President Joe Biden sounded all the right notes in his Tuesday address to the United Nations General Assembly. He spoke on the need for global co-operation against pandemics and the climate crisis, as well as the need to counter rising autocracies by means other than warfare.
As an aspirational framework, the speech was admirable and spelled out what the United States should be aiming for.
Yet, Biden's words seemed painfully divorced from the realities on the ground, especially after the White House botched the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and created a spat with France that further undermines NATO.
Those events raise questions about the Biden team's foreign policy team's competence, and its commitment to its allies. In addition, the divisive politics of GOP Trumpsters are amplifying the world's questions about whether America still has the capacity to lead.
Biden's push for accelerated co-operation on COVID-19 was important, and he held a virtual summit on the topic on Wednesday, on the sidelines of the UN meeting. Only a tiny fraction of the vaccine doses promised to poorer nations at a June summit of the world's richest industrial nations has been delivered. Without a wider global vaccination rate, new variants of the coronavirus will flourish. And without US leadership, a wider - and effective - global vaccination push is unlikely to happen.
Yet, as with climate change, domestic US political divisions are thwarting global progress on vaccinations. The undermining of the domestic vaccine process by leading GOP officials has diminished US credibility worldwide.
Biden's admirable vaccine rollout should have made America the world leader in fighting the virus. Instead, America's pandemic of the unvaccinated shames it on an international stage. This makes allies question Americans' sanity, along with the functionality of the American government and its ability to lead.
So, friends and foes listened politely on Tuesday when Biden rightly called for global action on the coronavirus and the climate crisis, as well as on upholding the UN Declaration of Human Rights and shaping new rules on advanced technology. But even America's friends questioned how a viciously divided US could lead in the future. Its adversaries are gleefully watching America tear itself apart.
Moreover, Biden's vocal emphasis on allies seemed strangely disconnected from recent White House manoeuvres. There was no co-ordination with NATO allies on the decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by August 31, even though those allies had 7500 troops in the country, three times more than the Americans. The botched departure was a slap at NATO, and raises questions about the competence of the current State Department leadership.
The new AUKUS security accord between the US, the United Kingdom and Australia was a further insult to a NATO ally. Australia's junking of its massive, multibillion-dollar deal with France to buy conventional French submarines, in favour of a new contract with the US and the UK for technologically superior nuclear-powered boats, left French leaders justifiably furious that they were not informed until the last minute.
This is no way to treat a historic ally, at a time when Biden is touting the critical importance of fellow democracies in competing with Beijing. No wonder many pundits are now comparing Biden's dissing of allies with the tactics of Trump.
This brings us to the issue of China, which was a subtext of Biden's UN speech (even though the word China was never used).
Biden stressed that the US was "not seeking a new Cold War", but said America would "compete, and we'll compete vigorously, and lead with our values and our strength". He added, "We'll stand up for our allies and our friends and oppose attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones, whether through changes to territory by force, economic coercion, technical exploitation, or disinformation".
And he repeated one of the most important themes of his presidency: "We'll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example." Or, as he told the Munich Security Conference in February, "We're at an inflection point between those who argue that ... autocracy is the best way forward and those who understand that democracy is essential."
In other words, unlike Trump's sabre-rattling and tariff wars, Biden recognises that America can't compete with China unless it ups its game at home in infrastructure, education and advanced technology. And it can't counter Chinese claims that its autocratic model - and internal repression - best suits the 21st century unless the US can demonstrate that democracy still works.
Biden's call for showing "the power of our example" was the most poignant moment of his speech, because it spoke to the reality of the moment.
America is still potentially capable of global leadership - if it pulls together. The Biden team can overcome its early mistakes and reboot its methods of operation. And voters can still sideline the crazies who deny Biden's win, oppose vaccines, and have the power to sink their country.
But if all of the above ends in failure, the ideals voiced by Biden at the United Nations will be remembered as so much hot air.