Analysis

The Most Important U.N. Speeches This Year

FP columnists and contributors break down the good, the bad, and the ugly from the 76th U.N. General Assembly.

UN-most-important-speeches-biden-xi-modi-raisi-suluhu-bolsonaro-wide
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

The 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, with high-level meetings wrapping up in New York this week, was dominated by the major crises facing our world today: climate change, COVID-19, and conflict. 

World leaders came together, some in person and some virtually, to deliver speeches in which they explained their countries’ plans to tackle these crises and aired their political grievances. The result was a mix of bold declarations and petty squabbling, calls for unity and calls for condemnation. 

Foreign Policy asked several of our columnists and contributors to weigh in on the speeches they found most compelling—or most concerning. 

The 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, with high-level meetings wrapping up in New York this week, was dominated by the major crises facing our world today: climate change, COVID-19, and conflict. 

World leaders came together, some in person and some virtually, to deliver speeches in which they explained their countries’ plans to tackle these crises and aired their political grievances. The result was a mix of bold declarations and petty squabbling, calls for unity and calls for condemnation. 

Foreign Policy asked several of our columnists and contributors to weigh in on the speeches they found most compelling—or most concerning. 


Biden tried to reassure allies with rhetoric.

By Elise Labott, adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and columnist at Foreign Policy

Declaring the world to be at an “inflection point” in history during his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Joe Biden laid out an ambitious global agenda.

He urged nations to join forces in tackling the challenges that “hold the keys to our collective future: ending this pandemic; addressing the climate crisis; managing the shifts in global power dynamics; shaping the rules of the world on vital issues like trade, cyber, and emerging technologies; and facing the threat of terrorism as it stands today.”

The speech sounded all the right notes in Biden’s effort to rebuild trust and confidence in America’s global leadership after four tumultuous years with Donald Trump on the world stage. Yet diplomats from several countries told me that it failed to resonate with them, largely due to the disconnect between Biden’s words and his actions since taking office.

After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, Biden announced a “new era of relentless diplomacy.” Yet some European allies thought diplomacy was lacking in Biden’s handling of the U.S. troop pullout from that conflict, which they found hasty and devoid of consultation with allies, resulting in a chaotic withdrawal and humiliating Taliban takeover.

Without naming China, Biden said the United States was “not seeking a new Cold War.” Yet the majority of his foreign-policy decisions to date seem designed to create a standoff with Beijing, particularly the recent security pact, negotiated in secret, with the United Kingdom and Australia. France, meanwhile, was ousted from a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Australia and cut out of a key strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific, prompting Paris to briefly recall its ambassador.

For the European Union, the snub belied Biden’s argument that he had “prioritized rebuilding our alliances, revitalizing our partnerships, and recognizing they’re essential and central to America’s enduring security and prosperity.”

Biden received applause for his closing line that world leaders must decide what they wanted to leave for “our children and our grandchildren.” But to truly reassure allies that America, in Biden’s words, is back, he must match his lofty rhetoric with policies that deliver.


Brazil’s Bolsonaro brought his full firebrand self to the world stage.

By Catherine Osborn, writer of FP’s Latin America Brief

As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro began speaking at the United Nations Tuesday morning, shouts of “Assassin!” and “Out with Bolsonaro!” rang out from my Rio de Janeiro neighborhood. Most residents here voted for Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential runoff, but his approval has dropped to 22 percent amid a sluggish economy, abysmal pandemic management, and corruption accusations against his government and sons.

Brazilian foreign ministry officials reportedly hoped the far-right populist firebrand and COVID-19 denier would project a more sober, statesmanlike image to the world than he is typically known for, and supervised an original draft of his speech that would have announced Brazilian vaccine donations to neighboring countries.

But it seems Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a devotee of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s messaging style, helped rewrite parts of his father’s speech, and the final version was heavily geared toward energizing Bolsonaro’s base.

Bolsonaro touted unproven COVID-19 remedies; railed against pandemic control measures such as isolation, lockdowns, and vaccine mandates; falsely stated that “there has been not a single case of corruption [in Brazil] in the past two years and eight months”; insisted the country’s economy was fertile for business; and offered a deceptively sunny portrayal of his government’s environmental policies in the Amazon.

In an attempt to appease countries and business leaders pressuring him to do more to fight deforestation, Bolsonaro cited Brazilian government findings that the rate of Amazon deforestation was lower in August this year than in August 2020. But environmental analysts say federal plans suggest no pathway to a sustained, significant drop in Amazon deforestation under Bolsonaro’s leadership, which clocked an average of 4,050 square miles of annual forest loss in the first two years of his term, versus 2,594 square miles annually in the five years before he took office.

Following the U.N. address, pro-Bolsonaro social media channels pushed out praiseful claims that the president had defended Brazilian “freedom,” along with memes vilifying the mainstream media and doctored videos of Bolsonaro being embraced by crowds in New York.

Since January, the Biden administration has engaged in energetic but low-profile diplomacy with Bolsonaro with at least two big aims: reducing deforestation and barring Chinese tech firm Huawei from building Brazil’s 5G mobile network. So far, Brasília has made no public commitments about bans related to its upcoming 5G contracting process—a process Bolsonaro mentioned in his U.N. address, saying it would officially begin in the next few days.

Bolsonaro by no means demonstrated the statesmanlike turn that his foreign ministry had designed. But in between the COVID-19 misinformation, his comments on the Amazon and 5G were a reminder of why Brazil still matters to Washington, Beijing, and those concerned about climate change.

As for Bolsonaro’s goal of projecting confidence to investors, they by now have learned to look past his words to the limping pace of his economic reform agenda.


China’s Xi made a surprising climate announcement.

By James Palmer, deputy editor at Foreign Policy and writer of FP’s China Brief

Chinese President Xi Jinping hasn’t left his nation’s borders since the pandemic began, and he wasn’t going to make an exception for the United Nations. It’s not clear whether it’s fear of the disease or worries about political rivals at home that has kept Xi, once a regular traveler, confined, but even by video link he still managed to make a stir at this year’s General Assembly.

Most of his speech was boilerplate Chinese rhetoric, but one commitment stood out: no new construction of overseas coal plants.

That’s a big deal. China is the largest public financier of coal projects in the world—although that’s just 13 percent of total global investment, the rest of which is mostly private. Chinese politics is very much a game of follow the leader at the moment, and it would be politically toxic for any domestic institution, public or private, to finance coal overseas right now. That may change if the scope of the new rules becomes clearer.

And it’s significant that Beijing, which has become increasingly resistant to any form of outside pressure, felt it needed to make this move in advance of November’s major U.N. climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow. There have been regular complaints about China’s role in financing dirty energy abroad, especially when such deals are lumped in with the Belt and Road Initiative. If China worries about reputational damage on this issue, that bodes well for climate change efforts.

But there are still some caveats. First, Xi’s wording wasn’t clear on whether existing projects, which include about 40 gigawatts of coal-fueled energy across 20 countries, would be allowed to continue or whether those deals would be shut off. I’d bet on the first, given the potential damage of breaking off existing investments in developing countries.

And while leadership abroad is good, home is where China’s climate impact really matters. China is already the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and the second biggest historical emitter (though it’s far below many others per capita). According to the Chinese government’s current Five-Year Plan, the country’s coal power isn’t set to peak until 2025—and emissions in 2030. Environmental regulations have been tightened this year—but with grim times ahead for the Chinese economy, they may end up being weakened, especially at the local level, to try to boost GDP figures or alleviate growing power shortages.

That’s a recurring pattern in Chinese environmental controls: When the economy falters, green limits get scrapped, and the smog comes back.

Lebanon’s president displayed a typical lack of self-awareness.

By Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and columnist at Foreign Policy

Of all the Middle Eastern leaders I wanted to hear from at this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting, it wasn’t Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or even Saudi Arabia’s King Salman—it was Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

What does a leader of a country that has collapsed say to the world body?

Like many speeches during UNGA, Aoun’s did not break new ground. Most of the 17 minutes and 31 seconds of his prerecorded remarks were devoted to repeating the message that he and other Lebanese politicians have been repeating over the last year: Europe, the United States, wealthy Arab states, international financial institutions, and virtually everyone else must act to rescue Lebanon.

He emphasized that the new Lebanese government had already taken steps—such as ordering the forensic accounting of Lebanon’s central bank—to convince international donors that they would not be throwing resources away.

This is what one might expect, but there was one passage that struck me as lacking in self-awareness. About four minutes into his speech, Aoun denounced a “decades-long rentier-style financial and economic policy, coupled with corruption and waste and driven by financial mismanagement and lack of accountability,” that had “led Lebanon into an unprecedented financial and monetary crisis.”

For the last half-decade, Aoun has been president of Lebanon. When he was sworn in in 2016, he promised political and economic reform. Before he became head of state, Aoun was one of Lebanon’s political heavyweights through his Free Patriotic Movement.

At a moment of ongoing crisis, when Lebanon needs vast amounts of help in almost every area, was it wise for Aoun to present himself as somehow either above the fray or unaware of the shenanigans that have been going on around him?

Governments around the world have expressed a desire to help the Lebanese people—but not if their generosity is cycled through a political class responsible for Lebanon’s tribulations. If anyone was listening to Aoun’s speech carefully, the well-known concerns of international donors could not have been mollified. It seems as though, once again, a leading Lebanese politician did his country no favors.


The new Iranian president’s first U.N. speech was a letdown.

By Kourosh Ziabari, journalist and Asia Times correspondent

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s virtual address to the 76th U.N. General Assembly was his first serious international appearance since being sworn in in August. Yet other than a litany of anti-U.S. attacks, Raisi’s speech didn’t impart any compelling message to the world.

Raisi said either “America” or “the United States” 17 times in his 15-minute speech, suggesting Iran is still struggling to wean itself off its contemporary obsession with the United States as a dominant power with which it has failed, or been reluctant, to forge cordial ties since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

While the General Assembly session was preoccupied with such pressing challenges as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the brewing catastrophe in Afghanistan—at Iran’s eastern doorstep—Raisi didn’t articulate any vision for how his government plans to tackle these cataclysms or how Iran wishes to be part of global efforts to address them.

But what was most worrying was the Iranian leader’s refusal to comment on his country’s plan to reengage in talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the atrophying nuclear accord the Biden administration is eager to rejoin. That refusal leaves room for continued speculation and ambiguity over Tehran’s commitment to the nuclear talks that had seemed close to a breakthrough when Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, was steering them, before his term in office expired.

Overall, Raisi’s first U.N. speech failed to ease tensions between Iran and the international community and sent a pretty clear sign that neither a restoration of the JCPOA nor the truncation of Iran’s chronic isolation is at all imminent.


India’s Modi congratulated himself for a job well done.

By Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington and columnist at Foreign Policy

In keeping with his nativist sentiments as well as his ease with the language, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his speech in Hindi. The speech was notable for its number of allusions to India’s adversaries, most notably China and Pakistan. The imputation to China was evident from his call for a “rule-based world order” while his appeal for a clear international stance against governments that use terrorism as a policy tool was a not-so-veiled swipe at Pakistan.

Interestingly enough, given that his government has faced its fair share of criticism for its democratic deficits, Modi explicitly underscored the success of India’s democracy. And in an unusually self-referential move, he alluded to his own rise from modest origins to the premiership of India as emblematic of that success.

Curiously absent from his speech was India’s customary demand for the expansion of the United Nations Security Council to include a seat for India. He did, however, emphasize the United Nations’ need to remain effective as an organization, citing the challenges that the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and global terrorism pose for humanity’s future.

In that context, Modi faulted two U.N. organs: the World Health Organization (WHO) for its failure to trace the origins of COVID-19 and the World Bank for the recently revealed flaws in its “ease of doing business” rankings. The former was also an indirect jab at China for its refusal to let the WHO conduct a full, unfettered investigation of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China.

A final striking feature of Modi’s speech was his overly self-congratulatory view of his stewardship of India during his term in office. Citing a range of achievements extending from greater access to health care to the expansion of banking for the poor, Modi claimed India was now on the path to rapid development. And at a time when India is far from out of the woods as far as the COVID-19 pandemic goes, he touted India’s willingness and ability to provide vaccines to countries in need.

His speech was a curious amalgam of the unpredictable as well as the bold. For once, while calling for U.N. reform, he avoided India’s standard demand for a U.N. Security Council seat. The not-so-hidden knocks against Pakistan and especially China, however, represented an audacious departure in a United Nations General Assembly speech.


Tanzania’s first female president stepped onto the scene.

By Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and columnist at Foreign Policy

When Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan finally took the stage to deliver her speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday afternoon, she presented a distinctive contrast to the endless stream of all-male speakers who had preceded her to the podium on the third day of the General Debate. Even more sharply, she stood in clear contrast with the man who preceded her as president of Tanzania.

Suluhu previously served as vice president under President John “The Bulldozer” Magufuli, a man who brooked no disobedience, including on his insistence that COVID-19 didn’t exist in Tanzania. Under his presidency, data on the country’s mounting death toll was suppressed, doctors were gagged, and all coronavirus-related drugs and vaccines were banned.

Then, in February, Magufuli abruptly disappeared from public view—and for the first time, on Feb. 27, a physician gave a nationally broadcast speech warning Tanzanians of the new plague. On March 17, Magufuli died.

Suluhu acceded to the presidency, telling the nation her predecessor had “died of a heart condition”—a statement she has not amended despite it being widely suspected that his cause of death was COVID-19. Days later, South African scientists reported discovery of a “super-mutant” strain of the novel coronavirus unlike any other circulating in Africa, carried by three Tanzanian travelers to Angola. Regional political pressure on Suluhu rose, and over the next several months, she created a COVID-19 scientific advisory council and joined global efforts to obtain vaccines and drugs for her nation.

In her U.N. remarks, Suluhu repeatedly praised multilateralism and the United Nations system. She noted her nation’s dependency on technical and financial support from external sources and admonished that “multilateralism cannot and should not succumb to the virus.”

Far from following Magufuli in denying the presence of the virus in the country, Suluhu acknowledged that “Tanzania has not been spared by COVID-19” and said the pandemic had already radically reduced Tanzania’s economic growth, from 6.9 percent a year to 5.4 percent, primarily due to loss of tourism. This, in turn, has wiped out the country’s ability to finance climate change adaptation.

As the first female leader of her nation, Suluhu pointedly noted that “COVID-19 is threatening to roll back the gains that we have made” in gender equity and said she plans to implement policies aimed at female economic development and political and social advancement.

The world still lacks verifiable COVID-19 data from Tanzania, including on cases and death tolls. But Suluhu started vaccination efforts in July, and with her U.N. speech, she joined the majority of her African peers in strongly denouncing the inequities in global vaccine distribution, with merely 245 million doses distributed as of earlier this month to poorer nations through the U.N.’s COVAX mechanism and 81 percent of all doses having been administered in the wealthiest nations.

Even looking to 2022, the wealthy world is backtracking on promised vaccine donations to COVAX, and nearly 80 percent of African nations will miss not only their short-term COVID-19 control targets but also those set for attainment next year.


World leaders weren’t in the mood to be “good neighbors.”

By Caroline de Gruyter, writer for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and columnist at Foreign Policy

In April 1945, amid the ravages of World War II, U.S. President Harry S. Truman addressed hundreds of delegates from 50 countries who had gathered in San Francisco to create the United Nations. “You members of this conference,” Truman said from the White House, “are to be the architects of the better world. In your hands rests our future.”

He meant that if world leaders wanted peace and justice, they had to bring it about themselves. Just having the United Nations as an institution would not suffice—they had to make the U.N. work. All depended on the will of each and every one: “In order to have good neighbors, we must also be good neighbors.”

With these words in mind, it was particularly depressing to watch world leaders address the U.N. General Assembly this month. Pakistan accused India of carrying out “a reign of terror” against Muslims; India accused Pakistan of “spew[ing] falsehoods on the world stage.”

Russia’s foreign minister blasted France for opposing the deployment of Russian mercenaries in Mali and criticized the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Israel’s prime minister urged the world to act against Iran.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson—the only one showing some humor (saying he had seriously contemplated changing his name to “Boreas Johnson, in honor of the North Wind” that could save his country from an energy crisis)—used his entire speech as a marketing pitch for the upcoming U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, meanwhile, had to do his own ritual dance, warning that on climate change and other major global problems it is five minutes to midnight: “Our world has never been more threatened or more divided.” But, of course, he added that he still has “hope.”

Guterres was perhaps the only speaker we cannot blame for being unsurprising. The U.N. was made for that purpose; its secretary-general can only utter platitudes.

The only one with real passion in her voice was the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley. She spoke spontaneously, from bullet points on her mobile phone, asking why heads of state come to New York every year to give the same speeches about peace and development and justice for all, then go home and forget everything they just said.

But then, someone had to say that, too.

This year’s General Assembly speeches did not get much media attention, except U.S. President Joe Biden’s first U.N. speech, and some others that touched on long-running international disputes such as Cyprus and Jammu and Kashmir. At some point, even journalists get tired of their role as critical outsiders on the moral high ground.

And the citizens? As of last Friday, the speech delivered by the K-pop group BTS at the U.N. General Assembly received 6.4 million views on YouTube, while Guterres’s speech was viewed just 5,300 times and Johnson’s 3,500 times.

The U.N. is as strong as its members want it to be. All depends on their willingness to be “good neighbors.” This year, they were clearly not in the mood. Hopefully next year it will be better.

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