The United Nations General Assembly in New York has begun amid notable absences this year, especially among the five countries that are members of the Security Council, with the leaders of France, Britain, China, and Russia absent, and only President Biden attending.
Convened over a year into the Russian war in Ukraine, whose president will be attending. However, Ukraine is not the world. Indeed, the world is brimming with complex conflicts and crises, which has made the list of absences all the more concerning to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In the lead-up to the GA, the New York Times quoted him as saying: “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” and that “People are looking to their leaders for a way out of this mess.” This is all true. When I say that Ukraine is not the world, I do not mean to downplay the crisis, nor to justify the Russians’ actions in any sense. However, the world is undergoing crises that require rational diplomacy.
An extremely basic example is the demands of the group of countries known as the "Global South," an informal term that refers to developing countries. The New York Times reported that the diplomats from these countries attending the General Assembly are frustrated with the immense global emphasis on the conflict in Ukraine while their crises are granted minimal attention and funding.
In response to their demands, the United Nations has scheduled special discussions aimed at alleviating the burdens of sovereign debt and finding ways to assist the countries that are struggling to reach the organization's health, living conditions, and education development goals. For his part, the Secretary-General has acknowledged these difficulties.
The problems being faced about helping these countries stem from the challenges of bringing the leaders of the member states together. Indeed, the depth of their divisions is evident in the list of absences, and this naturally raises fears that the already weak role of this organization could be weakened further. Well, why all these absences then?
That the significance of the General Assembly lies not in what is said during it, but in the opportunities it creates for leaders, allies, and adversaries to meet, has become a truism. It is these kinds of meetings that inspire hope of resolving issues and seizing opportunities to de-escalate tensions. For instance, Obama did this with the Iranians, among others.
We used to hear all about the "corridor diplomacy" that Julian Borger, the international affairs editor at The Guardian, once wrote about. "Corridor diplomacy has a long history" as a tool for statesmen who had not decided whether they wanted to be seen together with their rivals publicly. Rivals shake hands and bilateral meetings that could bridge the gap in how they see things are held. Diplomacy is thus given a chance. However, this looks like it might become a thing of the past due to populism and the “photo-ops” that US media outlets do inside these corridors, turning them into an arena where political points can be scored.
The organization also lost its luster due to idealistic slogans and the undermining of realistic diplomacy. The Secretary-General said "Politics is compromise. Diplomacy is Compromise. Effective leadership is compromised. However, things simply do not work that way at the United Nations anymore.
An analogy could be drawn between the current state of the United Nations and a scene from the movie "Philadelphia." In the courtroom scene, the judge tells the lawyer, played by Denzel Washington, "This courtroom is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation." To which the lawyer replies, With all due respect, your Honor, we don't live in this courtroom, though, do we?
And so, Ukraine is not the world, and the United Nations and those keen on empowering it are far removed from reality. This has made diplomacy ill, and the symptoms are patently evident at the United Nations.