When President Biden steps up to the podium Tuesday to deliver his first speech as president to the United Nations, he’ll be under tremendous pressure to repair relationships he’s fractured with some of America’s closest allies.
The speech comes at a time of shaky U.S. credibility on the world stage. After a series of foreign policy blunders, including the botched military withdrawal from Afghanistan, allies are questioning whether America remains a reliable partner.
Mr. Biden’s judgment suffered another blow last week when the Pentagon acknowledged that a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan killed 10 civilians, including 7 children, not terrorist militants as the administration originally claimed.
“With all of the recent events there is a certain fear in Europe that all this talk about the importance of allies is merely window dressing,” said Carisa Nietsche, who specializes in European security at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
“President Biden will mention the importance of multilateralism, but Europe wants the U.S. not to talk the talk, but walk the walk on this issue.”
Mr. Biden’s mingling at the U.N. General Assembly will be cut short due to coronavirus concerns, according to the White House. He will meet with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday and address the assembly on Tuesday. The rest of the week’s diplomacy will be relegated to virtual and Washington settings.
Mr. Biden’s speech is expected to outline steps for increasing COVID-19 vaccinations around the globe and push other leaders to take stronger action against climate change.
He will also hammer the same message he’s been proclaiming to world leaders since taking office: “America is back.” He has pitched himself as a team player to draw a contrast with former President Donald Trump’s America first policies.
Behind the scenes at the U.N., however, Mr. Biden will have his work cut out for him trying to convince his counterparts that he means what he says.
Last week, Mr. Biden’s frustrated France, a long-standing partner, by cutting a multi-billion nuclear submarine deal with Australia. The move angered France, which lost its $90 billion submarine pact with Australia.
In response, France took the shocking step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia. France, which is America’s oldest ally, also canceled a gala at its Washington embassy to celebrate its close ties with the U.S.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the submarine deal “a stab in the back,” and compared Mr. Biden to Mr. Trump.
“This brutal, unilateral, and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do,” Mr. Le Drian told a French radio station. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
Ms. Nietsche, the European security scholar, said she expects the French to give the president a hostile reception at the U.N. on Tuesday.
“[Europeans’] chief complaint against President Trump was that he was unpredictable and I think they feel that way again,” she said. “It’s a massive blow to President Biden’s credibility in Europe if they are comparing him to President Trump and claiming he’s just as unpredictable and unreliable.”
The Afghan pullout and Australian submarine deal are not the only foreign policy decisions that have chafed allies abroad.
Mr. Biden angered Israel by restoring $235 million of aid to Palestinians that had been cut under Mr. Trump.
He lifted Trump-era sanctions on a company building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, a project pushed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The move drew sharp criticism from Ukraine, with Kyiv accusing Mr. Biden of handing Russia “a dangerous geopolitical weapon.”
Even Democrats in Congress blasted the decision. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said the pipeline advances Russian aggression in Europe.
Mr. Biden’s policy shifts left U.S. allies grumbling that they’ve been cut out of decisions that put their national security at risk. They are now questioning whether they can rely on Mr. Biden and the U.S. to keep its promises.
Several of Washington’s closest European allies have complained bitterly about the administration’s handling of the Afghanistan military pullout.
The chaotic withdrawal left the Taliban in control of Afghanistan, creating a potential safe haven for terrorists and triggered a massive humanitarian crisis.
European allies had pressured Mr. Biden to extend his self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for leaving Afghanistan, but the president refused to bend.
By turning his back on them, Mr. Biden left many of America’s long-standing partners reeling as the U.S. walked away from a crisis it created and which reverberates around the world.
It has raised questions about America’s once unflappable commitment to NATO. Some in Europe are considering a defense force less dominated by the U.S.
Mr. Biden will have additional opportunities for a reset after the U.N. speech. Later this month, Mr. Biden will host the first-ever in-person summit of the so-called Quad countries — the U.S. India, Japan, and Australia — to counter China’s military aggression.
Also in September, U.S. and E.U. leaders will convene in Pittsburgh at the inaugural Trade and Technology Council meeting. The initiative will focus on boosting trade, fighting climate change, and protecting worker rights.
And there are plenty of areas of agreement between the U.S. and its partners, especially on climate change and human rights.
Still, the Afghan pullout has opened a wound with America’s European allies that may take decades to heal, according to analysts.
Britain, America’s closest ally, has voiced some of the harshest criticism of the Afghanistan pullout. British politicians torched Mr. Biden during sessions of Parliament.
Keir Starmer, a member of the British Labour Party, ripped Mr. Biden for “catastrophic error of judgment.
Tom Tugendhat, a conservative British lawmaker who served in Afghanistan, expressed outrage over Mr. Biden blaming the Afghan military for surrendering to the Taliban.
“To see [Mr. Biden] call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful,” he said.
Germany, which has spent billions funding Afghanistan’s reconstruction, also reacted with outrage.
Norbert Roettgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, called the pullout a “serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the [Biden] administration.
The falling out is recoverable, however. It will require Mr. Biden to listen to European nations about their priorities, Ms. Nietsche said.
“If the U.S. goes in to set the agenda and is not interested in hearing from allies, it’s not going to work. It will be seen as hollow rhetoric.”