Postcard from UNGA: no surprises from Joe Biden at poorly attended speech

Middle East barely mentioned as other pressing issues distract

US President Joe Biden addresses the UN General Assembly in New York. Getty Images / AFP
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There were no surprises in US President Joe Biden’s address to the 77th UN General Assembly. Mr Biden laid out his country’s positions on Russia, climate change, democracy and a number of other issues.

The start of the speech featured key themes dominating discussions in New York this week: food insecurity, record heat in countries around the world, floods, droughts, Covid-19, rising inflation and, of course, the war in Ukraine.

Mr Biden was clear in his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, hours before Mr Biden’s speech, announced a partial military mobilisation for the war in Ukraine.

Mr Biden’s speech, which was delayed a day due to his attendance at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London, was not as highly attended by world leaders as speeches by his predecessors have been.

A number of countries, including Russia and Ukraine, did not have even their foreign ministers attend.

The US president urged countries around the world to see the harm of “nations pursuing imperial ambitions” — a reference to Russia in Ukraine — without mentioning other countries who have had similar ambitions.

While Ukraine and Russia dominated Mr Biden’s speech, he was keen to highlight a number of other issues of concern and interest to the US.

On China, he was more conciliatory, stressing “we do not seek conflict”. He also repeated that his country respects the “One China” policy on Taiwan, despite his escalatory statements days earlier, in which he said the US would commit to “defending” the territory, if needed.

Mr Biden pledged that, when it comes to China, “as we manage shifting geopolitical trends, the US will be a responsible leader”.

“We do not ask any nation to choose between the US and any other partner,” he said.

Unlike previous years, the Middle East did not feature heavily in the US president's speech. He repeated known US positions, such as support for “the Jewish state of Israel” and the possibility of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

He also spoke of the need to extend the truce in Yemen.

On Iran, Mr Biden stated that “we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon”, while stressing his support for a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In a wider context regarding nuclear weapons, Mr Biden said that there is a concerning build-up.

“A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought,” he said.

There was no mention of Afghanistan or Iraq, two countries that the US invaded in the past two decades and which took up most of its diplomatic efforts in the past.

Mr Biden’s strongest line had little to do with geopolitics, as he spoke of the state of the world and food security, saying: “If parents cannot feed their children, nothing else matters.”

As economic woes continue to trouble much of the world, it is that issue that will be of biggest concern to people around the globe.

Updated: September 21, 2022, 7:09 PM
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