Morning Brief

Trump Snubs U.N. as General Debate Opens

U.S. officials still likely to use the General Assembly to push for more pressure on Iran.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sep. 24, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sep. 24, 2019. Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The general debate of the 75th U.N. General Assembly begins, Mali coup leaders name soldiers and ex-soldiers to lead transition back to civilian rule, and a wave of violence hits Afghanistan as talks continue.

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Multilateralism Is at Stake at the U.N. General Assembly

The General Debate of the 75th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opens today under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic, heightened great power competition, and growing contempt for international institutions like the United Nations itself.

The United Nations will seek to address concerns about the relevance of multilateral institutions in the wake of the international community’s failure to coordinate an effective response to the pandemic. At the opening of the General Assembly on Sep. 15, UNGA President Volkan Bozkir emphasized this year’s focus on restoring confidence in the international system, saying that “the context in which we are working, serves to remind us of the necessity of the multilateralism system.”

Not so fast. But as Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh wrote, even though the United Nations has come under some of the heaviest scrutiny it has faced since its establishment at the end of World War II, it has mostly succeeded in its founding purpose: preventing another global conflict. “It continues to perform essential stabilizing functions—not least as a legitimizing authority whether the issue is nuclear non-proliferation, sanctions against rogue nations … or armed invasion,” he wrote.

Trump stays home. U.S. President Donald Trump surprised observers on Monday by refusing to deliver the United States’ opening speech to the assembly, sending out Cherith Norman Chalet, the United States’ deputy U.N. ambassador, instead. But as Sarah Nakasone and Kori Schake wrote in Foreign Policy, engaging with the body is the best way to advance U.S. interests. “The U.N. does an enormous amount of good in areas where the United States wants action but isn’t keen on taking full responsibility, paying the full costs, or doing the diplomatic bidding,” they wrote.

Iran front and center. U.S. officials are expected to use the occasion of the summit to continue their efforts to apply more pressure on Iran. On Monday, the United States announced a new round of sanctions on Iran and individuals involved in its nuclear program. The executive order formalizing the sanctions also includes sanctions on individuals and companies that buy or sell Iran conventional arms, seemingly an attempt by Washington to unilaterally extend the arms embargo on Iran.

The move follows weeks of unsuccessful efforts by U.S. officials to lobby other powers to pressure on Iran. After failing to push a resolution through the U.N. Security Council to extend the arms embargo on Iran last month, Washington has also faced pushback over its effort to impose all pre-2015 U.N. sanctions on Iran that were lifted after the signing of the nuclear deal.

Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer, Jack Detsch, and Colum Lynch reported that Trump’s efforts to scuttle the deal could force a future Joe Biden administration to renegotiate the deal from scratch—something that will not be easy, as Vali Nasr wrote in FP on Monday, given that Iranian leaders are now convinced they must develop a stronger nuclear program before returning to the table.

What We’re Following Today 

Mali interim leaders named. Col. Assimi Goita, the leader of Mali’s junta, announced on Monday that former defense minister Bah Ndaw, a retired military officer, would be appointed by the junta as interim president to lead the transitional government, with himself as vice president. The decision reflects the military’s desire to retain its influence over the country’s return to civilian rule after it overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in a bloodless coup last month.

The influential Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has led the effort to pressure the junta to return to civilian rule, but it is uncertain if the arrangement will satisfy its conditions. Opposition leaders recently told the leaders of the junta that the transitional government had to be led by civilians, so Goita’s announcement is likely to cause anger in opposition circles.

Turkey continues to back GNA. Turkish officials said Ankara will continue to back Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), despite a decision last week by GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj to step down from the post in the coming weeks.

Turkey is one of the GNA’s strongest international allies, and it has played a pivotal role in the ongoing efforts at ending the country’s years-long civil war. But Turkey’s involvement in Libya has wider regional implications; its controversial claims and subsequent military activity in the oil- and gas-rich eastern Mediterranean are in part rooted in a maritime demarcation treaty signed with the GNA.

Britain to announce new coronavirus restrictions. Faced with an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases, U.K. government officials urged people to work from home if they can—reversing calls earlier this month for people to return to their workplaces—while pausing plans to allow fans to attend sporting events and for civil servants to return to the office. More detailed plans will be announced later today in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and avoid a second nationwide lockdown. Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour party leader warned in a speech that a second lockdown would be “a sign of government failure, not an act of God.”

Violence intensifies in Afghanistan. Dozens were killed in a wave of clashes between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban in the deadliest string of violence to hit Afghanistan since the opening of the peace negotiations between the government and the Taliban earlier this month. Security officials said 57 personnel were killed in the fighting, and although the Taliban did not confirm any casualties, local officials said around 80 militants were killed.

The violence comes just days after the government reportedly killed at least 12 civilians in a series of airstrikes on a Taliban-controlled village in the northern Kunduz province. Although officials claimed the government killed 40 Taliban militants, locals said those killed were mostly civilians.

Keep an Eye On

Sudan pressured to sign deal with Israel. U.S. officials are offering to take Sudan off its state sponsors of terrorism list in exchange for the country normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel, part of a wider push by the Trump White House to heal divisions between Israel and several Arab states while redirecting diplomatic efforts toward combating Iran. The move follows recent normalization deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. As Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch reported last week, a deal could represent another foreign-policy victory for Trump less than two months before the presidential election.

The Sudanese government has already expressed interest in “concluding a peace agreement with Israel,” and on Monday, U.S., UAE, and Sudanese officials gathered for a “decisive meeting” on normalization in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.

Cyprus blocks action on Belarus. Cyprus has blocked an effort by the European Union to impose sanctions on key Belarusian leaders involved in last month’s electoral fraud in response to the bloc’s unwillingness to take action against Turkey over the eastern Mediterranean dispute. Cyprus, the northern portion of which has been occupied by Turkish forces since 1974, has expressed deep concern over Turkey’s growing assertiveness in the Mediterranean.

EU leaders will convene again later this week, during which they will discuss the eastern Mediterranean crisis and work to hammer out a resolution.

Odds and Ends

The cause of the mysterious mass death of some 330 elephants in Botswana several months ago has finally been determined. According to government officials, testing done on the carcasses showed signs of cyanobacteria, a naturally-occurring toxin believed to have been present in the local water supply.

The discovery debunks an earlier theory suggesting that the elephants were deliberately poisoned by humans, an explanation some people floated at the time of the deaths. In addition to facing an ongoing threat of poaching, elephants have become a controversial issue in the country due to the damage they can cause to farmland. The current government previously permitted a limited number of elephant hunting licenses, partly as a way of controlling the elephant population.

That’s it for today. 

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Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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