Six Things to Watch at the U.N. General Assembly

The marquee multilateral summit goes virtual as questions about the future of the global body rise.

This year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting, happening against the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the U.N.’s founding, was supposed to be a major milestone—a moment for world leaders to reflect on the organization’s pursuit of peaceful international cooperation since the devastation of World War II, and to consider how the multilateral system should evolve to tackle the 21st century’s biggest challenges. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the traditional in-person gathering at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York City. This UNGA will be a much more muted affair, with participants using the same videoconferencing technology to which we have all become accustomed in 2020. But the challenges facing the international system are as pressing and complicated as ever. As UNGA goes virtual, here are six issues to watch.

  1. Nationalism vs. Multilateralism and the Future of the U.N.

The U.N.’s 75th anniversary comes amid a surge of nationalist sentiment across the world that challenges many of the fundamental tenets of multilateral cooperation and questions the value of the U.N. system. At the same time, a growing cohort of nations has banded together in the Alliance for Multilateralism to press for the reinvigoration of international cooperation, based on the principles of the U.N. Charter, as the most productive pathway to solving the world’s mounting challenges. UNGA has traditionally been a forum through which world leaders speak to their own national foreign policy agendas and a vision for the role the U.N. can and should (or, in some cases, cannot and should not) play in promoting their interests. Amid a world increasingly beset by transnational challenges—a global pandemic, climate change, mass migration, and rapid technological change, to name a few—will leaders signal support for a reinvigorated multilateral system, or use UNGA as a platform to double down on a more nationalistic view that seeks to further restrict the U.N.’s role in world affairs?

  1. China’s Growing Role in the Multilateral System

China’s influence within the U.N. has grown demonstrably in recent years, as Beijing has adopted a more assertive posture in key U.N. organizations and expanded the use of its veto power in the Security Council. Central to China’s strategy is to limit the United Nations’ voice and role in addressing member states domestic political crises, particularly where human rights are concerned. Faced with global condemnation for the detention and mistreatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in western China, outrage over the draconian curtailment of individual freedoms in Hong Kong, and uncomfortable questions about its transparency during the earliest stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has an interest in reshaping the norms of international cooperation in its favor, and may see opportunities to do so in the midst of rising U.S. antipathy towards the U.N. Will Beijing’s aversion to a values-based multilateral system serve as a clarion call for more forceful pushback from member states, or will apparent U.S. disengagement create the space for China to more forcefully assert a leadership role in the U.N.?

  1. Collective Action to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated the most severe multidimensional crisis since the end of World War II. Beyond the immediate public health implications, the downturn in the global economy, disruptions to global supply chains, and restrictive lockdown measures have put millions at risk of falling further into poverty and food insecurity, and exacerbated social fissures. Yet the response by world leaders in the face of these overlapping crises, in the words of U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, “barely justifies the description of tepid.” While bilateral donors have increased assistance and international financial institutions have offered fast-track financing, the world’s developed nations have largely focused on massive domestic relief packages to shore up their economies. Will UNGA be the moment that world leaders offer new political and financing commitments to address the impacts of the pandemic on the world’s most vulnerable, or will the poorest states continue to muddle through as the global COVID-19 caseload continues to shatter previous record highs?

  1. Whither the Global Cease-fire?

Six months after Secretary-General Guterres called for a global cease-fire and three months since the Security Council belatedly passed resolution 2532, little progress has been made in advancing cease-fires in the world’s most intractable conflicts. USIP’s Tyler Thompson argues that COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the underlying drivers of the world’s deadliest conflicts and deepened the already catastrophic humanitarian fallout. As the virus continues to spread across global hotspots, will shifting dynamics on the ground create new opportunities for peacebuilding and, if so, is the United Nations—and the Security Council in particular—capable of leveraging a global public health crisis to reduce violent conflict and bring relief to those worst affected by it?

  1. Aftermath of Israel-UAE-Bahrain Normalization

Israel’s normalization with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain will almost certainly have an impact on political dynamics in the General Assembly. While the “Abraham Accord” has halted (at least for now) Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank, how these agreements may impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional dynamics remains to be seen. Both the Palestinians and Israel have historically viewed the General Assembly as a pulpit for posturing on a global stage, and in light of recent events, this will certainly be the case this year. How will Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas frame the narrative of the Abraham Accord in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional politics? How will key U.N. members react to these agreements, and the Israeli, Palestinian and American narratives around them? And how will the accord relate to past U.N. Resolutions (242, 338, 2334) and parameters, accepted by a majority of U.N. members?

  1. The Ups and Downs of Virtual Summitry

While the speeches on the floor of the General Assembly generate the biggest headlines, the real diplomatic action frequently occurs in the halls of U.N. headquarters, diplomatic missions, and hotel suites across midtown Manhattan, where heads of state and senior officials discuss concerns face-to-face. The pandemic has made sure that there will be no such opportunities this year, lowering expectations for any significant diplomatic breakthroughs or side deals. On the other hand, the new president of the General Assembly noted that this year’s virtual format has resulted in the highest number of head-of-state level speeches in its 75-year history, signaling that world leaders still see the need to represent their nations at the pinnacle of global diplomacy. Will the move to a virtual UNGA fundamentally alter the practice of multilateral diplomacy and usher in a new era of virtual summits, or will UNGA 2020 simply be remembered as the world’s most elaborate zoom meeting?