It was a quieter day at UN headquarters on Thursday. With US President Biden back at the White House – accompanied by Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky – the crowds had thinned somewhat and fewer delegates could be found attending the debate in the UN General Assembly hall.
Much of the focus was on the crisis in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, where this week Azerbaijan launched a fresh assault on ethnic-Armenian separatists there, who then reportedly agreed to surrender and disarm as part of a ceasefire. Azerbaijan now looks set to take control of the enclave that's seen decades of conflict.
(For more on the recent flare up and its historical context, see our write up here.)
This was the focus of an urgent UN Security Council meeting called by the Armenian and French delegation on Thursday afternoon. Though they aren’t currently Council members, both Armenia and Azerbaijan attended the session to voice their grievances.
The focus of the Armenian representative reflected a sentiment that has been heard many times throughout the week, namely, that the UN Security Council is broken.
Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ararat Mirzoyan said that the chamber had failed to respond to previous warnings from Yerevan that the Azeris had been upping their attacks on the enclave. Indeed, this came a day after President Zelensky took aim at the Security Council for falling short of its stated mission by letting Russia torpedo efforts to stop the war. (See GZERO's explainer on Instagram on this ensuing debate.)
Despite Karabakh’s acceptance of a ceasefire, shelling continues, Mirzoyan said. The US, for its part, backed this claim, with UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield telling the Council that the “situation on the ground remains dire.”
What’s on deck tomorrow?
Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu will address the Assembly, along with Dutch PM Mark Rutte, Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina, and Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry.
Parlez-vous le français? Probably pas très bien if you live outside Quebec, according to census data from Statistics Canada.
The share of Canadians who can hold a conversation in both English and French has plateaued around 18% for two decades, despite strong legal protections for the French language and official encouragement of bilingualism.
The background: Political rivalries between English and French-speaking Canadians dominated the early history of the country, and fuel some radical independence movements in Quebec even today. Official adoption of bilingualism at a federal level in 1969 was meant to help heal the rift.
And in the first three decades, it met with considerable success. The share of bilingual Canadians rose from 12.2% in 1961 to 17.7% in 2001.
However, most of the growth came in Quebec, which continues to push up the national rate of bilingualism. Nearly half of Quebeckers are bilingual, compared to less than 1 in 10 Canadians from other provinces.
Statistics Canada explains that English-speaking Canada has simply outgrown the share of the country with French as their mother tongue, but also pointed out that Canadians whose mother tongue is neither French nor English —- mostly immigrants — are less likely to learn both of Canada’s official languages.
But there’s one more wrinkle: Quebeckers whose mother tongue is neither English nor French are actually more likely than the general population to speak both languages, with 50.8% able to hold a conversation in French, English and their mother tongue. Incroyable!
Protected by three oceans and the hegemony of the United States, Canadian foreign policy has long been shaped by geographical accident and proximity to power. The trade-off has been that while Canada doesn’t have great power preoccupations it remains stuck within the orbit of its most important ally, the US, which does.
But now, the Canadian government is facing a series of foreign policy challenges that put it in an awkward position. Ottawa suddenly needs to clarify its goals and refine its tactics. Can it?
Earlier this week, after years of mixed-results attempts to get closer with India as part of its Indo-Pacific trade and relationship-building strategy, Canada accused India of playing a part in the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil – Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
While Canada’s closest allies, particularly the United States, denounced the murder and called for India to cooperate in an investigation, neither the U.S., nor the U.K. or Australia seem willing to risk their relationship with India over the affair, particularly as Western powers court New Delhi as a crucial counterweight to China. The episode reveals a lot about the challenges, and weaknesses, of Canada’s foreign policy.
Job One: Staying close to the U.S.
Over the past century, Canada has fought along the US in every major American war except Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As an essential security partner in several relationships, including Nato and Norad, Canada has largely kept in step with U.S. geopolitical goals and objectives.
The Trudeau government has also, importantly, sided with the U.S. in Washington’s rivalry with China, even when that has produced major political headaches at home. The 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver – at Washington’s request – led to Beijing kidnapping two Canadians in China. While the affair was eventually settled, it damaged Sino-Canadian relations.
More recently, after pressure from opposition parties, the Trudeau government launched a full public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s democracy, with China, among others, targeted as a major culprit.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Canada has backed Kyiv with cash, training, and arms. In June, Trudeau announced a CAD$500 million fund for military assistance to the country, and this week committed $33 million worth air defenses. All told, Canada has spent $8 billion as part of its pro-Ukrainian efforts. On Friday, Ukrainian president Zelensky will speak to the Canadian Parliament.
Still, despite all of this, Canada’s Nato allies, particularly the U.S., have long complained that Ottawa underspends on its military, coming up short of the alliance’s target of 2 percent of GDP. Canada, for its part, argues the 2 percent target is less important than making critical investments such as the purchase of F-35 jets and investment in NORAD upgrades.
Canada has also, on occasion, found itself decidedly on the outs with its major allies. When the U.S. launched a new security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom (AUKUS) last year, Canada was sidelined. While Ottawa has expressed interest in playing a role in AUKUS, the White House says there is no plan to invite Canada into the partnership. Ostensibly, Canada has been left out because it has no intention of investing in nuclear submarines, which are a central pillar of the AUKUS strategy.
Under-planned and under-resourced.
What are Canada’s strategic goals, and is there a coherent plan for achieving them? Experts are skeptical.
Graeme Thompson, senior analyst at Eurasia Group says “Canada’s foreign policy seems to be very much disjointed,” which is to say “There isn’t an overarching strategic framework.”
Canada hasn’t published a National Security Strategy, for example, since 2004. Nor has it undertaken a formal Foreign Policy Review. Without a conceptual anchor like that, Canada’s foreign policy is unmoored. The country has lost two separate bids for a rotating seat on the UN Security council over the past 15 years.
That lack of coherent strategy, according to Thompson, is the consequence of two problems. First, Canadian political leaders struggle to prioritize issues and regions, and second, they don’t adequately fund a truly global approach. So, Canada ends up spreading itself too thin to exercise significant influence on the global stage, which leads it to overpromise and under-deliver.
Attempting to cover nearly every region of the globe, he says, Canada is trying to balance trade relationships, embassy and consulate presences, security and defence commitments, development assistance, and leadership on environment, climate change and human rights.
No wonder there isn’t enough money – not to mention time, attention, and human resources – to go around.
Problems coming home to roost.
Years of subpar Canadian foreign policy are now catching up with the Trudeau government. The return of great power rivalries, fresh external meddling in Canada’s diasporas and elections, and some unusual – if small – cracks in the US-Canada alliance are now forcing Ottawa to develop a more robust foreign policy than it is used to having.
Can it manage? Canada may be a middle power, but it shouldn’t have a middling foreign policy.
The UN General Assembly debate, where world leaders are given time at the podium to outline their respective global priorities, launched with a bang on Tuesday.
US President Joe Biden spoke to a jam-packed auditorium where he reinforced the US commitment to Ukraine. He also addressed China directly, saying that Washington does not seek to decouple from Beijing but rather to derisk, and emphasized that managing the ensuing rivalry responsibility was his administration's priority.
Meanwhile, Brazil's leftist President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva kicked off by declaring that “Brazil is back,” which is also notably how Biden couched his victory after defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Further evoking comparisons with the US, Lula noted that “Brazil is reconnecting with itself, with the region and with the world” – a dig at his far-right predecessor Jair Bolonsonaro who isolated many Western allies.
Moving to focus on the international arena, Lula also took aim at “permanent members” of the UN Security Council for “waging unauthorized wars” – a likely nod to both Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and the United States for successive military interventions. Indeed, this sentiment encapsulates Lula’s attempt to position himself as a champion of the Global South and its collective interests. As Ian Bremmer noted in a recent interview with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Lula has been pushing a message, shared by others, that the war in Ukraine is largely a European problem and the UN should focus on other issues of global concern.
And Brazil is not alone. Other emerging powers – like South Africa and India – have also made clear that they don’t want to choose between the US and Russia, but rather seek constructive relations with both.
It’s precisely this dilemma – that some observers call political pragmatism while others call it bothsidesism – that was the subtext of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address at the General Assembly.
Wearing his typical olive fatigues, Zelensky seemed more exasperated than at previous global forums – a sign perhaps of his frustration with growing war-weariness, including among allies. The Assembly, it’s worth noting, was also largely empty during his address.
The Ukrainian president will later this week head to Washington amid concerns that Congress might not agree to ratify the White House’s requests to send Kyiv an additional $24 billion in aid. And Kyiv is right to be worried as lawmakers are quite distracted: Republicans are currently wrangling with each other, and with Democrats, on a spending package. If they fail to agree, the subsequent government shutdown would have dire economic consequences.
But Zelensky’s speech took advantage of the global forum. He was mainly pitching to countries in the middle – so-called non-aligned states – that acutely feel the effects of global food disruptions caused by a Russian blockade on Ukrainian ports and Western sanctions on Russian agricultural output. African states, some of which have abstained from previous votes at the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, have been particularly hard hit by this supply chain tumult.
On the sidelines of the event, Zelensky met Kenya’s President William Ruto and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa where, among other things, they discussed the need to resume the now-stalled Black Sea grain deal to ensure global food stability.
Also on the podium on Tuesday was Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi who will be finding an extra $6 billion in the national bank account upon returning home from New York after finalizing a prisoner swap this week with the US that included the release of frozen Iranian oil revenue.
Raisi’s visit, just after the one-year anniversary of the in-custody death of Mahsa Amini that sparked a national women’s and human rights movement – was not without controversy. A large protest attended by some former and current US lawmakers gathered outside the building, calling for the end to the authoritarian Islamic Republic. Though the demonstration was kept away from the UN headquarters by security barriers, the group’s booming chants could be heard well within the grounds.
What’s on deck for tomorrow?
President Zelensky will attend a UN Security Council dedicated to the war waging in his country. More details to follow.
There are two side-conferences to watch as well. The Climate Ambition Summit is meant to revitalize flagging efforts and dampened spirits in the fight against climate change. UN Secretary-General Guterres highlighted it in his recent interview with Ian Bremmer.
The High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development will also discuss a major factor in climate action, bringing together heads of state and multilateral lenders. The conference aims to untangle some of the financial hurdles toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
The first big day of the UN General Assembly proved to be character-building for those who dared to venture outside without gumboots or an umbrella.
The skies above Turtle Bay were tinged in silver-gray as delegates from 193 countries descended on the UN headquarters for the 78th General Assembly.
Monday was something akin to a warm up: Much of the focus in the Assembly hall was on the UN’s lofty Sustainable Development Goals, essentially a global to-do-list, including targets like poverty and hunger eradication. Progress so far, however, has been spotty as only 15% of the goals are even on track.
When asked if he was concerned that the absence this week of some powerful world leaders – like France’s Emmanuel Macron, the UK’s Rishi Sunak and China’s Xi Jinping – would undermine efforts to revive the sagging SDG’s, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres replied sternly: “this is not Vanity Fair … what matters is that [states] are represented.”
While the halls of the UN contain a nervous energy, some heads of state just seemed happy to be there.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appeared unphased by the New York drear, taking time out to get fresh air and take in the view of the East River with his crew, who shared takeaway cafeteria coffees.
Team Germany, on the other hand, was less relaxed. Clad in a navy-blue trench coat in lieu of an umbrella, Chancellor Olaf Sholz, flocked by aides, made a brief dash across the plaza. Meanwhile, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, who has a very intense few days ahead of her as debt mitigation efforts are a major theme of the summit – also made her way through the corridors.
But the UN General Assembly isn’t just a Superbowl for foreign policy nerds – many real celebrities also appear in the flesh to champion the organization and its mission.
Fashion mogul Diane von Furstenberg, donned in unpresuming black, visited an exhibition dedicated to showcasing the Sustainable Development Goals. Meanwhile, actor and women’s rights advocate Natalie Portman also braved the rain to discuss the ongoing abuse of women and girls around the world, and “ingrained cultural biases” that subordinate half the world's population. It’s an issue Portman has worked on for many years.
A fellow spectator tried to strike up a conversation as we rubbed shoulders while exiting the panel event: “She [Portman] should have smiled more. She looked angry.” You just can’t make this stuff up ... Welcome to the UN General Assembly in New York City!
The US and Iran on Monday traded prisoners in a high stakes swap that’s causing problems for President Biden at home.
After months of negotiations, the two foes traded 10 prisoners: five US citizens locked up in Iran, and five Iranians detained in the US, some of whom were charged but hadn’t been convicted.
As part of the deal, the Iranians also reaped almost $6 billion in frozen oil revenue held in South Korea. The US also placed fresh sanctions on former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but some critics say it’s a distraction as he has no power over Iranian politics.
While some claim this deal suggests a thaw in US-Iran relations, it comes just days after the EU and UK announced the extension of UN sanctions that were slated to be eased under a previous agreement, citing Iran’s efforts to continue to enhance its nuclear program “beyond all credible civilian justification.”
Indeed, for Biden, it’s proving to be a very hard sell at home, with Republicans – and some Democrats – saying that he gave the Islamic Republic too much for too little. Both Biden and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi will speak at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, which will reveal more about where things stand.
In a bombshell accusation on Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told lawmakers that India was responsible for the murder of a Sikh community leader in British Columbia in June.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was gunned down in his car near a Sikh temple, was a Canadian citizen.
The accusation is a bombshell. “This is like if the Saudis had killed [Jamal] Khashoggi in New York,” one former adviser to Trudeau’s government told us.
Sikhs are a religious minority that make up less than 2% of the Indian population. A militant wing of the community has long agitated for the creation of a Sikh state called Khalistan. In 1984 Sikh bodyguards assassinated India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Nijjar, a supporter of the Khalistan movement, was accused by New Delhi of involvement in terrorist acts in India.
Canada is home to the largest Sikh community outside of India. Barely a week ago, Narendra Modi scolded Trudeau about anti-India protests by Canadian Sikhs. The Canadian prime minister clapped back that his government respects “freedom of expression” in a veiled rebuke of Modi’s own human rights record. Trudeau has also included India in a broader investigation of foreign meddling in Canada’s elections.
The revelation about the Nijjar killing comes at a time of rapidly worsening relations between Canada and India. Trudeau had reportedly raised the issue with Modi at last week’s G20 summit. Whatever answer he got in private was evidently unsatisfactory, and he decided to go public.
All of this puts the US in a tough spot: Washington has been cultivating India as a much-needed partner against China. But New Delhi has now allegedly murdered a Canadian citizen in Canada, one of the US’s closest allies. It’s a staggering violation of international law and norms, especially between two democracies. The Biden ardministration now has some tough choices to make.