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The main storylines at a gloomy United Nations

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Picture: Li Muzi/Xinhua/Taken September 18, 2019 – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says ahead of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 78) from September 18 -26, 2023, that it is the one place for ‘leaders from every corner of the globe to not only assess the state of the world but to act for the common good’.

By Ishaan Tharoor

NEW YORK – The scene outside the United Nations on Monday morning was a snapshot of global disorder. As the rain poured on Turtle Bay, delegates and dignitaries from around the world jostled between checkpoints and security barriers. Umbrellas poked into turbans and dripped onto suits. Bodyguards to foreign ministers fumed as their security details got caught in the soggy scrum to proceed into the UN complex.

Inside, though, the friction may end up being equally palpable. The annual grand conclave of international diplomacy kicks into high gear Tuesday, when the General Debate of world leaders speaking at the famous dais of the UN General Assembly gets under way. Per custom, Brazil’s leader, in this case President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will speak first, followed by President Biden.

As in recent years, the deliberations are taking place amid a profound gloom. The war in Ukraine may smoulder on, but so, too, do the intractable crises posed by climate change and the aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic. Efforts to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are faltering, with governments no longer on track to eradicate global poverty by 2030, among other commitments made in 2015. And more and more diplomats openly grumble that the United Nations, as an institution, is no longer fit for purpose to meet an array of challenges.

The organisation’s top official still vouches for its merits. “It is 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,” UN Secretary General António Guterres told reporters last week. “And action is what the world needs now.”

The war in Ukraine

The most eye-catching set piece of the week may take place Wednesday, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will attend in-person a special Security Council session on the war ravaging his country. He may be joined at the table by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, making for a dramatic showdown 19 months after Russia launched its ruinous full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But, as my colleague John Hudson noted, Zelenskyy does not come to the United Nations with the wind behind his sails. Kyiv’s long-running counter-offensive against Russian positions in Ukraine’s south and east is beset by difficulties, with General Mark A Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying last week that Ukrainian troops may have only “30 to 45 days’ worth of fighting weather left”.

US and Nato officials continue to talk tough, affirming their enduring commitment to Ukraine’s defence while hoping for peace under conditions favourable to Kyiv. “Our job from our perspective is to provide Ukraine with the tools it needs to be in the best possible position on the battlefield, so that it can be in the best possible position at the negotiating table,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters last week.

But the war’s tremendous drain of Western resources and attention has irked onlookers elsewhere, many of whom want a swifter resolution of the conflict. There’s also widespread frustration at the collapse of Russian participation in the Black Sea grain deal, which had unlocked tens of millions of tons in staple crops for the global market.

“The default position among the majority of UN members is we need to negotiate an end to the war,” Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the International Crisis Group, told my colleagues. “If Zelenskyy sits down at the UN Security Council and says we will keep fighting forever, then that will create a clear dissonance with a lot of non-Western countries struggling with debt and poverty who feel that their problems are being overshadowed.”

Focus on the ‘Global South’

Biden will be the only leader from one of the Security Council’s permanent five members to be present in New York this week, an outcome that reflects the busy geopolitical calendar of recent weeks but also raises questions about the UN’s relevance. Still, more than 140 other world leaders are also in attendance and their disparate concerns will get an airing.

This week, the United Nations has also structured in specific summits and conversations about climate change, buttressing global development goals since the disruption of the pandemic, and action on sovereign debt relief – with numerous developing countries on the hook to international lenders on terms that are jeopardising their ability to invest in their own societies.

“If it were up to us, we would spend more time discussing Ukraine,” said Olof Skoog, the European Union’s ambassador to the United Nations, to the New York Times. But, he added, Western governments are keen to avoid the perception of a “north-south” rift with countries in the developing world.

A broader geopolitical dynamic looms as China has also embarked on a series of initiatives to position itself as a champion of the non-West. “The US and other Western countries are clearly increasing their efforts to win over the ‘Global South’, but it is evident that this is not about granting developing countries a more equal status and development opportunities, but rather an attempt to continue to confine them to the periphery of the ‘centre-periphery’ system,” said an editorial in Beijing’s state-run Global Times this week.

Whither ‘multilateralism’

The boring word that gets trotted out each year at the UN General Assembly is “multilateralism.” The United Nations itself, the efforts of its constituent members, the ethos of collective action it is supposed to inculcate – all of this reflects its central role as a linchpin in a multilateral world order, built on institutions set up in the wake of World War II.

But the world is much transformed since then and some of the United Nations’ current structures – in particular, the Security Council – have proved more dysfunctional than helpful. The veto-wielding influence of the five permanent members has made the body the repeated source of global opprobrium. On the economic front, countries in the developing world have been clamouring for a greater stake in institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

But amid great power tussles, the likelihood for significant reforms seems remote. “The gap between the demand for international co-operation and its supply is widening. Humanity is grappling with simultaneous, compounding, and rapidly evolving challenges,” wrote Stewart Patrick and Minh Thu Pham of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, listing out a range of crises including economic inequity, climate change, global refugee spikes, fraying democracies and the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“On these and other issues, the UN has fallen short, both because it is no longer fit for purpose and because its member states do not trust one another,” they added.

Ishaan Tharoor is a foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column

This article was first published in The Washington Post