Biden’s Inflection Point

His UN Speech shows why, in the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal, he needs to double down on his defiance of the foreign policy establishment if he wants to lead the world to a higher plane.

Here is the headline that sits atop a New York Times story about the speech President Biden gave last week to the UN General Assembly: Biden Pledges to Work Toward ‘Peaceful, Prosperous Future For All’. Unless you had expected Biden to use his inaugural UN address to advocate a violent, impoverished future for all, you probably wouldn’t consider that headline arresting enough to warrant further reading.  

And, actually, Biden’s speech aside, if you’ve long adhered to a strict never-read-pieces-about-UN-speeches-given-by-presidents policy, you probably haven’t missed much; they tend to be about working toward a peaceful, prosperous future for all. Still, you should read a piece about Biden’s speech—the very piece you’re reading, in fact! Biden’s speech was—by my lights, at least—an extremely important document. In particular: 

1) The speech clarified how Biden sees his foreign policy agenda in the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

2) The speech showed why Biden sees that agenda as a sharp break with the past—and why he thinks it can guide the world through the “inflection point” that he says human history is now at.

3) The speech showed why Biden is wrong about these things. At least, that’s my take. Though I agree with Biden that the current moment is important enough to deserve a fancy name like “inflection point,” I don’t think his foreign policy, in its current form, is up to the challenge of shepherding us through it. And the reason is that, though his foreign policy is indeed, as he believes, a break with the past, it isn’t yet a sharp break with the past. Though withdrawing from Afghanistan showed an impressive willingness to defy the foreign policy establishment—“the Blob,” as those of us with a low opinion of it say—Biden still hasn’t freed himself from its grasp. And until he comes closer to that, his foreign policy won’t meet the moment.

Biden’s speech gave distinctive emphasis to three big goals: (1) fighting Covid (and preventing future pandemics); (2) fighting climate change; and (3) fighting for democracy and human rights (and thus fighting against authoritarianism, autocracy, etc.). 

Those are all good things in principle. But one possible complication is that trying to tackle the third could make it harder to tackle the first two. After all, you need cooperation from authoritarian nations in the fight against pandemics and climate change, and if your war on authoritarianism antagonizes them, securing that cooperation could get harder.

This could turn out to be an even bigger problem than it sounds like. There are several threats that are roughly as scary as pandemics and climate change and, like them, are best addressed via international cooperation. The proliferation of biological weapons springs to mind (in part because we’ve just seen how much damage a virus not intentionally engineered to cause massive death and suffering can do). There’s also the threat of an arms race in space, an arms race in human genetic engineering, and of course such old standbys as nuclear Armageddon. Most of these threats went unmentioned by Biden, but they all need to be tackled. And tackling them, like tackling climate change and pandemics, could get harder if Biden mounts a big war on authoritarianism.   

Given these possibly dire side effects of fighting authoritarianism, it’s worth asking why it deserves the high priority Biden is giving it—why it belongs up there with fighting pandemics and climate change.

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