Against the backdrop of the traditional exchange of diplomatic niceties and posturing for domestic political audiences among world leaders, who gathered in recent days in New York for the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres proposed myriad solutions to the world’s biggest challenges during this year’s High-Level Week. He drew on his forward-leaning Our Common Agenda and High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism reports and eleven new policy briefs.

With 88 Heads of State and 43 Heads of Government and other high-level dignitaries participating in this year’s annual confab at U.N. headquarters, five key takeaways – including major themes and dynamics, notable points of tension, and thoughts on the way forward – are:

1. SDG Summit (Sept. 18-19): Off-target but with a renewed determination in the “Second Half” to realize the 2030 Agenda.

Ups & Downs: Despite last minute drama where eleven countries (including Cuba, which currently leads the G77+China, and Russia) signaled that their delegations would “oppose any attempt to pretend to adopt any of the draft outcome documents,” the SDG Summit’s Political Declaration achieved a consensus. Notwithstanding Member States’ poor performance in implementing the SDGs, several delegates and senior U.N. officials spoke to how the summit represented a “turning point to rescue the SDGs,” and a few employed the sports metaphor (in recognition of reaching the mid-point for the 2030 Agenda) that “games are won or lost in the second half.”

Outlook Ahead: While the SDG Summit’s Political Declaration did not receive any objections, it still needs to be considered and formally adopted soon by the General Assembly. In connection with their complaint about “unilateral coercive measures,” the countries voicing concern may seek to revisit their objection vis-à-vis the SDG Summit Political Declaration and other major General Assembly documents (e.g., on Tuberculosis, Universal Health Coverage, and Pandemic Preparedness and Response).

More consequential over the medium-term is whether – beyond simply reaffirming the 2030 Agenda – Member States can demonstrate that new resources, capabilities, and momentum were generated for SDG implementation coming out of the summit, including through mutually reinforcing dividends with the September 2024 Summit of the Future’s (SOTF) multiple preparatory tracks (as detailed in the Future of International Cooperation Report, section IV).

2. Summit of the Future Ministerial Meeting (Sept. 21): Many divisions to overcome with one-year-to-go to meet the ambitious goals of this generational opportunity.

Ups & Downs: Shortly prior to the SOTF Ministerial Meeting, the President of the General Assembly (PGA), following intensive intergovernmental negotiations shepherded by the U.N. Permanent Representatives of Germany and Namibia, arrived at a decision that the scope of Summit of the Future’s “Pact for the Future” (chief outcome document) will encompass five chapters on: (i) Sustainable Development & Financing for Development, (ii) International Peace and Security, (iii) Science, Technology and Innovation and Digital Cooperation, (iv) Youth and Future Generations, and (v) Transforming Global Governance.

However, reaching this milestone and the overall constructive tone conveyed by Member States at last week’s SOTF Ministerial Meeting belies three underlying fault-lines that must be navigated skillfully to achieve meaningful progress, namely: renewed Great Power rivalries, resurfaced Global North-South tensions, and lingering distrust between certain Member States with the U.N. Secretariat and Civil Society (for an elaboration of each, see: Road to 2023, section VII).

Outlook Ahead: With so much time squandered negotiating about the negotiating process, limited time remains for actual substantive negotiations. The PGA must quickly appoint, to steward work on the Pact’s five chapters, the strongest and most balanced co-facilitator teams possible, who would be wise to heed the recent SOTF-targeted recommendations by respected international statespersons.

The fact that earlier detailed elements of the PGA’s decision were subsequently removed, following  delays in negotiating this second procedural document further to last year’s “modalities resolution,” speaks to the highly unsettled political environment for achieving consensus during the upcoming negotiations. This includes finalizing a Global Digital Compact, Declaration on Future Generations, and other possible instruments, in addition to the Pact for the Future.

While the SDG Summit arrived at a relatively brief high-level political statement that acknowledges global governance systems gaps in need of urgent attention to accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda, the preparatory process for next year’s Summit of the Future has the potential to realize – through well-conceived, politically acceptable, and adequately resourced reform proposals – the actual systemic changes in global governance needed to fill these gaps. This will entail comprehensively tracking the SDG Summit’s identified gaps and ensuring their coverage (backed up by sufficient financing and high-level political support, including through concurrent deliberations in the G20, G7, and BRICS+ forums) in the multiple, in-depth instruments to be negotiated for the Summit of the Future.

3. Climate Ambition Summit (Sept. 20): Six-to-Seven Years remaining to head off an irreversible planetary emergency.

Ups & Downs: Through three thematic sessions and a special meeting on loss and damage finance, Secretary-General Guterres convened the Climate Ambition Summit to accelerate the pace and scale of committed actions for a just, green transition away from a world economy dependent on fossil fuels, particularly in the run-up to COP-28 in Dubai (November 30-December 12, 2023). With growing calls from leading climate scientists that we may have as few as six-to-seven years to shift course and avert the worst of the escalating planetary emergency, the gathering’s urgency could not be greater. But even with increased attention placed by some speakers on the phasing out of fossil fuels, few Member States signaled a willingness to embark on new concrete actions beyond reiterating past promises.

Outlook Ahead: In order to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius, while helping vulnerable countries to deal with the most damaging effects of climate change, Member States must come prepared to COP-28 with concrete and ambitious plans for climate mitigation and adaptation. Especially if “business-as-usual” continues (as witnessed during High-Level Week), those governments, businesses, and civil society partners committed to effective climate action should entertain the insights and recommendations of the Mary Robinson, María Fernanda Espinosa, and Johan Rockström-led Climate Governance Commission, whose forthcoming Governing Our Planetary Emergency report will be released in late November. This includes proposals to ensure greater accountability in COP decision-making, as well as an overhaul in environmental governance through a new Global Environment Agency and International Court for the Environment.

4. Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, and other Hotspots (General Debate and Security Council Ministerial): Amidst a growing number of violent conflicts worldwide, let the U.N. perform its critical peacemaking and peacebuilding roles.

Ups & Downs: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, attending his first High-Level Week in person since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, spoke on the first morning of the General Assembly’s General Debate. However, it was his remarks at a special session of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine that caught international media attention, where he questioned why Russia still retained a permanent seat on the Council and called for the misuse of its veto power to be overcome by a two-thirds vote in the Assembly. U.S. President  Joe Biden, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong, and other leaders once again echoed calls for Security Council reform and other changes in the collective security architecture to better cope with Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, and other hotspots.

Outlook Ahead: While making the Security Council more representative and effective will remain a challenge given competing interests and present levels of mistrust between the Great Powers, the Secretary-General has recently introduced other proposals for improving the U.N.’s peacemaking and peacebuilding roles through his New Agenda for Peace. These were highlighted by U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo in a special High-Level Week convening of the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission, created, in 2005 (UN60), partly in response to Security Council reform failures. Through the Pact for the Future’s “International Peace and Security” chapter, Member States are anticipated to take forward several of the Secretary-General’s most timely ideas, including his calls for national prevention strategies and new measures to address the peace and security implications of climate change.

5. High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development (Sept. 20): While deep-seated apprehensions will continue to pervade multilateral negotiations until donor countries meet prior financial commitments, momentum has grown for overhauling international economic and financial institutions.

Ups & Downs: Developing country representatives and senior international organization officials voiced concerns at the High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development and related fora (including the SDG Summit, the SOTF Ministerial Meeting, and Climate Ambition Summit) about donor countries coming up short in delivering on past foreign aid pledges, as well as about illicit financial flows through tax avoidance. But with the G20 Declaration recently welcoming the Secretary-General’s call for a $500 billion SDG stimulus to a critical mass of rich and poor nations’ lending support last week for different global economic and financial architecture reform ideas, including the Bridgetown Initiative, interest is extending beyond only a small group of countries and technical experts.

Outlook Ahead: Attention is now shifting to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Annual Meetings in Marrakech (Oct. 9-15, 2023). One leader to watch is IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, who emphasized, during High-Level Week, the need for “better off countries” to re-channel their Special Drawings rights to improve lending conditions for vulnerable countries. Another is the new World Bank President, Ajay Banga, who argued in New York that: “The time to show that you care and that you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is … is here.”

In addition to further signaling on specific multilateral development bank reforms and debt relief for the most vulnerable countries, another issue to watch at the Marrakech meetings is whether, in the run-up to next year’s Summit of the Future, influential countries and the heads of the Bretton Woods Institutions lend their support to the U.N. Secretary-General’s proposed Biennial Summit on the Global Economy, bringing together the G20, World Bank, IMF, and U.N. for enhanced global economic governance.

The start of the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly combines both hope with immense anxiety that the world body is incapable of reform and renewing itself to keep pace with fast-changing socioeconomic, environmental, peace and security, and technological trends. Beginning with Secretary-General Guterres’ widely consulted policy briefs and commissioned reports (but also from across think tanks, academia, and broader civil society too), the time has come for Member States to formally debate and decide on the best ideas for positioning the U.N. system to better respond to current and emerging threats, challenges, and opportunities.

Specifically, and as outlined in the Global Governance Innovation Report 2023 (section VI), following the PGA’s appointment in October of co-facilitator teams for the five Pact for the Future chapters, informal advisory teams of outside experts and civil society representatives could be stood-up to serve as knowledge hubs and sounding boards for each of the Summit of the Future’s five thematic areas. Member States could also glean diverse expertise and unique historical perspectives by appointing youth and civil society representatives to their national delegations charged with preparing for the summit, in addition to supporting a proposed U.N.-Civil Society Forum next May in Nairobi. Finally, in deriving moral authority from the U.N. Charter and Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Secretary-General and his team must continue to build the case for ensuring that, at the very least, several of his most consequential recommendations are adopted in a year’s time, in pursuit of a vision of peace, justice, and sustainable prosperity for all.

The author wishes to thank Natalie Landau and Nudhara Yusuf for research assistance.

IMAGE: Buthan’s Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 26, 2023. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)