Joe Biden, the US President with the longest continuous experience of foreign relations, made an earnest pitch at the United Nations for working “together like never before”. But he may already have lost too much trust among the 193 member governments to inspire such intense cooperation.
His reassuring speech at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Tuesday did little to dispel the apprehension voiced by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres two days earlier about a possible new Cold War between US-led allies and China.
In an interview, Guterres warned that the US and China were headed for “a Cold War that would be different from the past one, and probably more dangerous and more difficult to manage”.
Like Biden, Guterres warned the UNGA on Tuesday that nations must work together on war, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic because they were “the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes.” Without naming the US or China, he said competition between them could be “far less predictable than the Cold War.”
Biden said his administration was ending a “period of relentless war” for a “new era of relentless diplomacy”. But for many listeners, the execution of core elements of his foreign policies is too similar to that of former President Donald Trump. He has also sharpened some policy edges directly affecting long-standing allies instead of dulling them.
He promised that the US would lead “with our allies”. But he may find that significant European allies are reluctant to follow since he has not damped down even the trade disputes that Trump caused with the EU.
Allies and friends are discovering that he may be talking up working with allies to reassure his domestic audience to win votes for Democrats, rather than quickly making concessions necessary to end Trump’s “Americans first” era.
His rhetoric is reassuring about working with allies and friends, promoting human rights and democracy, and working the UN’s multilateral system of cooperation.
But his actions on issues that matter most to close allies fall well short of his words. For instance, his new AUKUS security pact revealed last week dealt a sharp unexpected blow to cohesion within the NATO alliance provoked by France, a core nuclear-armed member.
NATO’s European powers and the European Union (EU) helped the US to win the Cold War with the former Soviet Union and then enforce deterrence against President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia.
They significantly helped America’s war against terrorists in Afghanistan. After US troops ended their combat role in 2014 and in the final days before the Taliban occupied Kabul, three quarters of coalition soldiers left in that country were from 36 NATO allies.
Yet, the allies were left out of Washington’s negotiations with the Taliban and the precise details of American withdrawal were not shared early enough. That put allied personnel at risk and made major powers like Britain, France and Germany party to an ignominious defeat, including chaotic departure from Afghanistan. Biden’s sudden actions unraveled two decades of their sacrifices made principally to stand by their US ally.
The main European powers see Biden as a much nicer and courteous person than Trump but worry that his soothing words are lip service to disguise his lack of concern for their central interests as he swiftly pivots to contain China.
Addressing European fears about his quickly escalating confrontation with China, Biden insisted that he is “not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs”.
Yet, without warning to allies, Biden set up a new alliance in the Indo Pacific with prominent NATO members Britain and Australia, He completely ignored France although it has over two million French citizens in the Pacific region living on territories most of which are legally integral parts of France, no different from Normandy or Paris. That number is more than American citizens living in the Indo-Pacific.
Some Americans may see French President Emanuel Macron’s outrage as Gallic prickliness but it will be enough to shake the trust and cohesion of NATO’s members located in continental Europe.
There is unease in continental Europe at Biden’s decision to establish, without consultation, a new spearhead of English-speaking military allies to project its power in the Indo-Pacific.
The transfer of top secret technology to Australia to make nuclear powered stealth submarines armed with Tomahawk missiles to contain China underscores his decision’s concrete nature, which will affect war and peace in the region.
Europeans are apprehensive of being dragged into new American belligerence in relations with China despite the fact that major powers like Germany and France have commercial ties with China rivalling their traditional economic ties to the US.
Biden is saying encouraging things about global cooperation on climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, which are vast unwieldy subjects fraught with complications.
Even here, whatever he has said so far on climate change are starting points of negotiations. What Washington actually gives to others will depend on concessions from others if serious UN-sponsored talks manage to get underway.
The US and EU have economies of similar size. Yet, Biden offered a key pledge on climate finance of $11.4bn by 2024 to help developing countries. That is a little more than half of the EU pledge to help poorer nations. It is far short of an earlier accord among richer nations, including the US, to provide poorer countries with $100bn a year starting in 2020.
Biden has also pledged to send 500 million vaccine doses to poorer countries, including through a World Health Organization facility, but the US has reportedly shipped only 137 million doses. It may also have to help overcome barriers to using the vaccines in many developing countries stemming from poor health infrastructure, logistics and transport.