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Biden steps into global spotlight at U.N. with a bid to repair strained alliances

"We will lead on all the greatest challenges of our time from Covid to climate, peace and security, human dignity and human rights, but we will not go it alone," he said Tuesday.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden used his biggest moment so far on the international stage at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to call on global leaders to take stronger action on Covid-19 and climate change, as he sought to re-establish America’s alliances and role in the international community.

Looking to signal a break from his predecessor's isolationism, "America first" policies, he repeatedly pledged to work with other nations and to establish the United States as a leader in tackling the challenges facing the planet.

"We will lead, we will lead on all the greatest challenges of our time from Covid to climate, peace and security, human dignity and human rights, but we will not go it alone," Biden said. "We will lead together with our allies and partners and in cooperation with all those who believe, as we do, that it is within our power to meet these challenges, to build a future that lifts all of our people to preserve this planet."

The speech, his first as president at the meeting, was at a gathering very different than those in the past, with many world leaders opting to deliver their remarks virtually. Biden also planned to meet Tuesday with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in New York, and with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the evening back at the White House.

Biden's speech comes at a time when some of the closest U.S. relationships have been strained following the chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left NATO allies complaining they were left scrambling to evacuate their own people as the Taliban took control. Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, arguing it was no longer in America’s interest to remain, has also led world leaders to question what role the U.S. will play globally going forward — a question he addressed in his remarks.

“I stand here today for the first time in 20 years and the United States is not at war, we've turned the page," he said. "All the unmatched strength, energy, commitment, will and resources of our nation are now fully and squarely focused on what's ahead of us. Not what was behind."

Biden also addressed the issue of counterterrorism, and the prospect of competition with other global powers without triggering a new Cold War. There was no mention of China in the 30-minute remarks, though he has identified the country as one of the biggest international threats facing the U.S.

"We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs," he said. "The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges, even if we have intense disagreement in other areas."

Biden has overseen an increase in tensions with France, one of America's closest allies, following a security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom that would allow Australia to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the United States. The deal drew fury from French leaders, who had planned to sell that nation's own submarines to Australia.

France said last week it was recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia, with French officials saying its Indo-Pacific interests were undermined by the new agreement. The White House is in the process of arranging a call with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss the issue, press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

Biden entered the hall wearing a mask, which he took off and placed on the dais as he began speaking. In his remarks, he indicated he would lay out a new strategy and commitments to address the coronavirus crisis at a Covid summit led by the U.S., which will focus on vaccinations, treatments and technologies to help end the pandemic.

“We need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible and expand access to oxygen, test and treatments to save lives around the world,” he said.

Still, Biden had been expected to face pressure from world leaders, particularly those in lower-income countries, who have pleaded with the U.S. to do more to help the billions of people who have yet to get their first doses of a vaccine before providing people in the U.S. with their third shots.

The World Health Organization has called for a "moratorium" on boosters, and other international medical groups have blasted the U.S. for its plans to provide them. Only 20 percent of eligible people in lower-income countries have been at least partly vaccinated, compared to around 80 percent in some of the wealthiest countries, according to the WHO.

The U.S. has already donated 140 million doses to other nations, and plans to provide another 200 million doses by the end of the year.

The administration looked to short-circuit another area of pandemic-related criticism in the run-up to the meeting by announcing plans Monday to end a Trump-era travel ban that had kept foreign nationals from 33 countries, including many of those in Europe, from traveling to the U.S. as a precaution against Covid.

On Monday, the administration said fully vaccinated foreign nationals would be able to travel to the U.S. with proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test.

CORRECTION (Sept. 21, 2021, 9:15 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the French president. He is Emmanuel Macron, not Emanuel.