There is a choreography to a U.S. presidential speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly, also known as UNGA. Atop what really is a world stage, the U.S. president presents what is in effect the annual explanation of U.S. foreign policy to the international audience.
The presentation usually touches on current security challenges, support for the priority issues of the UNGA session, expressions of concern for humanitarian crises, refutation of criticism and, at its best, a vision for the U.S. conception of and contribution to a better world. This year’s conclave had a noteworthy element: the absence of the four other leaders of the UN Security Council’s five permanent, veto-wielding members—China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—allowing Biden the chance to reinforce the image of the United States as a unique global power.
For presidents advocating an internationalist foreign policy, the annual speech is a moment to reinforce a fundamental tenet of mainstream American foreign policy: that benevolent hegemony benefits the world at large. Biden’s speech was a classic of the internationalist mode, with the president repeating the line: “We know our future is bound to yours.”
While implicitly aware of geostrategic shifts and the rise of China, areas of central concern to Washington, this speech spoke to the rest of the world. He heralded the international institutions created after World War II while acknowledging that they should be “updated” and responsive to “regions that have not been fully included.” He reminded the audience his speech last year stated U.S. support for the expansion of both permanent and nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council, reporting that the United States continues diplomatic discussions on this issue. He cited the strengthening of the Group of Twenty (G20) with the admission of the African Union. He also asserted that “none of these partnerships are about containing any nation.”
Four main issues stood out in his address:
Sustainable Development Goals. The priority themes for this season’s high-level discussions at the United Nations are the formal, mid-term review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. UN members adopted the SDGS in 2015, aiming to achieve an integrated tableau of seventeen goals by 2030. Multiple factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, mean that the world is on track to meet fewer than half the goals. The pandemic pushed human development backward.
In his remarks, Biden highlighted U.S. multilateral diplomacy as a catalyst for more contributions to development. Rather than announce new initiatives, he recalled the package of actions his administration rolled out in recent months. He noted working through the Group of Seven (G7) to “unlock” $600 billion in infrastructure investment for Africa by 2027 and the G20 initiative to create the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. He briefly mentioned the potential and peril of artificial intelligence (AI) and said that the United States is working to strengthen rules in this area.
Climate change. This year has witnessed horrific and unprecedented storms, fires, and floods in several countries, manifesting heightened awareness of climate change. He stressed how his administration has treated climate change as an “existential threat.” However, he will not attend the United Nations’ September 20 Climate Ambition Summit, sending climate envoy John Kerry instead.
China. Biden addressed China directly, stating that the United States seeks “to responsibly manage competition between our two countries.” He claimed the United States is “de-risking not decoupling.” However, he was careful to reiterate strategic principles such as freedom of navigation, a concept China still refutes. He also noted areas, such as climate change, in which progress hinges on these two countries working together. Near-term cooperation is unlikely, as China has not been particularly receptive to the U.S. approach of working on shared global issues to improve bilateral relations.
Ukraine. As expected, Biden criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine, but he did so after his discussion of sustainable development. This was perhaps in response to criticism from some in the self-labeled Global South, stating that wealthy countries are focused on Ukraine to the detriment of poorer countries. Biden chose to anchor strong support for Ukraine on the “bedrock” of the UN principles of “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and human rights.” He stressed the importance of action “to deter the would-be aggressors of tomorrow.” With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the chamber, some in the audience broke into applause when Biden cited the need to defend Ukraine’s freedom.
And at a time of rising authoritarianism, President Biden reminded the gathering that this year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose values he hailed as “elemental and enduring.”
He finished by asking “Will we find the courage to do what must be done?” and replied, “We must, and we will!” Yet, there was a poignancy to his speech. As a senator and a now president, he has for decades helped maintain the internationalist strand of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, he noted the “duty my country has to lead at this critical moment.” But even the United States faces challenges—antidemocratic trends are present in many countries.
Per custom, Brazil is the first country to speak in the annual General Debate. The United States, the host country for the UN headquarters, speaks second. President Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva, recently reelected after a decade out of power, declared “Brazil is back!” Both the Brazilian and U.S. presidents are heads of state of democracies, one of an emerging power and the other of a superpower. Both are acutely aware of challenges to the principles on which democracy rests. Both faced authoritarian uprisings against the peaceful transfer of power as the result of their elections. The United States suffered the insurrection of January 6, 2021, and Brazil a similar insurgence on January 8, 2023.
But the absence of four of the heads of state from the other permanent Security Council members, or P5, reinforced the image of the United States as a unique global power. Its presence is relevant across issues as varied as international security and sustainable development. Projecting the image of an indispensable nation is still an element of U.S. power. As proponents of internationalist foreign policy understand, showing up is part of the strategy.