Political leaders, diplomats and students of international relations should closely study the first address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) of an American President to gain an understanding of his approach to contemporary global issues and world order. As America is the world’s pre-eminent power, the thinking of its President, on major international matters has a great bearing on how they are addressed. Further, an American President’s view on world order which his country shaped after the Second World War is always of primary international importance.
The vast difference in the background and personalities of President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump and their very different views on the questions of our times and world order came through in their first UNGA speeches. Biden made his on September 21 as Trump had done in 2017. A scrutiny in 2017 of Trump’s address could have indicated the tumultuous course that marked his Presidency as Biden’s can show the likely policies of his administration.
Joe Biden is the quintessential American statesman. He served as a Senator for 36 years and was the country’s Vice-President for 8 years. Through this long period Biden became well-versed with America’s traditional ways of maintaining world order. On the other hand, Trump was an outsider to Washington; the Presidency was the first public office he held. He was a businessman and his attitude towards the world was almost completely transactional. This difference reflected in their world view and suffused their UNGA speeches. While both indicated their determination for America to remain the world’s most influential country, their differences on how the world should be organised was apparent in their speeches.
Trump’s address demonstrated his obsession with the idea that the world was continuously taking advantage of American generosity and the allies too were not contributing sufficient funds for holding up world order. Noting that America bore 22% of the United Nations budget he told the UNGA “We believe no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden militarily of financially”. He also made it clear that he would ruthlessly pursue an America-first policy based on his vision of world order based on sovereign nations looking after their individual interests and undertaking “work side by side on the basis of mutual respect”. Trump’s approach shook American allies and partners, evoking apprehensions of America becoming agnostic on the very world order it had crafted and upheld.
Soon after becoming President, Biden made it obvious that his administration would revert to sustaining the post Second World War America led world order. He reiterated this assertion in his UNGA speech. He said “We’ll continue to uphold the long-standing rules and norms that have formed the guardrails of international engagement for decades, that have been essential to the development of nations around the world…”. Turning to the major powers he said “All of the major powers of the world have a duty, in my view, to carefully manage their relationships so that we do not trip from responsible competition to conflict”. In his speech Biden also repeatedly emphasised that America would participate multilaterally in addressing critical issues of our times including the management of the Covid pandemic and climate change. Through all this Biden departed from Trump by not dwelling on military or financial burden sharing.
Apart from world order an issue on which Biden and Trump’s different approaches became evident was that of democracy and human rights. Trump eschewed evangelism for democracy. He said “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation”. However, Biden focussed on human rights and expressed a commitment to work for the spread of democratic governance. He said “As we pursue democracy across the board, the United States will champion the democratic values that go to the very heart of who we are as a nation and a people: freedom, equality, opportunity, and a belief in the universal rights of all peoples”. It is a different matter that successive American administrations have overlooked democracy and human rights and supported repressive regimes when key American interests are at stake. In doing so they have exposed America to the charge of hypocrisy.
While displaying his commitment to the current world order Biden said that the world is at an inflexion point. He rightly pointed to the immense technological change underway which can “reshape every aspect of human existence”. He also mentioned the “shifts in global power dynamics”. Like Trump, Biden too, did not directly mention the Chinese challenge to the basic tenets of a rules-based world order but indirectly both referred to it. China is acting with disdain at the decisions of the ‘judicial’ structures that undergird this order. In situations where China can achieve its objectives within the ambit of world order it is not averse to using it. However, where its interests cannot be achieved within its confines it is demonstrating that it will pursue them in an unconstrained manner. Thus, it wishes to pick and choose rules and norms which suit it. This is obviously not acceptable to the other major powers except Russia which is now China’s fellow traveller.
Apart from the growing Chinese global foot print, the world’s complexities, including those arising from the Covid pandemic, are growing all the time. An American President now has to display ever greater understanding of the forces that are transforming the world and rely on collective global measures to deal with them. Unlike Trump, Biden touched the right chords in his speech but does he have the stamina to manage the global complications of our times?