US President Joe Biden addresses the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York City. Reuters
Andreas Kluth, Tribune News Service
Figuratively and literally, the US was once again talking to the world in its customary roles as host, leader and force for good — or at least champion against misery and evil. President Joe Biden struck all the right notes in New York as he addressed the 193 nations gathered in the General Assembly of the United Nations. And yet, his appeals will be far from enough to hold the world together. In some ways this session, the UN’s 78th, could and should have highlighted America’s role as the only plausible ward — or “hegemon” — over whatever remains of the liberal international order built after World War II. The leaders of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council — Russia, China, France and the UK — didn’t show up. Biden had the P-5 stage to himself. The world must resist the brutal onslaught of one UN member, Russia, against another, Ukraine, Biden repeated, as he said at the same podium a year ago. After all, the Kremlin’s war of aggression violates national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and thus the foundational principles of the UN Charter adopted in San Francisco in 1945. As a sign of his resolve to keep backing Kyiv, Biden will also host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the White House this week.
Biden paid homage to the daunting problems shared by all humanity, which the UN as the planet’s main forum for international cooperation is meant to solve. Those are the 17 SDGs, or “sustainable development goals” — what a pity that existential threats have to get such bureaucratic labels. These targets range from slowing climate change to alleviating hunger, ending poverty, eliminating tuberculosis, educating girls and more.
In a nod to the many delegates from the “Global South” who are frustrated that countries in Africa, Asia and South America play such peripheral roles in the UN system, Biden even renewed his offer to reform its institutions. The Security Council, he suggested, should expand to look more like geopolitics in the 21st century rather than the middle of the 20th. On he went, each assertion sounding eminently plausible and reasonable. And yet his words, several of which he slurred or elided as is his oratorical wont, won’t join those of Pericles, Lincoln, Churchill or other leaders at comparable historical junctures. Too noisy is the din of the world’s feuding and fighting for them to even be heard outside the chamber, too loud thea hissing of the cynics.
The divisions start with Moscow’s genocidal invasion of Ukraine. It’s precisely the sort of war of aggression that the UN, conceived during the joint struggle against the Nazis, was meant to prevent and punish. More than that, since the Kremlin is blocking grain exports from Ukraine, its invasion is also one reason why world hunger is increasing again, wrecking that particular SDG. And yet, much of the world still refuses to line up behind Biden and the West against Moscow.
Humanity’s tragedy of the commons continues with those other SDGs. Adopted in 2015 and intended to be solved by 2030, those goals are instead receding into the distance. (Bloomberg LP has incorporated the SDGs in its sustainability strategy, which is outlined in the Bloomberg Impact Report.) More rather than fewer people live in dire poverty today than before the Covid pandemic. At the current rate of progress, men and women will be treated equally in 300 years. And global warming is accelerating rather than slowing, with this year’s weather disasters just a hint of what’s to come.
Moreover, American leadership as advertised by Biden looks ever less credible to much of the world. Few in the General Assembly could have failed to notice that Biden is facing possible impeachment, the prosecution of his son Hunter and vitriolic rants in the US media about his age. Nor has it escaped their attention that the US increasingly can’t get its fiscal house in order. Much of this is symptomatic of America’s extreme polarization, which will only increase as Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, starts showing up in various courts to defend himself against the 91 criminal charges against him, mostly for trying to steal the 2020 election. And then, next year, those two men will probably face off again in the presidential election.
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