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The U.N. General Assembly Opens Under COVID-19 Cloud

Although more in-person attendance is expected this year, the high number of virtual attendees is a reminder of the virus’s enduring strength.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the U.N.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24, 2019. Johannes EISELE/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The 76th U.N. General Assembly begins in New York, the left wins in Norway’s parliamentary elections, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken faces the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee over Afghanistan policy. 

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The 76th U.N. General Assembly begins in New York, the left wins in Norway’s parliamentary elections, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken faces the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee over Afghanistan policy. 

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


UNGA Begins in New York

The 76th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) officially opens today in New York, as some world leaders and diplomats begin to converge on the world’s largest diplomatic event. Although attendance is expected to be higher than last year, the fact that countries attending virtually will still outnumber those in-person is a reminder of the ongoing battle against the coronavirus.

Those that do make it to New York won’t need a fleet of limousines to get around: Delegations have been limited to five people (up from only two people last year).

This week will be one of formalities as a new UNGA president—Abdulla Shahid, foreign affairs minister for the Maldives—takes over for Turkey’s Volkan Bozkir and the agenda is finalized.

Attention will spike next week, when world leaders take turns addressing the body during the General Debate. On Monday, the White House confirmed that U.S. President Joe Biden would be making his address in person on Sept. 21. Keeping with tradition, Brazil will make the first address, meaning Biden will follow Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Other leaders will speak daily until Sept. 27.

Biden’s speech. Biden’s presence affirms his commitment to the body in a year when promises of a new multilateral approach came up against old habits, especially during the 10-day Israel-Gaza conflict in May, when the United States stood alone while other Security Council states demanded a cease-fire.

Quad meeting. Biden isn’t yet scheduled for any one-on-ones with world leaders, but he does have at least one high-level engagement planned this month: an in-person meeting with the leaders of fellow Quad nations—Australia, India, and Japan—on Sept 24.

Agenda items. With November’s U.N. Climate Conference fast approaching, climate change is expected to top the list of concerns, alongside the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery.

Outlier nations. Although events will be highly scripted, the geopolitical upheavals of the past year means not everything is set in advance. Afghanistan, which now operates under an interim government led by the Taliban, has no clear representative while Guinea and Myanmar face similar conundrums thanks to recent coups.

As Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer, and Jack Detsch report in Foreign Policy, the United States and China have already been engaged in the spirit of diplomacy, reaching a deal to prevent Myanmar’s junta from addressing the assembly. The agreement means Myanmars ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, whose appointment predates the coup, will keep his position for now but must “hold his tongue” during the event.

FP at UNGA. Starting Sept. 17, FP will provide a weeklong pop-up newsletter—U.N. Brief—to cover each day’s events. Also on Sept. 17, FP reporters Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer will preview proceedings with a live conference call, beginning at 11 a.m.


What We’re Following Today

Change in Store. Jonas Gahr Store is set to become Norway’s next prime minister after his Labour Party won the most seats in the country’s parliamentary election. The victory ends Conservative Erna Solberg’s nearly eight years in power and means all five Nordic states will now be led by left-leaning governments.

Store will need support from the Socialist Left Party and the agrarian Centre Party to reach a slim majority, though some on the left favor a broader five-party coalition that would include the Green Party and the communist Red Party. A narrower center-left coalition would head off awkward questions about Norway’s oil industry dependence as the Greens propose phasing out fossil fuel by 2035.

John Kerry departs India. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry finishes up a trip to India today, confident that New Delhi will announce new carbon reduction measures in the coming weeks. “We’re making progress, and my hope is the next six weeks will concentrate people’s minds. Nobody appreciates being pushed around, and I’m not here to do that,” Kerry said. Despite securing no major commitments on his trip, he was able to announce a new financing mechanism designed to attract investment to India’s renewable energy sector.

Blinken faces the Senate. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a day after facing grilling from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer and Zinya Salfiti report, Blinken’s Monday testimony gave a preview of the strategy the Biden administration may use to mollify lawmakers: Blame the previous administration. Or as Blinken put it: “We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan.”


Keep an Eye On

Guinea’s coup. Guinea is in the midst of a weeklong conference to prepare a transitional government, France 24 reports, following a request by coup leader Lt. Col. Mamady Doumbouya. Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, the defeated candidate in 2020’s presidential election, has said he would take part in the transition if called on. This week’s talks follow pressure from both the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, which suspended Guinea over the coup.

Our warming planet. The number of days a year when temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) or above has doubled since the 1980s, a study conducted by the BBC has found. Although most high temperatures have been recorded in the Middle East, super high temperatures are found increasingly in North America and Europe. “The increase can be 100 percent attributed to the burning of fossil fuels,” Friederike Otto, associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, told the BBC.


Odds and Ends

Researchers have taken a small step toward reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions by potty training a herd of cows. Scientists at an animal research lab in the German town of Dummerstorf trained the group of young cows to use a “MooLoo,” a designated pen for the animals to urinate in—a process that took only 15 days.

“The cows are at least as good as children, age 2 to 4 years, at least as quick,” Lindsay Matthews, the study’s senior author, told the Associated Press.

The eight gallons of urine a cow passes per day can wreak havoc for the environment, creating ammonia when mixed with cow dung and polluting the air with nitrous oxide. Matthews is confident the same training method could be applied to deal with cow dung but conceded that stopping cows flatulence—a significant source of methane emissions—was beyond the realm of behavioral training. “They would blow up,” Matthews said.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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