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U.N. secretary-general warns geopolitical tensions are rising around the world

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The head of the United Nations has issued a warning to the world. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly yesterday, quote, "we are inching ever closer to a great fracture."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Our world is becoming unhinged. Geopolitical tensions are rising, global challenges are mounting, and we seem incapable of coming together to respond.

FADEL: The U.N. has been a symbol of global unity since it was formed in the wake of World War II, but there are signs that its influence may be waning. Joining us now is Colum Lynch. He's a senior global reporter for Devex and has been covering the U.N. for years. Good morning, Colum. Thanks for being here.

COLUM LYNCH: Hi, Leila. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: I want to start with who was in attendance. You've got this gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly, but only one leader of the five permanent member nations of the U.N. Security Council showed up this year, and that's President Biden. Why all the no-shows?

LYNCH: So for different reasons. President Putin doesn't come often. He is the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court. So, you know, he might not be crazy about the idea of coming into the United States. President Xi doesn't come often, only if he has a big sort of, you know, message that he wants to send. The more striking absences are the French and the British, who do come quite frequently. And the timing is a little strange because the Europeans and the Americans are very much trying to kind of rally into national support for their position on Ukraine. And this is a good opportunity to do it. And the Russians and the Chinese aren't there. And so, you know, their absence is felt. I think the French president, Macron, you know, sort of said that he had to - you know, he had to host the visits by King Charles and the - and Pope Francis. But I would imagine that Pope Francis would have understood why he had to miss that meeting...

FADEL: Yeah.

LYNCH: ...To kind of deal with this sort of broader issue, the Sustainable Development Goals and the war in Ukraine.

FADEL: But what are the absences say about the standing of the U.N.? I mean, this is supposed to be the place where global leaders come to work out the world's problems. If it's skippable, what does it say?

LYNCH: Well, I think it says that there are a lot of these meetings where the world leaders come together. So, you know, the French and the British, they were just at a G-20 meeting. You know, President Macron hosted a big sort of, you know, global meeting on financing for development. And this U.N. General Assembly is really focused on development. So he may feel that he's kind of, you know, done his duty this year. But, you know, there are times when, you know, these presidents don't come. So this just - I don't know whether it's a coincidence or not, but this just seems to be particularly striking, you know, and at a period where the big powers are really sort of fighting a serious battle for hearts and minds among the Global South. And so, you know, it strikes me as a sort of missed opportunity for both camps.

FADEL: So you mentioned there are other places that world leaders are working out their issues. So is the U.N. no longer the premier place to address geopolitical fault lines?

LYNCH: Well, you know, the U.N. is no longer active on the security front. The Security Council, where, you know, Russia has a veto power, has been largely paralyzed for the last three years. You know, most recently, because of the war on Ukraine, it's impossible for the Security Council to take any measures to deal with the conflict because Russia will veto them. There have been previously - you know, immediately after the pandemic started - tensions between the United States and China. And those prevented much action by the Security Council to deal with the pandemic and to try and coordinate activities. So you have, as you said, these growing fault lines between the U.S. and the Europeans on one side and the Chinese and the Russians on the other. And it's making it much more difficult to do business on the security front.

But, you know, the U.N. does a lot of things, right? And so, you know, the absence of the Security Council has created, you know, a bigger opportunity for the General Assembly, which includes all the membership in the United Nations, 103 members, to be a little bit more active. They don't have the same ability to enforce their decisions. But it's a good opportunity. I mean, a lot of what the U.N. does is about theatrics, right? And so they can send a very harsh signal to Russia and do things like that. And it's been useful for that.

FADEL: And very quickly, before I let you go, does it need to be reimagined there?

LYNCH: The effort over the next year is basically an effort to reimagine it. I mean, the secretary general's engaging on a hugely ambitious reform project. Reforms usually get stilted by the reality of, you know, intergovernmental negotiations, but that's going to be something to watch.

FADEL: Colum Lynch is a senior global reporter for Devex. Thank you so much for your time and your insights.

LYNCH: Thanks for having me. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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