Biden shies away from controversy in UN address while signalling changed US priorities

US president did not mention China by name but stressed that Washington 'is not seeking a new Cold War'

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In his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden veered away from Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and delivered a safe, non-confrontational address that nonetheless reflected pivots and changes in America’s foreign policy.

Mr Biden did not mention China by name but made several references aimed at Beijing including mentions of Xinjiang, cyber attacks, emerging technologies and security in the Pacific, all of which have come to define US-China tensions.

The US is “not seeking a new Cold War,” Mr Biden declared, nor “a world divided into rigid blocs.”

But the president charted a new path for US foreign policy, one that eschews military interventions and seeks other means to conduct counter-terrorism efforts “so that we need not be so reliant on large-scale military deployments".

“For the first time in 20 years, the United States not at war,” Mr Biden said, in reference to his decision to end the war in Afghanistan.

“As we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy, of using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world,” he said.

US forces continue to be deployed, however, in places like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The speech made few references to the Middle East and did not contain any policy announcements for the region.

Mr Biden recommitted his administration to “preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon” and restated the “compliance for compliance” rule, a condition of the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

“We are prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same,” he said.

While the US president stated his commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, he nevertheless kicked the diplomatic can down the road.

“I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign and democratic Palestinian state. We're a long way from that goal at this moment,” Mr Biden said.

Other conflicts, such as the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, received two mentions from Mr Biden.

“We cannot give up on solving raging civil conflicts, including in Ethiopia and Yemen,” he said before mentioning emerging reports on famine and rape being used as weapons of war in Ethiopia.

Last week, Mr Biden signed an executive order paving the way for sanctions against Addis Ababa.

Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group, gave Mr Biden high marks for dodging controversial issues.

“He handled the Afghanistan [withdrawal] issue well. Didn't duck it but didn't dwell on it, then pivoted effectively to broader threats like Covid-19 and the climate crisis,” Mr Gowan wrote.

But conservative voices criticised Mr Biden’s unusually brief UN agenda. Besides his speech, Mr Biden will meet with Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison before returning to Washington.

“Most presidents use the UN meetings to shore up relationships, advance co-operation with other governments and promote broader agendas through public meetings. Mr Biden will instead spend minimal time in New York and has few bilateral meetings scheduled,” Brett Schaefer, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said.

“His sparse schedule will not signal that ‘America is back’, but reinforce the impression that Biden is not engaged or prepared to address the many crises he faces.”

Mr Biden will be hosting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House this week.

He will not be meeting Middle Eastern leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who are also attending the UN conference.

The lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, saw the speech as contrary to Mr Biden’s actions.

“President Biden’s speech today does not match his actions. His failed leadership led to the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan that abandoned our partners, angered our Nato allies and emboldened our adversaries,” he said.

Updated: September 23, 2021, 3:55 PM