NextGen’s 7 Things to Watch on the 2021 UN General Assembly

September 17, 2021

NextGen’s 7 Things to Watch on the 2021 UN General Assembly

Washington, DC – Recognizing that young voices are often excluded in debates on U.S. foreign policy, Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative is made up of young experts and policymakers committed to advancing principled American engagement in the world. In advance of a busy week of multilateral diplomacy, here are some insights from NextGen members, 7 Things to Watch on the 2021 U.N. General Assembly:

1.     Setting the Stage: Turtle Bay Plays (Hybrid) Host for Another Busy Year of Diplomacy

Despite a U.S. letter urging countries to pare down in-person attendance at this year’s U.N. General Assembly, more than 80 world leaders will converge on the United States with diplomacy in mind. While Washington will see some action–with meetings planned between the U.S. and key allies–Turtle Bay will take center stage. Climate will be a key theme for some, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has much work to do before the UK hosts COP26 in November. Others will focus on COVID-related issues. This includes dozens of leaders from developing countries that are struggling with vaccine inequity and slow economic recovery. Notably, many of these leaders will deliver pre-recorded messages, which raises the question: will virtual attendance hamper diplomatic progress by those who need help the most?

Itai Barsade leads Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative. He is also a J.D. candidate at Stanford Law School.

2.     President Biden’s UNGA Debut: A Focus on Humility, Compassion, and Partnerships

After a bold start to the month with a number of domestic-focused actions, President Biden will continue his September push to tackle COVID-19 at High-Level Week–including through his in-person speech next Tuesday. The pandemic represents Biden’s biggest political and policy challenge and the continued focus on it at the U.N. reflects the administration’s “foreign policy for the middle class” approach, which has driven continuity between the issues the U.S. centers on at home and abroad. The administration’s ability to secure commitments from other countries, civil society, and the private sector will represent an early test of how quickly the President can achieve his goal of putting America “at the head of the table.” To accomplish this, look for Biden to highlight many of the same traits that he has to advance his domestic agenda: humility, compassion, and a deep belief that partnerships can achieve greater results.

Thomas Schoenfelder is Chief of Staff of the DC office of Teneo, the global CEO advisory firm, and a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative, where he serves on the U.N. & International Organizations Working Group.

3.     Financing as a Force Multiplier: The U.S. Global COVID-19 Summit 

The U.S. will be hosting a Global COVID-19 Summit to encourage leaders to commit to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. The summit aims to cover three overarching themes: vaccinating the world; expanding access to diagnostics, therapeutics, and resilient public health systems; and addressing future pandemic preparedness and response. The Biden-Harris administration has proposed the creation of a new financing mechanism for countries’ pandemic preparedness and response, and this summit will be the first public opportunity for the rest of the world to weigh in on the proposal. The U.S. has led in both dollars and vaccine dose donations. Diplomatic pressure will be required to push other high-income countries to step up contributions–a particularly tricky feat in the face of the globally-criticized announcement that the U.S. will distribute booster doses before many citizens in low- and middle-income countries have received a first dose.

Shannon Kellman is a Co-Chair of the Global Health, Refugees and Development Working Group for Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative. She is also Policy Director at Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

4.     Spotlight on Human Rights: The U.S.-China Relationship at UNGA

When the Trump administration pulled back from global institutions like the U.N. and withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), China filled much of the void left by the U.S. The Biden-Harris administration has restored U.S. leadership at the U.N., but must still address a strengthened Chinese role in the institution. In the days ahead, we’ll see whether President Biden chooses to push back and criticize China’s human rights record at UNGA. Since President Xi is not attending UNGA in-person, any rebuttal would come from the Deputy Foreign Minister leading the Chinese delegation. Later this fall, the General Assembly will vote on the U.S. candidacy for a UNHRC seat, following Secretary Blinken’s announcement of America’s intention to rejoin the human rights body. Will the U.S. use this engagement as a means to push back against China and criticize its human rights record? Or perhaps there will be a space for cooperation, following U.S. and Chinese cooperation on blocking Myanmar’s military Junta from having a presence at UNGA. Overall, the spotlight on human rights at UNGA should provide more insight into the U.S.-China relationship on multilateral issues.

Andy Laub is a Program Fellow for the Future Diplomacy Project with the American Center for Strategic and International Affairs and a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative, where he serves on the U.N. & International Organizations Working Group. He has a Master’s from NYU in International Relations. 

5.     Catalyzing Climate Action: The IPCC, UNGA, and COP26 

While Greta Thunberg will not be sailing into New York City to shame world leaders, climate action remains one of the most pressing and high-profile issues the global community faces. Though U.S. engagement on climate change withered under the Trump administration, President Biden has made climate action a central tenet of his domestic and international agenda. With the U.S. rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, we can expect Biden and U.S. diplomats to take advantage of opportunities to cooperate on climate at the UN. The 2021 UNGA arrives at an interesting moment. It is situated between a particularly dire report release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the upcoming November U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, where governments will demonstrate climate commitments by submitting enhanced national action plans and targets. Throughout UNGA, policy wonks, diplomats, and technical nerds alike will try to read the tea leaves of world leader’s speeches and engagement in the High-Level Dialogue on Energy, other official events, and side-events to suss out who will show up ready to get to work at COP26.

Megan O’Neill is a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative’s U.N. & International Organizations Working Group and she is a recent MPA graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

6.     Cooperation and Transformation: The Digital Technology Agenda at UNGA 

While the resignation in disgrace of former U.N. Technology Envoy Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond somewhat derailed the U.N.’s technology-related initiatives this year, the U.N. General Assembly will still be a focal point for negotiations between governments and the private sector on digital technology. In particular, digital transformation has become a key issue for the U.S., with USAID making significant investments in the agenda, alongside politically influential U.N. agencies such as UNDP and UNICEF. A core focus of UNGA side events this year will be digital cooperation, which is a priority for donors and will feature heavily in the Secretary-General’s Common Agenda.

Kevin Klyman is a researcher at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a former fellow at the U.N. Secretary-General’s artificial intelligence lab, and a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative, where he serves on the U.N. & International Organizations Working Group.

7.     The Work Continues: Instilling the Biden-Harris Agenda into the UNGA Main Committees

When President Biden departs Turtle Bay, U.S. diplomats will continue to carry the Biden-Harris agenda forward through negotiations in the six Main UNGA Committees. The resulting resolutions won’t make many headlines–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Under the Trump administration, the Second Committee became a cultural flashpoint as negotiators fought to remove “sexual and reproductive health” references from routine resolutions on economic development. In the Fifth Committee on finances, American leadership was undermined by Trump’s well-known dereliction of duty on U.N. dues. This year, the U.S. will be working to quietly build back better through President Biden’s affirmative agenda on women’s rights and commitment to addressing U.S. arrears. The UNGA Main Committees offer terrific opportunities to align norms and funding with American values–the Biden-Harris administration’s results won’t be broadcast on the news, but we’ll be reaping the benefits for years to come.

Emily Green is a Co-Chair of the U.N. & International Organizations Working Group for Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative. She recently received her MPA from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.