The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden seeks to open a new chapter in world affairs, facing fresh skepticism from allies

President Biden heads to Marine One as he departs the White House on Monday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — President Biden, who was welcomed by much of the world as the steady hand who would restore trust in American leadership and repair alliances ruptured by President Donald Trump, has some repair work to do on his own account as he meets world leaders this week.

Biden faces skepticism from many and hostility from a few as he prepares to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, his first address there as president. The global bill of complaint includes his handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and coronavirus pandemic policies such as alleged vaccine hoarding and the continuation of Trump’s policy to deport most would-be migrants on public health grounds. And Biden’s hopes to link arms with European allies against China were soured by a new, unprecedented breach with ally France in the days leading up to the assembly.

Biden wants to focus on U.S. vaccine donations, efforts to combat climate change and the contest between democracies and autocracies for global preeminence as the United States emerges from the shadow of wars rooted in the 9/11 attacks.

“The president will essentially drive home the message that ending the war in Afghanistan closed a chapter focused on war and opened a chapter focused on purposeful, effective, intensive American diplomacy, defined by working with allies and partners to solve problems that can’t be solved by military force,” a senior U.S. official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

He is not likely to be openly mocked, as Trump was, but the global reception is already cooler than Biden might have expected.

Heading into the session, France’s top diplomat accused Biden of behaving like Trump after his country was cut out of a lucrative new nuclear submarine deal with Australia.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters Monday that the episode is evidence that Europe and the United States may have conflicting objectives in Asia and less common ground than presumed.

“We thought that this [kind] of unilateralism and unpredictability, the brutality of the announcement, of the lack of respect for a partner, we thought these belonged to the past,” Le Drian said.

Biden has proposed a peacemaking call with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is not attending the U.N. meeting in person this year. Le Drian said the call will take place “in the coming days.” Le Drian, though, does not plan to meet with his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

U.S. officials have sought to play down the significance of the rupture, although France had never before yanked its ambassador from Washington, as it did last week. The United States counts France as its oldest ally.

“We don’t share their view in terms of how this all developed, but we understand their position and we will continue to be engaged in the coming days on this,” the U.S. official said.

The contretemps came atop hurt feelings among some NATO allies who felt sidelined by Biden’s abrupt announcement that all U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by Aug. 31 — and stung by the chaos of the closing days of a nearly 20-year mission.

As the United States and NATO partners rushed to help people leave ahead of a Taliban takeover, a terrorist attack killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. Several NATO nations said they could not get everyone out before Biden’s deadline.

President Biden, joined by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced on Sept. 15 a new Indo-Pacific alliance. (Video: The Washington Post)

U.S. admits ‘horrible mistake’ in Kabul attack on aid worker

The Pentagon acknowledged last week that it mistakenly tracked and killed an innocent aid worker in Kabul after misidentifying him as a terrorist. The attack also killed nine other civilians, most of them children, and opened questions about Biden’s claim that the United States could keep a lid on terrorism in Afghanistan via remote surveillance.

Biden is expected to earn some goodwill from European allies with his decision Monday to ease travel restrictions on fully vaccinated foreign visitors, starting in November. Thousands of foreign nationals with families in the United States, many European, have been unable to see them through much of the past 18 months.

The political tension with France may have helped speed the decision. Blinken discussed the travel ban at length with the French ambassador to Washington, Philippe Etienne, just before Etienne was ordered to return to Paris, officials said.

More than 80 presidents and prime ministers and their entourages planned to be in Manhattan this year for the return the U.N. General Assembly — often called the “Super Bowl of diplomacy” — after last year’s all-virtual gathering featuring taped speeches from world leaders.

Biden’s schedule in New York is brief. He is holding only one meeting with a fellow leader, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, after his General Assembly address instead of the typical round of sideline meetings jokingly known as “diplomatic speed dating.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet with Biden later Tuesday back at the White House, and Biden is leading a U.N.-related virtual meeting on the pandemic on Wednesday, from Washington.

“America is back,” Biden said to reporters Monday before his meeting with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. “We believe in the United Nations and its values.”

The risk that the influx of visitors might create a new rash of coronavirus infections is a concern for U.S., U.N. and New York City officials, who have placed restrictions on the size of traveling delegations. There is also a “vaccination van” outside the U.N. building that will provide free testing and single-dose shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“We need to take all measures to ensure that it does not become a superspreader event,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said at a news conference Friday.

The United Nations has adopted an “honor system” for leaders to attest they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

One test of the city and United Nations’ pandemic protection plans is likely to come Tuesday, when Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is slated to open the marquee portion of the event, when world leaders speak one after the other against an iconic green marble backdrop.

The populist Bolsonaro, a Trump ally who contracted the virus last year, as recently as last week said publicly that he does not need to be vaccinated, because he has naturally acquired antibodies. A member of his delegation’s advance team has already tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Brazilian media.

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The return of lanyard-wearing diplomats and hordes of staffers is a welcome sign for a city that was economically ravaged by the pandemic and is just now reopening its premier tourist attractions, including Broadway.

U.N. officials also said the diplomatic benefits are myriad when world leaders can meet face-to-face in discreet settings rather than stale videoconferences.

“For 75 years, the General Assembly has benefited from impromptu meetings and corridor discussions that can carry huge importance in solving bilateral and multilateral issues,” Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Guterres, said in an interview.

“We want to find the right balance between being extremely safe and cautious and also being able to engage in face-to-face diplomacy,” he said.

After Biden leaves, most of that diplomacy will be in the hands of Blinken, whose Dutch and British counterparts were fired or demoted amid complaints about the management of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Blinken, who fielded criticism over the Defense Department’s rushed withdrawal and evacuation while appearing before a Senate panel last, told lawmakers he did not offer the president his resignation over the crisis.

Biden has lost some international goodwill this year, but he’s still a more welcome guest here than his predecessor ever was, U.N. watchers said.

“Generally, I think Biden will get a warm reception, as he isn’t Trump,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the International Crisis Group.

Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.