But with the absence of some of the organization’s most powerful leaders, Biden has an opportunity to reassert himself on the world stage before next year’s elections.
Biden’s remarks at the 78th U.N. General Assembly will speak to a domestic and international audience, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer, as the president tries to avoid a federal government shutdown amid an autoworkers strike, an impeachment inquiry, and rising gas prices. His son Hunter was also indicted by special counsel David Weiss last week on three gun-related charges.
“The foreign policy issues I expect him to address are China, Iran, Ukraine, [nuclear] proliferation, development and climate, perhaps the capabilities for addressing a pandemic down the road through [the World Health Organization], maybe some issues on threats to democracy highlighting some of the coups that we’ve seen in the Sahel region of Africa,” Schaefer told the Washington Examiner.
But although Schaefer, an international regulatory affairs senior research fellow with Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, agreed those matters are important, to him, the example of Ukraine amplified the United Nations’s “impotence” to respond to them.
“It’s also illustrated in the fact of who is choosing not to go,” Schaefer said. “President Biden will be the only head of government from the permanent members of the Security Council. Russia, China, France, and the U.K., none of them are going.”
“In theory, that should provide the United States with a great opportunity to seize the moment as the most powerful country representative at the highest level, but Biden’s diminished capacity, I think, is going to render that not as useful as it should be,” he added.
“We see, at this point, a strong demand signal for more American engagement, for more American investment, for more American presence across all continents and all quarters of the world,” he told reporters last week.
The White House identifies Biden’s priorities as advancing U.S. interests and values regarding the provision of financial resources to global south countries for development and infrastructure projects, countering the climate crisis, and taking action against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“He will also reaffirm and advocate for the principles at the core of our international order, including the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Sullivan said during the briefing ahead of the declaration’s 75th anniversary. “He will underscore the need for the U.N. and all multilateral institutions to be more representative, democratic, and effective.”
Biden is similarly poised to defend democracy as he and his likely 2024 Republican opponent, former President Donald Trump, grapple with political and legal problems against the backdrop of broader government dysfunction. The prospect of a shutdown is additionally tied to foreign policy, with many House Republicans against a White House and Senate GOP proposal to pass a $24 billion Ukraine aid supplemental measure with a continuing budget resolution. Regardless, Biden is anticipated to announce this week another funding package paid for by previously appropriated spending.
The U.N. is a “strange place” to promote democracy based on its membership, per former Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Kelley Currie. Instead, Currie called for “privileging” U.S. cooperation “with countries that share our values.”
“We should save our highest degrees of cooperation, our most advanced military technology, our most open market arrangements with countries that share our values, and are themselves democratic countries because I think that they make the most reliable partners for us,” she said. “The U.N. doesn’t do anything of this sort and, in fact, pretty much insists that we treat every country as legitimate as long as they’re in the U.N.”
Sullivan has stood up for Biden and other Western leaders against developing country criticism that they have been deprioritized compared to Ukraine. Schaefer recognized there is “a lot of frustration” and “resentment” among global south nations.
“That’s partly why the U.S. has been so vocal in support of the [Sustainable Development Goals] and the development agenda, and efforts to demonstrate to those countries that the United States is not ignoring their concerns,” he said.
For Currie, who was the U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council and acting deputy U.N. ambassador as well, the United States has invested “billions and billions of dollars” in global south countries that “then turn around and squander the opportunities that they’ve given by doing things like taking on heavy debt burdens with China.” Currie, too, scrutinized the definition of the global south.
“Again, I would privilege how we engage with the world in terms of wanting to work primarily with countries that share our values and our aspirations,” she said. “It’s really hard to do that in the U.N. context because it’s one size fits all.”
Biden’s other commitments include meetings with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, leaders from the Central Asia 5 of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Brazilian President Lula da Silva in New York City on Tuesday and Wednesday.
He is then scheduled to sit down with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House on Thursday. Biden’s only sideline engagements are the leaders’ reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Tuesday and a labor event with da Silva on Wednesday. He is not attending the U.N. Climate Summit.