The Irish Times view on the UN general assembly: a challenge to the liberal consensus

On the most pressing issues, world powers are increasingly forced to act not in tandem with the US but in defiance of it

As usual at the UN general assembly, the most significant moments will occur not in the cavernous chamber itself, where leaders will deliver scripted remarks to a sparse audience, but in the hundreds of sideline meetings and chance encounters where the real business is often done. Photograph: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

As usual at the UN general assembly, the most significant moments will occur not in the cavernous chamber itself, where leaders will deliver scripted remarks to a sparse audience, but in the hundreds of sideline meetings and chance encounters where the real business is often done. Photograph: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

 

The United Nations has faced many challenges since its foundation in 1945, but never have so many of its most powerful members set themselves so forcefully against the very ideals the organisation stands for. That internal challenge to the norms of multilateralism, the rule of law and democratic accountability will be on stark display in New York this week, when world leaders gather for the 74th session of the general assembly.

The assembly may not be the UN’s most powerful body – that status belongs to the security council – but the annual session remains one of the key dates in the diplomatic calendar. Notable absentees will include Vladimir Putin of Russia, China’s Xi Jinping and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is focused on retaining his grip on power at home after last week’s inconclusive election. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela is not expected to attend, while North Korea has opted not to send a high-ranking representative.

The gathering is most likely to be defined by the rupture between guardians of the liberal consensus and the band of insurgents, led by Trump, who repudiate those values

Notwithstanding those missing protagonists, tensions will be running high. As usual, the most significant moments will occur not in the cavernous chamber itself but in the hundreds of sideline meetings where the real business is often done. The official agenda includes urgent issues such as the climate crisis, poverty and migration, but a parallel track of bilateral discussions will centre on Iran and wider tensions in the Middle East, trade wars, the collapse of the Afghan peace talks and the North Korean nuclear threat.

On Iran, a meeting between Trump and president Hassan Rouhani cannot be ruled out, but the chances have receded since the drone attack on Saudi oil installations last week, which parts of the US administration have blamed on Tehran. Nor should we expect progress on the trade tensions between China and the US. One of the trickiest tasks falls to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been drawn into US political debate after reports that Trump pressured him to investigate a political opponent, Joe Biden.

The gathering is most likely to be defined by the rupture between guardians of the liberal consensus and the band of insurgents, led by Trump, who repudiate those values. Strongmen will dominate the first day of the leader’s speeches on Tuesday, with contributions from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected to strike dissonant notes.

In international diplomacy, one of the first questions is always “Where does the US stand”? But in arenas such as the UN, Washington’s leadership has been in retreat under Trump. And so, when leaders discuss the most pressing issue they face – climate change – this week, with a view to announcing net-zero carbon emissions in buildings and other initiatives, they will be doing so not in tandem with the US but in defiance of it.

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