe we must work together as never before.”
That’s the kind of sentiment that will have heads nodding among career diplomats at the State Department and within Washington’s foreign policy establishment — two constituencies that were often appalled by Trump.
The problem, for Biden, is that some of America’s allies do not believe that Washington’s deeds have matched its rhetoric so far.
The French, in particular, are irate about a recent deal done between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.
With that deal, Biden is seeking to strengthen a U.S.-friendly alliance as a counterweight to Chinese expansionism in the Pacific.
The deal provides for Australia to get nuclear-powered submarines — only the second nation, after the U.K., with which Washington has shared that technological know-how. This element of the agreement has kiboshed an earlier deal for submarines between Australian and France, which had been worth more than $60 billion.
The French have withdrawn their ambassadors to both the U.S. and Australia in protest. They are particularly aggrieved that the trilateral deal was done without their knowledge and that they found out about it via media reports — though it’s not entirely clear how things could have been done differently.
But even though the French reaction is considered by some in Washington, and London, as rather performative and overdramatic, it is also given greater heft because it dovetails with other, bigger problems.
The biggest, by far, was the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The decision appears to have been made with minimal consultation among allies — something that evidently still rankles.
“The Europeans should not be left behind in a strategy chosen by the United States,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters on Monday.
That, in turn, appears to have sparked larger questions.
“There is a growing feeling in Europe — and I say this with regret — that something is broken in our transatlantic relations,” EU Trade Commissioner Thierry Breton said at an event organized by the Atlantic Council, according to The New York Times.
The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, asked reporters on Monday: “What does it mean, ‘America is back?’ ... We don’t know.”
It’s not all doom and gloom for Biden in Europe by any means.
The announcement this week that the U.S. would ease restrictions on air travel from Europe was welcomed across the bloc and was seen as an olive branch from Washington.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been among the most emphatic voices of praise for Biden.
In an interview with NBC’s “Today” on Tuesday, Johnson called Biden a “breath of fresh air” on the topic of climate change. Johnson met with Biden and, separately, with Vice President Harris on Tuesday.
There is, too, still widespread relief that Biden’s predecessor has gone.
During his “Today” interview, Johnson showed his penchant for British understatement when asked about the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Johnson praised America’s democratic values, before adding that “some of the scenes at the Capitol didn’t wholly correspond with that ideal.”
Some of the European skepticism about Biden can be put down to a feeling that the region may be being deprioritized as the president mulls how to deal with China.
But with huge challenges looming on everything from climate change to global corporate taxes, Biden needs to bring his allies closer into Washington’s embrace.
Tuesday’s speech started that process, but there will likely be more bumps in the road ahead.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.