President Biden will attempt to stiffen international resolve and unity behind Ukraine and confront head on the rising global threats of authoritarian military aggression and autocracy during a major speech at the U.N. General Assembly next week.
But the leaders of the two biggest states seen as posing the threats — China and Russia — won’t even be in the audience when Mr. Biden takes the stage Tuesday as the annual gathering of heads of state gets underway in the heart of New York City.
Russia‘s Vladimir Putin and China‘s Xi Jinping aren’t going. Neither is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s widely considered the most geopolitically consequential leader of a so-called “Global South” developing world that’s increasingly on the fence over whether to align with or against Washington‘s push for allies against Moscow, Beijing and other autocracies.
Complicating Mr. Biden‘s sales job even more, the leaders of Britain and France are also skipping — meaning the annual marathon speeches and back-room diplomacy at high-end Manhattan hotels will play out with the top leaders from four of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent member nations nowhere to be seen.
It’s a reality hung in the backdrop of U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres pre-General Assembly press conference this week, with the former Portuguese prime minister warning that “a multipolar world is emerging.”
“We will be gathering at a time when humanity faces huge challenges — from the worsening climate emergency to escalating conflicts, the global cost-of-living crisis, soaring inequalities and dramatic technological disruptions,” the secretary general said.
Touting the General Assembly as “a one-of-a-kind moment each year for leaders from every corner of the globe to not only assess the state of the world but to act for the common good,” Mr. Guterres stressed that “people are looking to their leaders for a way out of this mess.”
“Yet in the face of all this,Mr. Guterres said, “… geopolitical divisions are undermining our capacity to respond,” adding that “multipolarity can be a factor of equilibrium, but it can also lead to escalating tensions, fragmentation and worse.”
While debate swirls over the extent to which such tensions and fragmentation factored into the Russian and Chinese decisions to send lower-powered delegations to New York next week, a range of other leaders and a host of thorny issues will be there for those who do come.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for instance, will address the gathering shortly after Mr. Biden on Tuesday, making his first in-person appearance at the General Assembly since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Mr. Zelenskyy is likely to condemn Russian military targeting of Ukrainian civilians and to call on the world to stand with Ukraine as the invasion grinds through its 19th month. It was announced Thursday that the charismatic Ukrainian leader is expected to also visit Capitol Hill, where the once overwhelming support for U.S. military and humanitarian aid to Kyiv has been fraying in recent months.
North Korea’s role in the war — Mr. Putin held a warm summit this week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Russia‘s Far East — could come up Wednesday when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol addresses the General Assembly.
Mr. Kim, who has never attended the annual gathering, won’t be there himself. But a whirlwind of speeches that extends into Thursday by a slew of world leaders could make for some uncomfortable moments.
Some of the biggest fireworks are likely to come from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, both of whom are slated to address the gathering at a moment of rising concern over Tehran’s nuclear weapons activities.
Drama surrounds Mr. Raisi, who is slated to speak Tuesday afternoon, and Mr. Netanyahu, who takes the stage Thursday.
Mr. Raisi’s New York trip comes amid U.S.-Iran tension following the Biden administration’s failure to draw Tehran back to the nuclear negotiating table, as well as high-stakes attempts by the administration to secure the release of five American citizens imprisoned by Iran.
Mr. Biden recently sought to clear the way for the release with a blanket waiver for international banks to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian money from South Korea to Qatar without fear of U.S. sanctions. The administration also said it would be willing to release five Iranian citizens held in the United States, although the White House has also faced intense heat for what critics claim is a “ransom payment” to the regime in Tehran.
It remains to be seen whether a prisoner exchange will occur ahead of the General Assembly. Some analysts say that if it does, it will raise the prospect of a possible meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Raisi on the sidelines of the gathering — a development that could signal progress toward the administration’s goal of engineering a diplomatic thaw with Iran and reviving at least a pale version of the now-defunct 2015 nuclear deal.
All the while, the administration’s relationship remains strained with Iran’s arch-enemy Israel, despite the latter’s standing as the United States’ top ally in the Middle East.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office announced on Thursday that he will meet with Mr. Biden on the sidelines of the General Assembly, ending months of speculation over whether the U.S. president would extend a belated invitation to the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House.
Mr. Netanyahu is reported to have been pushing for such an invitation since returning to power late last year, but administration officials have held back due unease over the Netanyahu government’s recent judicial overhaul and frustration on the U.S. left over Israel’s aggressive Jewish settlement policies in the Israeli-occupied but largely Palestinian West Bank.
The diplomatic calculus behind the administration’s moves on Iran and Israel is vexing to critics, including some Republican lawmakers who’ve sought to block Mr. Raisi from visiting New York, all while staunchly supporting Mr. Netanyahu.
Analysts say there are a range of other issues likely to dominate the agenda at meetings tied to the General Assembly.
One to watch, according to Richard Ponzio, who heads the Global Governance, Justice & Security Program at the Stimson Center, is the Sept. 18-19 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit, where leaders will adopt a declaration of guidance toward “transformative and accelerated actions” for all countries pursuing the goals by a U.N. deadline of 2030.
The goals, which have been at the center of years of multinational negotiations often involving nations otherwise at each other’s throats over competition for energy, water and other resources, cover a host of development issues facing humanity — from threats to the climate and environment to human rights, food security, health, education and gender equality.
“Regrettably, two anticipated topline messages from the summit are that only 15% of the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets are on track to be reached this critical decade, with over 500 million people likely still to live in extreme poverty by 2030,” Mr. Ponzio wrote in an analysis circulated by the think tank this week.
U.S. U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield highlighted the importance of the SDG Summit at a press conference in New York on Thursday, calling it “a huge moment for the world,” while stressing that “the United States will reaffirm our commitments” to the goals.
But Ms. Thomas-Greenfield also said the Ukraine war will be a primary focus of U.S. officials during Mr. Biden‘s visit to the General Assembly, asserting that Russia‘s invasion “struck at the heart of the U.N. Charter,” which includes “respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all member states.”
“We will continue to stand with Ukraine, for as long as it takes,” she added.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken went further earlier this week, calling out both Russia and China as purveyors of an autocratic world order that seeks to undermine the existing international order that has been anchored around the United Nations since the world body’s inception at the end of World War II.
“What we’re experiencing now is more than a test of the post-Cold War order — it’s the end of it,” Mr. Blinken said in remarks in Washington on Wednesday.
“Decades of relative geopolitical stability have given way to an intensifying competition with authoritarian powers, revisionist powers,” he said, adding that “Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is the most immediate, the most acute threat to the international order enshrined in the U.N. Charter.”
“Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China poses the most significant long-term challenge because it not only aspires to reshape the international order, it increasingly has the economic, the diplomatic, the military, the technological power to do just that,” Mr. Blinken warned.
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