September 29, 2021
IntelBrief: Reflections on the 76th United Nations General Assembly
Bottom Line Up Front
- The just concluded opening session of the 76th UN General Assembly (UNGA) looked more like its usual self in 2021, with an estimated 100 world leaders congregating in New York for the diplomatic highlight of the year.
- Much of the attention at the United Nations is focused on the speeches by the five permanent members of the Security Council – the “P5” – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
- Although the U.S. has sought to reassert a leading multilateral role, it remains challenged by continuing vacancies at senior levels and the need to overcome the absence of diplomacy under the previous administration.
- After almost two years of virtual diplomacy and an all-virtual UNGA last year, the jury is still out on the medium- to long-term impact of interactions through screens.
The just concluded opening session of the 76th United Nations General Assembly—the high-level General Debate—looked a little more like its usual self than it did last year. An estimated 100 world leaders congregated in New York for what is traditionally the diplomatic highlight of the year. Nonetheless, this UNGA was a paler version, with many states sending pared down delegations, if at all, or sending in pre-recorded statements. The hundreds of side events, which served to create nodes for interaction between senior officials and experts, were also largely eliminated due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with those remaining taking place on virtual platforms. The traditional ministerial meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, which usually takes place on the margins of the General Debate and brings together delegations from 29 member states and the European Union, also did not take place this year. However, for a city that had been bereft of its customary place on the diplomatic calendar last year and still recovering from the impact of the pandemic, the resumption of UNGA week reflected large strides towards recovery and normalcy.
Much of the attention at the United Nations is focused on the speeches by the five permanent members of the Security Council—the “P5”—which includes China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, this is also an occasion in which every state has an opportunity to present its respective views and priorities and reflect the diversity of global opinion. This year, the focus has largely been on COVID recovery and climate action, with the 26thUN Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow, Scotland in November. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an impassioned plea in the General Assembly for a green revolution—or at least evolution—and called for pledges to achieve carbon neutrality, or “net zero,” by the middle of the century. He also hailed innovations in science and industry, affirming the UK’s “Promethean faith” in new green technology to cut emissions. In a prerecorded statement, Chinese President Xi Jinping also called for a “green revolution,” pledging to scale up China’s Nationally Determined Contributions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Many states, such as Norway, Ireland, and Bangladesh, echoed the call for urgent climate action and for multilateral responses to urgent global crises.
Yesterday, amidst the fallout of the recently announced AUKUS alliance between the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States which led to President Macron’s absence from UNGA, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian focused on maintaining international peace and security and stressed the role of the P5. He also stressed that French engagement in the Sahel would continue after Paris ends its military mission, but called for strict adherence to the election timetable in Mali and warned that continued political turmoil risked unraveling any counterterrorism gains. Responding to concerns about the role of private military firms like the Wagner Group operating in the Sahel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed they had a “legitimate” right to be in Mali because they were invited by the country’s transitional government. Minister Lavrov reiterated Russia’s traditional resistance to the notion of a “Rules Based Order,” which he argued was a Western effort to override international law. He also called for the UN to play a central role in international security, criticizing sanctions regimes which he said undermined the prerogatives of the Security Council.
Appearing in person after a tumultuous year in India and the devastating impact of the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted his nation’s recovery efforts and stressed India’s democratic and multiethnic history amidst reports of rising social tensions and violence. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a prerecorded statement, stressed the need to address the crisis in Afghanistan and called for strengthening and stabilizing the current government. He noted that “a destabilized, chaotic Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for international terrorists—the reason why the US came to Afghanistan in the first place,” and highlighted concerns about human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.
Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi took the occasion to rail against the United States and sanctions, calling them a “new way of war with the nations of the world”, and a crime against humanity, especially sanctions on medicine, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett highlighted his country’s successful response to the pandemic and the road to economic recovery before turning to the issue of Iran’s malign influence in the region—“Like the Midas touch, Iran’s regime has the ‘Mullah-touch.’ Every place Iran touches, fails.” Brazilian President Bolsonaro, traditionally the first speaker during the UNGA General Debate, remained defiant in the face of COVID-19 outbreaks among his delegation and defended his approach to the pandemic.
U.S. President Biden’s speech sought to place America back at the forefront of international diplomacy and partnerships after the tumultuous years of the Trump administration for many international partners. However, the shadow of America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s victory, accentuated by the return to brutal governance, the suppression of women, and violence against minorities, loomed large over President Biden’s appearance at UNGA, as were the tensions with France around AUKUS. Although the U.S. has sought to reassert a leading role in the multilateral space, it remains challenged by continuing vacancies at senior policymaking levels in Washington, D.C. and the need to overcome the notable absence of diplomacy under the previous administration, amidst a series of global crises.
Traditionally, the speeches of the opening debate are just one of the diplomatic dividends of the week; the bilateral interactions from senior to expert levels between delegations and the benchmarks and pledges made by leaders offer launching points for future action. After almost two years of virtual diplomacy and an all-virtual UNGA last year, the jury is still out on the medium- to long-term impact of interactions through screens. On the one hand, it has democratized access and lowered the cost of interactions for those unable to travel to conferences and meetings; on the other hand, it raises questions about how much trust and confidence can be generated through electronic exchanges. It appears that where partnerships are already strong, the screen is less of an impediment to diplomacy, but where relationships are tense and friendships are absent, it remains questionable. As Yitzhak Rabin, once Israel’s Prime Minister and negotiator for peace said, “you don’t make peace with friends; you can only make peace with your enemies.”