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The United Nations: A battleground of geopolitical tensions

Sep 19,2023 - Last updated at Oct 29,2023

As world leaders convene at the United Nations for their annual gathering, the eyes of the international community are fixated on the complex web of geopolitical tensions that have dominated recent global affairs. While the United Nations General Assembly typically serves as a forum for diplomatic discussions and collaboration on global issues, this year's meeting carries particular weight due to a series of developments that have amplified East-West conflicts.

The agenda for leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) can vary widely depending on the priorities and concerns of their respective countries. However, there are several recurring themes and key issues that typically make their way onto the UNGA agenda. Here are some of the common topics that leaders may address at the UNGA:

Leaders will discuss ongoing conflicts, threats to international peace and security, and strategies for conflict resolution and peacekeeping efforts. This may include discussions on regional conflicts, terrorism, disarmament and arms control. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the armed conflict in Sudan, the situation in Yemen and Syria, and instability in some African countries that are prone to coup d’état will be on the agenda of world leaders. 

Environmental issues, including climate change mitigation and adaptation, are prominent on the UNGA agenda as leaders discuss efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect biodiversity, and promote sustainable development. The UNGA provides a platform for leaders to address humanitarian crises, including those related to conflicts, natural disasters, and refugee displacement. They may discuss humanitarian aid, refugee resettlement, and strategies for addressing the root causes of displacement. Public health issues, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, are significant topics of discussion. Leaders will address vaccine distribution, healthcare infrastructure and preparedness for future pandemics.

Furthermore, progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a recurring theme. Leaders discuss efforts to reduce poverty, promote economic growth and improve access to education and healthcare. Also, geopolitical tensions, disputes and alliances will also shape leaders' agendas.

At the forefront of these tensions lies the Ukraine war, which has become a defining issue in global geopolitics. Russia's military intervention in Ukraine has strained relations with Western powers and cast a shadow over diplomatic endeavours at the United Nations. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's in-person attendance at the UN General Assembly for the first time since the conflict began underscores the gravity of the situation. The war in Ukraine will undoubtedly remain a focal point of discussions and negotiations in New York.

However, the geopolitical chessboard extends far beyond Eastern Europe. Southern Hemisphere concerns have surged to the forefront of this year's agenda. The heightened interest of Western countries in cultivating alliances with developing nations serves as both a testament to the shifting dynamics of global power and an effort to isolate Russia.

Developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia are poised to take center stage during high-level meetings at the General Assembly. Their priorities, which include climate action, health, development financing and the pursuit of sustainable development goals, are gaining increasing prominence. It is clear that the nations of the southern hemisphere are setting the agenda, recognising their newfound leverage in the global arena. As Richard Gowan, director of the United Nations International Crisis Group, notes, non-Western countries have adeptly seized the moment, capitalising on the desire of both the United States and Russia to secure their support. This diplomatic maneuvering has created a complex backdrop of competing interests and allegiances.

The geopolitical landscape is further complicated by economic interests. China's Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure development programme, has extended its reach across the globe, providing billions in loans to developing nations. This initiative has drawn criticism for burdening recipient countries with significant debt. In response, the United States and its allies have pledged development and climate aid to counter China's growing influence.

While diplomats maintain that their focus on developing countries is not driven by competition, it is evident that great powers are vying for influence and support. Both the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and China's ambassador, Zhang Jun, have publicly denied any intention of competing. Russia's ambassador Vasily Nebenzia, has echoed this sentiment. However, actions often speak louder than words, and the efforts of these nations to curry favour with developing countries are undeniable.

As President Zelensky prepares to address the General Assembly and sit across from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the geopolitical theatre is poised for a spectacle. It is a reminder that the world is watching, and the stakes are high.

Yet, there is a cautionary tale in this high-stakes diplomatic dance. Geopolitical tensions may inadvertently discourage developing countries from engaging with Western-led efforts, pushing them closer to the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in search of solutions that better align with their interests. The allure of alternatives, such as the BRICS, becomes more compelling when Western powers fail to demonstrate a commitment to addressing the needs of developing nations.

The United Nations, once heralded as a beacon of global cooperation, finds itself at the crossroads of these geopolitical dynamics. It must rise to the occasion and demonstrate its relevance in an era of shifting alliances and competing interests. Failure to do so may lead to further fragmentation in an already fractured world, where developing countries seek alternatives that promise to better meet their aspirations and needs.

In these uncertain times, the United Nations must prove that it can offer a path to peace, prosperity and equitable development that transcends the allure of geopolitics and power struggles. The world is watching and the stakes are too high to ignore.

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