Biden talks up multilateralism at UN, but allies left guessing

US president's talk about uniting against challenges comes amid tension with Washington's Nato allies

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US President Joe Biden on Tuesday pushed for more co-operation between nations in fighting climate change and the coronavirus pandemic in his first speech to the UN General Assembly.

Mr Biden called for a “decisive decade for our world” of nations coming together against Covid-19, climate change, wars and the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea in a 33-minute speech supporting UN multilateralism.

The world was “mourning more than 4.5 million” lives claimed by the pandemic, which underscores how “our collective future will hinge on our ability to recognise our common humanity, and to act together,” he said.

“The clear and urgent choice that we face here, at the dawning of what must be a decisive decade for our world, a decade that will quite literally determine our futures,” said Mr Biden.

Mr Biden’s speech stood in sharp contrast to the “America First” nationalism of his predecessor Donald Trump, and the president included little to offend US rivals China and Russia — even saying he wanted to avoid a new “Cold War”.

Still, Mr Biden has faced criticism for sidelining allies, including during last month’s hasty military exit from Afghanistan and by freezing France out of a nuclear-powered submarine deal with Britain and Australia.

Mr Biden made few references to the Middle East. He reasserted his belief in a two-state solution as the best way to solve tension between Israelis and Palestinians, and said Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

“I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel's future as a democratic state,” Mr Biden said.

“We’re a long way from that goal at this moment.”

Earlier, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres kicked off the world body’s annual assembly on a bleak note, saying that mankind was on the “edge of an abyss — and moving in the wrong direction”.

Mr Guterres told a hall filled with scores of leaders that they were failing to share coronavirus vaccines with the poorest countries and cutting back hard enough on emissions of planet-heating gases.

“I am here to sound the alarm. The world must wake up,” said Mr Guterres.

“We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes. The Covid-19 pandemic has supersized glaring inequalities. The climate crisis is pummelling the planet.”

The former prime minister of Portugal spoke of political crises and war ravaging much of the world, highlighting US-China tension, conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen and Syria, and fears of life for ordinary Afghans after the Taliban swept back to power last month.

Still, said Mr Guterres, leaders should try to keep global temperature rise below the target of 1.5°C Celsius compared to pre-industrial times, and to “bridge the gap” between rich and poor nations with a global Covid-19 vaccination plan.

Mr Guterres, who was elected to a second five-year term in June, co-hosted closed-door talks with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to urge some three dozen leaders to ramp up their climate ambitions before key talks in Glasgow in November.

Instead of scrapping coal-fired power stations and other polluting technologies, countries are instead burning more fossil fuels and emissions are expected to rise by 16 per cent by 2030.

“That would condemn us to a hellscape of temperature rises of at least 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels”, with worsening fires, droughts, storms and other weather-related tragedies.

The first day of the UN’s week-long general debate was also set to include speeches from French President Emmanuel Macron and Iran’s new President Ibrahim Raisi, who will appear in pre-recorded videos.

Last year’s annual UN meeting was scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s event has a hybrid feel, with about 100 leaders in New York but with many meetings being held online amid fears of the pathogen’s virulent Delta variant.

Updated: September 23rd 2021, 3:54 PM
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