For one week each year, as world leaders gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings, the biggest stories in international affairs all seem to be laid out, side-by-side for Americans to view up close. This year, the spectacle and related developments here in the United States had to leave most rational observers more shaken than stirred.
On Wednesday, speaking at a climate conference, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said environmental challenges facing the planet had “opened up the gates of hell.”
The unsettling week also saw congressional Republicans move to cut future funding to help stop Russian aggression in Ukraine, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman crowing on U.S. television about his $2 billion investment in Jared Kushner and his embrace of the benefits of “sportswashing,” Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu cozying up to one of the world’s leading enablers of anti-Semites, Elon Musk, and China finishing up the week by announcing a “strategic partnership” with Syrian butcher Bashar al Assad.
Meanwhile, even in a week so full of worrisome news, perhaps the week’s most ominous development may have been further insights into the dangerously deranged psyche of the man who some polls show could well be the next president of the United States, Donald Trump.
These came in an exceptional article in The Atlantic by its editor Jeffrey Goldberg that profiled former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. The piece depicted a president (Trump) whose generals worried might trigger nuclear conflagration, and who celebrated and defended war criminals while ridiculing wounded veterans. It also reminded readers that even Trump’s senior advisers feel that should he be reelected he will put in jail any military, defense, and other leaders who would place the Constitution ahead of loyalty to Trump.
The watching world was reminded of how far the U.S. had come since the days Trump was first president and, by extension, how far we may fall should he be re-elected.
In one of the few truly positive events associated with the UN meeting, President Biden’s speech to the General Assembly reminded observers of the benefits of having a leader who is deeply experienced in international affairs, committed to the rule of law worldwide, and a deeply moral man.
Biden called for support for peace, for support for Ukraine, and made (yet again) a strong case for why the battle between democracy and autocracy remained at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
Biden also welcomed Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife to the White House later in the week, a less equivocal embrace than that offered by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy—who said the Congress did not have enough time to offer Zelensky the ability to address its members.
Indeed, the Speaker-in-name-only was so cowed by the pro-Putin wing of the GOP that he did not even offer a congressional room to host the major presentation Zelensky made on Capitol Hill.
Taken in combination with the nihilistic budget games being played by a right wing that will likely have the U.S. government shutting down by the end of the month and the prospect of a Trump presidency in perhaps a year and a half, Zelensky must have found aspects of his visit to Washington concerning.
That said, in another of the week’s more positive developments, reports began to emerge on Friday that the Biden administration might finally be willing to provide Ukraine with a type of weapon it has most urgently sought, the long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems known as ATACMS.
“Biden called for support for peace, for support for Ukraine, and made (yet again) a strong case for why the battle between democracy and autocracy remained at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.”
The Washington Post reported the U.S. was nearing approval to release a cluster-munitions version of the weapons that could help it destroy targets up to 190 miles away. A Wall Street Journal report said Biden had told Zelensky during his visit that he would provide a small number of the weapons as a start and might provide more in the future.
The delays, thus far, in deciding to provide the Ukrainians with ATACMS have been frustrating not only to many in Ukraine but to a large number of U.S. national security experts. Movement on that front is welcome and yet another sign that the Biden team seeks to advance U.S. national security interests, even if MAGA Republicans do not.
More baffling (at least to me) than the caution employed by the Biden administration in releasing key advanced weapons systems to help defeat Russia has been the seeming eagerness, displayed again this week, to move forward with a so-called U.S. brokered “normalization” deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Not that peace in the region or “normalization” are bad things. Quite the contrary. The question is whether the deal in question would actually produce or advance either of those goals.
Watching the Saudi and Israeli leaders in action this week, it was once again clear that neither is trustworthy as both have individual agendas that do not serve the long-term interests of such a normalization—those of the United States or those of the key group likely to be impacted by such a deal, the Palestinians. Israeli diplomats pooh-poohed the possibilities of a two-state solution anytime soon, but said that they would agree to “improve” conditions for the Palestinians. The Saudis mentioned the Palestinians in passing, but it is clear they seek the deal to win military and civilian nuclear support from the U.S.
But note that the Saudis are pushing up oil prices in ways that benefit themselves and Russia, but hurt the U.S. and will likely negatively impact President Biden’s reelection campaign. And also note MBS’ assertion that they would seek their own nuclear weapon if Iran developed one. Finally, do not discount Netanyahu’s continuing attacks this week on an independent judiciary, even as he promised Biden to be on his best behavior when it comes to preserving Israeli democratic institutions.
Such a deal, should it ever come, will surely end in tears with two such unreliable—indeed, two such dangerous individuals as its principals and guarantors.
It might be a good long-term goal, but what is the rush? Perhaps waiting to see whether Netanyahu is even Israel’s prime minister for much longer and who might succeed him, and perhaps waiting to see whether MBS intends to undermine the U.S. economy next year or deepen his flirtation with China, would make more sense.
Closer to the UN, the events were frankly, not much more encouraging.
Climate week featured earnest talk but not much action, even in a year when the effects of extreme weather on the planet have never been more clear. The structure of the UN—notably Russia’s veto power in the Security Council—makes the group impotent to address the fact that Russia is, at the moment, the single greatest threat to global stability. Zelensky, in his address to the UN, noted this problem and then said, “We should recognize that the UN finds itself in a deadlock on the matters of aggression. Humankind no longer pins its hopes on the UN when it comes to the defense of the sovereign borders of nations.”
Unable to address the world’s greatest problems, the UN has sadly become something like the COMICON of international affairs, featuring diplomacy cosplay but far too little of real substance.
Perhaps that is why, other than Biden, none of the other five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia, China, France, and Britain) even bothered to attend this year’s meetings. (Although, admittedly, Putin, being wanted internationally as a war criminal and thus a likely target for arrest whenever he sets foot out of Russia, may have had other reasons for staying in his bunker and drinking only the borscht that has met with the approval of his food tasters.)
Nonetheless, for at least one more year, UNGA Week has served as a catalyst to bring to the fore many of the critical global issues that do not get enough attention from Americans and to reveal up close the strengths of leaders like Biden and Zelensky and the weaknesses of those like MBS, Netanyahu, Trump, and the Putin caucus in the Republican Party.