The United Nations convenes its annual speeches by world leaders on Tuesday against a backdrop of seemingly irreversible planet warming, polarized superpower relations and a tenacious pandemic that has worsened the global rich-poor divide.
The weeklong meeting of the General Assembly, the world’s biggest diplomatic convocation, also amounts to a major test of credibility for President Biden, who will be among the first to address the 193-member body.
Despite his avowed enthusiasm for the United Nations — a marked departure from his predecessor, Donald J. Trump — Mr. Biden will be making his debut speech as president amid strong new doubts about his ability to vault the United States back into a position of global leadership after Mr. Trump’s fractious tenure and promotion of “America First” isolationism.
Here is a look at what to expect this week at the General Assembly, its 76th annual session since the United Nations was founded at the end of World War II:
What’s different this year?
Unlike 2020, when the session was conducted almost entirely virtually because of the pandemic, more than 100 leaders and other high-ranking representatives intend to deliver their speeches in person. But access to the 16-acre U.N. complex in Manhattan remains strictly limited, with mandatory mask-wearing and other Covid-prevention measures. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the United States told reporters that the measures were meant to ensure that the General Assembly “does not become a superspreader event.”
Confusion erupted last week over a New York City requirement that all General Assembly participants show proof of vaccination. This year’s president of the General Assembly, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, endorsed the requirement. But exactly how it will be enforced is unclear. U.N. officials have said that the organization’s own headquarters staff must be vaccinated but that an honor system remains in place for visiting V.I.P.’s and other guests.
Why is this General Assembly a test for Biden?
The world is eager to hear Mr. Biden’s priorities and his vision for the global role of the United States, the biggest single financial contributor to the United Nations. Many expect him to expound on the theme that the world faces a choice between the authoritarianism represented by China and the democratic values espoused by the West. But he will be speaking in the context of a spate of negative news that has buffeted Mr. Biden’s administration less than a year into its term.
Mr. Biden has so far failed to contain the Covid pandemic at home, and his efforts to help provide vaccines to other struggling areas of the world have done little to mitigate the yawning discrepancy in vaccination rates between wealthy and poor countries. According to the World Health Organization, nearly three-quarters of the 5.7 billion vaccine doses given so far have gone to just 10 countries, including the United States.
The U.N. appearance by Mr. Biden also comes less than a month after the chaotic U.S. exit from the 20-year military engagement in Afghanistan. The hastily organized withdrawal created a new wave of asylum seekers, emboldened the Taliban and re-created a possible haven for terrorist groups.
Understand the Infrastructure Bill
- One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
- The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
- Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
- Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
- Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
- Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.
And last week Mr. Biden blindsided and outraged France, the oldest U.S. ally, in a secret arms deal with Australia that left one of the biggest French military contracts in ruins and created new doubts about his administration’s honesty with longstanding U.S. partners. French officials said Mr. Biden’s actions were a betrayal and seemed more like those of his predecessor.
Who else is speaking in person?
The most prominent leaders speaking in person — just on the first day — include President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, an avowed Covid skeptic whose own mismanagement of the pandemic threatens his political future. He will be the first head of state to address the gathering and has created a stir by vowing to defy the vaccination requirement.
Among the other first-day speakers are the presidents of Turkey, Mexico, South Korea, Poland and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Who determines the speaker order, and why does Brazil go first?
U.N. protocol officials say Brazil has by tradition spoken first since the mid-1950s because at the time no other country’s leader was willing to do so. That position is now considered a coveted slot that can help set the tone of the week.
The order of speakers generally adheres to the principle that the leader of the host country goes second, followed by other heads of state, heads of government, vice presidents, crown princes, foreign ministers, then deputies and ambassadors. The order is also determined by the date when each of the 193 members makes the request.
Who is skipping?
Many leaders have opted to use prerecorded video, as was done last year, or to have a lower-ranking representative speak in person. Still, the absence of a particular country’s leader this year can send a message.
Perhaps the most prominent leader to skip the General Assembly is President Xi Jinping of China, an increasingly important financial contributor to the United Nations and a rival with the United States for influence there, an underlying source of tension.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will not attend either. Both Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin are sending subordinates instead.
In what may be another sign of France’s anger at the United States, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has abandoned the idea of speaking even by video, ordering his foreign minister, Jean-Yves LeDrian, to speak instead, which now could happen on the final day.
Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, also sent a prerecorded speech, skipping the opportunity for personal diplomacy that could help save Iran’s near-moribund nuclear agreement with major powers.
What will they be talking about?
Perhaps the most important topic will be climate change, with new scientific evidence showing a losing battle in what the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, has called an existential struggle. Emissions of planet-warming gases could grow by 16 percent during this decade compared with 2010 levels, even as the latest scientific research indicates that they must decrease by at least a quarter by 2030 to avert the worst impacts of global warming.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who will be hosting a U.N.-led climate change conference in Scotland in two months, will colead a preparatory meeting with Mr. Guterres on Monday.
Battling the pandemic also is expected to dominate the week. Mr. Biden planned to host a Covid summit on the sidelines.
Other important topics include crises relating to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the seven-month-old military coup in Myanmar, the endangered Iran nuclear deal, the political vacuum in Haiti and the conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen and Syria.
Why is the General Assembly important?
Many diplomats have called the person-to-person dealings at the General Assembly critical to the U.N.’s role as a venue for resolving disputes and as a deterrent to armed conflict, even if it has often failed to solve or mitigate the problems that can lead to war.
“The U.N. looks ever more marginal to international crisis management,” the International Crisis Group, an independent policy organization, said this year in its own appraisal of the General Assembly session. Nonetheless, the appraisal said, “the U.N. system still plays a crucial part in managing an unstable international environment.”