A revitalized but embattled President Biden took the stage at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, riding the momentum from his recent domestic policy wins, yet clearly struggling to hold Western alliance together in the face of fresh nuclear threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At a time of such extraordinary global peril, the substance of Biden’s speech was precisely what the moment required: a reassertion of America’s global leadership, an assurance to our allies that we are committed to meeting the challenges of the 21st century, and a warning to our adversaries that we will not abandon our mission to defend democracy worldwide.
While the address was a rhetorical success, it remains to be seen whether Biden will be able to turn these reassuring words into meaningful action, amid fears of a looming global recession and doubts over America’s capacity to lead the world, given the threats posed to our own democracy here at home.
That aside, one of the most important elements of Biden’s speech was his declaration that America is committed to defending democracy and human rights wherever they are threatened.
The president underscored the United States’ devotion to upholding the “stable and just rules-based order” that has prevailed since the end of World War II — and more specifically, to supporting Ukraine, securing a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific, and advancing peace in the Middle East.
To that end, President Biden promised that the United States would lead the global effort to “defend and strengthen democracy” around the world. Yet, the breakdown in America’s own democratic norms and values complicates our capacity to fulfill the president’s pledge.
Earlier this month, Biden proclaimed in Philadelphia that “equality and democracy are under assault” here at home and denounced roughly one-third of Americans as “MAGA Republicans,” calling them a “threat to this country.”
In his address on Wednesday, Biden used the oft-repeated theme of “democracy vs. autocracy” to reference the West’s battle with Russia. But as long as the world watches America fight this same battle internally, the United States won’t be able to reclaim its role as the standard-bearer of democracy globally.
That being said, as Vladimir Putin continues waging his unjust and inhumane war in Ukraine, it was important for President Biden to reassure both our allies and Ukraine that the United States will not abandon the fight against Putin’s tyranny.
However, as Western nations — especially in Europe — bear the brunt of exponentially rising energy costs due to Russia’s energy embargo designed to weaken support for Ukraine, questions linger over Biden’s ability to keep NATO united on Russian sanctions as winter approaches.
At the same time, while it was important for Biden to deliver a sharp rebuke of Putin for causing food shortages in the global south, there is no indication that the president’s message made inroads in the that region, which largely refuses to support sanctions against Russia or condemn the invasion of Ukraine.
In addition to calling out Russia on Wednesday, Biden also took the critical step of addressing China, who is perhaps our most significant and capable adversary.
Biden made great strides to convey that the United States was not seeking a “new Cold War” with China, nor are we demanding that other countries choose between the two superpowers.
The president also did not shy away from taking the Chinese government to task for their human rights violations, as well as their Belt and Road Initiative, which infamously saddles low-income countries with debt for nefarious purposes
Relations between the U.S. and China are perhaps at the lowest point since their normalization in 1979. Thus, it was crucial for the president to explicitly state that the United States does not seek conflict, while also calling the Chinese government out for their human rights violations and militarism over Taiwan.
Biden’s pledge at the U.N. that America would defend democracy everywhere was in line with his comments on Taiwan earlier this week, when he answered “yes” when asked if he would send U.S. forces to defend the island in the event of an invasion.
However, going forward, Biden faces the larger challenges of developing a China policy that deepens our economic ties with Asian nations, expands U.S. deterrence power in the Indo-Pacific region, and uses smart diplomacy to positively influence China’s behavior.
In addition to addressing Russia and China, Biden made an important effort on Wednesday to reinforce America’s commitment to engendering global prosperity.
Biden urged all nations to follow the U.S. and its G7 allies in working to advance economic equality in Africa, negotiate debt forgiveness for low-income countries, and develop “rules of the road” to improve cooperation on the technological challenges of the 21st century.
He also emphasized America’s steadfast commitment to combating the global threat of climate change — including rejoining the Paris Accords — while also working to assist other countries with health care, food security and human rights.
Ultimately, as global security and prosperity hang in the balance, Biden was right to use his U.N. address to pledge strong American leadership.
That being said, the core argument of Biden’s speech — that America is ready to resume its role as the standard-bearer of global democracy — might have carried more weight if our own democratic foundations weren’t in such great jeopardy here at home.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.