The Just Security Podcast

U.N. General Assembly Preview

September 11, 2023 Just Security Episode 40
The Just Security Podcast
U.N. General Assembly Preview
Show Notes Transcript

The U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting is underway in New York. Leaders from around the world will attend the High-Level Week, which begins on September 18. On the agenda are topics ranging from the continuing response Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to slow progress on sustainable development, and the looming regulation of artificial intelligence. 

Joining the show to discuss what we expect from this year’s U.N. General Assembly meetings is Richard Gowan. Richard is U.N. Director at the International Crisis Group, an independent organization working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world.

Show Notes: 

  • Richard Gowan (@RichardGowan1
  • Paras Shah (@pshah518
  • Richard’s Just Security article previewing UNGA 78
  • Just Security’s U.N. General Assembly coverage
  • Just Security’s Russia-Ukraine war coverage
  • Just Security’s climate change coverage
  • Just Security’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) coverage
  • Music: “The Parade” by “Hey Pluto!” from Uppbeat: (License code: 36B6ODD7Y6ODZ3BX)
  • Music: “Hypotheticals” by “AK” from Uppbeat: (License code: ZYWSWAROJNPTCX30) 

Paras Shah: The U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting is underway in New York. Leaders from around the world will attend the High-Level Week, which begins on September 18. On the agenda are topics ranging from the continuing response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to slow progress on sustainable development, and the looming regulation of artificial intelligence.  

This is the Just Security podcast. I’m your host, Paras Shah. 

Joining the show to discuss what we expect from this year’s U.N. General Assembly meetings is Richard Gowan. Richard is U.N. Director at the International Crisis Group, an independent organization working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world. 

Hey, Richard, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Richard Gowan: Thanks so much for having me on the show. 

Paras: So the U.N. General Assembly is underway in New York and next week starts the week of high level discussions with world leaders. What can we expect from that week? 

Richard: I think there are going to be two main themes vying for attention. Countries from the Global South really want to focus discussions around the economic challenges they face and the need to accelerate international development. That is going to be one overarching theme, and I think that is going to be the primary focus of leaders from Africa and Asia in particular. 

But there is also Ukraine. And I think probably the top media story during the high-level week is the fact that the Ukrainian president, President Zelenskyy, is coming in person to New York for the first time since Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine. So Zelenskyy spoke by video link to the General Assembly last year, but this time around, he's going to be speaking on the first day of the main speeches, and he's also going to be participating in a Security Council meeting. That is likely to really suck attention away from all other topics, including the development issue, which non-Western countries have been hoping to prioritize.  

Paras: And what is Zelenskyy trying to accomplish with his presumed visit to New York? What is he trying to get out of these meetings? 

Richard: Well, the General Assembly is an opportunity for Zelenskyy to get some face time with leaders, primarily from outside the West. Ukraine has been locked in a battle for hearts and minds around the world with Russia since last February. I think the Ukrainians worry that a lot of leaders from outside the West still have sympathy for the Russians, and still believe some of the Russian narrative around the war. Zelenskyy can use this time in New York to, you know, lobby leaders from Africa, lobby leaders from Latin America, try and bring them more fully into the Ukrainian camp.

He has a few specific issues that he's likely to hit upon. Ukraine for almost a year has been proposing that the General Assembly should endorse a special tribunal that could put Vladimir Putin, in theory, on trial for the crime of aggression. I think that's something which Zelensky will be talking up, but he will probably be balancing that with a lot of references to the global effect of the war on food security, and the fact that Russia has recently quit the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which risks pushing up global food prices. And so Zelenskyy will be saying, look, you know, Russia is putting the world in danger, not just attacking Ukraine.

Paras: Right. And, you know, as you mentioned at the top, Ukraine is one issue here, but many other countries, particularly those in the Global South, want to focus on the Sustainable Development Goals. And just to remind listeners, the SDGs are 17 ambitious goals that the U.N. adopted in 2015. They cover things like trying to eradicate poverty, creating clean energy, building resilient infrastructure, and states haven't made as much progress as they might have hoped on that front. So what are states looking for? What are leaders looking for around the SDGs? 

Richard: So there's going to be a special summit, sort of a high-level side event, at the start of General Assembly week focusing on the SDGs. And, you know, this comes up quite a significant time, because what we've seen in the last few years is that the economic effects of COVID and the economic effects of Russia's war on Ukraine have actually, you know, really damaged efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. We're actually seeing extreme poverty rising in some areas, and so leaders from developing countries, you know, want to come to New York and talk about getting the SDGs back on track. Many of them also want to try and get assistance dealing with very heavy debt burdens, which are becoming a real crisis for a lot of countries.

Now, the summit is not going to be a moment where you see Western countries coming with big new pledges of aid. Frankly, there isn't the money for that in most Western treasuries right now. But there is a hope that this is an opportunity to agree on new rules about how international financial institutions like the World Bank provide financing to poor countries, and the non-Western members of the U.N. have been focusing very hard on this issue of improving access to financing from multilateral institutions, such as the Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And so that's what's really going to be in focus. And I think that there is a reasonable chance that the SDG summit will at least give a political direction to reform the way that the international financial institutions assist poor countries, and then the Bank and the IMF will follow up on that in upcoming meetings over the next couple of months.

Paras: The U.S. at least has proposed a track for IMF reform that goes through its own — the IMF’s own governing institutions and its own board. What can we expect between having the process go internally there or through the U.N.? 

Richard: This has been a point of contention. The U.S. and some of its allies, like the U.K. and Japan, did push back in July against the suggestion that the General Assembly could sort of renegotiate the rules of the international financial institutions directly. For the U.S., which is obviously the biggest shareholder in both the Bank and the IMF, it’s essential that discussions of those institutions’ reforms take place through the institutions and their governing boards. The U.S. does not want to throw open these negotiations to the General Assembly as a whole.

But I think there is actually a recognition on the part of the U.S. that in substantive terms, we do need to reform the way that the World Bank in particular provides financing. So, this has really been more of a debate about process than a debate about substance. What the General Assembly can do is give an overall political push to the Bank and the IMF, you know, leaders gathered in New York and can send a message that it is time for reform, and then the technocrats down in D.C. can get on with the details and the finer points of negotiation after that.

Paras: At last year's U.N. General Assembly meetings, President Biden, as you put it in your written Just Security piece, set diplomatic hearts racing when he announced that the U.S. would support Security Council reform. What have we seen on that front in the last year, and is Biden likely to raise that again?

Richard: You know, it is interesting that, you know, last year the attention was very much on Security Council reform, but over the last year, we have seen diplomatic discussions pivot to these discussions about the multilateral financial system. And a lot of countries are more interested, frankly, in changing the way that the financial institutions work than they are in the Security Council.

What happened on the Security Council track is that after Joe Biden said that the U.S. wanted to see Council reform last September, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas Greenfield, held quite an extensive round of consultations with other U.N. members seeing if there was some way forward on Council reform. To be quite honest, I don't think the U.S. has found a clear pathway forward. Getting Council reform is enormously difficult, because you need to come up with a proposal that will get the support of two thirds of the U.N.’s members. And right now, there isn't really any sort of idea for changing the composition of the Council, or adding new permanent members, that can get that level of support. So I think what Biden will do is come back and say, we remain committed to Council reform.And he will say that the U.S. is continuing to investigate the possibilities of Council reform. But I don't think he's going to put a specific proposal on the table about exactly how Washington thinks the Council should be transformed. There just really isn't an obvious solution to this age-old problem right now.

Paras: And this General Assembly is happening in September. The U.N.’s next round of its climate conference, COP28, begins in Dubai at the end of November. How will these meetings influence what happens in Dubai in a few months? 

Richard: Well, look, I think a lot of leaders and also the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres are very nervous that the annual rounds of U.N. climate talks are going badly off track. I mean, you know, the evidence of the effects of climate change is mounting far faster than the multilateral discussions about how to deal with this challenge are progressing. And so Guterres is hosting what's been called, I think, a “no nonsense” summit, where he is going to urge leaders to sort of go to Dubai with big concrete pledges on limiting carbon emissions. It remains to be seen whether major economic players are going to respond positively to that request, though. 

The COP meeting in Dubai is interesting for a couple of reasons that we're tracking. The Emiratis have made a point of focusing on how climate change is starting to have significant impacts on peace and security, how desertification and other trends can contribute to conflict. So I think it's going to be a substantively interesting meeting, but we just don't, we just don't know if the big economic actors have the political will to sort of really go and promise very, very significant carbon cuts. 

Paras: Guterres has a lot of big picture items on his plate. Another one for next year is the Summit of the Future. What is that very lofty titled event, and how will UNGA feed into it?  

Richard: So the Summit of the Future is a meeting that Guterres is going to convene next September, September 2024, again, on the margins of that year's General Assembly, high-level week. And what Guterres is hoping he can achieve next year is to get leaders to come together, and really have a root and branch discussion of what the multilateral system needs to do in a rapidly changing world. And Guterres, I think, is personally very seized of trends we're seeing like the extremely rapid evolution of artificial intelligence, the rapid evolution of bio technologies, and he is acutely conscious that the U.N. doesn't really have effective frameworks for regulating these great technological breakthroughs, which have many positive upsides and could help drive international development, but also have significant downside risks too. And again, Guterres is very concerned about how AI will affect conflict, for example. 

So what he wants to do at the Summit of the Future is really push leaders to agree on new frameworks for regulatingthings like AI, or at least agree to launch processes to discuss how these new technologies can be regulated. There are other items he’d like to bring into the mix, including, for example, some of the issues around the international financial institutions, but it seems to me that the technological issue is going to be front and center. 

We don't know if it's going to be possible to get serious international agreement around these issues. You know, there are big players in the tech space, including big powers like the U.S. and China, but are not especially keen to have the U.N. playing a strong regulatory role over the technologies that they are developing. But I think Guterres is going to try and corral a coalition of states to support this agenda.

This month, there is a ministerial meeting previewing the Summit of the Future. There's still quite a lot of technical issues to hash out about how, you know, how the run up to the Summit of the Future is going to be managed, but Guterres, I think, will be hoping the ministers sort of indicate that they have a high level of ambition for this grandly entitled summit in 2024. 

Paras: What are the stakes that are at issue with this U.N. General Assembly, at this moment, when there are so many challenges to the global order coming off the pandemic? What's really at stake here?

Richard: You know, I'd come back to where I began, which is, you know, these sort of twin themes vying for attention at the General Assembly — on the one hand, international development, on the other hand, Russia's war on Ukraine. I think what we saw at last year's General Assembly, and what we sort of hear constantly around the U.N., is that many countries from the Global South do actually sympathize with the Ukrainians. But they feel that the West is focusing very hard on Ukraine and is devoting a huge amount of resources to Ukraine, and simultaneously, is not paying attention to the issues that weigh most heavily on a lot of developing states, whether that's the effects of climate change or mounting debt burdens. And there's a lot of resentment too in the Global South that in the past, Western countries have made big pledges about aid and financing for climate adaptation and not come through with the cash.

And so what I think really is at stake in this General Assembly is, can Western countries, you know, both show support for Zelenskyy, can they show support for Ukraine, but also show that they care about the issues that concern other parts of the world? If Western countries can't respond to the concerns of the Global South, you know, well, that is going to make multilateral diplomacy in general harder. And, you know, it's also going to play to the advantage of China in particular, and to a lesser extent, Russia, which, you know, are also working hard to get developing countries to support them in multilateral institutions. So I think this is what is really at stake — can the West show that it stands by Ukraine but that it also stands by the Global South, and do Western policymakers have the bandwidth to both support Zelenskyy but also support their counterparts from the non-Western world? 

Paras: There's a lot to watch this September. We'll be tracking it at Just Security. Richard, thanks so much for joining the show. 

Richard: Thank you very much for the invitation.

Paras: This episode was hosted by me, Paras Shah. It was edited and produced by Tiffany Chang, Michelle Eigenheer, and Clara Apt. Our theme song is “The Parade” by Hey Pluto. 

Special thanks to Richard Gowan. You can read Richard’s analysis, and all of Just Security’s coverage of the U.N. General Assembly, on our website. If you enjoyed this episode, please give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.