Joe Bidenat UN
US President Joe Biden addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 19, 2023. He started by addressing what he saw as an “inflection point in world history” (the battle between democracy and autocracy), and went on to say that the US was amenable to expanding the membership of the Security Council. Image Credit: Reuters

When the leader of a nation that identifies itself as the “leader of the free world” addresses the world at large, the world listens carefully and — in this information age, shaped as it is by the digital revolution — watches live.

Thus, many of us watched and listened to President Joe Biden as he climbed onto the podium at exactly 11 O’clock on Tuesday morning to deliver his annual marquee speech to representatives of the 193 member states present in the hall.

He began that half-hour, lack-lustre speech by addressing what he saw as an “inflection point in world history”, understood to refer to the battle between democracy and autocracy, then went on to speak, commendably, of how the US was amenable to expanding the membership of the all-powerful Security Council, made up currently of five permanent members — Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom and China — and 10 rotating ones. (Only one leader from the five permanent members, Biden himself, chose to attend the conference this year.)

Bending the arc of history

Also the American president seemed in his speech to outline a vision of sorts for tackling global challenges, such as how to go about bolstering the economies of developing countries by offering them the assistance of the World Bank, an institution dominated by the US and a few allied major powers. And, while addressing the gathering as “my fellow leaders”, he spoke of “our collective hope” that “equal and inalienable rights” will be enjoyed by all peoples of the world, these rights being, he said, “part of our shared humanity”.

Then he added grandly, “Let’s bend the arc of history”.

Seemingly in an effort to reignite backing for Ukraine, amid signs that support for its war effort is somewhat flagging in the US and Europe, he devoted much of the rest of his speech to a scathing indictment of Russia’s role in the war — a war that in recent weeks appears to have degenerated into a stalemate, with neither side making meaningful gains or suffering grievous losses, and with progress at the front line measured in hundreds of metres instead of miles.

“Russia alone bears responsibility for this war, Russia alone has the power to end the war and Russia alone stands in the way of peace”, he asserted, adding, “and Russia’s price for peace is Ukraine’s capitulation”.

Antonio Guterres
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, US, on September 19, 2023. he warned that a day was looming of a “great fracture” in the world, describing “global governance” as failing to serve a “changing world”. Image Credit: Reuters

All in all, underlying much of what President Biden was saying in his address to the international community is the message that “America is back”, an exultant phrase dear to Democrats, conveying America’s return to global engagement — if not global leadership — following the isolationist presidency of Donald J. Trump, a US leader who gained notoriety during his tenure in the White House disrupting and cavalierly withdrawing from international alliances.

Well, there you have it, for that’s how they roll at the United Nations, a world body that critics see as flawed — even at times ineffectual — a world body that, they point out, has not only failed to prevent war but to implement the very General Assembly resolutions it passes.

Perhaps the United Nations carried the seed of that failure within it the day it was founded in San Francisco, with just 51 members, in 1945, in the wake of the Second World War, ironically the 150th anniversary of the publication, by Immanuel Kant (d.1809) — the towering German philosopher and one of the Enlightenment’s central figures — of the essay “Toward Eternal Peace”, in which he argued that peace, eternal peace, was not only desirable and conceivable but necessary and attainable — an essay that reportedly animated the thinking of the theoreticians behind the founding of what we now call the United Nations.

UN failures

Clearly the debate over how to achieve peace and justice in the international community dates way, way back to a time long before Kant, but the German philosopher’s thoughts, we are told, were the ones that those who thought up the idea had in mind.

Unlike politicians who look to the next election and statesmen who look to the next generation, builders of global systems look to the indefinite future. The folks in San Francisco did not. Instead, they created a body that reflected the unequal power relations that had prevailed in 1945, where unanimity of the big powers (say a handful of them at the Security Council) was the explicit feature of the blueprint for the new structure they were building.

The United Nations has, sadly, so failed in its primary mission of creating conditions in our world where inequality, injustice, poverty, destitution and oppression — to name but a few of the disparities between the Global South and its counterpart in the North — that these critics, this columnist among them, wonder whether it will in time repeat the history of its predecessor, the League of Nations, which had abjectly failed to confront fascist aggression in the 1930s.

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And the League of Nations, lest we forget, emerged from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, soon after the conclusion of the First World War, marking the first serious effort to create a universal system of collective security — but ended up in history’s trash bin.

Half an hour before President Biden mounted the podium at 11 O’clock on Tuesday morning to deliver his speech, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had preceded him there to deliver his own, a speech in which he warned that a day was looming of a “great fracture” in the world, describing “global governance” as failing to serve a “changing world”.

And what will the United Nations do about that? Search me.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.