The United Nations has once again made it into the news — as a backdrop.
This happens every September when world leaders gather in New York for the General Assembly’s “general debate.” This year’s theme for that debate: “A watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenges,” a typical general debate word salad that lets world leaders talk about whatever they would like.
These talks drone on for days, serving mostly to generate headlines in the speakers’ home countries. The general debate ends in no vote, no decision. The world leaders go home. The UN fades back into the global media shadows until the next September, a distinct nonplayer in world affairs.
Many of those actively advocating for the UN after World War II’s horrors — people of world renown like Eleanor Roosevelt — had a more meaningful role for the United Nations in mind. And in those early UN years, particularly under secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in the 1950s, the UN did figure as a significant worldwide political player.
Hammarskjöld, an economist who had coined the phrase “planned economy” and drafted the legislation that ushered in Sweden’s pioneering “welfare state,” made headlines year-round with his peacekeeping efforts. The UN mattered. But those days have long passed.
Hardly anyone seems to pay close attention to the UN these days. And that sad reality counts as a real shame — because the current UN secretary-general, former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, is saying what the world needs to hear. Guterres has been doing more to focus world attention on the catastrophic inequality that endangers humanity than probably any other figure on the world political stage.
“Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading farther,” Guterres told world leaders gathered in New York for this year’s UN general debate. “We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.”
Guterres, the UN secretary-general since 2017, gave that theme his deepest reflections two years ago when he delivered South Africa’s 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture from New York.
This Mandela address came early in the world’s first Covid summer. The pandemic, Guterres observed, had been working like an X-ray, “revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built” and “exposing fallacies and falsehoods,” everything from “the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all” to “the myth that we are all in the same boat.”
We may all be “floating on the same sea,” Guterres went on, but some of us are floating “in superyachts while others are clinging to the floating debris.”
“Inequality,” the secretary-general continued, “defines our time.”
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