As Bad as the World Looks Right Now, It’s Actually Worse

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) annual meeting in New York is generally reviled by New Yorkers for the traffic congestion it causes, but otherwise ignored by the general public.

One by one, heads of state usually deliver speeches that give great terror to their staffs, but which for the most part – laden with idealistic platitudes about the UN mission’s promise – quickly disappear into the ocean of everyday news never to be heard again. from weather.

The UNGA occasionally produces a rare newsworthy moment, but even then, the impact of 30 seconds on the consciousness of readers and viewers is usually immediately overshadowed – as was the case in the US this week with domestic political scandals and the appearance of the latest Kardashian baby.

Maybe it’s just as good. Because if the average person paid more attention to what is really being discussed in the UN, or had the opportunity to listen in on some of the behind-the-scenes conversations, as some of us are required to do, they would move away from the experience shaken not stirred.

Take, for example, Tuesday’s opening speech by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “We are stuck in a colossal global dysfunction,” he said, apparently in no mood for bland diplospeak. “The international community is not ready or willing to tackle the great dramatic challenges of our time. These crises threaten the future of humanity and the fate of our planet. Our world is in danger – and paralyzed.”

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His key point: “Our world is in big trouble.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks at a UN Security Council.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty

That point was underscored by the fact that a day later Vladimir Putin chose to mark this UN week with a speech of his own — not only announcing the call for 300,000 conscripts to serve in the Russian military and join its disastrous invasion. of Ukraine, but also threatened to use nuclear weapons.

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It’s not a bluff,” Putin said.

Russia’s territorial integrity is of course not threatened… they are the ones who invaded their neighbor without provocation. But the fact that the comments from the man who manages the world’s largest nuclear arsenal were actually disconnected from reality didn’t make them any less threatening.

The response from world leaders at the UN was swift.

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US President Joe Biden on Wednesday proclaimed Putin as the sole person responsible for Ukraine’s disastrous conflict, and pledged to defend that country. He argued that “a nuclear war cannot be won” and condemned Putin’s threat. The president also called for reforms to the UN, such as increasing the number of permanent members on the Security Council and reducing those permanent members’ veto powers — perhaps making the organization a little less, to use Guterres’s term, dysfunctional. would become.

Other leaders also condemned Putin, including video footage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who called for Russia to be designated a state sponsor of terror and for the country to be ousted from positions like those in the Security Council. “A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we demand a just punishment.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with world leaders via video link during the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2022 in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty

In addition to concerns over Putin’s comments, there were signs of unrest in his own country. Men of military age fled the country by car and plane, bottling up border crossings and selling out flights. Protesters took to the streets. And Putin, no doubt feeling trapped for his serial blunders in Ukraine, felt even more cornered and in danger — a factor that compounded the dangers of the moment.

Read:Russian stocks crash on signs Putin may escalate Ukraine war with military mobilization and Ukraine annexation

There was also a general feeling that Putin’s mobilization could backfire and actually… contribute to further problems for Russia in Ukraine – a situation that could make a desperate Putin even more desperate.

Meanwhile, one of Putin’s few remaining allies in the world, Iran, faced itself with rapidly spreading unrest in the wake of the brutal beating and death of Mahsa Amini, effectively murdered for refusing to wear a headscarf.

Iran’s leaders, in New York for the UN meetings, underlined how paranoid they are about the situation at home through an interview with CNNs Christiane Amanpour because she refused to wear a head covering for the interview.

Meanwhile, of course, many of those attending the UN General Assembly were just as concerned about what is happening in the United States as it is happening globally.

The rise of right-wing extremists was specifically referred to me by the ambassador of one of America’s closest allies when I sat next to her at an event Monday night.

The ambassador said one of the big questions her colleagues debated was whether their country’s leaders, in their remarks to the UN, would address their concerns that democracy in the US is at risk (Guterres also mentioned the overruling of Roe v. Wade as a sign that gender inequality was worsening in the US and around the world.)

Certainly, for visitors to New York, the deteriorating legal situation of America’s 45th president (though understood and seen by some as a major correction for anti-democratic impulses) is also seen as a source of potential rifts in the one ally they continue to engage in. . essential to see. And as a European official said to me at the Monday event I attended: “We are concerned about democracy in America. Now we must also be concerned about the security of classified documents. And we are concerned that after the next elections go back to America First policy. It’s a lot.”

People take part in a protest against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi outside the United Nations on September 21, 2022 in New York City.

Stephanie Keith/Getty

That this is all happening at the same time is disturbing and to some extent Guterres shouted in his comments. But what makes them all the more chilling is that the above issues weren’t really the central threats his speech referred to. For example, he warned, “If no action is taken now, the global fertilizer shortage will quickly turn into a global food shortage.”

The climate crisis — which caused more extreme weather crises, such as the damage caused by Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico (a US territory) — was another focus for the secretary general. He said, “We need action across the board… Our planet is on fire.”

He then went on to quote the deep economic inequality that both plagues and increases the planet. “The divide between developed and developing countries,” he argued, “between North and South, between the privileged and the rest, is getting more dangerous by the day. It is at the root of geopolitical tensions.”

In other words, the reasons for the UN (and for the diplomatic initiatives discussed in the UNGA) do not abate nearly eight decades after the institution was founded. They grow quickly. And frankly, as they do, they illustrate that one of the biggest problems we face remains the impotence and inertia of global organizations like the United Nations.

Global problems, from war to the threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction, from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to the climate crisis, from threats to democracy to hunger, from economic inequality to the unfair treatment of women, all require mechanisms that are much more capable and more effective than the one that brought traffic to a halt in New York this week.

In Guterres’s words, one could hear the frustration of a leader dealing with the fact that these institutions were designed to be weak, designed not to threaten sovereign power too strongly, and that the world’s problems were so urgent and are of such magnitude and gravity that they require a different approach.

Utuado, Puerto Rico, after the power went out with the passage of Hurricane Fiona on September 20, 2022.

AFP via Getty

Biden’s call for reform was an encouraging step in that regard, albeit a small one that is unlikely to be realized. But beyond that, a week when the great challenges facing the world can be seen side by side offers us a rare perspective and a realization that we are not collectively tackling the challenges we face.

There are glimmers of hope – protests against repressive regimes in Russia and Iran, the slow spinning of the wheels of justice in the US – but listening to the speeches of world leaders this week, it was clear that unless we change the way the nations of the planet solves problems together, what is bad today will only get worse tomorrow.

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