On Tuesday, Biden delivered his first address to the United Nations; its unstated aim was to reassure increasingly dubious allies and continue to make the argument he made early in his presidency: “America is back.” For the president, his maiden address before the international body was framed by a pair of foreign policy crises—the chaotic, high-stakes pullout from Afghanistan and the ongoing, very French freakout over a deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia. But one criticism has been lobbed at Joe Biden again and again: He’s just like Donald Trump.
The comparison is wafer-thin. Biden defended the withdrawal from Afghanistan in stark terms, saying, “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.” This led many to suggest that he was echoing Trump’s own “America First” agenda. “President Biden, frankly, sounded like President Trump,” in the speech, CNN’s Chris Cuomo said, while a host of news articles noted that Biden seemed to be pursuing his predecessor’s doctrine, or at least a kinder, gentler version of it. When the United States scuttled a $66 billion nuclear submarine deal between France and Australia, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reached for the same analogy, telling a radio station, “This brutal, unilateral, and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do.”
But there is, in both cases, a kernel of truth. The Biden administration was savaged for failing to communicate and coordinate with European allies on the withdrawal; similarly, the U.S. did not give France an advance warning that it would be replacing it as Australia’s go-to nuclear sub manufacturer. These communication problems could be chalked up to incompetence, a defining characteristic of the Trump era.
If Biden’s speech at the U.N. had one theme, it was simple: I am not Donald Trump. It was a paean to cooperation, hardly the stuff of America First. “Our own success is bound up with others succeeding,” Biden said, noting that the biggest challenges of our time—climate change, authoritarianism, terrorism—require a world united around shared goals. “Our security, our prosperity, and our very freedoms are interconnected, in my view, as never before,” he continued. “And so, I believe we must work together as never before.”
It was exactly the kind of speech Biden might have given on the campaign trail—an outline for the U.S. moving from “a period of relentless war” to “a period of relentless diplomacy.” Moreover, it was a direct callback to the diplomatic approach of the Obama era, up to and including a call to return to that presidency’s Iran nuclear deal. (That the U.S. pulled out of that arrangement under Trump was not mentioned.) Nothing in Biden’s oration deviated too much from standard Democratic Party foreign policy fare: global cooperation, the downplaying of geopolitical conflict, with some dialed-down tough talk for China, strong rhetoric on the need to protect and advance democracy. Compared to Trump’s first address to the U.N., a borderline insane rant, it was downright banal.
But there wasn’t much beneath the feel-good veneer. Biden offered little clarity as to his foreign policy priorities; some greater transparency might have been appropriate given his administration’s actions over the past six weeks. It’s still not clear why the Biden administration failed to consult with NATO allies on the Afghanistan withdrawal, for instance. The French submarine issue is sillier—and, it should be noted, is also being exploited by French President Emmanuel Macron for domestic political reasons (he has a tough election coming up)—but the failure to communicate with an ally over the matter is a head-scratcher.
It’s likely that some amount of furor was inevitable—that the U.S. failed to alert its European partners about the withdrawal probably didn’t play a role in the speed with which the Afghan government collapsed. But the poor communication cuts against the central theme of Biden’s speech: the need for greater cooperation and respect between nations.
Biden boasted that he was the first president to visit the U.N. in 20 years without overseeing a war—a “big, if true” claim, if there ever was one. We are still utilizing drone strikes in Afghanistan—including the one that recently killed 10 civilians, seven of them children—and have troops engaged in counterterrorism missions across the Middle East and North Africa. Biden has decreased the military’s global footprint, but he has yet to articulate how he will end the most disastrous war of the last 20 years: the nebulous “war on terror.”
Biden’s U.N. speech found him caught between two arguments. He wanted to turn back the clock to an earlier era, in which he could stand in Manhattan’s east side as a benevolent leader of the free world who values alliances and diplomacy. He may have shared, with his predecessor, a sincere desire to end the war in Afghanistan, but his foreign policy has little in common with the Trump Doctrine, which embraced conflict, threats, extensive bombing, and a rejection of old alliances.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan was met with sound and fury, both at home and abroad, but it also represented a welcome clarity. Barack Obama and Donald Trump both knew that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable and yet did nothing to end it, in part because of the predictable response from the media and many American allies. Biden moved forward with that decision, albeit in an imperfect way, because it was the right one, and has stuck to it. That suggests a more compelling vision of American foreign policy than the nostalgic outlines that Biden sketched on Tuesday.
But while Biden may have articulated a cooperative vision, in which allies work together toward common goals, he is still burdened by the mistakes of the past two decades. The controversies that have dominated recent weeks reflect this in miniature, as reminders of just how much damage has been done to America’s global credibility over the last 20 years—and particularly over the last four. It will take more than a speech to undo that damage.