Three days late due to a royal funeral in England, Joe Biden is expected in majesty at the United Nations General Assembly, this Wednesday, September 21. Usually, it is the American president who opens the festivities of this annual gathering of heads of state from around the world, in New York. This year, we had to wait to know this speech, potentially decisive for the future of Ukraine.
A year ago, Biden proclaimed his slogan “America is back” at the UN podium – “America is back” – without convincing many people, barely a month after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. This year, the war in Ukraine has allowed Washington to prove its support for democratic values and to sign its great comeback on the international scene. “Each year, the speeches of the general assembly are crucial, as they reveal the global strategy of countries and the influence they can exert on others, underlines Richard Caplan, professor of international relations at Oxford and specialist in UN: All eyes, not just Biden, will be on Ukraine this week: Russian aggression constitutes an attack on the fundamental principles of the United Nations and threatens a rules-based international order.”
For Russia, the tide is also turning on the international scene
Expected, the American president will have to convince the many countries undecided on the Ukrainian file, especially since he is almost alone on stage. Vladimir Poutine and Xi Jinping snub the general assembly, just like the Indian Narendra Modi. These three men, on the other hand, consulted each other last week, during an alternative summit in Uzbekistan. But these meetings do not mean that Russia has the wind at its back on the international scene.
In a surprise vote, a very large majority of UN countries granted a derogation to Volodymyr Zelensky so that the Ukrainian president could speak on video in front of the assembly. Only six states, in addition to Russia, refused: Belarus, Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, Cuba and Nicaragua. “Biden has the opportunity to rally even broader international support for Ukraine, believes Richard Caplan. A particularly interesting dynamic has developed in recent days: yes, Xi and Modi have met Putin, but they are much more cautious, even cautiously critical, of Russia.”
This restraint of Putin’s “partners” and the retreat of the Russian forces on the ground seem to prove the relevance of the American approach in the Ukrainian file: to denounce the invasion upstream, then to help Ukraine economically and militarily, in particular by providing advanced weapons and training Ukrainian soldiers. On the diplomatic field too, the United States has shown its consistency, by communicating massively on Russian plans before the invasion and then by showing unfailing support for the democratic values of kyiv.
Behind the scenes, Washington has also used the less visible instruments of the UN to win people over and put Moscow on the defensive, notably with votes in the Human Rights Council or the Security Council. “In the eyes of many, the UN appears increasingly insignificant, points out Richard Caplan. Biden has the opportunity to build support for the United Nations and prove that this institution has been useful in preventing more suffering for Ukrainians. Even the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, showed no ambiguity when denouncing Russian aggression, which was not the case with Kofi Annan in 2003 at the time of the war in Iraq, launched by another permanent member of the Security Council.”
To bring the undecided countries together, Biden would have to deliver a message that goes beyond moral values. In the name of the fight against climate change and the global economic slowdown, it is possible that the United States decides to reduce the debts of developing countries. A way also to rally them to the Western camp and to isolate, a little more, Russia from Putin.