US President Joe Biden addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York City on September 21, 2022.

US President Joe Biden addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York City on September 21, 2022. Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

In NYC, a Bronx Cheer for Putin, Trump, and the Aging UN

As the General Assembly met for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden warned against nuclear war and the UN’s growing irrelevance. Will he do more?

The weeklong showcase of world-leader speeches that lead off the annual and increasingly antiquated United Nations General Assembly is always entertaining, and sometimes terrifying. What it isn’t, generally speaking, is prelude to real change.

President Joe Biden’s Wednesday speech, hastily retopped after Vladimir Putin announced a draft to support his war in Ukraine, seemed initially to underline the 76-year-old organization’s impotence in the face of Russia’s blatant land grab.

It followed remarks by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who lectured the West on human rights as other delegates streamed from the hall in protest. Raisi went on to declare Iranian victory over the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, held up a giant portrait of assassinated terrorism master Qasem Soleimani, and called for an international tribunal to haul Donald Trump to justice.

Raisi may need to wait in line. Minutes later, New York’s attorney general announced a stunning $250 million lawsuit against Trump, his family, and his businesses, alleging the former president has been party to massive fraud and promising to run the Trumps out of New York for good. 

“For too long, powerful, wealthy people in this country have operated as if the rules do not apply to them,” said Letitia James. 

But Biden, after delivering his warning to Moscow, turned his focus upon the UN itself. For too long, he told its members, the body had allowed the world’s powerful and wealthy countries to operate with impunity.

Biden had been expected to raise a familiar series of issues that his administration says threaten security and prosperity, leading with climate change and global food insecurity caused by Russia’s war. But before the U.S. president had left his hotel for the UN headquarters, Putin delivered his surprise announcement from Moscow. White House officials quickly rewrote the top of the president’s speech. Reading from the new version, Biden declared the conflict in Ukraine “a brutal, needless war—a war chosen by one man, to be very blunt,” and called out Putin’s mobilization, nuclear threats, and sham referenda. Climate and food? Buried down below. 

“Let us speak plainly,” he said. “A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbor, attempted to erase a sovereign state from the map. Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter—no more important than the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbor by force.”

“This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are. Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia, and no one other than Russia sought conflict,” he said.

Biden praised the 141 members of the UN who voted to condemn Russia earlier this year—and suddenly the speech became a call to save the body by using it and reforming it. “Because if nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we put at risk everything this very institution stands for. Everything.”

That part of Biden’s speech was unexpected but welcome. What the United Nations stands for has been up for debate since its founding, and despite growing calls for, say, fewer WWII powers and more equity for other regions, American politicians—including Biden’s national security advisor—have declined to take any real steps toward reform or replacement. Remember Biden’s Summit of Democracies? It fizzled during the pandemic as a half-virtual exercise. 

The UN is neither a peace-making or -enforcing body. It is a club of democracies and dictatorships intended to promote talking, prevent fighting, and improve global standards of living. But the UN is only as good or useful as its members make it. And that can vary greatly from country to country, election to election. In the United States, conservatives have long tried to hamstring the organization out of outsized fears of global governance, while liberals have hoped but failed to win public support to put more money and resources into UN efforts. UN members haven’t made it easy, with dictatorships serving atop human rights organizations and historic denigration of Israel. 

Yet, buried beneath today’s Russia condemnation, Biden’s speech offered a hint of bold vision for citizens of the world’s less prominent countries. “I also believe the time has come for this institution to become more inclusive so that it can better respond to the needs of today’s world,” he said, renewing a U.S. call for expanding the UN Security Council’s number of permanent seats beyond the 1940s-era great powers and its rotating seats to include additional members from all regions.

If words matter, then count them up. Biden mentioned the UN Charter a remarkable 12 times in his speech. The Charter still matters in enforcing the world order and safeguarding human rights and democracy. And he highlighted other favorable international structures his administration has tried to bolster, like The Quad and the Indo-Pacific framework, an economic pact of a dozen countries. Biden mentioned Russia 19 times, largely because of Putin’s Wednesday surprise. But he mentioned China by name only three times. The point is the president spent as much time talking about what the United Nations could be doing as what outside parties are doing. 

As other world leaders arrive in Manhattan to give their speeches, watch to see if anyone else picks up what Biden is laying down.

“We’re not passive witnesses to history; we are the authors of history,” the U.S. president said. 

Indeed, history will tell us yet if Biden changes anything at all.