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President Biden's Big Talk About Diplomacy Is Being Tested At The UN General Assembly


President Biden is vowing to restore America's place in the United Nations, taking the lead on fighting climate change and a global pandemic. But his lofty rhetoric about diplomacy and alliances is being tested by the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and a diplomatic rift with America's oldest ally, France. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more on Biden's first U.N. General Assembly as president.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Biden says the U.S. is back at the table, focusing on diplomacy, not war.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We've ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan. And as we close this period of relentless war, we're opening a new era of relentless diplomacy.

KELEMEN: He vowed to stand up for women's rights in Afghanistan but didn't say how in the face of the new Taliban government. Biden made clear that he's shifting his focus to the Indo-Pacific, while trying to downplay fears about a cold war with China.


BIDEN: We're not seeking - say it again - we are not seeking a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocks.

KELEMEN: That's a fear that U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been raising. He's worried that the two largest economies have been moving apart, and he called that a recipe for trouble. His speech offered a stark view of the world today.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: I'm here to sound the alarm. The world must wake up. We are on the edge of an abyss and moving in the wrong direction.

KELEMEN: Guterres is sounding the alarm about climate change and vaccine inequality in the fight against COVID-19. He pointed out that over 90% of Africans are still waiting for their first dose.


GUTERRES: This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity. We passed the science test, but we are getting an F in ethics.

KELEMEN: President Biden is hosting a virtual summit tomorrow to set ambitious goals for vaccine distribution. He's also holding separate meetings with his counterparts from the U.K. and Australia, just days after forming a new partnership with them, a move that angered France.


JEAN-YVES LE DRIAN: (Speaking French).

KELEMEN: We thought we turned a page on the days of unilateralism, unpredictability and lack of respect, said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Australia abandoned a 2016 submarine deal with France to buy nuclear-powered ones from the U.S., but Le Drian says this isn't just a breach of contract but a breach of trust. Australia's prime minister, Scott Morrison, alluded to the dispute as he thanked Biden today for focusing on the Indo-Pacific. You get it, he said.


PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: But it's not just about our partnership because our partnership reaches out to so many others, whether it be our friends in the ASEAN nations or Europe or elsewhere, where we share so many like-minded interests.

KELEMEN: President Biden wants to work with like-minded democracies to counter China and Russia, though he didn't mention those countries by name in his speech today.


BIDEN: All of the major powers of the world have a duty, in my view, to carefully manage their relationships, so they do not tip from responsible competition to conflict.

KELEMEN: Iran's new president, Ebrahim Raisi, addressed the assembly by video, blasting U.S. sanctions and saying the U.S., quote, "failed miserably to impose a Western identity on Afghanistan." Speaking through an interpreter, Raisi even mentioned the January insurrection on Capitol Hill.


PRESIDENT EBRAHIM RAISI: (Through interpreter) From the Capitol to Kabul, one clear message was sent to the world - the United States' hegemonic system has no credibility, whether inside or outside the country.

KELEMEN: Chinese President Xi Jinping took a thinly veiled swipe at the U.S., too, as he spoke through an interpreter.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) Recent developments in the international situation show once again that military intervention from the outside and so-called democratic transformation entail nothing but harm.

KELEMEN: He said the world should reject, as he puts it, forming small circles or zero-sum games. The comments come just days before President Biden meets the leaders of the so-called Quad - the U.S., Australia, India and Japan. It's a diplomatic grouping aimed at China that says it wants a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, The State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF LO MOON SONG, "LOVELESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.