Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 22, 2021
Amid worldwide outbreaks of floods and fires, polar melting, and ocean rise, you would think climate change would be ringing more bells at the United Nations’ annual assembly of global leaders.
Reporting out of the UN meetings may be showing “faint signs of progress” on the financial end of fighting climate change, but they certainly not to practical actions to stop emissions of heat-trapping gases.
It is a seemingly unfortunate, remarkable parallel with global response to covid, refugee crises, hunger, terrorism, tribalism, unequal economics, and militarism, among other ills.
It was in this context that Joe Biden offered remarks at the United Nations after what are a series of strong new doubts about America’s standing in the world prompted by the chaos in Afghanistan, the problematic American lag in taking coronavirus vaccines and the continuing awful images of treatment of migrants knocking at the U.S. southern border — and some diplomatic missteps along the way.
Put all of it together, and there was an undertone of disappointment that Biden’s appeal to other world leaders had to handle, one that smacks of a definite decline in American leadership. If there is any good news here, it seems to be in the reception of other countries to at least take the United States seriously, and not laugh as they did at Donald Trump.
Promises vs. Delivery
There certainly was nothing wrong or even controversial about Biden calling for a new era of global unity to battle disease, cybercrime or even to oppose the other rise in autocratic opponents.
What there is, however, is a distinct international questioning of U.S. resolve, whether the issue is climate, covid, or international leadership — a theme reflected in much of the coverage of Biden’s first appearance as president before the UN General Assembly.
There is doubt about a perceived gap between words and deeds.
The global situation has put Biden in a bit of a defensive crouch, and he used his remarks to buttress the decision-making around withdrawal from Afghanistan and his insistence on diplomacy rather than Trump’s belligerence to call for international cooperation.
But this week’s dust-up with allies over failure to coordinate submarine strategies among Australia and European friends, the reality of Americans and helpers left behind in Afghanistan, and new pictures of horse-riding white border police charging at Black Haitian migrants may be speaking louder than the nice words.
For sure, none of the current issues are getting billions of covid inoculations into the arms of poorer countries, nor getting global commitments for converting coal-driven power plans to non-fossil fuels, or resolving rising migrations being forced by war and climate.
Getting it Done
On corona vaccines, the United States and the European Union have promised hundreds of billions to buy inoculations for poorer countries. But it remains short of the kind of commitment that Biden wants from bigger countries. He is calling for commitments to fully vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population by next September.
Again, this is coming from an administration that is barely able to jab that proportion of American arms alone.
Biden also plans to ask private sector and nongovernmental organizations to commit to solving “one or more specific complex challenges . . . such as addressing the world’s oxygen crisis” as part of the week’s summit.
On climate, the goals are equally ambitious. Other leaders are hoping rich nations will finally reach a long-promised $100 billion a year package to help poorer nations switch to cleaner energy and cope with climate change’s worst impacts, reported the Associated Press.
“If countries were private entities, all leaders would be fired, as we are not on track. Things remain the same,” Costa Rican President Carlos Quesada said after a closed-door session of more than two dozen world leaders at the United Nations. “It is absurd.”
The example that the rest of the world see in the United States is a tangled Congress that cannot reach agreement on investing in climate or in health access for its citizens, as well as fears that refugees will run rampant over social services.
It’s an international picture that shows just why Biden’s vulnerabilities as a domestic leader is so important.