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U.N. General Assembly opens with world in crisis — but only 1 of the 5 key world powers attending

Watch: Biden addresses U.N. General Assembly
Watch: Biden addresses U.N. General Assembly 31:50

United Nations — "Drop by drop, the poison of war is infecting our world," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, opening the annual gathering of 193 nations at the U.N. General Assembly. 

With the world facing its highest number of violent conflicts since 1945 — beset by the consequences of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the related spike in food prices, as well as record temperatures, climate disasters and  unprecedented numbers of migrants and asylum seekers crossing borders to look for better lives — the agenda is daunting.

Who is attending the U.N. General Assembly 2023?

President Biden addressed the gathering on Tuesday, but the leaders of four of the five veto-wielding, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, France, Russia and China — will be conspicuously absent. So how much can the United Nations hope to achieve? 

Of the 193 U.N. member countries, 145 nations are sending their heads of state or government to the General Assembly — but of the five founding, permanent Security Council members, only Mr. Biden will be in New York this week. 

President Joe Biden addresses the United Nations General Assembly
President Joe Biden addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 19, 2023 in New York City. Adam Gray / Getty Images

China's President Xi Jinping and Russia's President Putin rarely attend in person (both addressed the gathering virtually during the pandemic) and this year France's President Emmanuel Macron and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are not showing up.

"While Sunak (U.K.) and Macron (France) have an excuse" —  King Charles III is visiting France this week — "I do think it is telling that they are absent," Richard Gowan, U.N. Director for the International Crisis Group, told CBS News. "That said, I think the General Assembly is a good opportunity for Biden and [U.S. Secretary of State Antony] Blinken to work on firming up U.S. ties with non-Western leaders while Xi and Putin are absent."

Many experts believe that competition between the U.S. and China for allies in what is often referred to as the "Global South" has undermined the U.N.'s ability to bring parties together for solutions to the world's most pressing collective problems. 

"I don't see next week as being a competition between big powers. Our goal is to support smaller countries — to let them know that we are as committed to them as we always have been," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters before the meetings.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who led a recent regional summit and traveled recently to China, is also not attending.

"Even without Xi and Modi at the U.N., there are quite a few non-Western leaders who will speak forcefully on behalf of the developing world," Gowan said, citing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is set to use his speech to make a big push for rebalancing the global system, and South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, who will likely also hit similar notes.

He also said that leaders from small states can also have an outsize impact at the General Assembly. An example is Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley — a likely candidate to be the next Secretary General — who has used her recent U.N. appearances to call for reforms to the IMF and World Bank.  

"People are looking to their leaders for a way out of this mess," Guterres said.  

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a statement during the opening of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit 2023, at U.N. headquarters in New York City, Sept. 18, 2023. MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS

War in Ukraine and Zelenskyy in the spotlight

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the continuing bombardment of civilians will be the primary focus at this year's event because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will take center stage amid the ongoing war. This follows Moscow's cancellation of a U.N.-backed grain export deal that has caused food crises in developing nations.

Zelenskyy will have several opportunities to get his plea for support across to the world on this trip, including at the U.N. and in Washington, where he will meet with President Biden on Thursday. 

Zelenskyy told CBS News' "60 Minutes" on Sunday of the horrors that civilians are facing in his country. 

"If Ukraine falls, what will happen in ten years? Just think about it. If [the Russians] reach Poland, what's next? A third World War?" ge said in the interview. "We're defending the values of the whole world. And these are Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price. We are truly fighting for our freedom, we are dying. … We are fighting for real with a nuclear state that threatens to destroy the world."

Volodymyr Zelenskyy: The 2023 60 Minutes Interview 13:25

Zelenskyy also insisted Ukraine would not consider giving up territory for a peace deal with Russia.

Nonetheless, U.N. expert Gowan says, "Zelenskyy needs to be careful," saying that "even those who are sympathetic to Ukraine want to see peace talks sooner rather than later."

Refugee crisis and other challenges

Another pressing issue before the U.N. at this time is the forced displacement of people around the globe, which reached a new record high of 110 million people this year, High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Sunday at U.N. Headquarters, causing a flood of refugees from Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

Food insecurity is also high on the agenda, with expectations that the daylong summit on Monday on global goals may lead to new pledges.

"The number of people globally who do not have enough to eat is at its highest in modern history," the U.N.'s World Food Program said. Its executive director, Cindy McCain, said that 700 million people "don't know when — or if — they will eat again."

Not many diplomats see breakthroughs coming at U.N. week.   

"We must say no to bloc confrontation, power politics or double standards. If the forthcoming General Assembly can set the right direction, rebuild people's confidence in the U.N., all other issues will be easier to be tackled," China's U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun told CBS News on Sunday.

Some experts think that focus at the U.N. is more difficult than ever.

"The U.N. is adrift, but that's not the U.N.'s fault. Guterres has an ambitious and thoughtful agenda for the organization, emphasizing issues like regulating artificial intelligence and combating climate change," Gowan said. "But the big powers that shape U.N. diplomacy are focused elsewhere, and it is hard to forge agreements on long-term global problems in an era of war and hot crises." 

Asked about the United States' view of how the U.N. could be made more effective, Ambassador  Thomas-Greenfield said:

"Our commitment is ironclad – to see that the U.N. and particularly the Security Council is fit for purpose for the next generation."
"The Security Council … does not represent the world that exists today," she said.  

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