British prime minister Liz Truss’s speech at the United Nations this week was spot-on. It was clear, concise and left no question that the UK would do everything in its power to lead in the defense of the West and its values.
President Biden’s address, by contrast, left you feeling overwhelmed and unsatisfied. That’s not to say he failed to speak about Ukraine — he spent a reasonable amount of time on it — but the substance just was not there. Truss made a clear commitment to continue to “sustain or increase… military support to Ukraine, for as long as it takes,” a concrete and actionable statement. Though Biden issued a ringing condemnation of Putin’s war, he only made a vague pledge to “stand in solidarity against Russia’s aggression.”
Proposed US actions were non-existent: there was no promise to bolster defense spending or maintain or increase direct military aid to Ukraine. We were left to assume that, given his touting of American and allied aid to Ukraine, Biden was implying it would continue, but in the context of his speech, that did not seem sufficient. Putin needs to know that he will not get a break, that his threats are not going to change the West’s calculus. Now, as Russia is escalating, explicit statements of strength, unwavering resolve and determined action are essential.
The US is the greatest military and economic power on earth, while the UK is in the midst of a devastating energy crisis and persistent high inflation. Britain should not have to be leading the charge against Russia.
On other issues, Biden was less ambiguous. He proposed specific reforms to the UN Security Council and made a commitment to spend $2.9 billion to end the food crisis. But when it came to the most pressing security crisis of the past two decades, aside from expressions of support for some policies such as a grain export deal, details were lacking.
The world looks to the US to set an example. When the US leads, its partners follow. The UK simply has not had that kind of clout for decades, which makes it all the more laudable that Truss is nonetheless trying to fill that role.
Beyond Ukraine, both Truss and Biden addressed the renewed struggle between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracy. The new British prime minister made this the foundation of her roughly thirteen-minute speech. Nearly everything revolved around the importance of democracy and freedom, from foreign policy to economics. Her proposal for an “economic NATO” was particularly notable, and will become ever more necessary as countries like China weaponize their economic might. Like the stark distinction that Ronald Reagan made between the “evil empire” and the West, there was no ambiguity about Truss’s faith in democracy and disdain for the world’s criminal regimes. “The story of 2022 could have been that of an authoritarian state rolling its tanks over the border of a peaceful neighbor and subjugating its people,” she said, but “instead, it is the story of freedom fighting back.” Hers is the kind of clear, optimistic, forceful message that the West so desperately needs.
Biden’s speech was more of a who’s-who of global issues, from climate change to tax structures to a litany of foreign policy concerns. To be sure, on human rights abuses by authoritarian regimes, Biden did a superb job of calling out the perpetrators, including China, Iran and Myanmar. He brought up the importance of democracy and freedom on multiple occasions, and added similar rhetorical flourishes to Truss. But, aside from holding as gospel the UN Charter, there was no clear unifying force throughout the nearly twenty-nine-minute speech, a length that left the listener rather bewildered. In effect, the most important messages were buried.
The world is becoming a much more dangerous place, and the West needs a leader with steely resolve and a clear sense of the most important threats it faces. If the US cannot provide that leader, the UK is the next best option.
Of course, Britain is not the superpower it once was: gone are the majority of its vast domains, no longer is the Royal Navy the world’s preeminent naval force and London has been eclipsed by New York as the global financial capital. Nevertheless, the UK has a history of standing against the advance of authoritarianism and totalitarianism from which it can draw strength. Without the UK, France would have lost World War One, crushed by the German juggernaut. The relatively small British Expeditionary Force, and its unrivaled professionalism, helped to blunt Germany’s initial advance in 1914. Just over twenty years after the end of that conflict, Britain again punched above its weight, this time acting as the last bulwark of Western civilization in Europe against Nazi Germany. In its decisive defeat of a junta-ruled Argentina in the Falklands War of 1982, the UK proved that, despite having lost most of its colonial territories, it was capable of projecting power abroad. This legacy should offer confidence in the viability of a new era of UK leadership. The US will still be the force behind the West, but Britain may need to be the standard-bearer.
Truss has a difficult journey ahead of her, particularly as the cost of living crisis really begins to bite. Nevertheless, her robust defense of democracy at the UN, and her commitment to resolutely oppose the enemies of the free world — and back it up with real action — means her determined leadership will be invaluable.