U.N. Brief
Get your insider’s guide to the biggest diplomatic event of the year as world leaders convene at the annual United Nations General Assembly. FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer deliver a daily newsletter to your inbox for a week known as the “Super Bowl for diplomats.”

U.N. Summit Opens With Dire Warnings on Climate Change

The U.N. General Assembly begins today with a major climate summit. Over 100 world leaders will attend, but there’s one glaring absence.

By and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
People march as they take part in a strike to demand action on the global climate crisis on Sept. 20 in New York City.
People march as they take part in a strike to demand action on the global climate crisis on Sept. 20 in New York City.
People march as they take part in a strike to demand action on the global climate crisis on Sept. 20 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Welcome to FP’s U.N. Brief. What’s on tap for today: A battle of dueling summits, Trump’s new ambassador to the U.N. makes her debut, a young climate activist takes the world stage, and more.

Welcome to FP’s U.N. Brief. What’s on tap for today: A battle of dueling summits, Trump’s new ambassador to the U.N. makes her debut, a young climate activist takes the world stage, and more.

U.N. Brief is FP’s one-week-only newsletter with reporting and analysis from the 74th U.N. General Assembly in New York. If you would like to receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

Addressing the Climate Crisis—Without the U.S.

The U.N.’s annual gathering of world leaders opens today with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hosting a major summit promoting action to slow climate change.

The event—which follows a New York City-sanctioned school climate strike and  a U.N. Youth Summit featuring 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg—will draw an impressive list of world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will detail specific steps to lower dependence on fossil fuel.  China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, will also speak. Over 100 world leaders are expected to attend. But there’s one glaring absence.

Who’s coming from the U.S. side? You’ll have to go pretty far down the chain of command. The highest ranking U.S. diplomat at the climate summit alongside these world leaders will be Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Marcia Bernicat.

Still, the U.N. is leaving the door open for if and when the United States wants to get more involved. “There’s always a seat at the table for the U.S.,” Cassie Flynn, an advisor on climate change for the U.N. Development Program, told Foreign Policy. Flynn pointed to progress at the state and local levels in the United States to fill the gap left at the federal level. “When the U.S. is ready to join the global community’s fight in climate change we will very much welcome them,” she said.

Dire warnings. In the months leading up to the event, Guterres prodded governments to come to New York with firm commitments to end subsidies for fossil fuel, tax carbon, cut pollution, and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. “We are losing the race against climate change,” Guterres told reporters last week, following a visit to the Bahamas. “The level of devastation was unlike anything I have ever seen. Hurricane Dorian was indeed Hurricane Hell. And unfortunately, extreme weather events will only produce more hellscapes for more people.”

A conspicuous absence. U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed skepticism about global warming, and his administration did not participate in  intergovernmental discussions leading up to the summit. Trump is expected to skip Monday’s climate change proceedings, as will Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s newly minted U.N. ambassador, Kelly Craft—married to Joe Craft, a Republican donor who owns one of the United States’ largest coal companies.

Trump’s absence has not gone unnoticed. Weeks before the summit, Guterres was already trolling Trump, urging world leaders to make concrete commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions, not just present “beautiful speeches.”

Trump versus Thunberg. In a sense, Trump is competing for attention at UNGA with teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who traveled across the Atlantic on a solar-powered yacht. In Washington, she delivered a copy of a recent alarming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and she participated in a youth protest in New York that she helped inspire.

On Monday, Thunberg will present a formal complaint—along with 15 other children from countries including Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, India, South Africa, Sweden and the United States—asserting that the world’s leading economic powers are violating the Convention on the Rights of the Child by pursuing climate policies that pose a growing threat.

What We’re Following

Trump hosts his own summit. While the rest of the world tackles climate change, Trump hosts his own summit on the persecution of religious minorities in a conference room in the U.N. basement. At the event,“Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom,”Trump will urge the world to “take concrete steps to prevent attacks against people on the basis of their religion or beliefs and to ensure the sanctity of houses of worship and all public spaces for all faiths,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told reporters. Vice President Mike Pence, who has led administration efforts to increase aid to Christian minorities in the Middle East, will introduce Trump.

New Scandal Rocks White House ahead of UNGA. Trump faces fresh waves of criticism and a new chorus of impeachment calls as he heads to UNGA over allegations he pressured Ukraine to investigate the son of Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic political rival, over his son’s ties to a Ukrainian gas company. Trump acknowledged he raised the Bidens in a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whom he plans to meet at UNGA.

By the Numbers

This high-level week kicks off today with:

91 heads of state

6 vice presidents

45 heads of government

5 deputy prime ministers

44 ministers, 2 chairs of delegations, and 3 observers

And the total number of meetings requested for the week? 630

Iran: Tensions High, Prospects for Talks Low

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump downplayed prospects of U.S.-Iran diplomacy, saying, “Nothing is ever off the table, but I have no intention of meeting with Iran.” Iran has said for weeks that it won’t talk to Trump as long as U.S. sanctions are in place. That leaves U.S. policymakers with little else than the threat of escalating sanctions, to try to compel Iran to fall into line. Speaking on the Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set the tone for what is likely to be a week of intense U.S. diplomatic effort to rally the rest of the world behind the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran.

“We are well on our way to forcing the Iranian regime, to ultimately make the decision to ultimately become a normal nation—that’s all we’ve ever asked,” he said.

Some European allies reluctant to blame Iran.  Washington’s allies have been disturbed by what they suspect is a covert Iranian effort to disrupt the world’s oil markets, targeting tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and striking Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities.But they think the Trump administration bears some blame for provoking the Iranians by leaving the 2015 nuclear deal and imposing new sanctions. They also fear exerting pressure on Iran might accelerate its retreat from the nuclear deal.

Speaking to reporters Sunday in New York, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian dismissed assertions by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels that they, not the Iranians, launched the Sept. 14 attack on Saudi’s oil facilities. But he declined to blame Iran, saying he would wait for the investigation into the attack by Saudi Arabia and U.N. investigators. Instead, Le Drian said that world leaders should devote their energies to de-escalating the crisis. “The meeting between Trump and Rouhani is not the number one subject,” he said. “The priority is whether we can restart a de-escalation path with the different actors.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, blamed Iran for the attacks on Monday and said his country will coordinate with European allies and the Trump administration on a diplomatic response.

What Is on Trump’s Schedule?

Trump will also hold a series of bilateral meetings with:

South Korean President Moon Jae-in

Polish President Andrzej Duda

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob

And Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who Trump reportedly called “my favorite dictator.” (Sisi is also facing a new and unusual wave of demonstrations at home—the first significant protest movement he’s faced since taking power in 2014.)

Before the Meeting

Drama at the Health Care Summit.  Secretary-General Guterres will host his second of two summits on Monday focused on the need to expand health care access to millions of people by 2030.  Negotiations have been particularly contentious, as U.S. diplomats have pressed their counterparts to remove any language in the final outcome document referring to sexual reproductive health and rights, which the Trump White House contends is code language for abortion.

Hungary, meanwhile, sought to remove any references to migration, including a provision promoting health care to immigrants, but finally capitulated. In the end, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar appealed in a letter to more than 70 countries to issue a joint statement on the day of the summit expressing concern about U.N. documents that “wrongfully assert that they create a new international ‘right to abortion’ and promote international policies weakening the family,” Azar’s press secretary, Katherine McKeogh, told Foreign Policy.

A North Korea nothing burger? Why bother traveling halfway across the globe to UNGA when you can get face time with the world’s two most powerful leaders, U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping anyway? North Korea, which typically dispatches its foreign minister to the U.N.’s annual gathering, has downgraded its delegation, leaving it to North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Sin Son Ho, to deliver their national speech. The move reflects North Korea’s preference for presidential summits over lower-level talks with Pompeo and other senior U.S. officials.

Who’s Bankrolling the Fight Against Climate Change?

Guterres has made climate change the most pressing issue at this year’s UNGA, as the five-year anniversary of the Paris climate agreement approaches. Above, see how countries are putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to pledging money to one key aspect of the fight against climate change—the Green Climate Fund, which bankrolls investments in low-emission and climate-resilient development.

Pop Quiz

Swedish U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was killed on a peace mission in September 1961, when his plane crashed on approach to an airfield in modern-day Zambia. What caused the plane crash?

A) An aircraft malfunction
B) Pilot error
C) The CIA sabotaged his plane
D) Belgian mercenaries shot his plane down
E) South African mercenaries shot his plane down
F) It’s still a mystery

Scroll down for the answer.

Profile: Trump’s U.N. Ambassador Faces Her First Test

Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Kelly Knight Craft, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had a bumpy confirmation process amid revelations that she spent most of her time as U.S. ambassador to Canada outside of the country. But she will to define her tenure at the United Nations by highlighting her commitment to humanitarianism, battling sexual exploitation, and promoting U.N. reform—a hazy concept that generally means reducing America’s bill.

A relative diplomatic novice, Craft lacks cabinet ranking of her predecessor, Nikki Haley, suggesting that she is likely to have less influence over U.S. policy. Craft is the first American to take the job as a political donor—a class usually tapped for posts in Luxembourg, the Bahamas, or other countries where diplomatic experience isn’t seen as necessary. Her counterparts from Russia, China, and other U.S. foes and frenemies are often seasoned diplomats with decades of U.N. experience.

“I suspect she’ll be much more closely reliant on Washington’s foreign policy apparatus … than Nikki Haley was,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior U.S. and U.N. diplomat at the Brookings Institution. But a diplomatic novice can still make waves at the U.N. when they occupy the powerful seat of the U.S. permanent representative.

“No matter who is in that office, they’re going to deal directly with the Secretary General, just by the virtue of the importance of the United States in the United Nations,” Feltman said.

The departure of Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton, a fierce U.N critic, also opens up space for Craft to shape American policy at the United Nations. Craft has been planning her first trip with the U.N. Security Council as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and South Sudan, where a bloody post-independence civil war has driven more than 4.5 million people from their homes.

“I’m committed to improving the health & wellbeing of vulnerable populations and will lead, with South Africa, a #UNSC visit to #Juba in the coming weeks,” she wrote on Twitter. “#SouthSudan requires our sustained attention until its communities are restored & its people have hope for peace & prosperity.”

In her first week on the job this month, Craft moved into her new digs on First Avenue, cast her first vote in the U.N. Security Council, condemned the attack on Saudi oil facilities, and highlighted the plight of the 80 percent of Yemenis needing humanitarian assistance amid the country’s four-year civil war.

She has been pulling together a small team of aides, including Kristen Branscum,  a fellow Kentuckian who served as her state’s tourism commissioner. Branscum will serve as Craft’s chief of staff. She has also picked Richard Mills, Jr., a foreign service officer who served under Craft in Ottawa as her number two; Jennifer Barber; and Cari Lutkins as deputy chief of staff operations.

Odds and Ends

Happy 100th. Brian Urquhart, a legendary spy, soldier, international civil servant, and the oldest living U.N. staffer, turned 100 this year.

And the Answer Is…

F) It remains a mystery.

Initial investigations by the Rhodesian commission of inquiry into the 1961 crash concluded that Hammarskjöld’s plane went down due to pilot error, but a subsequent U.N. investigation proved inconclusive. In 2012, a British scholar, Susan Williams, published Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, which unearthed new evidence, suggesting the plane was in flames before it crashed.

The book led to a series of international investigations, including two by the United Nations, that have explored a dizzying array of theories, from the installment of the explosive on the plane before takeoff, to a plot by the CIA and an assortment of Belgian, South African, and French mercenaries. The chief U.N. investigator, Mohamed Chande Othman, handed over his final report to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in July, but the U.N. has delayed its release until October.

For more on these stories and many others, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.  

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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