President Joe Biden faces an immense task when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 20. Last year, the U.S. leader won easy plaudits as the “anti-Trump,” pledging that America was “back.” This year demands more. The liberal, rules-based international system is reeling, battered by Russian aggression, Chinese ambitions, authoritarian assaults, a halting pandemic recovery, quickening climate change, skepticism of the UN’s relevance, and gnawing doubts about American staying power. The president needs to articulate an affirmative vision of world order rather than adopt a reactive stance that allows adversaries to define U.S. grand strategy. He must persuade audiences at home and abroad that an open world order grounded in global institutions remains the only viable path for the world’s sovereign nations to enjoy peace and prosperity on an interdependent planet.
Biden’s first goal should be to frame the challenges posed by Russia and China in a manner that’s both clear-eyed and pragmatic. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is the most blatant breach of the UN Charter in a generation, and Biden should condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for seeking to erase Ukrainian sovereignty. He should castigate China for escalating tensions over Taiwan and warn it against following Russia’s example. At the same time, he should beware declaring a new cold war with either adversary, to avoid donning an ideological straitjacket or alienating fence-sitters in the developing world.
Many commentators have described the Ukraine war as an era-defining, before-and-after moment, when the world order suddenly turns on its axis. That judgment is premature. Its ultimate significance depends on whether Putin succeeds in restoring remnants of the Soviet empire. To date, his gambit has backfired. It has united the West, stiffened Europe’s spine, and exposed Russia as a one-dimensional paper tiger. Biden’s dual challenge in New York is to reinforce Western resolve, which is likely to weaken as the conflict drags on and European energy prices soar, and to persuade non-Western nations, many of whom have adopted nonaligned stances, that the outcome of the war matters to them.
Biden must underscore what is at stake in Russia’s naked aggression: a Europe whole and free and a world in which state sovereignty means something. Nonintervention and territorial integrity are bedrock principles of order that all UN member states, particularly postcolonial ones, should be able to endorse. Biden should commit the United States and its partners to doing whatever they can, short of becoming belligerents, to defend the UN Charter and see that Putin fails. Nothing short of a full withdrawal from Ukraine should end Russia’s pariah status.
Biden should offer similar clarity on the Chinese threat to world order. Conventional wisdom in Washington now holds that a Sino-American cold war is inevitable and will extend to all spheres. Such a zero-sum, determinist mindset, couched in the pseudo-realist language of the “Thucydides trap,” hinders more nuanced analysis of where Chinese and U.S. interests diverge and converge. It discourages creative statecraft to reach mutual accommodation on flashpoints like the South China Sea and cooperation on shared dilemmas such as pandemics, global warming, and nuclear proliferation.
The president should call out Beijing for its destabilizing posture toward Taiwan, its crushing of domestic dissent, its mercantilist trade and development policies, and its genocide in Xinjiang. But he should reaffirm America’s long-standing One China policy, disavow any intent to engineer regime change in Beijing, and reiterate U.S. willingness to cooperate on common purposes bilaterally and within international institutions.
Second, Biden should reiterate U.S. determination to bolster free societies, including the United States itself, against internal and external enemies. Democracy can be very messy, as the failed insurrection of January 6, 2021, attests, but the president should reiterate the long-standing American creed that legitimate authority derives from the consent of the governed. Biden should concede that all democracies remain works in progress, while highlighting how the ongoing Summit for Democracy process is generating meaningful political reforms at home and abroad.
At the same time, Biden should beware depicting democracy promotion as the primary orientation of American foreign policy. The president has described the “battle between the utility of democracies . . . and autocracies” as a defining struggle of our age. The Ukraine war, pitting an authoritarian aggressor against an (admittedly imperfect) democracy, has only reinforced his instincts. Such “us-versus-them” rhetoric is bracing but imprudent, positing an all-consuming clash of competing universalisms. It is also unpersuasive to potential partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East that are aware of democracy’s subtle gradations, of the fragility of American democracy, and of the hypocrisy and selectivity of U.S. policy, which often includes cozying up to (or at least fist-bumping) butchers like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Third, the president must pledge support for developing nations coping with economic aftershocks caused by the coronavirus pandemic and now the Ukraine war. Unlike the global financial crisis, which hit the wealthy world hardest, the pandemic devastated many low- and middle-income countries, stalling and reversing progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and leaving nations staggering under historic debt burdens. The Ukraine conflict has exacerbated their plight, curtailing supplies and raising the prices of food and energy. Between March and June, another 71 million people worldwide fell into poverty, on top of the 77 million that the coronavirus had reduced to this state. By the end of 2022, the World Food Program expects the number of “severely food insecure people” to reach 323 million, up from 276 million in January (and 135 million before the pandemic).
This economic divergence has worrisome geopolitical and ethical implications. It risks reopening fault lines between the Global North and South, at the very moment that East-West confrontation is intensifying. To head off further fragmentation, the United States should work with its partners in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to ensure that developing economies obtain the debt relief, trade access, financial investment, food and energy supplies, and emergency aid they need to weather this crisis. To jump-start this effort, Biden should declare U.S. determination to help overhaul and expand the G20’s Common Framework for Debt Treatment, so that it enhances debt transparency and includes both nontraditional donor governments and private creditors in the debt restructuring process.
Simultaneously, the president must try to galvanize international action on climate change, humanity’s greatest existential threat. The dire impacts are already upon us, and critical components such as the Antarctic ice sheet or the Amazon rainforest appear to be approaching dangerous “tipping points.” Yet the multilateral system is only tinkering at the margins.
Biden can help alter this dynamic. Having secured passage of a $369 billion legislative package of investments in clean energy and emissions reductions, he now has the political credibility and moral standing to call for similar commitments from China, India, and other major emitters. Biden came into office declaring climate change a top priority, and indeed a threat to national and international security, but he has yet to throw the full weight of U.S. diplomacy behind that conviction. The president should announce that he will personally attend and seek a multilateral breakthrough at COP27 this November in Egypt.
Biden’s fifth task is to convince his listeners that the UN remains relevant to the problems that afflict the modern world. This is a tall order in the wake of Ukraine. The UN was established to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” yet the veto provision allows Russia to paralyze collective enforcement action. “Where is this security that the Security Council needs to guarantee?” an exasperated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanded in April. “It’s not there.” The implication for many is that the UN is beyond salvage.
This conclusion, too, is premature. The UN is a deeply flawed institution that repeatedly frustrates its members, not least its most powerful one. Nevertheless, it remains the world’s premier multilateral body and institutional bedrock for world order, by virtue of its universal membership and binding charter.
Indeed, the Ukraine crisis testifies to the UN’s continued utility as a foundation for international cooperation, and the president should say so. Within the first week of the invasion, the Biden administration had used the Security Council to put the Kremlin on the defensive and marshalled the General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council to condemn Russian actions. Senior UN officials, starting with Secretary General António Guterres, have repeatedly exercised their moral authority and good offices, including in negotiating a deal to permit Ukrainian grain exports from the Black Sea. Dozens of UN organs have worked to contain the fallout from the war.
Biden’s final and most daunting tasks are to convince his global audience that U.S. multilateralism will endure and his domestic audience that it should. Neither is an easy sell, given the intensity of partisan divisions in the United States. America’s erstwhile partners are well aware that a Republican may succeed Biden in early 2025, inducing yet another 180-degree turn in U.S. foreign policy—the third in only eight years. Unsurprisingly, many are inclined to hedge their bets in case of the return of “America first.”
In speaking to his fellow citizens, the president should frame multilateralism as the best way to secure tangible American goals and share global burdens. Far from infringing on U.S. sovereignty, as conservative nationalists claim, participation in intergovernmental arrangements embodies and indeed expands the frontiers of U.S. sovereignty, by allowing the nation to achieve what it would otherwise be unable to accomplish alone or only at prohibitive cost. As Americans discovered during the tumultuous Trump years, it is better for the United States to be inside the tent, able shape global rules and keep the UN from going off the rails, than to carp from the outside and see other powers like China dominate its corridors. A U.S. commitment to multilateralism cannot by itself guarantee effective collective action, but America’s defection from the world body is a sure-fire way to undercut long-term U.S. interests.