UNITED NATIONS: It wasn’t that Joe Biden vacated the time-tested plank of America First outright. No resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can. But blame it on the pummelling he and Kamala Harris got on their messy exit from Kabul or the frontal challenge to their authority from Paris, US President Joe Biden wore multilateralism on his sleeve at his debut address to the UN General Assembly (UNGA).
He wasn’t the global sheriff that Donald Trump, his predecessor, woke up believing every morning. Instead, Biden delivered on Tuesday as if he were an elder sibling. One who needed every other kid in the global family to chip in if the ship must not sink. Yes, sink irretrievably it could in 10 years, he feared.
If Trump despised Anthony Fauci and the science gang no matter how much sense they made on a spiraling pandemic and he kicked and screamed against a mask over his beautiful face (DT’s formulation), Biden was, quite rightly, wide awake to how Covid-19 had changed “the world and America” forever.
If Trump finally took to venting frustration on the World Health Organization and even threatening to pull America out, Biden didn’t see the UNGA as the time and place to weave in WHO or Xi’s deadly lab in Wuhan. The bats and their handlers seemed consigned to “wars of the past”.
Biden’s 36-minutes were centered around wars of the future, Covid-19, and mutations still unknown, occupying centre stage. Related, the commitment to mount more and more ferries stacked with US-made vaccines for those living in the impoverished parts of our planet. No strings attached.
Even as Trump disenfranchised from Twitter and Facebook, hence without a presidential megaphone to curse the UN, the EU, the WHO, et al, isn’t half as much fun, this US President did a 180-degree change of line: “America is back on the table.” Not just with NATO or even with the EU, the ASEAN or even the Quad, but most unequivocally, with those who differ with it.
At the centre of this were poverty, health and climate change. Here too, no broad brushing the American way or pontificating to the developing world, but promising to put real dollars on the table to fight these wars without borders. And most certainly to showing up at Glasgow for COP26 a few weeks from now.
The ageing lion sought to use wisdom. Brute force, even in rhetoric, went amiss as if mindful of the new lion waiting behind on a video link. Discretion, not valour, seemed Biden’s underpinning on competition with Xi in theatres as diverse as cyber and South China Sea, biotech and 5G.
Let there be no Cold War, @POTUS46 offered, hopeful of healthy competition and global rules. Xi’s words may be just as sagacious. But even those applauding Beijing’s niceties from a relic of the mid-1940s know that the Middle Kingdom knows exactly where it wants to be: epicentre of everything in the world. As the camera panned to the delegation from Kabul, Biden sought to deflect attention from the ham-handed exit into presenting a nation not mired in a war for the first time in 20 years.
No melancholy over the trouncing. Just to assure himself, he ticked a dozen boxes on conflict zones across the planet, made the right noises on Tehran and Pyongyang, but it seemed clear that America is done with getting its boys killed.
Biden’s chinooks won’t airdrop the marines unilaterally, his armadas in the Indo-Pacific may snarl but they won’t bite. Unless he has the company of allies and partners and the battle has a do-able goal. Welcome to Biden’s America. One with a deeper self-realisation of limitations. Muted swagger and in retreat from “ekla chalo re” (read: my-way-or-the-highway) to “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam” (read: God save us all from Xi).