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United Nations General Assembly 2019

This series decodes deals, political moves, and gossip at the world’s biggest political summit.

The United Nations building in New York.
NATIONS ASSEMBLE

The UN General Assembly lurches into full swing

New York City
Pete Gelling
By Pete Gelling

Geopolitics editor

The UN General Assembly, that annual diplomatic showstopper, is now in full swing. New York traffic patterns, alternatively, are at a standstill.

Starting today, one by one, top representatives from nations around the world will take the stage at the UN building in New York to deliver carefully crafted remarks. Some creative leaders might even bring props to make their points. We can only hope.

Sweeping declarations will be made during the week, like this one on universal health care that nearly every country on Earth signed yesterday, including the US, which sort of calls into question the usefulness of all this.

Leaders in other sectors, particularly in business, will hold side events to promote their own ideas on the best direction for the world to take. And activists and lobbyists will leverage the opportunity to push their own agendas in all manner of inventive and surreptitious ways.

There’s always the chance of a sidebar meeting taking place between world leaders who for various reasons are otherwise avoiding each other. Will US president Donald Trump meet Iranian president Hassan Rouhani? Probably not, but we’ll be watching just in case.

In between all the interesting stuff, there will be some not-so-interesting stuff. Here is a quick primer on what is worth your attention. For more, read our special edition newsletter on the UNGA this week: sign up here.

1. Climate change

This is the big one. The fate of all existence rests on solving it, after all. Last week, millions of protesters took to the streets around the world calling for action on the climate. This week, the UN hopes to do just that. Yesterday, dozens of world leaders, in a decidedly dystopian scene, talked urgently about the need to mitigate the warming climate and save the world. Pledges were made.

Climate activist and wunderkind Greta Thunberg put everyone old enough to vote to shame with her short but emotional speech. It’s the stuff of legend. Watch it if you know what’s good for you (and the planet):

Thunberg and 15 other kids then went about the task of suing five of the world’s biggest climate polluters.

While the US has for a generation resisted any global treaty on climate change—which as the world’s largest economy has prevented any of the pledges over the years from having any meaningful impact—its recalcitrant diplomacy on the subject has deteriorated under Trump.

In fact, Trump is moving in quite the opposite direction compared to the rest of the world. Last week, just ahead of the climate protests, he abolished California’s legal authority to set its own emissions standards. California governor Gavin Newsom, for his part, is in New York and spoke at a panel organized by the World Economic Forum yesterday. During his speech, he called California the most “un-Trump state” in the union, and received uproarious applause as a result.

2. Brazil

It’s a little awkward that the first speech of the General Assembly will be delivered by Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil. But, hey, it’s tradition. Since Bolsonaro has taken office, destruction of the Amazon has accelerated at such a speed that the whole world has taken notice. Scientists worry that the damage is irreversible. It will be interesting to see what Brazil’s president has to say for himself as he opens a UN General Assembly meeting that has made the climate a priority.

3. Trade wars

Trump administration officials will likely meet their Chinese counterparts on the sidelines to discuss the ongoing trade war between the two countries. Meanwhile, everyone will be watching to see if Trump, rarely a voice for human rights, will address the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, China’s persecution of Tibetans, or its treatment of the Uyghurs, a minority Muslim group living mostly in the semi-autonomous Xinjiang region. The US deputy secretary of state will be hosting a meeting today on that very subject.

4. Kashmir

Over the weekend, Trump stood next to Nahendra Modi during the Indian prime minister’s rally in Houston. Some 50,000 Indian Americans cheered them both as they talked about fighting Islamic terrorism, a thinly veiled reference to Kashmir, the once semi-autonomous and mostly Muslim region between Pakistan and India that the two nuclear-armed countries have jostled over for decades. Both Modi and Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan are expected to make strong use of their podium time this week to address this topic.

5. Iran

Escalating tensions between the US and Iran will almost surely come up. Trump speaks this morning and a day later Rouhani will take the stand. Talk of conflict has become commonplace since Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran deal. The rhetoric increased dramatically after Yemeni rebels aligned with Iran recently claimed responsibility for a sophisticated attack on Saudi oil fields. The US and Saudi Arabia believe Iran was the true culprit. Rouhani will unveil a shiny new security plan that involves several countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia. The US, by apparent design, plays no part in Iran’s plan.

6. Venezuela

Venezuela’s economic meltdown under its leader, Nicolas Maduro, has sparked a regional crisis. Millions have fled the country, putting pressure on its neighbors. Maduro is now locked in a power struggle with an opposition led by Juan Guaidó. Maduro won’t be at the UN summit. But the leaders from 18 countries in the Western Hemisphere are meeting to discuss the problem. And lobbyists for Venezuela’s opposition are out in force.

7. Afghanistan

The US war in Afghanistan is approaching 20 years long. Trump, like Obama before him, has made withdrawing from Afghanistan a priority. But, also like Obama, he has failed so far. Peace talks with the Taliban recently broke down at the last minute in dramatic fashion. Afghanistan’s national security adviser, who has clashed with Trump, will close out the summit with its final speech.