Spat With France Overshadows Biden Debut at UNGA
Welcome back to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA), as hundreds of foreign dignitaries and diplomats descend on New York. Over the next week, we’ll be your daily guides to everything behind the scenes of the so-called Super Bowl for diplomats.
Want a primer before diving in? This afternoon, we joined FP executive editor Amelia Lester for a subscriber conference call previewing next week’s events, from how world leaders are scrambling to address climate change to fears of the UNGA turning into a superspreader event. Tune in to the recording here.
Without further ado, here’s what’s on tap for today: Challenges lie ahead for U.S. President Joe Biden’s first speech at the General Assembly as a new dispute erupts with France, a roundup of conspicuous UNGA no-shows, and why diplomacy by Zoom just doesn’t cut it anymore.
A ‘Stab in the Back’ on the Eve of UNGA
As Joe Biden prepares for his first in-person address to the U.N. General Assembly as U.S. president, a bitter diplomatic spat with longtime ally France threatens to upend the White House effort to restore U.S. credibility on the world stage in the post-Trump era.
On Friday, France announced it is recalling its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra over the sale of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. The extraordinary decision marked a rapid escalation in tensions between the historical allies and has fueled fears in Paris that Washington’s commitment to its traditional European allies is waning.
The French government is fuming over Washington’s plans to establish a strategic security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom that includes the exchange of sensitive technology and sale of U.S.-made nuclear submarines to Australia. The agreement, which caught France by surprise, resulted in Australia ditching a $66 billion deal to buy French diesel submarines.
After the announcement of the deal earlier this week, France’s top national security officials leveled an unprecedented broadside against the Biden administration. China, which suspects the arrangement poses a threat to its security, has also denounced the accord.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian characterized the Biden administration’s action as a “stab in the back”—an inauspicious start to a week of multilateral diplomacy where Washington needs all the allies it can get. “This brutal, unilateral, and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Trump used to do,” Le Drian told France Info.
Can Biden Still Prove ‘America Is Back’?
The transatlantic dispute has thrown a wrench in Biden’s efforts to use his Tuesday address to the U.N. General Assembly to draw a sharp break from the isolationism of the Trump administration. He also hoped to demonstrate his commitment to international cooperation and shore up allies on the world’s largest diplomatic stage.
This year’s U.N. General Assembly will showcase a United States that is less sure of itself than it was some 31 years ago, when then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush presaged a new world order as the Soviet Union collapsed and forged an international coalition to reverse then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have fueled international skepticism over U.S. leadership abroad, stained its reputation as a standard bearer of democracy and human rights, and left the homeland politically divided. The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that left hundreds of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghan allies in the lurch has already cast a cloud over Biden’s efforts to hit the reset button.
All of this comes as the United States seeks to pivot its foreign policy toward an era of global competition with China, which is causing all sorts of tensions within Washington’s national security establishment—and with allies and adversaries alike.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Biden needs global support at the U.N. more than ever ahead of his UNGA address next Tuesday, FP’s Michael Hirsh writes. The U.S. president has taken a hit globally from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, but he has also “shored up a lot of credibility over the years as an advocate for the U.N.” as vice president and during his long career in the Senate.
“There’s a lot of discomfort and unhappiness with the way we handled the Afghanistan withdrawal, and I think that will do us harm in the short term,” John Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration told U.N. Brief.
“On the other hand, the U.S. still has the largest economy in the world. We still have the strongest military. And whatever some may say about whether or not we’re committed to multilateralism, we were present at the creation of the U.N.,” Negroponte said. “That’s not something that can just be erased.”
A Cold Welcome from New York
UNGA’s vaccine blues. The rise of the delta variant, which is now responsible for nearly all COVID-19 cases in New York, severely limited the number of dignitaries able to attend the General Assembly and forced the U.N. to scale back plans for a series of side events. City officials, including city councilmember Mark Levine, have voiced misgivings about the risk of foreign diplomats—including some potentially unvaccinated individuals—descending on the city for a week of summitry.
The United States put out a communique urging foreign delegations to stay home and rein in side events at the General Assembly to avoid it becoming a superspreader event. Some 57 heads of state and government, many from countries with little access to vaccines, plan to deliver pre-recorded video addresses.
But not everyone is listening. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres are pressing ahead with plans to convene a closed-door, in-person summit at U.N. headquarters on Monday regarding climate change. And the U.N. Security Council has scheduled two in-person sessions next week.
What are you curious about? Let us know, and we’ll try to answer!
Today’s question comes from Robert during our conference call:
Will the Taliban be able to replace the present Afghan U.N. envoy anytime soon?
The short answer: The current Afghan ambassador can keep his seat for now, but it’s too early to know how long that will last. Either way, it’s a major issue that U.S. and U.N. officials are wrestling with.
Here’s the longer answer: Per U.N. rules, if a country’s seat is contested, an incumbent keeps it until the nine-country credentialing committee takes up the matter, which is later approved by the General Assembly.
It’s unclear if the Taliban’s interim government is organized enough to run a country, much less name a U.N. ambassador candidate anytime soon. Afghanistan’s U.N. ambassador before the collapse of the previous government, Ghulam Isaczai, sent a letter to Guterres this week requesting to remain in the country’s seat.
This is already a thorny issue for Myanmar’s junta, which took power in a coup earlier this year, as we reported this month. It’s likely some countries, including the United States and its Western allies, would oppose a Taliban U.N. envoy, lest it lend the militant group more international credibility before they have recognized the Taliban’s government.
The committee could defer the Afghanistan question in perpetuity to avoid having to address whether the Taliban should have a seat at the United Nations. At least for now, Isaczai will keep the Afghanistan seat even though he really doesn’t have a government to represent.
The Other Big Attendees—and Absences
Who’s on deck to speak? Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro, Indian President Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
But the no-shows are prominent. French President Emmanuel Macron, a familiar face at previous General Assembly meetings, will provide a pre-recorded statement from Paris. Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi are also no-shows. (Merkel will deliver a virtual statement on climate on Monday.)
Even Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will skip the high-level debate. Diplomats in New York were trying to arrange a video link for the Chinese diplomat so he could participate in a high-level gathering of the U.N.’s five veto-wielding powers on the Security Council. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to attend that meeting.
Virtual Diplomacy Just Doesn’t Cut It
Yes, there are plenty of speeches and “high-level virtual dialogues” next week. But the bottom line is all the real work at the General Assembly gets done on the sidelines, even if podium speeches are branded as the main events. With scaled-back delegations, side events, and limited bilateral meetings, the United Nations will be hard pressed to orchestrate an event as impactful as past UNGAs.
Even the nerdiest U.S. officials and foreign diplomats we’ve spoken to don’t want to sit glued to their desk chairs throughout a marathon of virtual meetings. “The last thing António Guterres wants is for UNGA to be another marathon of Zoom meetings,” one East Asian diplomat told us.
A hybrid U.N. General Assembly just won’t have the same feel. Richard Gowan, the U.N. representative for the International Crisis Group, said the event has “damp squib written all over it.”