- By James Landale
- Diplomatic correspondent
It’s called the United Nations – but right now it seems anything but united.
The nearly 140 world leaders gathered in New York for their annual meeting have a lot on their plate: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a global cost-of-living crisis, a worsening climate emergency and disrupted news technologies such as artificial intelligence.
There are disagreements internationally, not only about what is most important, but also about solutions.
“People are looking to their leaders to find a way out of this mess,” says UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“Yet in the face of all this and more, geopolitical divisions undermine our capacity to respond. »
A new multipolar world is emerging, he says, leading to “escalating tensions, fragmentation and worse.”
Take Ukraine: President Volodymyr Zelensky will want to rally support from world leaders in New York, in what will be a key test of international opinion on the Russian invasion. He will address the UN General Assembly for the first time in person, before participating in a debate at the UN Security Council.
Naturally, Mr. Zelensky will urge existing allies to maintain their support despite concerns about his army’s slow counter-offensive against Russian forces. But he is also expected to take the opportunity to seek new support from the leaders of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, many of whom have refused to condemn the Russian invasion.
The West and Ukraine are aware of the need to reframe their argument in favor of the so-called Global South, where many countries have not condemned the Russian invasion and would prefer the war to end, even if it means Ukraine. cede territory. Western powers want to argue that the war is not just a matter of European security but an economic crisis that affects the entire world.
The problem facing Mr Zelensky and his Western allies is that many leaders want the annual UN gathering to focus more on the climate crisis and their economic woes rather than the war in Europe.
UN Secretary-General Guterres has recognized this and is holding separate summits to discuss the world’s faltering efforts to reduce poverty and combat climate change.
UN members signed 17 “sustainable development goals” (called SDGs) in 2015. These goals, such as ending extreme poverty and tackling the climate crisis, are supposed to be achieved by 2030. But most are behind schedule because of the pandemic, rising debt and global inaction – as well as the war in Ukraine.
Thus, Mr. Guterres seeks new economic stimulus for the SDGs and reforms to encourage international financial institutions to focus more on the needs of developing countries.
Western leaders recognized these tensions – between their security concerns and the economic concerns of the Global South – and came to New York promising action on global development issues.
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said President Joe Biden was “eager” to use his UN speech “to mobilize financial resources for the Global South for development and infrastructure” .
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who is in New York, said the SDGs were “seriously behind schedule and we need to come together, recommit and accelerate their implementation by 2030.”
But Western diplomats said this week that the U.N. was also a chance to convince neutral countries that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was affecting them all, hurting economies by raising food and beverage prices. energy.
“We should be able to walk and chew gum,” one diplomat said.
“If we just go to these events and talk about Ukraine, it doesn’t serve the broader agenda.
“So part of it is making sure that we explain the implications of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s illegal invasion, including food security. But also that we act on other issues, such as the SDGs and climate finance. »
That task could be made more difficult by the fact that some Western leaders have chosen not to come to New York, including French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Mr Sunak blamed pressure from the newspaper, but critics accused him of damaging Britain’s international reputation. He will be represented by the Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden.
As usual, Mr. Putin will not be present. But his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is arriving and expected to defend Russia’s self-proclaimed “special military operation” in Ukraine.
At their recent summit in India, the G20 countries chose not to invite Mr. Zelensky and avoided condemning Russia by name for its aggression against Ukraine. Diplomats hope that the Ukrainian president’s appearance at the UN in person will make it harder for countries to remain silent.
The United Nations General Assembly will thus be a key moment for political leaders to come together and discuss global crises. But unity – the very watchword of this organization – risks proving thin on the ground.