U.N. chief says world is ‘gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction’

REUTERS/Amr Alfiky
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York City, U.S., September 20, 2022.

NEW YORK – U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Tuesday that a breakdown in global cooperation amid Russia’s war in Ukraine is exacerbating the top threats to human existence, including food insecurity and climate change.

Guterres said problems such as poverty, indebtedness, online hate and harassment, and a loss of biodiversity are resulting from the international system’s failure to function.

“Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading farther,” Guterres said at the annual gathering of leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction,” he said.

The diagnosis was echoed by some of the more than 100 leaders attending the week-long event, but very little consensus emerged over how to bridge divides among nations deeply conflicted about how to respond to the war in Ukraine.

The United States seeks to pressure and isolate Russia on the world stage for the violence and destruction that have taken place in Ukraine since Moscow’s forces invaded on Feb. 24. The fighting has resulted in tens of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees as Russia has captured and then retreated from Ukrainian territory in the south and east.

Many developing countries in Africa and Latin American resent the global push to condemn Moscow while they bear the brunt of rising food and energy prices stemming from the war.

Washington is trying to cater to those concerns this week by prioritizing lowering global food costs and gesturing toward reforming the U.N. Security Council – a longtime goal of developing countries that view the institution as outdated and unrepresentative.

“For the West, the goal of this week is to win the hearts and minds of non-Western leaders,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the International Crisis Group.

In theory, the U.N. gathering provides an ideal platform for the West to advance its agenda following the decisions by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping not to attend.

But many countries that were resistant to condemning Russia remained so during the first day of speeches.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the first head of state to speak, remained neutral on the conflict, instructing both sides that a solution “will only be achieved through negotiation and dialogue.”

Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, also called for de-escalation and negotiation in an address that did not use the word “Russia” once.

Some criticism of Moscow came from the president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, who objected to Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and also criticized the U.S. trade war with China for negatively affecting the world economy, a jab seen as providing a balanced perspective between Moscow and Washington.

“You have a lot of countries that were once willing to criticize Russia earlier in the year but have developed Ukraine fatigue and are trying to stay out of the war,” Gowan said.

That is especially true of nations that have political and military ties with Russia or are facing a particularly tough economic squeeze.

Even before the outbreak of Russia’s war with Ukraine, a slow-building global food crisis, caused by conflict, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, was driving malnutrition in areas including the Horn of Africa, Haiti, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan.

Putin’s invasion dramatically worsened those problems, depriving world markets of a key grain supplier. Rising prices have increased the U.N. World Food Program’s costs by nearly 50 percent, meaning existing funds can feed fewer people. Some 50 million people are on the brink of famine.

It is just one of many issues Guterres said is being overlooked as leaders focus on the daily battlefield gains and losses in Ukraine.

“Much of the world’s attention remains focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” he said. “At the same time, conflicts and humanitarian crises are spreading – often far from the spotlight.”

He emphasized lesser-publicized crises including the economic collapse of Afghanistan, the proliferation of armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar, and the “cycles of violence” in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The United States’ efforts to earn good will from the developing world this week are manifesting in different ways.

President Biden is expected to discuss U.N. Security Council reform during his visit to New York, but U.S. officials have not yet determined if he will do so publicly or privately, the president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters Tuesday.

Since its inception, the Security Council has given veto power to five nations, including the United States, China, Britain, France and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia.

While other nations occupy rotating seats, countries from the global south are advocating for an overhaul that would result in a council that better reflects today’s diversified centers of world power.

“Abuse of the veto has virtually paralyzed the council on countless crises by preventing substantive action – on Syria, Russia’s abuses in Ukraine, and Myanmar,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. Russia has been the most active user of its Security Council veto, while the United States has vetoed motions aimed at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

He said a new rule requiring the Security Council’s permanent members to justify their vetoes before all member nations was a step in the right direction toward accountability.

Biden’s aides are also hosting a food security summit with the European Union and the African Union on the sidelines of the general assembly, as well as meetings on the coronavirus and a conference for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Those gestures will coincide with a hard push by Biden during his speech Wednesday for nations to rally against Russia and “stand against the naked aggression we’ve seen these past several months,” Sullivan said.

In his remarks, the president is expected to depict the challenge of the 21st century as a contest between “democracies and autocracies.” The refrain, which Biden often uses, offers an easily digestible view of the world but also risks excluding some non-democracies from which the United States seeks cooperation, such as Singapore or Persian Gulf monarchies.

Other Western leaders have tried to take a more inclusive approach, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who scheduled a dinner Tuesday night seeking to bridge the “North-South Divide” with invitees including the leaders of Senegal, Ivory Coast, Colombia, Argentina and the European Council, and the foreign ministers of India, Egypt and Indonesia.

“Our goal is not to perpetuate the idea that it’s the West against the rest,” said a French official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the French president’s diplomatic discussions. “A breakdown of the world order is in no one’s interest.”

Guterres said there were some signs of hope for solving world problems through multilateralism.

A Turkish-U.N.-brokered deal to end Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and resume Ukrainian exports in July has helped ease global food and grain supply problems and created vital silo space for Ukrainian farmers’ next harvest.

“Some might call it a miracle on the sea,” said Guterres. “In truth, it is multilateral diplomacy in action.”

But major challenges remain as economists warn that the global economy could remain gripped by inflation and weak growth for years.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said some nations were putting less than they could toward mitigating the food crisis. Officials in the United States, the largest funder of U.N. efforts to address hunger, frequently say Russia and China have made contributions much smaller than their share toward addressing the problem.

“That needs to change,” Blinken said at a food security meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering. “And no matter what countries have done so far, every country is called upon to do more.”

Also Tuesday, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the proliferation of global sanctions, a byproduct of competition between major powers like Russia and the United States, was partly to blame for problems with global supply chains, prices and food security.

“The security architecture is eroding,” he told the General Assembly. “Mutual distrust between global powers is deepening.”

Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, France’s minister for development and international partnerships, said the key to addressing long-term food challenges is to help developing countries reduce their dependence on imports, an effort Paris and others are backing. She pushed back on the assertion from Russia and its allies that the West’s response to Russia’s actions was to blame, citing the exclusion of food and fertilizer from global sanctions.

“We have to be honest that Russia has chosen to weaponize access to food, just as it has chosen to weaponize the energy supplies,” she said in an interview. “Of course, the most affected are the most vulnerable countries.”