scorecardresearch Skip to main content

At the UN, Biden deftly deals with two of the world’s biggest autocrats

His speech demonstrated a differential approach toward Russia and China.

President Biden delivered remarks at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 21.DAVE SANDERS/NYT

Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine will go down as one of the most rapacious foreign policy gambits of post-World War II history. Exactly how it ends is hard to predict, but we do know this: What Putin expected would be a quick victory has become an extended and costly excursion.

The way the war has gone has shattered the illusion that Russia is a world-class military power. A brutal one, yes. A sadistic one, certainly. But also one inept to the point of incompetence.

The course of the conflict has also disproved the notion that Western Europe, accustomed to long decades of peace, no longer has the grit or resolve to stand down a lupine marauder like Putin and would therefore largely stand by while Russia either carved up Ukraine or erased it from the map.


Instead, led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, Western Europe has responded in a way that Putin didn’t anticipate. Result: With his forces in retreat or stalemated, the Russian martinet has ordered a “partial” mobilization of 300,000 reservists at home, touching off protests and giving the lie to the notion that his “special military operation” is going well.

A major reason for Putin’s frustrations? The Biden administration, with the strong support of Congress, has skillfully catalyzed and coordinated the Western response, directing an invaluable flow of weapons to Ukraine, providing vital intelligence, and regularly preempting the Kremlin’s propaganda initiatives.

How it must have galled Putin to see Biden at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, condemning Russia for trampling on the United Nations Charter and the norms of humanitarian decency, while also exploding the Russian leader’s various poses and pretenses.

One of those, obviously, is Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons, something he has cantilevered out from his absurd claim that Russia is the subject of a nuclear threat from the West. Given his plan to hold sham referenda in occupied regions of eastern and southern Ukraine and then declare those areas incorporated into Russia, thereby establishing a half-crescent-shaped corridor from Russia to previously seized Crimea, what Putin is actually saying is this: If he’s not allowed to snaffle those parts of Ukraine, he may go nuclear.


Biden noted the utter irresponsibility of that threat, even as he made it clear this country won’t be deterred by saber-rattling of that sort.

“We will stand in solidarity with Ukraine,” he declared. “We will stand in solidarity against Russia’s aggression. Period.”

Determined and undeterred is precisely the right tone to strike in the face of such posturing. A nuclear strike is in actuality unlikely. Doing so would rupture Putin’s most important alliance, the autocrats-R-us pact he and President Xi Jinping of China struck last February, before Putin’s invasion.

Xi may have pledged fascist friendship forever with Putin and, by doing so, signed on (perhaps unwittingly) to twiddling his totalitarian thumbs while Putin executed a quick mugging of Ukraine. But as has become clear from Chinese statements since, the Chinese leader obviously didn’t intend to enlist as a Russian enabler in an extended exercise in brutality. He is now clearly uncomfortable at having been placed in that position.

In that regard, it was equally interesting to see the way Biden addressed China.


Rather than the scathing tone he took with Russia, Biden was frank but not hostile toward China, stressing that the United States sought neither conflict nor “a Cold War” with its Indo-Pacific rival. He added that the United States remained committed to its One China policy, which is to say, an internally inconsistent set of tenets aimed at finessing thorny realities and forestalling military conflict between China and Taiwan.

Interestingly, Biden left unsaid something he had specifically stated in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on Sunday: that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacks.

There was no ambiguity, strategic or otherwise, there. Having now made that policy shift clear, Biden obviously felt no need to antagonize China by doing so again during his UN speech.

Xi has already made one big miscalculation in enabling Putin. He now has the information he needs to avoid another one regarding Taiwan.

It’s frustrating but nevertheless true that foreign policy is often less about big, lasting solutions than middling improvements in complex and unstable situations. Given that reality, Biden and his foreign policy team have ample reason to be pleased with the progress made in two dicey situations.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.