As Joe Biden prepares for his first in-person address to the UN General Assembly as US president, a bitter diplomatic spat with long-time ally France threatens to upend the White House effort to restore US credibility on the world stage in the post-Trump era.
On Friday, France announced it is recalling its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra over the sale of US nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. The extraordinary decision marked a rapid escalation in tensions between the historical allies and has fuelled fears in Paris that Washington's commitment to its traditional European allies is waning.
The French government is fuming over Washington's plans to establish a strategic security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom that includes the exchange of sensitive technology and sale of US-made nuclear submarines to Australia. The agreement, which caught France by surprise, resulted in Australia ditching a $66 billion deal to buy French diesel submarines.
After the announcement of the deal earlier this week, France's top national security officials levelled an unprecedented broadside against the Biden administration. China, which suspects the arrangement poses a threat to its security, has also denounced the accord.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian characterized the Biden administration's action as a "stab in the back"—an inauspicious start to a week of multilateral diplomacy where Washington needs all the allies it can get. "This brutal, unilateral, and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Trump used to do," Le Drian told France Info.
Can Biden still prove 'America is back'?
The transatlantic dispute has thrown a wrench in Biden's efforts to use his Tuesday address to the UN General Assembly to draw a sharp break from the isolationism of the Trump administration. He also hoped to demonstrate his commitment to international cooperation and shore up allies on the world's largest diplomatic stage.
This year's UN General Assembly will showcase a United States that is less sure of itself than it was some 31 years ago, when then-US President George HW Bush presaged a new world order as the Soviet Union collapsed and forged an international coalition to reverse then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.
US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have fueled international skepticism over US leadership abroad, stained its reputation as a standard bearer of democracy and human rights, and left the homeland politically divided. The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan that left hundreds of US citizens and thousands of Afghan allies in the lurch has already cast a cloud over Biden's efforts to hit the reset button.
All of this comes as the United States seeks to pivot its foreign policy toward an era of global competition with China, which is causing all sorts of tensions within Washington's national security establishment—and with allies and adversaries alike.
It's not all doom and gloom. Biden needs global support at the UN more than ever ahead of his UNGA address next Tuesday, FP's Michael Hirsh writes. The US president has taken a hit globally from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, but he has also "shored up a lot of credibility over the years as an advocate for the UN" as vice president and during his long career in the Senate.
"There's a lot of discomfort and unhappiness with the way we handled the Afghanistan withdrawal, and I think that will do us harm in the short term," John Negroponte, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration told UN Brief.
"On the other hand, the US still has the largest economy in the world. We still have the strongest military. And whatever some may say about whether or not we're committed to multilateralism, we were present at the creation of the UN," Negroponte said. "That's not something that can just be erased."
UNGA's vaccine blues. The rise of the delta variant, which is now responsible for nearly all Covid-19 cases in New York, severely limited the number of dignitaries able to attend the General Assembly and forced the UN to scale back plans for a series of side events. City officials, including city councilmember Mark Levine, have voiced misgivings about the risk of foreign diplomats—including some potentially unvaccinated individuals—descending on the city for a week of summitry.
The United States put out a communique urging foreign delegations to stay home and rein in side events at the General Assembly to avoid it becoming a superspreader event. Some 57 heads of state and government, many from countries with little access to vaccines, plan to deliver pre-recorded video addresses.
But not everyone is listening. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary-General António Guterres are pressing ahead with plans to convene a closed-door, in-person summit at UN headquarters on Monday regarding climate change. And the UN Security Council has scheduled two in-person sessions next week.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.