UN General Assembly: progress or paralysis

General Politics

The UN General Assembly’s High-Level General Debate (i.e leaders' speeches) starts on Tuesday, 20 September, facing a hot war in Europe, a dialogue of the deaf between the world’s two superpowers and an accelerating global decline in democratic norms. Some of the lesser-known commitments set out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights – for example, “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care” – now seem aspirational in developed and developing economies alike.   

The UN’s value was always mainly symbolic. The veto granted in 1945 to the five permanent security council members bequeathed a world of realpolitik. The design flaw that prevents the UN from mediating in Ukraine was the reason that Russia (and the US, China, UK and France) agreed to the creation of the security council in the first place. 

The change of recent years is that the momentum behind multilateralism, universal human rights and democratic values have evaporated. In their absence, it becomes harder for the underlying organs of the UN to function. Tensions between the P5 complicate the agreement on peacekeeping missions – particularly in Africa, where US / Russian / Chinese competition is strongest. In organisations like the International Telecommunications Union, China caucuses for a future internet designed on principles of surveillance rather than openness. The UNFCC can do little to grease the wheels of the COP process if the US and China stop talking about climate change. 

UN Secretary-General Guterres earmarked UNGA 2023 as the moment for a “summit of the future” which will discuss UNSC reform, broader global governance and even a new charter. But if those plans are not published or endorsed on a shorter timescale, more credibility will bleed away – and more attention will turn to other forums, chiefly the G20. Of those proposals for change, UNSC reform – most probably through expanding permanent membership to include Brazil, India, Germany and Japan – is the master key – but it is hard to imagine the necessary consensus emerging. 

The drama of UNGA will, as ever, be provided by the leaders’ speeches which will begin on 20th September. Past assemblies provided famous moments such as JFK’s appeal for peace in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, Castro’s four-hour denunciations of US policy in Latin America, Gaddafi’s destruction of the charter and Trump’s promise to deal with North Korea’s “rocket man”. The forum has also occasionally witnessed diplomatic breakthroughs, such as the Obama / Rouhani call which helped unlock the Iranian nuclear deal in 2013. 

Observers of this year’s events should expect more domestically focused grandstanding and even less quiet diplomacy. Biden will need to set out his stall ahead of the US midterms and is likely to play up his alliance of democracies agenda – including over Taiwan. Truss will seek to cleave ever closer to the US foreign policy position, not least to avoid focusing on disagreements with the EU. Xi (probably by video link) will need to reassert his position on Taiwan ahead of the 20th party congress which should confirm his third term. Putin will seek to rally nationalist supporters disappointed with the war's progress. And Zelensky will use the platform to try and rally international support, as international attention begins to drift. All the prospects suggest a fortnight that ramps up global tensions yet further.

For more on the future of multilateral summits, check out this recent episode of Jon's podcast mini-series, 'The Geopolitics of: Summits'


The views expressed in this note can be attributed to the named author(s) only.