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Biden brings carrot-and-stick diplomacy to UN

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President Joe Biden laid out a vision for US global leadership -- using a carrot and stick./AFP
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Sep 22, 2022 - 12:29 PM

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden took a big carrot to the Big Apple for his UN speech — and for the Russians, an even bigger stick.

In an approximately half-hour address Wednesday to the UN General Assembly, Biden covered a litany of global problems, from the war in Ukraine to tension around Taiwan, hunger in Africa and climate change everywhere.

In every case, he said, the United States was ready to act.

It was confirmation of the credo Biden has preached since the day he took office: that America is back, and that means back on top.

“Both through age and experience, he’s someone very attached to the idea of American leadership,” said Garret Martin, who teaches international relations at American University.

Unlike isolationist Donald Trump, who ditched international agreements, entered erratic relationships with US foes and treated US allies as a nuisance, Biden’s worldview, laid out from the podium of the UN’s huge hall, was more straightforward.

The United States will get involved everywhere, he said. The only question is whether that will be with a carrot — or, as with Russia, a stick.

Russia the violator 

Biden’s blistering denunciation of Russia began in the opening paragraph of his speech, when he said the Ukraine war was “chosen by one man.”

President Vladimir Putin had “shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter,” he said.

“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple, and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people. Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should not — that should make your blood run cold.”

So it went on.

But then came the carrot.

Wooing global south 

“If you’re still committed to a strong foundation for the good of every nation around the world, then the United States wants to work with you,” Biden said.

“The United States is opening an era of relentless diplomacy to address the challenges that matter most to people’s lives — all people’s lives.”

He announced another $2.9 billion to help ease food supply problems endangering parts of Africa in particular.

And he strongly supported diluting the privileged position held by the five old powers on the permanent UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — by bringing in new members from the global south.

“The time has come for this institution to become more inclusive,” he said, urging permanent seats to represent Africa and Latin America, in addition to previous calls for including Japan and India.

Biden reminded the world of the US role in creating and distributing vaccines during the Covid pandemic, and he renewed his promise of US leadership in the existential struggle with climate change.

China? It’s complicated 

Even if most of the focus was on criticizing Russia, Biden also brought out the stick for China — just not as aggressively.

He only touched briefly on some of the worst accusations made in the West about China, including genocide against the Uyghurs.

Instead, he used mostly code words.

He said: “The United States is determined to defend and strengthen democracy at home and around the world.”

He urged “basic principles like freedom of navigation.”

And he called for “transparent” international infrastructure projects, rather than ones that “generate huge and large debt without delivering.”

Code words, but easily understood as criticism of Beijing’s expanding military and commercial grip on the Asia-Pacific region and even further afield.

On one topic, Biden was more blunt, accusing China of “conducting an unprecedented, concerning nuclear buildup without any transparency.”

But just as important was the “direct” promise that Washington does “not seek conflict” with Beijing.

“We do not seek a Cold War,” he said.

‘Pragmatic’ 

As illustrated by the joint launch Wednesday of a US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station, there are still high-stakes areas where even Washington and Moscow can cooperate.

So after lashing out at Putin’s verbal nuclear threats, Biden renewed an appeal for world peace.

“No matter what else is happening in the world, the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures,” he said. “A nuclear war cannot be won.”

Martin, the professor, detected a “quite pragmatic” side to Biden’s policies, which are neither the Trump chest-thumping nor entirely the heady democracy agenda of George W. Bush.

For Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute at The Wilson Center, Biden’s goal was to paint a vision of US leadership as beneficial for “the rest of the world.”

“The message was that the… international rules-based order works, but needs defending,” Daly said. “And that the United States will lead that defense in cooperation with all willing nations.”

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