US President Joe Biden’s speech before the General Assembly on September 19 spent surprisingly little time on Russia and the war in Ukraine and, in many ways, hit many of the right notes with its praise of “Sovereignty, territorial integrity, human rights . . . the core tenets of the U.N. Charter, the pillars of peaceful relations among nations. . ..” But America’s past performance on these very issues weaken the persuasiveness and sincerity of the appeal.
The opening remarks of Biden’s speech demonstrated America’s tone deafness to the demands of the global majority and the rising nonaligned multipolar movement. His comment that “As president of the United States, I understand the duty my country has to lead in this critical moment” represents a continued insistence on US hegemony.
Biden’s criticism of Russia’s “illegal war of conquest,” its “aggression” and his appeal to “sovereignty” and “a world governed by basic rules that apply equally to all nations” is justified. But he said it as if he was unaware of, and the assembled audience did not remember, Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, Grenada and Panama. He said it as if the US did not conduct 72 regime changes during the Cold War with Russia, as Lindsey O’Rourke, Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston College, has documented. And as if those regime changes had not continued unabated since, including, most recently, the US encouragement of the coup in Pakistan that removed Prime Minister Imran Khan from office for his “aggressively neutral position” on the war in Ukraine. He said it as if the US was not starving Cuba and unilaterally sanctioning a host of countries in contravention of those basic laws.
He says it as if his audience had not recently read “US Hegemony and Its Perils,” a report by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that harshly catalogues US violations of state sovereignty and cites a Tufts University report that found that since its birth in 1776, the US has undertaken nearly 400 military interventions globally. The report criticizes the US for political and military interference in Latin America, including regime change. It criticizes its “double standards on international rules.” It calls the US “the most warlike nation in the history of the world” and reminds the world of the $700 billion US military budget and of the approximately 800 oversees military bases with troops deployed in 159 countries.
Biden’s plea to move forward on arms control and preserve the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is also crucial. But his criticism of Russia for “shredding longstanding arms control agreements, including announcing the suspension of New START and withdrawing from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty” is one sided. In 2019, the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In 2002, despite complaints from Moscow, the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia’s suspension of START II was a response to that US withdrawal. As for the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which was designed to limit the number and nature of conventional weapons deployed by the Warsaw Pact and NATO in Europe, it was always unequal. In his soon to be published book, The Lost Peace, Richard Sakwa says that while the Warsaw Pact destroyed over 30,000 weapons, NATO destroyed hardly any.
It is not only Russia that is an impediment to nuclear non-proliferation. In Internationalism or Extinction, Noam Chomsky argues that the US has been the largest impediment to the promising establishment of nuclear-weapons-free zones. The US and Canada are the only countries who refuse to join the nuclear-weapons-free zone in the western hemisphere. Chomsky says that nearly operative nuclear-weapons-free zones in Africa and the Pacific are blocked only by US refusal to close nuclear weapons bases in Diego Garcia and the Pacific islands. Most importantly, Chomsky says, the US has blocked the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, including blockage by the Obama-Biden administration.
Biden claims to be “committed to diplomacy that would bring about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but US diplomacy in North Korea is barely breathing. An important impediment to denuclearizing North Korea has always been US threat against North Korea. North Korea had traditionally expressed its nuclear weapons stance as a conditional: as long as US hostility and nuclear threats continue, North Korea will not negotiate its nuclear weapons program. US threats have continued, and the US played an important role in killing both the 1994 and the 2005 diplomatic efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program by failing to live up to their side of the bargain.
Biden also promised to “remain steadfast in our commitment that Iran must never acquire a nuclear weapon.” But it was the US who exploded the JCPOA nuclear agreement that was effectively working with Iran. And, despite the rhetoric, the US Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review clearly states the awareness that “Iran does not today possess a nuclear weapon and we currently believe it is not pursuing one.”
Finally, Biden claims that “Russia alone bears responsibility for this war,” that “Russia alone has the power to stop it,” that Russia alone . . . stands in the way of peace” and that the US “strongly support Ukraine in its efforts to bring about a diplomatic resolution.”
Though the war was not “brought without provocation,” as Biden claims, it is true that Russia bears responsibility. Every nation is responsible for its own decisions even if there are causes. But it is not true that Russia alone has the power to stop it. Ukraine is entirely dependent on the US and its allies for money, weapons, training, planning and intelligence. The US has the power, and the responsibility to the safety of its own citizens, to stop the war. And, as the group Détente Now has recently pointed out, “the legitimacy of armed self-defence,” according to the UN charter, “does not release the government in Kiev and the states supporting it from the obligation . . . to find a diplomatic solution . . ..” But the US has not, as Biden claims, “strongly support[ed] Ukraine in its efforts to bring about a diplomatic resolution.” The US has consistently frustrated Ukraine in its efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution, including blocking the early talks in Belarus, the Naftali Bennett brokered talks, and the talks in Istanbul that actually produced a signed tentative agreement between Ukraine and Russia.
The US would be in a better position to talk to the UN General Assembly if its own behavior was consistent with its admonitions and with the core tenets of the UN charter.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.