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State of diplomacy in the 21st century: A leap backward?

Published on 02 November 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

Aesop once said that, ‘in union there is strength’. One can argue that this a perfect reflection of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) 2018 opening session where multilateralism, reform of the UN, and sustainable development prevailed.

The 73rd UNGA opened on 18 September 2018. Like every year, heads of states gathered in at the UN Headquarters in New York, to take the world stage and shed light on global challenges such as climate change, poverty reduction and violent conflicts. They also took the occasion to express concern over regional and national issues, as well as share examples of success stories and accomplishments made by their respective states. This year, the theme of the general debate was ‘Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies.’

The predominantly male speakers opened their speeches in an already familiar manner, congratulating H.E. Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces from Ecuador on her presidency of the UNGA. A number of representatives stressed that she is the fourth female president of the General Assembly, a bleak reminder that women are still underrepresented in positions of power, even in institutions that advocate gender equality and women’s empowerment.

A theme that dominated most of the speeches was the decline of multilateralism, as well as the reform of the UN. The president of Poland employed the term ‘negative multilateralism’ to describe its current state. Similarly, others noted that the essence of multilateral frameworks that protect human rights, international trade and global development are brought to question. Additionally, the reform of the UN dates back to 1997 when the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued his report, ‘Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform’. The fact of the matter is that very little has been done since, and the organisation does not reflect the contemporary world.

Sustainable development and climate change were the most mentioned topics of this general debate, with many heads of states reiterating their countries’ commitment to implementing the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. They also shared their national priorities within the 2030 Agenda, the advancements their countries have made in this regard, as well as the challenges they faced in the implementation of the Agenda.

Migration also featured highly on the agenda of most of the speakers, with many expressing their support for the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration that will be held in Marrakech in December. Nevertheless, a few others also underlined the dangers of migration and straightforwardly voiced their disapproval of the upcoming conference.

As expected, security concerns including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violence in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar were also tackled by the speakers. They underscored the need of the international community to pursue its obligations and responsibilities set forward in three words of the UN charter ‘we the peoples’. That said, states saw an excellent opportunity at the speaker’s rostrum to highlight some of the positive developments in terms of security, namely, in the Horn of Africa, such as the Agreement on Peace, Friendship, and Comprehensive Cooperation between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as the signing of an agreement between Djibouti and Eritrea after more than a decade of border disputes, thus demonstrating ‘African solutions to African problems’.

The UN Secretary-General dedicated a part of his speech to digital technologies where he addressed both the advantages and shortfalls of such developments. A similar approach was taken by many developed countries that incorporated various points such as digitisation, cyber security and automatisation, among others. Our detailed analysis shows that very few African states referred to digital technologies, which highlights the notion of digital divide between the developing and developed world. In fact, one could say that it even goes beyond just the digital divide, as they focused their attention on topics that are pertinent to their mere existence, such as hunger and poverty reduction. Moreover, a number of African states expressed their concerns over slavery, an issue that seems unthinkable in the 21st century, especially since earlier, on that very same stage, others spoke of blockchain, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles. That being the case, we have to ask ourselves how far did humanity advance, if half the world’s population battles problems we thought obsolete?

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