By Andreas Kluth / Bloomberg Opinion
Figuratively and literally, the U.S. was once again talking to the world in its customary roles as host, leader and force for good; or at least champion against misery and evil. President Biden struck all the right notes in New York as he addressed the 193 nations gathered in the General Assembly of the United Nations. And yet, his appeals will be far from enough to hold the world together.
In some ways this session, the U.N.’s 78th, could and should have highlighted America’s role as the only plausible ward — or “hegemon” — over whatever remains of the liberal international order built after World War II. The leaders of the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom — didn’t show up. Biden had the P-5 stage to himself.
The world must resist the brutal onslaught of one U.N. member, Russia, against another, Ukraine, Biden repeated, as he said at the same podium a year ago. After all, the Kremlin’s war of aggression violates national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and thus the foundational principles of the U.N. Charter adopted in San Francisco in 1945. As a sign of his resolve to keep backing Kyiv, Biden will also host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the White House this week.
Biden paid homage to the daunting problems shared by all humanity, which the U.N. as the planet’s main forum for international cooperation is meant to solve. Those are the 17 SDGs, or “sustainable development goals”; what a pity that existential threats have to get such bureaucratic labels. These targets range from slowing climate change to alleviating hunger, ending poverty, eliminating tuberculosis, educating girls and more.
In a nod to the many delegates from the “Global South” who are frustrated that countries in Africa, Asia and South America play such peripheral roles in the U.N. system, Biden even renewed his offer to reform its institutions. The Security Council, he suggested, should expand to look more like geopolitics in the 21st century rather than the middle of the 20th. On he went, each assertion sounding eminently plausible and reasonable.
And yet his words, several of which he slurred or elided as is his oratorical wont, won’t join those of Pericles, Lincoln, Churchill or other leaders at comparable historical junctures. Too noisy is the din of the world’s feuding and fighting for them to even be heard outside the chamber, too loud the hissing of the cynics.
The divisions start with Moscow’s genocidal invasion of Ukraine. It’s precisely the sort of war of aggression that the U.N., conceived during the joint struggle against the Nazis, was meant to prevent and punish. More than that, since the Kremlin is blocking grain exports from Ukraine, its invasion is also one reason world hunger is increasing again, wrecking that particular SDG. And yet, much of the world still refuses to line up behind Biden and the West against Moscow.
Humanity’s tragedy of the commons continues with those other SDGs. Adopted in 2015 and intended to be solved by 2030, those goals are instead receding into the distance. (Bloomberg LP has incorporated the SDGs in its sustainability strategy, which is outlined in the Bloomberg Impact Report.) More rather than fewer people live in dire poverty today than before the covid pandemic. At the current rate of progress, men and women will be treated equally in 300 years. And global warming is accelerating rather than slowing, with this year’s weather disasters just a hint of what’s to come.
Moreover, American leadership as advertised by Biden looks ever less credible to much of the world. Few in the General Assembly could have failed to notice that Biden is facing possible impeachment, the prosecution of his son Hunter and vitriolic rants in the U.S. media about his age. Nor has it escaped their attention that the U.S. increasingly can’t get its fiscal house in order. Much of this is symptomatic of America’s extreme polarization, which will only increase as Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, starts showing up in various courts to defend himself against the 91 criminal charges against him, mostly for trying to steal the 2020 election. And then, next year, those two men will probably face off again in the presidential election.
So it doesn’t help that America, the putative champion of free and open societies, is struggling to preserve its own democracy and civility. Nor is it reassuring that Trump or a Trumpist candidate might just return to the White House in 2025. In his own speeches to the General Assembly, Trump never failed to deride the “globalism” he feels the institution represents, and to praise nationalism.
These rifts within America are one reason multilateralism is on the defensive and “minilateralism” is on the rise, in the form of smaller blocs that compete with one another. But this weakness of multilateralism is hardly new, and it can yet be overcome. Already in 1945 John Foster Dulles, one of the drafters of the U.N. Charter in San Francisco (and a decade later U.S. secretary of state), wrote that the U.N.’s “lack of political power is a semi-permanent fact,” because the participating nations designed it that way. And yet, Dulles argued, it behooved the world to keep striving for cooperation, and America to use its own power to help that effort along.
Biden is of that same mind. But he’s also a long-in-the-tooth leader of a long-in-the-tooth hegemon keeping watch over a long-in-the-tooth postwar order. Addressing the Assembly, he repeated one phrase for effect: “We know our future is bound to yours.” In context, that wasn’t as uplifting as intended.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”