September 27, 2023

UN supporters and UNA-NCA members looked forward with great interest and engagement to President Biden’s September speech in the UN General Assembly (UNGA). So, I have read and reread his speech against the hopes and anticipation that we brought to it, and particularly in light of the recommendations for U.S. priorities in the Assembly for this year formulated by Advisory Council and recently sent by Council Chair Sam Worthington to the United States Representative Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

My global assessment is that the speech was full of the right rhetoric, including reference to a present “inflection point” in world history. But it was disappointingly lacking in new ideas and commitments to action by the United States in the UN, globally, or at home within this country. The UNGA General Debate in which the President spoke offers opportunity for speakers to address both global and national issues. President Biden’s speech was notable for its failure to talk about what global issues and agreements mean for action within the United States now. At times, it seemed as if the speech had been written by National Security Council staff without reference to the Domestic Policy Council.

Here are a few specifics about the President’s speech and thoughts for the way forward building on the Advisory Council’s proposed priorities for the USG in the UNGA this year.

On the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the President said, “The United States is committing to doing its part to get us back on track,” and recognized that “We all have to do more.” “More,” in the President’s words, meant new partnerships for climate financing, filling gaps in the pandemic response system, ensuring that women and girls benefit fully from progress, and grappling with the debt of low- and middle-income countries. In the discussions on the SDGs in the course of the UNGA committee meetings, the President’s “More” on the SDGs should recognize the universality of the SDGs, including their relevance to domestic action in the United States. The US UNGA delegation needs to expand President Biden’s “More” on the SDGs to domestic action, including a specific commitment to submission of Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) of US SDG performance twice by 2030, as proposed by the UNA-NCA Advisory Council. This is especially important because he United States stands out as one of only five countries that have yet to submit a VNR.

On the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) the President covered recent actions to increase World Bank financing and proposals for developing countries’ increasing voice in the IMF. He mentioned asking Congress for “additional funds to expand World Bank financing by $25 billion.” But the scale of his plans and proposals was woefully inadequate to the needs and he ignored UN Secretary-General Guterres’ repeated very concrete proposal for an annual $500 billion SDG stimulus package. The critical issue of the complex relationships between the IFIs and the UN and more broadly between the global financial architecture and the UN merits urgent consideration within the United States Government, so that the US is prepared to go beyond platitudes in the forthcoming UNGA committee debates and be willing to accept that IFI reforms can and should be negotiated not only in the IFIs but also in the wider world community represented by the UN..

On democracy and human rights, President Biden said, “We convened the Summit for Democracy to strengthen democratic institutions, root out corruption, and reject political violence.” But he could have gone much further by expressing specific support for the next Democracy Summit in Korea. He rightly said, “We cannot turn away from abuses, whether in Xinjiang, Tehran, Darfur, or anywhere else.” The credibility of his remarks would have been greatly enhanced if his reference to“anywhere else” had explicitly rather than only implicitly included Minneapolis and other US cities and states. He mentioned that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted seventy-five years ago capturing “a remarkable act of collective hope.” But he gave no indication of the importance of the 75th UDHR Anniversary, nor of the willingness of the US Government to take this occasion for renewed action to celebrate the Anniversary at home and take new action to address violations of it within the USA. In the UNGA debates it’s important that the US delegation underscore the 75th Anniversary, as the UNA-NCA Advisory Council has proposed, and outline plans for domestic action for the Anniversary.

I was glad to see the President endorse reform of the UN Security Council and reiterate his announcement last year that the US would support expanding the Council by increasing the number of permanent and non-permanent members. He also mentioned the consultations under way by Ambassador Thomas Greenfield on reform issues and possibilities. But there was nothing new, no sense of the way forward beyond generalities and what has been said previously, on Security Council reform. If SC reform is to be realized, it must gain overwhelming support in the UN, among Member States, in civil society and the general public, and – last but not least – in the US Senate for ratification of the required amendments of the UN Charter. A small coalition of Member States, with strong US engagement or even leadership, will be needed to define and realize the reform. Perhaps the Summit of the Future, planned for 2024, can be a forum for establishment of such a coalition and agreement on sufficient content of the reform to move ahead.

Common efforts are critically need, the President said, on the accelerating climate crisis. He justifiably reiterated actions taken by his administration and mentioned working with Congress to quadruple US climate financing. But here, too, there was nothing new, no new actions or initiatives offered by the President. I hope that the US delegation in the UNGA committees will be able to build on the Advisory Council statement and push forward with individual countries, especially China, and public and private sector coalitions.

The President referred to US “efforts to build a more sustainable, integrated Middle East.” He also said, “We work continue to work tirelessly to support a just and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians – two states for two peoples.” He gave no indication of what the Big Deal being discussed for normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel might contain, nor what it might mean for the Palestinians. The emphasis in the President’s statement seemed to be more on“continuing” than on anything that might be new, or what the Big Deal might, for example, mean for the United Nations.

Addressing the issue of food security, the UNA-NCA Advisory Council recommended that the US UNGA Delegation should work to “safeguard the uninterrupted flow of grains and fertilizers through the Black Sea Agreement.” It also proposed that the US “actively explore convening a global food security summit” at home and abroad. President Biden did not refer to the Black Sea Agreement and framed support for food security under the SDGs. He said only that the US has invested more than $100 billion in “bolstering food security,” education, health care systems and fighting disease, without further reference to food issues.

Both President Biden and the UNA-NCA Advisory Council recommendations strongly addressed violations of the United Nations Charter. The Advisory Council stated that the USG “must continue to take decisive action to reaffirm the UN Charter.” For his part, President Biden stated, “Sovereignty, territorial integrity, human rights – these are the core tenets of the UN Charter, the pillars of peaceful relations among nations, without which we cannot achieve any of our goals.” It’s evident that the President could have been even more specific in his support for the Charter. I hope that the US UNGA Delegation will pick up and underscore this theme, whether in connection with peace and security, the SDGs or other topics.

While the recommendations of the Advisory Council did not address the Russian aggression in Ukraine or China, President Biden rightly gave these topics great attention. His focus was more immediate, while that of the Advisory Council was logically more medium and long-term. “Reshaping the global narrative by leaning into global challenges” was a key point in the Council’s paper for the US Delegation – an important task for the United States in the UNGA, other international forums, and in its bilateral relations with key countries. We should also remember that the global narrative is, indeed, truly global, and that this implies action by the Biden Administration as well as the NGO community, to reshape the global narrative at home, with the Congress and the public.

President Biden twice mentioned that we are at an “inflection point” in history, and that we can “bend the arc of history.” But he failed to present specifics on how the United Nations might contribute to this bending. The planned Summit for the Future next year will provide the Administration multiple opportunities to work with others to bend the arc of history by strengthening the United Nations and making greater use of this critical diplomatic tool.

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