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Quick Take: A UN General Assembly without world leaders

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

It's UNGA week, very unusual New York to have the United Nations General Assembly meetings. You know, the city is locked down. It's almost always locked down this week, but usually you can't get anywhere because you've got all these marshals with dozens of heads of state and well over a hundred foreign ministers and their delegations jamming literally everything, Midtown and branching out across the city. This time around, the security cordon for the United Nations itself is barely a block, and no one is flying in. I mean, the weather is gorgeous, and you can walk pretty much anywhere, but nothing's really locked down aside from, of course, the fact that the restaurants and the bars and the theaters and everything else is not happening given the pandemic. And it's not just in the US, it's all around the world.


So we're having an UNGA without world leaders, and they are mailing it in. And I would argue that in addition to mailing in virtually their speeches, in many cases, they're mailing in leadership. I just had a conversation with the Colombian president, Iván Duque, who said the first few months, there's been a lot of leadership individually, but nothing from a multilateralism perspective, not the G20, not the UN. That it's really been shocking to him that there was no coordination around personal protective equipment or ventilators in the early days when it was desperately needed. I hear this from [UN Secretary-General] António Guterres. I hear it from [European Central Bank President] Christine Lagarde in the early days of the crisis. We need international coordination. These are all people whose jobs are truly global, truly multilateral, but they are also people who recognize that so far, at least this crisis, we have not been learning those lessons.

This is an environment where... I mean, we have COVAX for example, which is an effort to try to bring coordination on vaccine development and distribution to people all over the world, and the Europeans have signed up. Most of the developing world has signed up, but so far the United States and China have not, the world's two largest economies. And this is not to say that you can't spend other money developing other vaccines for yourself. It's just a promise to, in addition to that, provide that support and coordination. Not happening. I mean, I guess if there's good news here, good news at the multilateral level, the good news is that the institutions we have aren't falling apart. So... Give you an example. John Bolton was the National Security Advisor for President Trump. He's the guy that famously said that you could take off five floors of the UN main headquarters building, and no one would notice.

He can't stand the United Nations. But actually, the United States continues to pay their United Nations dues every year, and President Trump gave his plenary speech. Wasn't much to it, just seven minutes long, but he was there, kind of like US with NATO. People saying, "Oh, Trump was thinking about leaving NATO, threatened to leave NATO." He hasn't left NATO. Actually, the relationship is kind of the same. And even though Trump has said he's leaving the World Health Organization, he hasn't yet. He can't yet, and the day to day cooperation between the US and the WHO, including the sharing of data and the rest, continues to be as it has been. So at the multilateral level, at least we can say that the architecture we have, which is increasingly not aligned with the geopolitical order, and certainly not robust, but it's not broken.

It isn't gone. It still exists. And the reality of President Trump, who is an avowed anti-multilateralist, and President Xi, who is certainly not aligning with the free market or liberal democracy, which is largely the values that the multilateral institutions support, neither of them are saying, "We want to destroy this architecture." And if they occasionally say it, they're not doing that. But that's very different from saying that they're actively cooperating on the global stage to try to bring countries together. They're not doing that, and they're not doing that on a vaccine. They're not doing that to ensure that there will be economic support for the countries that are getting massively more indebted on the back of this crisis, and will need a lot more international aid and credit over the coming one, two years, the developing world and those that are under developed.

That's a serious problem, and I do think that not only does this election in the United States matter in that regard, but also Xi Jinping in 2022 matters in that regard. Right now, the direction that we are heading is not towards more effective multilateral leadership. We're actually heading in the other direction. And as much as very well-intentioned people like António Guterres and Christine Lagarde, both of whom I have a great deal of respect for, desperately want that trajectory to change, I'd be lying as an analyst here sitting here and saying I see that happening. Right now, I don't see that happening. For me, the true optimism on the global stage today is that despite the fact that the multilateral order is eroding, despite the fact that we truly lack global leadership in a GZERO world, that there's enormous amounts of human capital being unlocked. Uncoordinated, but still being brought to bear to help us respond to this global crisis of the pandemic, and these global crises of growing social inequality and economic inequality and political polarization and climate change.

I see so much effort of individuals trying to bring new technologies to bear in terms of over a hundred vaccines in development, in terms of improved distance learning, tele-medicine, efficiencies in agriculture, move towards sustainable energy, all of which is happening so much faster right now in part because of the pandemic than it was before. So, I mean, if the great acceleration that is coming on the back of the pandemic is truly concerning in the geopolitical order that feels increasingly broken, it's increasingly uplifting in seeing how individuals around the world are becoming more entrepreneurial, in creating the kinds of solutions that ultimately will get us through this. So that's my view, my quick take this week from the United Nations General Assembly and from New York City, the hub of it all this week and hopefully for many years to come.

Microsoft announced earlier this year the launch of a new United Nations representation office to deepen their support for the UN's mission and work. Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it's public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft has found that progress requires two elements - international cooperation among governments and inclusive initiatives that bring in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. Microsoft provided an update on their mission, activities for the 75th UN General Assembly, and the team. To read the announcement from Microsoft's Vice President of UN Affairs, John Frank, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Ian Bremmer discusses the World In (more than) 60 Seconds:

Biden's first scheduled call with a world leader will be with Canada's Justin Trudeau. What's going on with the Keystone Pipeline?

Well, Biden said that that's it. Executive order, one of the first is that he will stop any construction or development of the Keystone Pipeline. This is of course an oil pipeline that would allow further oil sands oil to come to the United States. The infrastructure is significantly overstretched, it's led to backlogs, inefficiency, accidents, all the rest, but it also facilitates more energy development and keeps prices comparatively down if you get it done. So, there are lots of reasons why the energy sector in Canada wants it. Having said all of that, Trudeau, even though he's been a supporter of Keystone XL, let's keep in mind that he did not win support in Alberta, which is where the big energy patch in Canada is located. This is a real problem for the government of Alberta, Canada is a very decentralized federal government, even more so than the United States. The premier of Alberta is immensely unhappy with Biden right now, they've taken a $1.5 billion equity stake in the project. I expect there will actually be litigation against the United States by the government of Alberta. But Trudeau is quite happy with Biden, his relationship was Trump was always walking on eggshells. The USMCA in negotiations ultimately successful but were very challenging for the Canadians, so too with the way Trump engaged in relations on China. All of this, the fact that Trump left the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Paris Climate Accords, WHO, all of that is stuff that Trudeau strongly opposed. He's going to be much more comfortable with this relationship. He's delighted that the first call from Biden is to him. And it certainly creates a level of normalcy in the US-Canada relationship that is very much appreciated by our neighbors to the North.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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