- President Joe Biden addressed a gathering of the 76th United Nations General Assembly that was scaled down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the majority of leaders delivering prerecorded remarks.
- "As we close this period of relentless war, we're opening a new era of relentless diplomacy," Biden said.
- Last week's decision by the U.K. and the U.S. to strike a military deal with Australia left France on the sidelines, creating a diplomatic row.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden defended his decision to end America's war in Afghanistan in his debut address to the United Nations on Tuesday, saying the move will allow the U.S. to pivot to other global challenges such as the Covid pandemic, climate change and an ambitious China.
Biden's address to the 193-member body, his first since he took office in January, comes as he strives to rebuild alliances that crumbled under the reign of his predecessor and reclaim a global leadership position. He addressed a gathering of the 76th United Nations General Assembly that was scaled down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the majority of leaders delivering prerecorded remarks.
"As the United States turns our focus to the priorities and the regions like the Indo-Pacific that are most consequential today and tomorrow we'll do so with our allies and partners through the cooperation of multilateral institutions like the United Nations to amplify our collective strength and speed," Biden said from the green speaker's rostrum.
"Instead of continuing to fight the wars of the past, we are fixing our eyes and devoting our resources to challenges that hold the keys to our collective future," the president said.
That collective future is strained by a continuing pandemic, uncertainties of climate change, as well as rising tensions not only with China, but within the NATO alliance itself. Last week's decision by the U.K. and the U.S. to strike a military deal with Australia left France on the sidelines, creating a diplomatic row.
Still, Biden tried to strike a positive tone. "As we close this period of relentless war, we're opening a new era of relentless diplomacy," Biden said.
Biden explained that U.S. military power "must be our tool of last resort, not our first. It should not be used as an answer to every problem we see around the world."
Under Biden's eye, the withdrawal of approximately 3,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan at the end of the U.S.' longest war ended in disaster as the Taliban carried out a succession of shocking battlefield gains. Despite being vastly outnumbered by the Afghan military, which has long been assisted by U.S. and NATO coalition forces, the Taliban seized the presidential palace in Kabul on Aug. 15.
Biden ordered the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops to Kabul to help evacuate U.S. Embassy staff and secure the perimeter of the airport. Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans swarmed the tarmac at the airport desperate to flee Taliban rule.
The Biden administration has since placed blame for America's rushed exit from the country on the Trump administration and rapid collapse of the Afghan national government.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers: "We inherited a deadline; we did not inherit a plan," referencing Trump's 2020 deal with the Taliban to leave the country. "There had not been a single interview in the Special Immigrant Visa program in Kabul for nine months, going back to March of 2020. The program was basically in a stall."
"We made the right decision in ending America's longest war. We made the right decision in not sending a third generation of Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan," Blinken said.
In another blunder, the Pentagon admitted last week that a U.S. drone strike in Kabul amid evacuation efforts killed as many as 10 civilians including up to seven children.
The strike came on the heels of a suicide bomb attack by the terrorist group ISIS-K that resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans near Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The Pentagon originally said the strike, which was launched Aug. 29, killed two ISIS-K fighters believed to be involved in planning attacks against U.S. forces in Kabul.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, describing the civilian deaths as a "horrible mistake," ordered a review to determine whether "accountability measures" need to be taken and procedures changed.
Biden tried to turn attention to security measures of the future as he addressed the assembly, stating that the U.S. would focus on defeating terror with strategic precision while avoiding major combat initiatives.
"I stand here today for the first time in 20 years that the United States is not at war. We've turned the page," Biden said.
"All the unmatched strength, energy, commitment, will and resources of our nation is now squarely focused on what's ahead of us. Not what was behind."
Biden called on global leaders to address the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 4.5 million people.
"We've lost so much to this devastating pandemic," Biden said. "Our shared grief is a poignant reminder that our collective future will hinge on our ability to recognize our common humanity and to act together," he said, urging leaders to rally their citizens to get the coronavirus vaccine.
"Will we work together to save lives, defeat Covid-19 everywhere and take the necessary steps to prepare ourselves for the next pandemic?" Biden asked. "Or will we fail to harness the tools at our disposal as the more virulent, dangerous variants take hold?"
"Bombs and bullets cannot defend against Covid-19 or its future variants. To fight this pandemic, we need a collective act of science and political will," Biden said. "We need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible and expand access to oxygen, tests and treatments to save lives around the world," he added.
The president reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to ending the pandemic, saying his administration has invested more than $15 billion toward the global Covid-19 response.
"We've shipped more than 160 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to other countries. This includes 130 million doses from our own supply," he said.
Reported U.S. deaths from the coronavirus crossed 675,000 on Monday, and are rising at an average of more than 1,900 fatalities per day, due in part, to the delta variant, according to Johns Hopkins University data show.
The coronavirus pandemic has surpassed the 1918 influenza outbreak as the most deadly health crisis in recent American history.
Biden has previously vowed to repair alliances through diplomacy and restore Washington's leadership position on the global stage following years of "America First" policies pursued by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
"Over the last eight months, I prioritized rebuilding our alliances, revitalizing our partnerships and recognizing they're essential and central to America's enduring security and prosperity," Biden told the gathering Tuesday.
"We will lead not just for the example of our power but, God willing, with the power of our example," he added.
His remarks come less than a week after his administration infuriated France, America's oldest ally.
Biden on Wednesday announced a new security partnership between the U.S., U.K. and Australia aimed at countering China's ambitious military buildup and Beijing's efforts to ignore the international rules and norms that govern trade, security, defense, labor and human rights.
The AUKUS agreement ushered in a new arms pact that effectively scrapped one of the largest French military contracts.
The move reopened old wounds between Washington and Paris and resulted in French President Emmanuel Macron recalling his ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia.
French officials slammed Biden's decision, calling it a "betrayal" and a "stab in the back."
A White House official said Monday that Biden has asked to speak with Macron, but the French president has yet to agree to such a call.
"President Biden has asked to be able to speak with President Macron to talk about the way forward, to talk about his deep commitment to the U.S. alliance with France, an alliance that has fostered security, stability and prosperity around the world for decades," the official said.
"We understand the French position. We don't share their view in terms of how this all developed, but we understand their position. And we will continue to be engaged in the coming days on this," the official added.
"The president feels very good about the path forward and about how American foreign policy can play a vital role in rallying the world, and especially rallying like-minded democracies, to solve the great challenges of our time," the White House official added.