President Biden delivered his debut address to the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations on Tuesday amid strong new doubts about his ability to vault the United States back into a position of global leadership after his predecessor’s promotion of “America First” isolationism.
Speaking to a smaller than usual audience of his peers because of the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Biden called for a new era of global unity against the coronavirus, emerging technological threats and the expanding influence of autocratic nations such as China and Russia.
“No matter how challenging or how complex the problems we’re going to face, government by and for the people is still the best way to deliver for all of our people,” he said, insisting that the United States and its Western allies would remain vital partners.
“Our security, our prosperity and our very freedoms are interconnected, in my view as never before,” Mr. Biden said.
Calling for the world to make the use of force “our tool of last resort, not our first,” he defended his decision to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a chaotic withdrawal of American troops that left allies blindsided.
“Today, many of our greatest concerns cannot be solved or even addressed by the force of arms,” he said. “Bombs and bullets cannot defend against Covid-19 or its future variants.”
But Mr. Biden’s efforts to move America past President Donald J. Trump’s more confrontational policies come amid growing frustration among allies with his administration’s diplomatic approach.
His familiar refrain that the world must choose between democracy and autocracy looks different now that the Taliban are once again in control of Kabul, reversing many of the democratic gains of the past 20 years. Covid is resurging in much of the world. And the French just recalled their ambassador in outrage — not just over losing a $60 billion-plus submarine contract, but because it was made clear they are not in the inner circle of allies.
The event is a major test of credibility for Mr. Biden, who was among the first to address the 193-member General Assembly. Among the last to speak will be President Xi Jinping of China, via prerecorded video, bookending a day with the competing views of the two most powerful countries in the world.
Mr. Biden said the world faced a choice between the democratic values espoused by the West and the disregard for them by China and other authoritarian governments.
“The future belongs to those who give their people the ability to breathe free, not those who seek to suffocate their people with an iron hand authoritarianism,” he said. “The authoritarians of the world, they seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong.”
But the president vowed not to pursue a new era of sustained conflict with countries like China, saying that the United States would “compete vigorously and lead with our values and our strength to stand up for our allies and our friends.”
“We’re not seeking — say it again, we are not seeking — a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocks,” he said.
Climate change and the pandemic are also expected to dominate the week, and Mr. Biden planned to host a Covid summit on the sidelines to push other countries to increase capacity to manufacture vaccines for poor countries.
“This year has also brought widespread death and devastation from the borderless climate crisis,” Mr. Biden said. “Extreme weather events that we’ve seen in every part of the world — and you all know it and feel it — represent what the secretary general has rightly called Code Red for humanity.”
On Covid, Mr. Biden urged leaders to move more quickly to rein in a pandemic that has killed millions.
“We need a collective act of science and political will,” he said. “We need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible, and expand access to oxygen, tests, treatments, to save lives around the world.”
Threatened by wars, climate change and a continuing pandemic, the world is becoming increasingly divided, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, warned on Tuesday in a sobering speech that called on nations to act.
“I am here to sound the alarm: The world must wake up,” Mr. Guterres said in the opening address of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, adding that the world faced “the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes.”
Covid-19 has exposed glaring inequalities, he said, pointing to a surplus of vaccines in wealthier nations while poorer countries remain largely unvaccinated. A window for combating climate change, which has already been blamed for driving scorching temperatures and other disasters, was “rapidly closing,” he said.
Peace remained “a distant dream” in places like Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Myanmar, Mr. Guterres noted, adding that misinformation and mistrust in institutions had polarized people.
And although he did not refer to the countries by name, he vocalized fears that a deepening competition between China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies, would further divide the world geopolitically — calling it “far less predictable than the Cold War.”
“Instead of the path of solidarity,” Mr. Guterres said, “we are on a dead end to destruction.”
The remarks were an indictment of the state of world affairs at the opening of a meeting meant to foster multilateralism and to demonstrate solidarity against global challenges. Mr. Guterres called on nations to create an agenda of peace and to institute climate-friendly fiscal and political overhauls.
Countries, he added, also needed to protect rights for women, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and address power imbalances between genders.
Nonetheless, hinting at hope for the future, Mr. Guterres, a Portuguese statesman who is serving his second term as secretary general, said: “The problems we have created are problems we can solve.”
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil kicked off the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday by defending the use of ineffective drugs to treat the coronavirus and by pushing back on criticism of his government’s environmental record.
Brazil’s far-right president said doctors should have had more leeway in administering untested medications for Covid-19, adding that he had been among those who recovered after “off label” treatment with an anti-malaria pill that studies have found ineffective to treat the disease.
“History and science will hold everyone accountable,” said Mr. Bolsonaro, whose handling of the pandemic in South America’s largest country has been widely criticized.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s decision to not get vaccinated against the coronavirus has loomed large over his first couple of days in New York. It made for an awkward moment during a meeting on Monday with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who hailed the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed at Oxford University.
“Get AstraZeneca vaccines,” Mr. Johnson said during his meeting with the Brazilian president. “I’ve had it twice.”
Mr. Bolsonaro pointed to himself and said: “Not yet.”
Brazil’s president has led one of the world’s most criticized responses to the pandemic. Mr. Bolsonaro repeatedly downplayed the threat the virus posed, railed against quarantine measures and was fined for refusing to wear a mask in the capital.
His government was slow to secure access to coronavirus vaccines even as the virus overwhelmed hospitals across the country. Covid-19 has killed more than 590,000 people in Brazil.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who had a mild case of Covid-19 in July of last year, has said he is in no hurry to get a shot. Earlier this year, the president said he was undecided about getting a vaccine.
“I already had the virus,” he said in a televised video. “I think what must happen is that after the last Brazilian gets vaccinated, if there’s a spare shot, I will decide whether or not I get vaccinated.” He added that “that’s the example the boss must provide.”
This has caused logistical problems when it comes to finding a place to eat in New York, where restaurants require that patrons show proof of vaccination for indoor seating. Mr. Bolsonaro and his traveling party have been taking the rule in stride. On Sunday, one of his ministers posted a photo of the president and several top aides eating pizza standing up on the street.
“A luxurious dinner in NYC,” joked the minister, Luiz Ramos.
During Mr. Bolsonaro’s speech on Tuesday, activists protested near U.N. headquarters over Mr. Bolsonaro’s environmental and economic policies, which critics say have contributed to devastation of the Amazon rainforest and widespread hunger in Brazil.
Earlier, campaigners projected messages onto a building next to the Brooklyn Bridge that read, “Bolsonaro will lie at the United Nations” and “Bolsonaro is burning your future.”
Mr. Bolsonaro started his speech by telling the assembly that his nation was unfairly portrayed in the press.
“I came here to show a Brazil that is different from what is shown in the newspapers and on television,” he said. “Brazil has changed, and a lot, since we assumed office in January 2019.”
Mr. Bolsonaro’s government has weakened enforcement of environmental laws and hollowed out the agencies responsible for enforcing them. Yet on Tuesday he argued that Brazil should be applauded for how much of its forests remain intact and said the country could sustainably develop land in environmentally critical regions like the Amazon.
“The future of green jobs is in Brazil,” he said.
Climate change is perhaps the most important subject at this year’s General Assembly meeting, with new scientific evidence showing a losing battle in what the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, has called an existential struggle. And on Tuesday, President Biden said that his administration would seek to double aid aimed at helping developing nations address climate change.
Whether and when that money will materialize depends on congressional approval, and the pledge is considered critical to the success of the U.N.-led climate talks that are scheduled to take place in November in Glasgow.
Many developing countries have repeatedly pointed out that rich countries have not delivered the $100 billion a year in aid that they promised under the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord. A tally by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found a nearly $20 billion shortfall.
Mr. Biden’s pledge on Tuesday amounted to about $11.4 billion a year by 2024. Earlier in the year he had pledged $5.7 billion, money that also requires approval from Congress.
Mr. Guterres has warned that a failure to make good on such promises could jeopardize cooperation to rein in global greenhouse emissions and avert the worst effects of warming. “This is a crucial question of trust,” he said at a climate summit organized by the White House last week.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who will host the Glasgow talks, led a preparatory meeting with Mr. Guterres on Monday. Mr. Johnson told reporters afterward that the November gathering would be “a turning point for the world, and it is the moment when we have to grow up and take our responsibilities.”
The scientific consensus is that global temperature rise needs to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that threshold, there is a far greater likelihood of devastating consequences, like widespread crop failures and the collapse of the polar ice sheets.
“We are no longer on the wrong path — we are on the edge of the cliff,” Abdulla Shahid, the foreign minister of the Maldives who is serving as president of the General Assembly, told the gathering on Tuesday. The low-lying Maldives is one of several nations at risk of devastating flooding because of rising sea levels.
Altogether, nearly 200 countries have made pledges to reduce or slow down emissions of planet-warming gases under the Paris agreement. But still missing are new pledges from 70 countries, including China, which currently produces the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, and India and Saudi Arabia, both large economies with a significant climate footprint. Brazil, Mexico and Russia have submitted new pledges that have weaker emissions targets than their previous ones.
Mr. Biden’s revised pledge would make the United States, the largest emitter of planet-warming gases since the start of the industrial era, among the largest global climate donors, though advocacy groups said it still fell short of Washington’s fair share.
“It’s good to see President Biden is upping the amount that the U.S. is contributing, and others should certainly follow suit,” Mohamed Adow, the director of Power Shift Africa, said in a statement. “However, the U.S. is still woefully short of what it owes, and this needs to be increased urgently.”
With world leaders addressing the United Nations General Assembly about the most pressing issues, protesters took to the streets outside the New York City gathering on Tuesday to raise awareness over concerns that they say the leaders should be focused on changing.
Myriam Marques, 58, a nurse in Manhattan, marched between police barricades with about 50 other people with signs condemning President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, the first world leader to address the gathering.
A member of the activist group Defend Democracy in Brazil, Ms. Marques said they were protesting to oppose Mr. Bolsonaro’s speech and to stand up for the Indigenous people of Brazil.
“We are very thankful for our Indigenous peoples, because they are organizing, they want to save the forest, they want the rivers clean and they are fighting for that,” she said.
Around 10:30 a.m., protesters holding Iranian flags and wearing #FreeIran shirts and hats held signs condemning a government they regard as criminal. Referring to Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s former judiciary head who became the country’s president in August, they chanted, “Prosecute Raisi now now now!”
A hard-line cleric who is a close ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mr. Raisi has been accused of playing a role in sending thousands of political prisoners to their deaths in the 1980s, and in lethal crackdowns on antigovernment protests in 2009 and 2019.
Khalil Khani, 71, a former professor at the University of Tehran who now lives in Phoenix, said he had flown to New York to protest what human rights groups have described as the killing of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran in 1988.
His group had brought signs and a large red book that Mr. Khani said was filled with 5,000 names of the killed political prisoners.
“The United Nations shouldn’t be a place for an executionist,” Mr. Khani said.
The seven members of the Korean pop group BTS — a multibillion-dollar act known for its dynamic dance moves, catchy lyrics and frenzied fans — promoted coronavirus vaccines and lauded young people for their resilience during a nearly seven-minute speech at the U.N. headquarters on Monday.
Accompanying President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who designated them as special presidential envoy for future generations and culture, the band then showed a video of their hit song “Permission to Dance.”
The video showed the young crooners dancing in the empty aisles of the Assembly Hall — where presidents and autocrats have lobbed threats of annihilation and diplomats have staged walkouts — and later outside the complex.
The band’s legion of fans followed along intently on the U.N.’s YouTube channel, flooding a live chat with gushing messages, many with purple heart emojis that have become a calling card.
“I’ve heard that people in their teens and 20s today are being referred to as Covid’s lost generation,” said Kim Nam-joon, the band’s lead singer, who performs under the stage name RM (formerly Rap Monster). “But I think it’s a stretch to say they’re lost just because the path they tread can’t be seen by grown-up eyes.”
It was not the first time that the band, a dominant force in the Korean pop music space known as K-pop, had appeared at the United Nations. In 2018, BTS visited the United Nations to help UNICEF promote Generation Unlimited, a campaign dedicated to educating young people and providing them vocational training.
On Monday, a livestream of the band’s appearance on the U.N.’s YouTube channel racked up about one million views. Later in the day, the view count surpassed six million.
Even though Iran’s hard-line new president, Ebrahim Raisi, will not be at the General Assembly to deliver his speech in person, there are some expectations that Iranians will engage in back-room diplomacy on ways to save their country’s endangered nuclear agreement with big powers.
Mr. Raisi’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, planned to attend the General Assembly and has indicated a willingness to discuss rescuing the deal, which could provide Iran with enormous economic relief.
The agreement was intended to end many sanctions on Iran in return for verifiable pledges to severely curtail its supply of enriched uranium, which can fuel nuclear bombs. But President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, and Iran responded by gradually reneging on its pledges.
The Biden administration has supported restoring the accord, but talks in Vienna aimed at achieving that goal have been suspended for months. Mr. Raisi, who took office in August, has not indicated when Iran might be willing to resume them, but there are expectations that he will want new concessions.
The other countries that are part of the agreement — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — have all said they want to salvage it.
While Iran has denied aspirations to become a nuclear-armed state, it is believed to have amassed enough nuclear material for a single bomb. Iran has not been that close to such an ability since the agreement was finalized in 2015 under the Obama administration.
Envoys from the countries that are still in the agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, may meet with Mr. Abdollahian on the sidelines of the General Assembly, diplomats have said.
It remains unclear whether Mr. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, who is also attending the General Assembly, will meet with his Iranian counterpart. Such a meeting would be the highest-level direct engagement between Iran and the United States since the Obama era.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, did not rule out a meeting. She told reporters last week that there were no plans for one but added: “That doesn’t mean that we don’t see value in having discussions with the Iranians, because we do want to move forward on issues related to the J.C.P.O.A.”
Unlike in 2020, when the U.N. General Assembly session was conducted almost entirely virtually because of the pandemic, more than 100 world leaders and other high-ranking representatives intend to deliver their speeches in person this year.
But access to the 16-acre United Nations complex in Manhattan remains strictly limited, with mandatory mask-wearing and other Covid prevention measures. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the United States told reporters that the measures were meant to ensure that the General Assembly “does not become a superspreader event.”
Confusion erupted last week over a New York City requirement that all General Assembly participants show proof of vaccination. This year’s president of the General Assembly, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, endorsed the requirement. But exactly how it will be enforced is unclear.
U.N. officials have said that the organization’s headquarters staff must be vaccinated, but that an honor system remains in place for visiting V.I.P.’s and other guests.
In what appeared to be a good-will gesture, New York City’s municipal government deployed a mobile vaccine clinic outside the United Nations complex, offering free testing and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Many speakers this year still chose to deliver their addresses via prerecorded video, as was done by all leaders last year when vaccines were still under development and each delegation in the General Assembly hall was limited to two people. Nearly all events at the 2020 event were conducted virtually.
This year each member state may seat as many as four people in the General Assembly hall.
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, an avowed vaccine skeptic whose popularity has fallen at home partly over what critics call his disastrous handling of the pandemic, vowed ahead of his speech that he would not be vaccinated.
He was infected with Covid more than a year ago and then claimed to have cured himself by taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that has not been shown to be effective in Covid treatment.
Several prominent leaders delivered in-person addresses at the U.N. General Assembly meeting on Tuesday, including President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, an avowed Covid skeptic whose mismanagement of the pandemic threatens his political future. Mr. Bolsonaro also created a stir by vowing to defy the meeting’s vaccination requirement.
Many leaders are opting to use prerecorded video, as was done last year, or to have a lower-ranking representative speak in person, and the absence of a particular country’s leader this year can send a message.
Perhaps the most prominent leader to skip a personal appearance at the General Assembly is President Xi Jinping of China, an increasingly important financial contributor to the United Nations and a rival with the United States for influence there, an underlying source of tension.
Mr. Xi originally intended to have his deputy prime minister represent China, but in a last-minute change posted Monday by U.N. officials, Mr. Xi will address the General Assembly by prerecorded video. His speech was scheduled for later on Tuesday. .
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will not attend either, and his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, will speak instead.
In what may be another sign of France’s anger at the United States over a secret arms deal with Australia, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has abandoned the idea of speaking at the gathering even by video. Instead he tapped his foreign minister, Jean-Yves LeDrian, to speak, which now could happen on the final day.
Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, also sent a prerecorded speech, skipping the opportunity for personal diplomacy that could help save Iran’s near-moribund nuclear agreement with major powers.
Mr. Bolsonaro was the first head of state to address the gathering when speeches began Tuesday morning. Brazil has spoken first since the mid-1950s, and U.N. protocol officials say that the tradition began because at the time no other country’s leader was willing to take on that role. That position is now considered a coveted slot that can help set the tone of the week.
Among the other first-day speakers are the presidents of Turkey, Mexico, South Korea, Poland and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The order of speakers generally adheres to the principle that the leader of the host country goes second, followed by other heads of state, heads of government, vice presidents, crown princes, foreign ministers, then deputies and ambassadors. It is also determined by the date when each of the 193 members makes the request.
In another sign of New York City’s steady recovery from the pandemic, another fall tradition is returning to its streets: United Nations gridlock.
Traffic jams and security-related street closures are expected to turn Midtown Manhattan into a labyrinth this week as the General Assembly meets in person again. World leaders, including President Biden, and their motorcades will be descending upon streets that were largely cleared of traffic at the height of the pandemic but have steadily grown more congested as regular life resumes.
“There will be multiple closures, detours and checkpoints around the Midtown area,” Kim Y. Royster, the New York Police Department’s chief of transportation, said at a news conference.
Whereas last year’s gathering was held virtually, this week a large chunk of the east side of Midtown Manhattan, from 42nd Street to 57th Street and from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue, will be closed or restricted to traffic from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Chief Royster said.
Other streets, including a stretch of the F.D.R. Drive, a major north-south artery through Manhattan, could also be closed at times through Sept. 30, according to a city transportation agency website.
Chief Royster asked people to avoid driving or making deliveries in East Midtown during the U.N. meeting. Only vehicles that pass a checkpoint will be allowed in the area right around the United Nations, along 42nd Street between First and Second Avenues.
City transportation officials have also issued gridlock alert days — an annual warning of the worst congestion — for this week, the first time they have done so since 2019. There are 19 gridlock alert days for 2021, including Sept. 20-24 and Sept. 27, plus around the holiday season in November and December.
On Monday, a man was arrested and accused of threatening to kill the president of the Dominican Republic during his trip to New York. Beyond that, law enforcement officials said there were no credible threats against the U.N. meeting, though they were expecting widespread disruptions from crowds and dozens of protests.
“Our traffic agents will be deployed to intersections to make sure that the traffic is flowing and make sure that we provide safety to the pedestrians and bicyclists alike,” Chief Royster said, adding: “The city is opening up and we want to make sure the city continues to move and make sure everyone is safe.”
European officials have been divided over how much support to show to France in its diplomatic spat with the United States and Britain over a nuclear submarine deal. Some have questioned the Biden administration’s commitment to a strong alliance with the European Union, but they have stopped short of concrete action.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said on Monday that “one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable,” adding in an interview on CNN that she would seek to “know what happened and why.”
“Therefore, you first of all clarify that before you keep on going with business as usual,” Ms. von der Leyen said.
But while French officials have condemned the security deal among the United States, Britain and Australia — an alliance known as AUKUS — Europe has been split over how to respond. With the dispute looming in the background at the U.N. General Assembly, some, led by the French, have argued that the cancellation of the deal represented a critical breach of trust. Paris recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia last week after Australia scrapped a $66 billion agreement to buy French-built submarines in favor of U.S.-manufactured, nuclear-powered ones.
While Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said on Monday that the bloc’s foreign ministers had expressed “clear solidarity” with France, others have called the dispute a bilateral matter, wary that strong condemnations would hurt wider interests.
The rift has become a European issue as French officials seek to postpone the first meeting of a new E.U.-U.S. Trade and Technology Council scheduled for Sept. 29, according to a European diplomat. A French official declined to comment on Tuesday.
The dispute could also affect trade discussions between the European Union and Australia, which the French have said cannot continue for now.
“Now the trust is missing,” Bernd Lange, the chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, told ABC, an Australian broadcaster, on Tuesday.
The submarine deal came after a chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan about which European leaders said they had not been consulted. Many officials who had welcomed the election of President Biden — and his pledge that “America is back” — are now expressing concerns.
“What does it mean, ‘America is back’?” Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, which represents the leaders of the bloc’s 27 members, told reporters in New York on Monday. “Is America back in America or somewhere else? We don’t know.”
At a virtual summit on Wednesday, while the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting is underway, President Biden will urge other vaccine-producing countries to balance their domestic needs with a renewed focus on manufacturing and distributing doses to poor nations in desperate need of them.
The push, which White House officials say seeks to inject urgency into vaccine diplomacy, will test Mr. Biden’s doctrine of furthering American interests by building global coalitions. Covax, the United Nations-backed vaccine program, is so far behind schedule that not even 10 percent of the population in poor nations is fully vaccinated, experts said. And the landscape is even more challenging now than when Covax was created in April 2020.
Some nations in Asia have imposed tariffs and other trade restrictions on Covid-19 vaccines, slowing their delivery. India, home to the world’s largest vaccine maker, banned coronavirus vaccine exports in April, but announced on Monday that it would resume shipments next month. And an F.D.A. panel on Friday recommended Pfizer booster shots for those over 65 or at high risk of severe Covid, meaning that vaccine doses that could have gone to low and lower-middle income countries would remain in the United States.
Officials said Wednesday’s summit would be the largest gathering of heads of state to address the coronavirus crisis. It aims to encourage pharmaceutical makers, philanthropists and nongovernmental organizations to work together toward vaccinating 70 percent of the world’s population by the time the U.N. General Assembly meets in September 2022, according to a draft document the White House sent to the summit participants.
Experts estimate that 11 billion doses are necessary to achieve widespread global immunity. The United States has pledged to donate more than 600 million — more than any other nation — and the Biden administration has taken steps to expand vaccine manufacturing in the United States, India and South Africa. The 27-nation European Union aims to export 700 million doses by the end of the year.
But on the heels of the United States’ calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan last month that drew condemnation from allies and adversaries alike, the effort to rally world leaders will be closely watched by public health experts and advocates who say Mr. Biden is not living up to his pledges to make the United States the “arsenal of vaccines” for the world.
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