President Joe Biden’s speech to the 78th meeting of the UN General Assembly was an endorsement of multilateralism as we have not heard from US presidents in this forum for quite some time.
Biden used the word “shared” seven times, mentioning shared grief, shared future (mentioned twice), shared challenges (also twice), shared effects of globalization, and the issuance of a shared statement on Afghanistan.
In contrast, in his 2019 General Assembly speech, President Donald Trump used the word “share” once and the word “sovereign” or “sovereignty” five times.
The two speeches provide students of political rhetoric with clearly contrasting views on national security: Biden’s liberal internationalism versus Trump’s realist focus on sovereign states and cynicism toward international institutions.
Biden emphasized multilateralism’s importance in addressing COVID, climate change, and international organizations like NATO, the EU, and more, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentioned in past General Assembly speeches.
Pledging “relentless diplomacy” as the US navigates the geopolitical environment after relentless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president declared that “the fundamental truth of the 21st century within each of our own countries and as a global community is that our own success is bound up in others succeeding as well.”
Reflecting liberal internationalist thought, these passages affirm an anarchic world of sovereign states as the reality in which we live while also realizing the global network of international institutions, many of which have been with us since the US went global on a post-World War II crusade of pact creation.
World Bank Group
One of these is broadly known as the World Bank Group, founded in 1944 and subject to vast institutional development since the Bretton Woods origins of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund, and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (replaced by World Trade Organization).
The World Bank’s current president is Ajay Banga, appointed by President Biden when David Malpass stepped down with one year of his five-year term remaining. Malpass’ relationship with the World Bank was complicated, to say the least.
As an undersecretary in President Trump’s Department of Treasury, Malpass was highly skeptical of multilateralism and international financial institutions and yet worked successfully to expand the Banks’ lending power by $13 billion.
He accepted Trump’s appointment to the World Bank in 2019 and introduced significant reforms. Declaring that four years is a long time, and under pressure from the Biden Administration about his alleged tepid support for increasing the concern for climate change in the Bank’s lending policies, Malpass served his last day on 1 June 2023, allowing Biden to appoint a new director who would prioritize climate change challenges.
One twist in this story came soon before Malpass resigned, as he advocated for a significant expansion in funding for World Bank projects to assist resilience against climate change in developing countries. “We estimate that developing countries will need $2.4tn a year for the next seven years to address the global challenges of climate mitigation and adaptation, conflict and pandemics,” Malpass said in a recent speech.
Regardless, Banga and the Biden Administration have been more predictable in their priorities for international engagement. Relative to the World Bank are issues such as climate change, conflict, COVID, and emerging technological revolutions in digitization and artificial intelligence, or, together, the “polycrisis” as spoken by Banga to CNBC at the recent G-20 meeting.
In his UN speech, Biden called for expanded funding for the World Bank to assist governments and populations with these challenges. As the Financial Times has reported, however, a vocal group of developing countries representing as the G11 urges caution against the rapid advancement of financial commitments.
They worry about maintaining the Bank’s triple-A rating by rating agencies such as S&P, which would raise the cost of doing business. This is just one of many tests of Biden’s relentless diplomacy in multilateral contexts.
What is the expected outcome of Biden’s relentless diplomacy? Will multilateral institutions serve the functions his policy goals require? From the 1941 Atlantic Charter through the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 and beyond, post-WW II/early Cold War US foreign policy was based on reversing the half-hearted efforts that sealed the fate of the League of Nations through a global campaign long-ago referred to as pact-o-mania.
The autumn of 2023 is a fascinating time to hear a multilateralist emphasis as evident in Biden’s speech. The early post-Cold War years, despite the multilateral success of Operation Desert Storm, saw a weak multilateralism in the form of “coalitions of the willing” not living up to the tasks of stabilizing conflict zones from the Balkans to Somalia.
Two decades of the Global War on Terror following 09/11 refocused operational and analytical priorities toward disruptive non-state actors. While Biden did mention terrorism as a continuing challenge to national security, the Great Powers and Great Power Wannabes have shifted global politics to a renewed condition of Great Power Competition.
As was the case throughout the Cold War, this condition leaves the world’s middle and small powers up for grabs as allies and/or clients of the Great Powers. The UN Security Council is barely part of the picture while the US, China, and Russia jockey for geopolitical advantage from the Indo-Pacific through Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Also like the Cold War, however, the principle of multilateralism can be employed selectively and strategically as an instrument of policy. This is why we did not hear President Biden call for a renewed Security Council in which China and Russia hold the power of veto, but we did hear advocacy for the World Bank.
With its weighted voting scheme, Washington retains its long-standing advantage, possessing 18 percent of decision-making authority on its own and a majority via its allies. Additionally, the European managing director of the International Monetary Fund has expressed support and willingness to similarly engage internationally on an expanded scale.
While the Biden Administration has downplayed the idea of containing China as its driver of foreign policy, the Financial Times has reported on the importance of China in the administration’s consideration of expanded World Bank and G20 funding, quoting National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to identify the need to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has nearly 150 country partners.
The multilateralist impulse, always tempered by a stronger unilateralist drive when circumstances demand, is best channeled through institutions like the World Bank and G20.
Reform of the UN Security Council is a dead letter, NATO enlargement politics will have to confront the Ukraine question at some point but not this year, and the visible threats of resource wars, sea level rise, and violent weather patterns associated with climate change are conditions that make the international financial institutions relevant. The remaining decision-making advantages retained by the United States and its allies in these institutions make the time ripe for a multilateral renewal.
Of course, there are no guarantees and indeed there are difficulties even knowing if this strategy is reaping gains. There is resistance to risking the standing of the institutions by G11 members, and the so-called BRICS partnership has made recent news with plans for expanded associations and activities that might be seen as in opposition to the United States.
In the meantime, while the war in Ukraine and massive military exercises in the Western Pacific rightfully make headlines, observers would be well served to keep an eye on conference diplomacy in regional and global financial institutions.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.