fb-pixel Skip to main content

As Joe Biden took the stage at the United Nations for the first time as a United States president, he might have reflected about how he had longed to give this speech for much of his life.

Biden has run for president three times. He served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president. For so much of his career he was in the game, weighing in on major foreign policy decisions, but it was the president who took the stage to lay out the American worldview.

On Tuesday, it was Biden’s turn. In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, he didn’t offer much news, either in terms of explaining past actions of the United States or announcing major initiatives for the future.

Advertisement



That said, the speech will be remembered more for what he was saying between the lines of prepared text.

Here are four takeaways from the speech in case you missed it.

1. China was the subtext for just about everything that Biden said

Biden never said the words Beijing or China or Taiwan or Hong Kong. He didn’t call out President Xi by name. However, everything he did say was basically a reference back to China, and American efforts to contain the emerging communist power.

To be clear, Biden declared that America did not seek another Cold War (again not referring to any country in particular) but he was saying that in the next decade the world will be tested along the lines of the “iron fist” style of governing, like that of the Chinese Communist Party and the open, liberal democracies that align with the United States.

That part from Biden was rather explicit, as was the one specific reference to China, involving prison camps for Uighur Muslims in the remote Western Xinjiang province, which have been condemned by the United States government as a genocide.

Advertisement



The implicit parts about China were more numerous and all over the speech, especially as they related to the response to COVID (America would provide vaccines “without strings attached” unlike China), climate change (which China has not led on), technology (it should be used to “free” people), and even the freedom of navigation of oceans (a comment about Taiwan.)

2. Biden is not Trump

The most obvious difference on the stage was the change in tone coming from an American president from just a year ago. Donald Trump’s speeches in front of the United Nations were must-see television because of how he thumbed his nose at the international institution. At times it was unclear whether he would announce that the United States was pulling out of NATO or going to war against North Korea or making a major move in the Middle East.

Biden was going to do none of that headline-grabbing. He kept the speech focused on broader themes rather than on specific actions.

3. Yet, Biden is still for America First

While China was the subtext for everything said, the implicit part was that America is going to do what is in the best interest of America first, and not global institutions. Biden wasn’t about to apologize for Americans getting COVID booster shots before many nations even got the vaccine. He didn’t even try to explain why he didn’t listen to European allies on the specific date of the Afghanistan withdrawal. He also didn’t address the American decision to go around France to work a nuclear deal with the United Kingdom and Australia. In fact, he left the speech and then had lunch with the Australian ambassador.

Advertisement



4. Biden believes the central challenge for the world is climate change, not terrorism

Biden laid down an important marker in his speech: He declared that it was the first time in decades an American president took the stage not at war, while also urging world governments to be all in on addressing climate change.

It marked the end of an era driven by defeating terrorists and the beginning of what Biden says the world needs to do now: Fix the climate crisis.

Long before the world took up terrorism, of course, there were other issues governments came together to address, like human rights, third world debt, and nuclear proliferation.

It is unclear how many nations will join Biden’s call to move in this direction, particularly when terrorism is still very much a reality on nearly every continent. That said, this is where Biden is making clear both the difference between Democrats and Republicans (who still see terrorism as the top issue) and a difference between the United States and China.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.