Fact-Checking Biden’s UN Speech

On September 21, President Biden addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

Taking Territory by Force

Biden opened his address by accusing Russia of violating "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."

He is quite right that that is a core tenet of the UN Charter. However, this is not the first time that tenet has been violated. And, in the past, the US has defended such violations.

It has even defended such violations during the Biden administration. The US has recognized the Golan. And, less well known, it has recognized Western Sahara. Almost half a century ago, Morocco took Western Sahara by force and made it part of Morocco. Both the UN and the International Court of Justice have ruled in favor of Western Sahara’s right to self-governance. But the US, during the Trump administration, officially recognized Western Sahara as part of Morocco. The Biden administration has refused to reverse that recognition.

The Biden administration has been silent on Western Sahara, neither officially confirming nor repealing Trump’s recognition. Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco and an authority on Morocco’s occupation, told me in a recent correspondence that, unlike most maps, including Google, Rand McNally and National Geographic, all US government maps "show no demarcation between the two countries – it’s all Morocco. And State Department and other USG [US government] reports, which used to list Western Sahara as a separate entity, simply refer to it as part of Morocco." The Biden administration’s recognition of Morocco’s annexation is "in direct defiance of a series of UNSC resolutions and opinions by the International Court of Justice, which see them as territories under foreign belligerent occupation," Zunes said.

Zunes has said that "The Biden administration, however, in refusing to rescind Trump’s recognition, is taking the position that the expansion of territory by force – notwithstanding such prohibitions in the UN Charter – is not necessarily illegal after all and can be an acceptable form of statecraft.”

The taking of the Donbas region by force may also deserve a more complex narrative. In 2014, the Donbas declared independence from Ukraine. Russia did not recognize their independence. While Russia accepted Crimea’s referendum in 2014, Putin tried to prevent similar referendums from taking place in Donbas. According to Richard Sakwa in Frontline Ukraine, “Putin showed little sign of wanting a Crimea-style takeover of the region, repeatedly rejecting requests to accept the territory as part of Russia.”

The Minsk II Agreement of 2015, which was brokered by France and Germany, agreed to by Ukraine and Russia and accepted by the US and UN, was meant to peacefully return the Donbas to Ukraine while granting it full autonomy.

Ukraine refused to implement the Minks Agreements. And the Crimean Platform promised to de-occupy and reintegrate Crimea, militarily if necessary. Prior to the Russian buildup of forces on its western border with Donbas, Ukraine had massed 60,000 elite troops, complete with drone missiles, along its eastern border with Donbas. There was “genuine alarm in Moscow” that Ukraine was about to escalate the seven year old civil war and invade the largely ethnic Russian Donbas region.

At around this time, in February of 2022, the alarm was heightened by dramatically increased Ukrainian artillery shelling into the Donbas that was observed by the Border Observer Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Sakwa told me that most of the ceasefire violations exploded on the Donbas side of Ukraine. According to UN data, 81.4% of civilian casualties occurred in the "self-proclaimed ‘republics’." Russia feared that the promised military operation had begun.

Challenging the narrative of Biden’s speech, that is why Putin would claim in his address to Russia on the same day that "it became clear that a new offensive in Donbas . . . was inevitable. . . ."

The question of who was attacking the Donbas and taking territory by force and who was defending the people of the Donbas is more complex than the narrative offered by Biden.

Nuclear Threats

Biden then said that "President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe and a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the non-proliferation regime."

Like the claim about the core tenet of the UN Charter against taking territory by force, Biden’s claim is true. Putin did threaten the use of nuclear weapons. But also like the previous claim, this claim may deserve a more complex narrative.

Putin did not threaten the offensive use of nuclear weapons. He threatened the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons. He said that "some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries" have spoken of "the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia." He then said "I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have."

Putin then threatened the defensive use of nuclear weapons in the case of an existential threat to Russia. Speaking of "threats to our country and people" and of "the delivery of long-range offensive weapons to Ukraine, which could be used to deliver strikes at Crimea and other Russian regions," Putin said that "In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us."

Horrifyingly, that is why the US and Russia maintain nuclear arsenals: to defend their countries from existential threats. When else would a country use them if not then? The US has used them for less.

The US also maintains a similar permanent threat. It continues to warn "The United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks." The US also insists that it "has never adopted a "no first use" policy."

Sham Referenda

Biden called the planned referenda in Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye, and Kherson on accession to the Russian Federation "sham referenda to try to annex parts of Ukraine" that are "an extremely significant violation of the U.N. charter."

But in 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia without even a referendum, the US recognized the declaration against repeated UN resolutions. The US also endorsed an International Court of Justice advisory opinion that the Kosovo declaration "did not violate general international law."

Biden’s repeated insistence, reiterated most recently on a 60 Minutes interview on September 18, that "Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. . . . that’s their decision" is in contradiction to his insistence that referendums in Eastern Ukraine are shams that are "extremely significant violation of the UN charter" and seems to confirm Russia and China’s suspicion that the rules based international order the U.S. promotes is nothing more than the US enforcing the UN charter when it suits it and circumventing it when that suits it better.

No One Threatened Russia

"This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are," Biden said. "Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia. . . ."

But Russia did perceive a threat. NATO, a hostile military alliance, was expanding to its borders. NATO was pouring lethal weapons into Ukraine. Whether or not Ukraine was in NATO, NATO was certainly in Ukraine. In 2015, Russia’s National Security Strategy would note that NATO’s "continued expansion and the approach of its military infrastructure to Russia’s borders, all create threat to national security."

The US and NATO had Russia surrounded. They placed antiballistic missile bases and "spearhead" military bases in Eastern Europe. They had nuclear weapons in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey. In a February 2022 press conference, Putin said, “Today we see where NATO is: in Poland, in Romania and in the Baltic states. . . . Now anti-ballistic missile launchers are deployed in Romania and are being set up in Poland. They will probably be there soon if they are not yet built. These are MK-41 launchers that can launch Tomahawks. In other words, they are no longer just counter-missiles, and these assault weapons can cover thousands of kilometers of our territory. Isn’t this a threat to us?”

Weeks before, Putin had also complained that "elements of the US global defense system are being deployed near Russia." He spoke again of the MK-41 launchers in Romania and, soon, in Poland. At that time, he added that "If this infrastructure continues to move forward, and if US and NATO missile systems are deployed in Ukraine, their flight time to Moscow will be only 7–10 minutes, or even five minutes for hypersonic systems. This is a huge challenge for us, for our security."

On June 29, in clear violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Biden announced that the US would establish a permanent headquarters for US forces in Poland. He called it "the first permanent US contingent on NATO’s eastern flank."

If in violation of guarantees it had given, Russia expanded its military alliance to include Canada and much of Latin America, if it placed nuclear weapons in Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba and sent military trainers into a Mexico swollen with lethal Russian weapons, would Russia be able to convince the US that there was no military threat?

Imperial Ambitions

Biden then warned the world that "if nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we put at risk everything this very institution stands for."

That too is true. But everything the UN stands for was put at risk a long time ago as the US cut a trail of wars and coups through the world in pursuit of its imperial ambitions. Just during Biden’s administration, the US has waged or enabled wars or dropped bombs on several countries, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia, exposing the lie that he "reject[s] the use of violence and war." As vice president, Biden supported the war in Iraq and the coup in Ukraine.

Relentless Diplomacy

Biden went on to repeat his promise that his would be a presidency of "relentless diplomacy." But his has been the presidency of the dearth of diplomacy. It has been asleep in the Iran negotiations, letting an easy and important nuclear deal slip away partly by refusing to provide guarantees that the US won’t, once again, break its promises.

He has been a no show on Cuba, continuing the embargo,  increasing sanctions, enhancing support for dissident activists and investing in projects aimed at regime change. He has continued go recognize the coup government in Venezuela and authored the disaster of the Summit of the Americas. He has accomplished nothing on North Korea.

Perhaps most importantly, like an auto-immune disease, US diplomats have attacked US diplomacy with Russia in the war on Ukraine, not only not engaging with Russia diplomatically but blocking promising attempts at democracy. The State Department not only discouraged Ukraine from negotiating an end to the war in favor of continuing to fight for larger US foreign policy principle, when the March 2022 negotiations in Istanbul appeared to promise a potential settlement, the US and it British ally seem to have pressured Ukraine to change its mind, as Putin has accused and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has confirmed.

We Don’t Seek a Cold War

Biden said, "We do not seek conflict. We do not seek a Cold War. We do not ask any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner." But they do. They have threatened countries who try to circumvent US sanctions on Russia. Just days ago, they put pressure on Turkey to choose sides and crack down on Russian sanction evasion. The US has repeatedly demanded that India “take a clear position” on the war in Ukraine and declared that “It’s now time [for India] to further distance itself from Russia.” Those demands have been accompanied by warnings.

Taiwan and the One China Policy

Biden’s claim that "We seek to uphold peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits" and that the US does "not seek a Cold War" was contradicted by his earlier boast that the US is "elevating the Quad in the Indo-Pacific." The Quad consists of the US, Japan, Australia and India. Though Biden claims not to be seeking a new cold war, the Quad is part of the alliance and bloc building US approach to the new cold war under Biden. It also has a military component, and its key goal is to confront and contain China.

Biden’s claim that "We remain committed to our One China policy" is rendered ridiculous by "new guidelines for US government interaction with Taiwan counterparts to encourage US government engagement with Taiwan that reflects our deepening unofficial relationship." It called Taiwan "an important security and economic partner" and determined to "liberalize guidance on contacts with Taiwan." It is rendered ridiculous by US weapons sales to Taiwan and high level security talks.

But it is rendered unbelievable by Nancy Polosi’s recent trip to Taiwan and, especially, by Biden’s promise, repeated again in the September 18 60 Minute’s interview that the US would go to war with China to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. Biden said that, not only would the US defend Taiwan, but that, unlike Ukraine, US forces would be committed. The 60 Minutes interview was the fourth time Biden has made this promise: not a slip but a mind set and a policy.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.