One month after the G7 in Biarritz, which concluded without a joint statement from member countries on war and peace, trade, or the environment, the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly has further exposed the lack of consensus between the great powers on the most pressing challenges of our time.
This year’s UNGA saw the clash of competing visions of the world, sending a clear signal that the UN is falling short of its ambition to maintain international peace and security.
President Trump led this charge, declaring to the General Assembly his unilateral views on diplomacy and the demise of multilateralism. Last year, President Trump was laughed at when he claimed to have accomplished more than any other US president before him. This year, he devised on immigration and religious freedom, while focusing on domestic policies and dragging an unwilling Ukraine into the upcoming US presidential elections.
These discussions were framed against a turbulent backdrop: potential impeachment in the US and a no confidence vote in the UK, following the Supreme Court’s ruling that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. Adding to this uncertainty is the threat of foreign interference in elections and the steady rise of nationalist, populist parties across the continent.
Addressing the General Assembly for the first time as Prime Minister, Johnson glossed over the issue of Brexit, only comparing it to the endless torment suffered by Greek mythological figure Prometheus. His inaugural address did little to convince critics that the UK has re-emerged as the “sick man of Europe”.
The debate has subsequently been framed as a duel between “globalists” and “patriots”, with countries including France, under Macron and Germany, under Merkel, desperately holding together the rules-based international system through initiatives like the ‘Alliance for Multilateralism’, which was launched at the UNGA.
To sum up, the two weeks of debate in New York presented to many the opportunity to express their disdain for international institutions, multilateral commitments and the world order that has provided us with relative peace since the end of the Second World War. It remains to be seen which worldview will be victorious: either the joint forces of power politics, rising national and global political and economic fragmentation, or those member states committed to multilateralism and the UN.
#2 – THE RISE OF MIDDLE POWERS
A consequence of this international (dis)order – an increasingly unstable and volatile environment – is the emergence of middle powers, including France, who are attempting to act as mediators or “balancing powers”.
For instance, on Iran, Macron advocated for dialogue with Foreign Minister Zarif, to save what could still be of the JCPOA, the 2015 nuclear deal, though the recent Yemeni drone strikes against Saudi oil refineries, halting half of the production, added another layer of volatility.
“I don’t believe the crises we are facing can be defeated by turning inwards. I truly believe in patriotism, but in a patriotism that didn’t equal isolationism, one that believes in sovereignty, and the need to cooperate”.
President Emmanuel Macron
One month after the G7, Emmanuel Macron also seized the moment to position France as a champion of gender equality and to push the feminist agenda displayed by his government in Biarritz. In a difficult context, French diplomacy indeed obtained the signature of the “Biarritz Partnership for Equality between Women and Men” by the seven members of the G7. Substantial funding has also been put on the table to support the AFAWA initiative for women’s entrepreneurship in Africa.
In an allusion to a speech by Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard in 1978, warning of the “decline of courage,” the French president, lyrical as usual on such occasions, called for his “return,” to curb tensions in the Middle East, to fight inequalities and to respond to the challenges of global warming. “The courage to build peace is that of responsibility,” insisted President Macron, recalling that “this courage is risk taking,” but that the American strategy of escalating pressure could only lead to “increased tensions”.
#3 – ENVIRONMENT: THE HOUSE IS STILL BURNING
After such strong emphasis being placed on “climate diplomacy” at the G7 in Biarritz, it was disappointing to witness the Jair Bolsonaro’s response to the international community’s criticisms of his environmental policies. As forest fires raged across Brazil, and logging and mining in protected reserves was advocated, Bolsonaro blasted his peers for their “colonialist views” and “insults to Brazil sovereignty”.
Despite the UN “Climate Change Summit”, held to “raise ambitions”, Greta Thunberg passionate plea on stage, the wave of worldwide climate protests calling for urgent action on the environment, leaders gathered at UNGA did not truly respond to the hundreds of thousands of people’s demand for climate action. Climate change sceptics and deniers concurrently continue to advance their concerning agenda, supported by the United States for instance, in a disconcerting trend that David Miliband recently called “the new arrogance of power and the age of impunity”.
On this pressing question as on many others in New York, since the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, we can only witness the lack of result and the impact of inaction.