(Editor’s Note: The author further shares his insights on the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting on the Just Security Podcast. Listen to the episode here).
If you attended last week’s High-Level session of the United Nations General Assembly, you could convince yourself that the U.N. still matters. 131 presidents and prime ministers turned up to address the General Assembly, and the east side of Manhattan was crammed with diplomats, NGO representatives, burly security guards, and vocal protesters. After three years in which COVID-19 restrictions damped down diplomatic activities around the General Assembly, this was the full “UNGA” experience, with numerous mini-summits on topics ranging from development to global health.
If, by contrast, you followed these events through the media, you may have reached a very different conclusion: the U.N. meeting was a total flop, or at least a thoroughly miserable affair. News stories both before and during the High-Level week focused on the weaknesses of multilateralism, and the fact that a number of well-known leaders – including President Xi Jinping of China and President Emmanuel Macron of France – chose not to attend. Journalists milling around the Turtle Bay neighborhood found it hard to cover even obvious news stories. It was, as one veteran U.N. correspondent lamented to me when we collided on Second Avenue last Friday, “a boring General Assembly.”
In retrospect, both the General Assembly’s true-believers and its nay-sayers had fair points. This was not a U.N. conclave on par with some previous sessions. Unlike in 2015, the year of shining diplomacy that also produced the Paris Climate Agreement, there was no flagship achievement to rival the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) after this General Assembly. Instead, as Richard Ponzio has written for Just Security, leaders and ministers took limited steps towards advancing various knotty multilateral agendas. The most significant of these was a political declaration on trying to increase implementation of the SDGs, which are badly off track after the economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Nonetheless, there was a sense that these small steps at least mitigated tensions between the Western and non-Western members of the U.N. Over the last year, representatives of developing countries have complained that the United States and its allies – occupied with the Ukrainian crisis – have ignored poorer States’ economic woes. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders responded by making a solid effort to dispel these criticisms. In his half-hour long speech to the General Assembly, Biden notably did not refer to Ukraine for the first twenty minutes, instead concentrating on cooperation over economic issues and climate change. In side-meetings around U.N. headquarters, U.S. and European officials persistently praised the SDGs.
Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, making his first in-person appearance at the U.N. since Russia’s all-out assault on his country, was careful to acknowledge the concerns of the developing world. As I noted earlier this month, some non-Western U.N. members had worried that Zelenskyy’s appearance would distract from their priorities. But he used his speech to the General Assembly to link Ukraine’s struggle to global issues including high food and energy prices and (less convincingly) implied that Russia might weaponize climate change.
If Zelenskyy broadly hit the right notes before the General Assembly, he stirred up more interest with another speech at a special session of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine. To the surprise of many observers, he devoted much of this to a lengthy discussion of the importance of Security Council reform. This was partly aimed at Russia – which Ukraine would like to see expelled from the Council – but also designed to appeal to those big non-Western powers, like Brazil and South Africa, that believe that they should be given permanent Security Council seats.
Biden had raised the importance of Security Council reform during his U.N. address last year, but soft-pedalled the topic this year. Zelenskyy’s intervention put the spotlight back on the topic and, at least among those diplomats and officials I chatted with last week, there was a sense that overhauling the Security Council will remain a hot topic in U.N.-land in the year ahead. There is, however, little chance of rapid progress on the issue. Nearly all U.N. members, including China and Russia, say that reform is necessary. But the United States is the one power that could orchestrate a diplomatic drive on the issue, having already consulted with a wide range of U.N. members since Biden dangled the prospect of reform last year.
Biden is not going to be able to focus on this, or get other countries to negotiate seriously on the topic, until after the 2024 U.S. elections. If he does secure a second term, the United States could pursue Security Council reform in the run up to the U.N.’s eightieth anniversary in 2025, although the obstacles to success – not least getting U.S. Senate support for any alterations to the U.N. Charter – remain huge.
In the meantime, discussions on the margins of the General Assembly, or at least those I was privy to, turned to another hot topic, Artificial Intelligence (AI). Secretary-General António Guterres has been trying to draw attention to the international regulation of AI for some time. This has been slow going, but this year diplomats – probably as much or more influenced by their experiments with ChatGPT than the U.N. chief’s appeals – were suddenly seized with the issue. Next year, Guterres will convene a “Summit of the Future” on the sidelines of the General Assembly to talk about updating multilateralism to meet current and looming challenges. Although this will cover topics ranging from security to global health, it looks increasingly likely that developing a framework for managing AI will be a dominant theme.
What exactly this framework will look like is an open question. Guterres has suggested establishing an international body, analogous to the International Atomic Energy Agency, to guide the use of this new technology. It is not clear that big players on AI, like China or the United States would sign up to that. As the International Crisis Group has recently noted, the immediate role for the U.N. may be to focus international attention on the risks associated with AI – including its military uses. It could provide a platform for initial inter-State discussions on how manage these downsides, rather than catalyzing a rapid move to new oversight institutions or binding treaties.
But if there were some ambitious discussions around the U.N.’s future last week, there were also reminders of the organization’s weaknesses. The Security Council convened last Thursday to react to the news that Azerbaijan had effectively retaken control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been self-governed since shortly after the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s, but could do little in response. The operation sent thousands of its ethnically Armenian inhabitants into flight, creating a humanitarian crisis. This was a reminder, if any was needed, about the U.N.’s limitations in maintaining peace and security in a divided world. It was notable that, while U.N. members convened multiple discussions of development and climate change, there were relatively few events focusing on specific crisis situations (exceptions included meetings on the rights of women in Afghanistan and the war in Sudan).
Overall, Biden and other Western leaders got what they wanted from the General Assembly. This was an opportunity to reach out their counterparts from the so-called Global South, and send reassuring messages about the West’s interest in issues including development and climate change. While other diplomatic venues, such as the G20 and G7, may now carry more weight as decision-making spaces for large economies, the U.N. is still a space to engage with a wider range of States. Those who dismiss the General Assembly because a few big-name leaders were missing overlook this point. True, for all the bustle in Manhattan, this meeting at best eased, rather than resolved, some of the host of tensions and challenges facing the U.N. But given that the U.N. is an institution that perennially fails to meet the highest expectations, while outperforming the lowest, this was not a flop: it was more par for the course.