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Just Words: Why Joe Biden’s UN Speech Was a Total Flop

Joe Biden UN Speech
Image: White House Facebook page.

In his first outing at the United Nations, President Joe Biden was bent on a singular mission: to show the world that he was not Donald Trump.

Again and again, Biden emphasized his commitment to diplomacy, to international organizations, to women, to minorities, and most of all, against war. But the catchphrases failed to stir the audience. Unlike his former boss, Barack Obama, Biden was not once interrupted by applause.

The failure to resonate lies in the disconnect between Biden’s words and his actions.

Biden stressed his administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights, but the smoldering nightmare of Afghanistan is a human repudiation of Biden’s professed values.

His ignominious surrender to the Taliban inflicted strategic and reputational damage on the United States that will resonate for years to come. China, Pakistan, and Russia are seeping in as the U.S. floods out, just this week meeting with the Taliban to organize Afghanistan’s future. Will these governments call the Taliban to account for the terrorists in its government? The exclusion of women and girls from school? The targeting of LGBT Afghans? Its callous disregard of democratic norms? Hardly.

Biden proudly announced that “as we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy.” Yet “relentless diplomacy” was nowhere to be seen as U.S. forces scuttled from the Bagram base. Afghans, NATO allies and other partners on the ground were not consulted, their subsequent complaints dismissed.  What about the reassurances that the U.S. is resolute in its opposition to terrorism, with “over the horizon” capabilities to protect the homeland? Those words were belied by the recent drone strike that killed aid workers and children.

Nor did the disconnect between word and deed end at Afghanistan. Glaringly absent from Biden’s speech: China. Aside from an easily missed reference to Xinjiang as an example of human rights concerns, Biden studiously avoided the issue. Rather, the president spun the fairy tale that “as a global community… our own success is bound up in others succeeding as well. To deliver for our own people we must also engage deeply with the rest of the world.” Heart-warming, but the People’s Republic of China does not subscribe to this philosophy.

From Covid to Xinjiang, Taiwan to the South China Sea, Afghanistan to Africa, and notably, at the United Nations itself, China threatens those values. As the world continues to reel from COVID, it remains unclear whether a lab leak from Wuhan is at the heart of the pandemic. China has stymied all efforts to investigate, including those by the World Health Organization – a United Nations specialized agency. Instead, the WHO did Beijing’s bidding as COVID exploded, failing to declare it a pandemic and encouraging nations to continue taking flights from Beijing and beyond.

And then there’s Chinese stewardship of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) over the last six years, catastrophic on both the organizational and bureaucratic fronts. The Chinese ICAO director general engaged in cover-ups to conceal Chinese hacking, ignored the COVID challenge to aviation, and allowed sexual harassment and whistle-blower abuses to run rampant. The same is true in other Chinese-run U.N. agencies like the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

In each instance, the same pattern has emerged: the exploitation of the position to advance Beijing’s agenda at the expense of the organization’s own mission; management crises, corruption, and fraud.

Should Biden have dedicated his speech to confronting China? Of course not, but ignoring China’s assaults on the U.N.’s mission in a speech dedicated to asserting U.S. fidelity to the U.N. and, more broadly, the rules-based international order gives the impression that the United States is irresolute, fearful to confront Beijing diplomatically, much less militarily.

The president’s partisans will insist that Biden was obliquely referring to threats from the PRC when he alluded to cyber-crime, human rights, minority rights, freedom of navigation, territorial expansion and more. The Chinese, they insist, will know what he means. Even if true, expecting our adversaries to parse the president’s speech and construe it as a warning is neither serious nor effective.

In sum, the speech did little to reassure allies, dissuade adversaries, or forthrightly articulate U.S. interests and make clear that the U.S. will act to defend them. It did, however, reveal the true passion of the Biden administration – words.

Danielle Pletka is a Distinguished Senior Fellow in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.



  1. Duane

    September 23, 2021 at 9:57 am


    I voted for Joe Biden as the antidote to Trump, whom I have always viewed as an existential threat to America, both internally and in terms of national and international security. Trump was not just incompetent, yet a legend in his own mind, but he was and remains a direct threat to our nation, with malign intent incentivized by his blind obedience to his boss and financial sponsor, Vlad Putin. Trump was and remains the “Muscovian Candidate”, who was also in hock to the ChiComs who awarded him tens of millions of dollars worth of trade rights for his cheapassed failed consumer products that nobody actually wants to buy, during his very first week in office in 2017.

    However, I did not understand the essential incompetence of Biden and his team, which seems incredible. Now well into his first year, Biden seems to be following the Jimmah Cahtah model of incompetent self-righteous hubris, rather than the model of his former boss Barack Obama, which was more about quiet actions carried out rather competently, even if you didn’t agree with the intentions.

    It used to be that the gold standard for incompetence in the White House was defined by Jimmy Carterism. But now it has been redefined as a 1-2 combination punch of Trumpism and Bidenism.

    Is either guy – the “former guy” or the “current guy” really the best that this nation of 330 millions, with a 245-year history of freedom, growth, and economic success, can do?


  2. Slack

    September 24, 2021 at 9:17 am

    Strangely, Biden at the UN was never questioned on his own country’ own horror stories – endless mass shootings, faeces-filled and rotting food prisons, weapons supply to nations on perennial warpath situations especially in the middle east, illegal squatting in syria and active links to certain jihadist outfits especially those allied to turkey, whipping of Haitian migrants at southern border, and drone strikes around the world.

    With current US behavior, one would think WW3 has already begun and human moral standards have retreated to feudal era standards.

  3. Rob

    September 30, 2021 at 12:07 pm

    Joe Biden wasn’t elected because he had good ideas and a fresh prospective to help America get back on track. He was merely elected because he wasn’t Trump and could be easily lead by handlers. It’s quite obvious to everyone, even those that voted for him, that Biden isn’t up to the task of the presidency and that he is not in control of his administration. It is sad for this country that an office once aspired to by great Americans is now filled with puppets and panderers. As a nation, we will be dealing with the fallout of Afghanistan and new found trustworthiness for years to come.

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