UNGA: The B-list affair
If one is waiting with suspense, this isn’t the year for Obama to make a splash but to tout his legacy
In the world of global summits, the A list is the G20, G7, and Davos. The B List is UNGA or on the regional level, a EU or NATO summit. The F-List is the Non-Aligned Summit, which was underway this past weekend in Venezuela, where President Rowhani and his partners railed against the imperialism of the West and its neighbors.
UNGA then is the summit of summits for minor African strongmen, “black sheeps” of the world, and UN members never on the A List guest list. It’s also a place to re-invent yourself (amidst his intervention in Syria last September, Putin made a dramatic appearance on the world stage at UNGA last year), and typically, the “sideshow” of sideshows where the real business gets done (unfortunately, that has been sidelined this year by Hangzhou).
Hits and misses
This year’s UNGA is even less exclusive than last year’s. President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin have more pressing matters and aren’t attending. The main-headliner is President Barack Obama, who makes his final speech in front of the UN on Tuesday. If one is waiting with suspense, this isn’t the year for Obama to make a splash but to tout his legacy.
Obama will extoll world leaders on the major themes of his presidency including climate change and nuclear non-proliferation (maybe even a plea for global trade agreements). He will chair his own summit on refugees on Tuesday amidst a global environment where refugees are increasing and increasingly becoming a political liability.
Even less interesting is the final agreed UNGA statement (to be rolled out at the end), the New York Declaration, a relatively banal document of global consensus that recognizes the challenge of refugees but offers no solutions.
UNGA will also be an opportunity for less in vogue world leaders to burnish their reputations. Theresa May, UK’s Prime Minister, will have her first UNGA post-Brexit where she will seek to make the case that Britain post-Brexit is both open for business and still matters. President Francois Hollande will seek to shine some positive light on his presidency as his political prospects dwindle at home for re-election.
As lackluster as the G20 was for global economic cooperation, these summits can demonstrate that global challenges still require global solutions and cooperation; not walls or BrexitsAndrew Bowen
Arguably, one of the most interesting sideshows is the Clinton Global Initiative where celebrities, businessmen, and world leaders have an opportunity to engage President Bill Clinton and guage where they fall on the list of priorities for a future Clinton administration. Secretary Clinton will also hold her own bilateral with world leaders including President Sisi of Egypt. With Clinton’s lead diminishing in the polls, Trump Tower more so than the Clinton Global Initiative may be a more interesting stop.
Stage for Tehran
For Iran, UNGA is the A list “summit of summits” where President Rowhani for a brief New York moment gets to address world leaders a year since the JCPOA. In contrast to the UN Security Council, the General Assembly is a much more equal and welcoming place for Tehran.
With fragile domestic politics at home, Rowhani though will avoid any side meeting or photo opportunity with President Obama, but will use his speech to encourage the world to do business with Iran and make a case for Iran’s “constructive” regional and global role. He will likely avoid the fiery rhetoric of his predecessor, but Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif’s op-ed in The New York Times on Saudi Arabia sets a very negative tone in advance of the speech.
In the wake of the largest US defense aid package ever given to Israel, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu will have a bilateral meeting with Obama in New York. While the package certainly is well received by Netanyahu, both men don’t particularly like each other and the Israeli Prime Minister will seek to use this an opportunity to try to dissuade Obama and other world leaders from considering any new peace initiative.
While UNGA this year will certainly not be a very productive affair, there are a few opportunities for progress. The meetings on Syria and Yemen offer opportunities formally and informally to try to make some progress. One shouldn’t hold one’s breath but dialogue on these issues is more critical than discord.
UNGA is also an opportunity for the US and Russia to try to lower tensions since this weekend over the mistaken targeting of Syrian forces in eastern Syria and salvage the presently wobbling agreement between Kerry and Lavrov to cooperate on combatting ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria.
This meeting also is an opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of global forums and global cooperation amidst rising populism, nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism. As lackluster as the G20 was for global economic cooperation, these summits can demonstrate that global challenges still require global solutions and cooperation; not walls or Brexits.
Even with this small note of optimism, UNGA is in the shadow of November as the US goes to elect a new President and potentially, beginning of the unknown. Next September, the world could see Trump, Le Pen, Johnson, and Putin gathering on the world stage.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Global Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.