The 77th High Level session of the UN General Assembly is the first time the gathering of global leaders has been fully in person since the pandemic began. In the intervening period, the world seems to have slid backward. Global fault lines have deepened. Mistrust between the United States and China has grown as a result of disputes about the origins of COVID-19, China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, and tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea. China’s decision to indulge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine has solidified the sense of a world divided into two camps, with NATO and the West on one side and Russia and China and their acolytes on the other. Meanwhile, middle powers are weighing their alternatives, with some playing both sides.
The last three years have also shredded an already fragile net of global humanitarian support. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare drastic deficiencies and inequalities in the world’s preparedness for unpredictable public health crises. The consequences of climate change—flooded cities, deadly heat waves, wildfires, and superstorms—are mounting. The pandemic, the climate crisis, and the Ukraine war have conspired to create an unparalleled global food crisis plunging 345 million people into acute food insecurity and 50 million to the edge of famine, according to the World Food Programme. Forty nations are now at risk of defaulting on their sovereign debt. Longer-term plans to remedy global inequities and deprivations have also been thrown off course. It is now clear that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—the 17 benchmarks on everything from ending poverty to gender equality that were established in 2015 and supposed to be met by 2030—will not be achieved.
Against this global backdrop, the UN General Assembly High-Level meeting, the week when world leaders travel to New York, musters with its own idiosyncrasies and limitations. This year’s proceeding will be consequential in at least three ways: as an opportunity to see where member states stand on the war in Ukraine; as a catalyst to galvanize faltering humanitarian energies and vision; and as a test of whether the world’s most universal organization can sustain its relevance in a diverse, digitized, and divided world.
GLOBAL TEMPERATURE CHECK
The timing of this year’s General Assembly, just a week after the world absorbed news of Ukraine’s startling battlefield gains, renders the event a live litmus test of global opinion about Putin’s war and the bold authoritarian power play that it represents. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has filed a special petition to provide pre-recorded remarks at the UN General Assembly, arguing that he cannot leave his war-torn nation. The petition, a rare exception to rules requiring heads of state to appear in person or designate a substitute, won support from 101 nations, with 19 abstentions (including China) and just seven countries opposed. With Zelensky absent, Western heads of state will take the lead rallying others to assist Ukraine in its war with Russia. The UN General Assembly offers a chance for the United States and its partners to demonstrate momentum in terms of persuading the globe’s middle powers to get behind a liberal, rights-based agenda. Putin tried to parade what had been seen as a rising authoritarian alliance at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Uzbekistan, alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders, last week. But this alliance is showing its fissures. The question now is whether the West and its allies can do better in demonstrating a broad and united front.
During a headline-grabbing press conference where he admitted that Beijing had expressed misgivings over the Ukraine war, Putin excoriated the West for seeking to impose its own rules on others. He urged a return to a world in which the UN and its broad multilateral treaties reigned supreme. Putin’s lip-service to the UN system, with its founding precepts, treaties, and institutions is an opening the West should seize. As Washington and its friends try to manage an ascendant China and a revanchist Russia, international law and norms have the potential to be potent constraints that draw a line between legitimate and illegitimate action. That is, provided the United States and its partners demonstrate that the weight of world opinion trusts them to respect these international principles and rejects Putin’s cynical perversions thereof.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine have both deepened divisions and catalyzed new coalitions across the globe. Since Putin invaded in February, countries have been forced to take a stance on this flagrant violation of the core obligation of the UN Charter, which requires members not to use “force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” In March, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that affirmed Ukrainian sovereignty and called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the invaded territory. The final tally had 141 states supporting the resolution and just five opposing it, with 35 abstentions. In April, the General Assembly adopted a resolution to suspend Russia’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council with 93 voting in favor, 24 against, and 58 abstentions. In a world divided by power and ideology, and one where human rights have been politicized and contested, these resolutions signaled broad agreement. The ability of the United States and its allies to amass strong global majorities, however, masked the ambivalence of many leading middle powers, including South Africa and India, which abstained on both resolutions, and Indonesia and Brazil, which likewise chose the middle ground on the Human Rights Council suspension.
A Security Council session on Ukraine is planned for September 22. The council provides an important floodlit stage for international shaming, but the veto-beholden body has been deadlocked on any action pertaining to the war. The council thus functions as perhaps the world’s most watched focus group, with choices of phrase and points of emphasis carefully parsed. To date, Beijing’s decision to remain aligned with Russia and the reluctance of leading Latin American, Asian, and African nations to take active sides in the war has helped Putin sustain popular support inside Russia for his costly military campaign. The prominence of the war in speeches made by heads of state, reactions to Zelensky’s on-screen remarks, and the reception afforded to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will all be markers of whether the world is turning more widely against Putin’s war.
Until last week, Xi’s loyalty to Putin seemed unshakeable. The Chinese president made his first trip abroad since the pandemic began more than two years ago to attend the summit in Uzbekistan. His meeting with Putin indicated tides may be shifting and Chinese support may not be absolute. Putin confessed that Xi has “questions and concerns” about the war. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also used this same summit to state publicly, for the first time, that “today’s era is not one of war” and to urge Putin to move toward a “path to peace.” The tenor of the General Assembly meeting will be a closely watched indicator of whether Beijing’s support for Russia’s war is still on solid ground.
As the Russian military loses territory in Ukraine, concerns raised at the UN General Assembly could contribute to a tipping point in global attitudes toward the war and reverberate back in Moscow. Russia’s resort to punitive and highly risky tactics, including enforced blackouts in eastern Kharkiv and Donetsk and shelling near Ukraine’s teetering Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, represent the kind of conscience-shocking measures that could spur a broader moral consensus that would weigh on Beijing and Moscow. While neither leader is beholden to a democratic constituency, each depends on the support of elites and bureaucrats. If those in positions of influence in Moscow and Beijing continue to sour on the war, the consequences both on the battleground and within the Kremlin could be grave for Putin.
While this session of the UN General Assembly will serve as a timely political test, it also has the potential to reaffirm and even accelerate a tentative pattern whereby the world body has begun to step into the void created by the Security Council’s perpetual gridlock on matters of international peace and security. In April, the General Assembly passed a resolution requiring its president to open a debate within ten working days of any use of the veto by a permanent member of the Security Council. This is intended to create accountability for those who wield the veto, forcing them to justify their action before an assembly of 193 states that are adept at pointing fingers. The prospect of a public, televised spectacle in which countries that block Security Council action are put under a global microscope has the potential to serve as a powerful disincentive for using the veto. It remains to be seen whether the net result will be to foster greater Security Council consensus or simply to keep hot button issues away from the council. But the experiment itself will be significant. That measure, coupled with the General Assembly’s resolutions on Ukraine and its ongoing investigation into war crimes in Syria, evince an increasingly restive global polity, unwilling to defer to an often paralyzed Security Council. The tenor of the debate this week has the potential to accelerate this trend, slowly shifting power away from an ossified and unreformed Council.
UP TO THE TASK?
The work of the General Assembly reflects the evolution of the UN: Its most tangible accomplishments are now less Rose Garden-style diplomatic breakthroughs than the plodding work of tackling chronic problems that affect lives and well-being around the world. Meetings this week will focus on education, climate change, the Sustainable Development Goals, and progress in vanquishing COVID-19. Refugee crises, climate disasters, democratic fissures, and now rising food and energy prices have rendered the last several years an inward-looking period in capitals around the world, with resources and leaders tied up with domestic populations and problems.
Development aid has been diverted to the war in Ukraine, leaving humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, Yemen, and elsewhere to fester amid soaring food prices and collapsing services. Conflict, climate change, and the effects of the pandemic have catapulted food insecurity to the top of the global agenda. The rate of progress on ending world hunger and ensuring access to clean water would need to accelerate fivefold in order for those two goals to be met on time, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This session of the General Assembly provides an opportunity for a global reset, but it must also reenergize collective action around a response to the food, fuel, and debt crises and the radically unequal domestic vulnerabilities that have ensued. For this to happen, persuasion alone will be insufficient. The United States especially will need to demonstrate commitment and leadership and work with developing countries to deliver solutions to the global food and energy crisis. To this end, the United States is convening a summit on food security with the African Union and the EU. The test of these efforts will lie in the firmness of commitments voiced and the size of dollar amounts pledged. They will also represent a key measure of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s ability to galvanize action in the wake of a series of pleas he has made about the fast-deteriorating state of global humanitarian well-being.
Like all high-profile events that are returning live after a pandemic hiatus, this year’s General Assembly will raise the inevitable question of whether the proceedings come across as relevant, urgent, and up-to-the-minute for a world that has evolved in unimagined ways. The queen’s funeral, taking place on the first scheduled day of high-level meetings, is a vivid reminder of a world in transition and one in which trusted institutions—including the U.S. government—seem shakier than they did even just a few short years ago. The timing of the funeral and the wall-to-wall global media coverage it will command also adds a layer of complexity for those in New York who are charged with ensuring that what happens at the UN this week breaks through to reach a global public and avoids being overshadowed. The fact that the UN’s made-in-1948 structures, systems, and processes have long struggled to evolve, often frozen in place by the imperatives of elusive international consensus, does not help.
As with virtually everything that happens at the UN, the world body’s ability to project strength in a post-pandemic world will depend mostly on the tenor struck by its individual member states. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, delivered a speech on September 8 in which she outlined six new U.S. commitments aimed at fortifying the world body. The General Assembly will signal whether these undertakings—which included a stricter adherence to the UN Charter, a pledge to minimize use of the veto, and a commitment to procedural reforms at the Security Council—echo throughout the membership. If the United States has done its diplomatic homework and can demonstrate that it is leading a broad coalition behind concrete measures to drive the UN forward, that could foretell consequential change. The congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has demonstrated how a tradition-bound institution can innovate its methods to engage a wider public. Part of the test of this year’s General Assembly is how the proceedings manifest on television, Twitter, and TikTok.
With Europe fast weaning itself off Russian energy and the West trying to wall itself off from intrusive Chinese technologies, the bright promise of global interdependence has dimmed into a hard-headed, selective, and wary approach to international engagement. And yet, pandemics, climate shocks, and economic tremors cross borders with abandon, thwarting efforts at retreat and isolation. In a world increasingly devoid of agreed rules, it is notable that the United States, Russia, and China all profess deference to the UN and claim to want to see the UN system triumph. That in itself represents an essential opportunity to surmount competition and sustain cooperation.
That the UN can be seen as both the seat of the liberal internationalist order or, in Putin’s conception, as a set of universal rules operating to constrain Western prerogatives, is a reminder of the scale of the challenge. Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the UN, used to say that if the UN did not exist, the world would have to invent it. The UN does exist, but both the institution and the world it serves demand reinvention. This year’s General Assembly meeting has the opportunity to distinguish itself as the moment when that transformation began in earnest.