The world’s divisions are on display as UNGA meets in New York

Sep 18, 2023, 10:24am EDT
People watch drones creating a 3-D display outside the United Nations Headquarters calling attention to the Amazon rainforest and climate change in New York U.S., September 15, 2023. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Jenna Moon/

The U.N. General Assembly starts in New York this week and is expected to focus on a myriad of international crises, including climate change, the war in Ukraine, rising inequality, and the pandemic.

U.S. President Joe Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are all expected to attend. There are also high profile absences: Several members of the U.N. Security Council, including France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Rishi Sunak, and China’s Xi Jinping, will not be in attendance. Delegates will be attending in their place.

Chinese President Xi is among the leaders skipping the event — but Xi rarely attends himself. At issue is his decision to send Vice President Han Zheng, a largely ceremonial figure, instead of top diplomat and foreign minister Wang Yi.1 The absence may give Biden an edge over China in ongoing tensions between the two nations. "China’s absence provides something of an opening for the United States to say, 'Hey, actually, we’re here and we care about developing countries,'" Stewart Patrick, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Politico last week.2

The U.N. has long been criticized for its perceived inability to actually affect change, and has been seen as not doing enough to rectify global issues. However, "it still is the forum that is most international, that brings together the most leaders. That gives it traction," María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, former General Assembly president, told Politico's Suzanne Lynch. Meanwhile, the high-profile absences highlight the world's shifting power dynamics, Espinosa said. "A very vibrant multipolarity is emerging — more a polycentric configuration."3

The issues that have plagued the U.N. may be worse now as the world's divisions deepen. The situation facing the organization is "bleak," Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, told The New York Times. "We are a lot closer to a cliff edge in U.N. diplomacy, and major power tensions are having a more and more serious effect on the organization."4