President Biden delivered his debut address to the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations on Tuesday amid strong new doubts about his ability to vault the United States back into a position of global leadership after his predecessor’s promotion of “America First” isolationism.
Speaking to a smaller than usual audience of his peers because of the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Biden called for a new era of global unity against the coronavirus, emerging technological threats and the expanding influence of autocratic nations such as China and Russia.
“No matter how challenging or how complex the problems we’re going to face, government by and for the people is still the best way to deliver for all of our people,” he said, insisting that the United States and its Western allies would remain vital partners.
Calling for the world to make the use of force “our tool of last resort, not our first,” he defended his decision to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a chaotic withdrawal of American troops that left allies blindsided.
“Today, many of our greatest concerns cannot be solved or even addressed by the force of arms,” he said. “Bombs and bullets cannot defend against Covid-19 or its future variants.”
But Mr. Biden’s efforts to move America past President Donald J. Trump’s more confrontational policies come amid growing frustration among allies with his administration’s diplomatic approach.
His familiar refrain that the world must choose between democracy and autocracy looks different now that the Taliban are once again in control of Kabul, reversing many of the democratic gains of the past 20 years. Covid is resurging in much of the world. And the French just recalled their ambassador in outrage — not just over losing a $60 billion-plus submarine contract, but because it was made clear they are not in the inner circle of allies.
Charles Michel, the European Council president, said in a briefing at the E.U. Mission to the United Nations on Monday that “the elementary principles for allies are transparency and trust.” Expressing shock and bafflement over Mr. Biden’s treatment of France, he said, “And what do we observe? We are observing a clear lack of transparency and loyalty.”
The allies recognize the differences between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. But in conversations over the past two weeks, they say they have new concerns about the United States.
They worry about whether Mr. Biden really has their back, after the French foreign minister compared the submarine deal with Australia to a “knife in the back.” When they hear about Covid vaccine booster shots in the United States, they often wonder what that might do to global supplies. And when they look at how the U.S. handles the Australia deal, they wonder whether American national interest has eclipsed the role of global leader.
Mr. Biden and other leaders gathered in New York City against a backdrop of disastrous climate change, polarized superpower relations and a devastating pandemic that has worsened the global rich-poor divide.
The event is a major test of credibility for Mr. Biden, who was among the first to address the 193-member General Assembly. Among the last to speak will be President Xi Jinping of China, via prerecorded video, bookending a day with the competing views of the two most powerful countries in the world.
Mr. Biden said the world faced a choice between the democratic values espoused by the West and the disregard for them by China and other authoritarian governments. But he vowed not to pursue a new Cold War, saying that the United States would “compete vigorously and lead with our values and our strength to stand up for our allies and our friends.”
“But we’re not seeking — say it again, we are not seeking — a new Cold War, or a world divided into rigid blocks.”
Climate change and the pandemic are also expected to dominate the week, and Mr. Biden planned to host a Covid summit on the sidelines to push other countries to increase capacity to manufacture vaccines for poor countries.