While this year is the U.N.’s 75th Anniversary, the General Assembly was a “more muted affair” than expected, says USIP’s Tyler Beckelman. Member states had a chance to discuss the newly signed Abraham Accord and the future of multilateral diplomacy, but virtual summitry is “no substitute for meeting in person.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: The United Nations General Assembly has not been what we thought it would be before the year began. It was the 75th anniversary. And it was also expected to be a big, if not a blowout, certainly a moment, where there could be some celebration, big group gatherings. Obviously that did not happen because of coronavirus. The world now at over 7 million cases. And the question is: how do we move forward? And the message is being delivered well a little bit different. President Trump was very anti-China, among other things. Let's go through some of the highlights and maybe lowlights of what happened at the United Nations General Assembly. Joining us on POTUS is Tyler Beckman. Tyler is director of international partnerships at the United States Institute of Peace. Twitter handle @USIP or @tbeckelm, that is another option for you. Tyler, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Tyler Beckelman: Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley: It's like so many events, weddings, graduations, it was all expected to be a big time, but it just didn't happen because of the pandemic.

Tyler Beckelman: Yeah, that's right. Unfortunately, this was, as you mentioned, a moment for, you know, for world leaders to hopefully get together to reflect on 75 years of, you know, the U.N. system and the peaceful pursuit of international cooperation since World War II. But, unfortunately, the pandemic had other plans. Instead, you know, this was, in many ways, a much more muted affair, all of the heads of state largely contributed pre-recorded video messages to the to the U.N. General Assembly meetings. And there was pretty, you know, limited diplomatic buzz in New York. This is, you know, in my view, is unfortunate, because, as I've said in the past, this program, and in some of our work that, you know, the pandemic has created a moment where international solidarity and cooperation to address the the sort of common threat that's posed by the pandemic is needed more than ever.

And I can't say that we've necessarily come out of this general assembly with any more clarity about the future prospects for international cooperation than we've had before. I think if one thing is clear, it's still that the world is pretty divided on how to tackle these challenges. And even though that's not the U.N.'s fault, the U.N. is, in many ways, a reflection of the priorities of its member states. It is nonetheless concerning. So hopefully, we can look back at the U.N.'s 100th anniversary and be able to see some some better results.

Tim Farley: President Trump, by the way, had repeated his message of America first. It's something that he believes all countries should believe, their country should come first. But he had special attacks, I guess, reserved for China this time around. How did the other nations and the U.N. General Assembly react to that?

Tyler Beckelman: Well, I think, you know, China obviously reacted the way that it did and others as well. A number of countries in Europe that are sort of broadly committed to multilateralism, I think, are watching the situation very warily, because of the fact that, you know, in many ways China, even despite its attempts to paint itself, as you know, as sort of a responsible steward of the multilateral system, has a lot of problems and doesn't offer a particularly attractive model. Given the draconian crackdown and curtailment of individual freedoms in Hong Kong, you know, the pretty deplorable conditions and mistreatment of leaders and other minorities in western China, they're not exactly sort of paragons of virtue when it comes to the U.N.'s founding principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And so I think other countries are watching the U.S.-China situation very warily, and are, you know, hoping to chart a course of cooperation that is sort of still possible despite the increased antipathy and sort of heated rhetoric that takes place at that top level.

Tim Farley: Once again, we are speaking with Tyler Beckelman, United States Institute of Peace director of international partnerships, about the United Nations General Assembly. I don't want to make it only about Donald Trump, but I did want to play this moment with the president at the UNGA. I'm sorry, I can't do that. Anyway, he was speaking about there is no blood in the sand. He was talking about the peace deal, and one wonders, what, if any, perception there is of the recent deal that was signed. The United Arab Emirates, you know, Israel, all that getting together, the White House, this is something that has been lauded by many corners. But one wonders how that played at the U.N. also.

Tyler Beckelman: Well, I think it was, I mean, it was referred to quite a number of times, not just by Israel, but by the states that have signed up to the Abraham accords. I mean, you know, UNGA has traditionally been a platform for, you know, the Palestinians to, you know, defend their position and air some grievances. And Mahmoud Abbas came to UNGA and essentially rejected the accords and called on the U.N. to, you know, to hold a mediation conference early sometime next year. So it's still, you know, ways to see, you know, how that will play out. I'm not an expert on that situation, per se. But I will say that, you know, this was definitely, it was definitely a factor. And I do think the Abraham Accords have fundamentally changed the game in the future of what the sort of prospects for dealing with these issues will look like down the line.

Tim Farley: Tyler, wanted to get to a more general question. We are in a time of crisis worldwide now with coronavirus. The pandemic has obviously affected all nations, different levels of infections, etc., in different countries, but it seems to me, that's the time when a group like the United Nations can have its greatest value, but it is hobbled somewhat by the required social distancing. And one wonders, you know, how does it operate? Does the U.N. learn lessons ,as a result of this, on how to better facilitate ongoing discussions, conversations, etc. I'm not talking necessarily about "Zoom"-ing around the world. But I'm just trying to figure out if there's a way that this can be a learning experience, if you will, for the U.N. on how to deal with things at a time of crisis, when the typical way of doing things, meeting in a room, isn't available.

Tyler Beckelman: Right, I mean, I think they've had to adjust. And we've actually seen some pretty important innovations that have been done by the U.N. and a number of member states, as well as a number of other organizations, just on the front of sort of digital peacebuilding and digital mediation, where, you know, you're bringing conflict parties together, in a manner, you know, in the virtual space, rather than being able to convene people in person. I will say, I think this UNGA is a good example of the fact that, you know, as much as we've adjusted to this sort of virtual reality of meeting and talking sort of virtually, and finding new ways of working, there really is still no replacement for meeting in person, sitting down and having a face-to-face chat. I mean, UNGA is usually a place where, you know, the action is really on the sidelines, where diplomats are able to get together all across Midtown, Manhattan and at a very high level, you know, hash out deals or, you know, discuss common issues, and when you don't have that sort of more informal capability to conduct diplomacy, to do peacemaking, to hear from another side to talk to people, then, you know, certainly the cause of international diplomacy suffers in a lot of ways.

Tim Farley: Tyler, as always, I appreciate your visits. Thanks so much for being on POTUS today.

Tyler Beckelman: Thank you for having me.

Tim Farley: Tyler Beckelman, USIP, United States Institute of Peace director of international partnerships, his thoughts on the United Nations General Assembly, which we lovingly refer to as the UNGA, the UNGA, taking place in very different circumstances. Try to imagine, 30 years ago, a virtual address, if you will, yes, people could film and so on. But some of the things that are made possible by the technology today is simply amazing. Anyway, the Twitter handle is @tbeckelm, that's one option for you, or @USIP.


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