What mattered (or didn't) at UN Leaders’ Week.
Welcome to this week’s Not in Dispatches, where we review Leaders’ Week at the United Nations and examine what it tells us about the state of international relations and what matters to business.
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is precisely that - an assembly. Never has it been an action group. Only rarely has it produced major treaties, such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights. And this mostly occurred during more optimistic times after its founding in the wake of the Second World War and before decolonisation massively expanded its membership.
Rather, UNGA - and especially during its annual Leaders’ Week - is a political gathering. Heads of state convene, take the podium to make political declarations, and meet on the sidelines if they want to make any real agreements. The hard work of negotiating declarations - this year on sustainable development and pandemics - is done by officials throughout the year.
More often than not, UNGA generates more heat than light.
Most heat this year was generated by the Ukrainian president’s visit.
Volodymr Zelensky addressed the Security Council in person for the first time since the war began, called upon world leaders to resist Russia and - most importantly - lobbied the US to maintain its funding and supplies of arms. Albania, the rotating chair of the Security Council, had a dramatic exchange with Russia’s representative. But little changed in the world’s stance on the conflict.
UNGA did shed some light elsewhere however - on the state of multilateralism, the role of the UN, growing divisions between the so-called Global North and Global South, and the lack of progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and meaningful climate action.
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This year’s Leaders’ Week was also as notable for who did not attend as who did.
President Biden was the only head of state from a veto-wielding permanent member (the P5) to attend. Putin, a pariah, stayed home. Xi kept to his habit of avoiding international meetings. UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, in election mode, reduced his personal carbon footprint by remaining in London to sell his roll-back of climate measures. And Macron preferred to host King Charles at Versailles for crab, lobster and cheese. Each had higher priorities: a reminder that all politics is local.
No-shows from the major powers - Modi also avoided the confab - demonstrated their relative disinterest in the United Nations and preference for conducting multilateral diplomacy through likeminded groups (like the G7 and BRICS) and specialised technical bodies (like the WTO for trade and UNFCCC for climate).
Leaders, some of the busiest people on the planet, only turn up when they anticipate getting outcomes. And this year many rightly considered that the agenda for the week would not result in concrete outcomes. It was, after all, largely a stocktake of limited progress towards the SDGs, momentum-building exercises on climate and development financing, and trying to finalise a pandemic preparedness treaty.
Their conspicuous absence also speaks to - and certainly would not have helped - a growing frustration among developing countries that the multilateral system is both unrepresentative and dysfunctional.
Repeated calls for reform of the Security Council - including proposals to expand the membership and remove the veto for permanent members when they are the aggressor - could hardly advance with most of the P5 leaders staying away and, more importantly, without any incentive to voluntarily dilute their power.
The week’s signature thematic events, the SDG Summit and the High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development, did less to galvanise action than highlight the chief challenges in global governance - increasing inequality between rich and poor nations, growing incapacity of developing countries to address basic challenges for their citizens, and a lack of political will in advanced economies to bear the costs.
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The “Climate Ambition Summit” was a particularly limp affair. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres preached doom and gloom to assembled leaders (“humanity has opened the gates of hell”), hoping to scare them into making greater emissions cuts, commit more to climate financing, and move them closer to consensus ahead of the UNFCCC’s COP28 (28th Conference of the Parties) summit - to be held in Dubai in December.
Many leaders (at least those who turned up) said the right thing. But there is little evidence that this year will be any different.
As Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group put it: “almost every year… the UN releases more data showing we’re not doing enough on climate change. There is a side event at the General Assembly that is meant to trigger a new level of ambition. Then everyone descends on COP, and the results are ultimately underwhelming.”
The climate may be changing, but climate diplomacy is not.
Despite UNGA rarely delivering outcomes, it is becoming an increasingly important opportunity for businesses wishing to shape the international agenda.
More and more companies descend on New York each year to champion their contributions to meeting the climate challenge - knowing that shaping debate at the UN, even if it is not a decision-making body on climate, could influence the more consequential discussions at COP28.
Over 500 side-events, run mostly by industry groups, think tanks and NGOs, provide useful opportunities to network, take the pulse, and advocate corporate interests. This year, almost 80% of events focused on climate change and the SDGs. But there was also a growing number addressing digital, tech and AI issues, which UN diplomats in New York spend much of the year discussing when not tending to their visiting leaders.
The UN agenda of most interest to business happens at the officials level. For some multinationals, such as Microsoft, talks are serious enough to have a permanent office dedicated to tracking and influencing negotiations. Discussions with the greatest potential impact on the bottom line concern tax reform and cybersecurity obligations for firms.
But for most businesses, Leaders’ Week 2023 was a reminder that while the General Assembly may not be the room in which governments regulate their interests, it can reveal the global political zeitgeist.
And today that zeitgeist is limited interest in global diplomacy, countries prioritising action through different blocs and - consequently - a growing gap between the public policy challenges the world faces and its collective ability and willingness to solve them.
But still, it is a great place to exchange business cards (and rack up some carbon emissions).
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