The heads of two top American rivals — China and Russia — aren’t expected to attend. The leaders of two major American allies — the United Kingdom and France — also aren’t bothering to show. All have different or unknown reasons for not trekking to New York.
For many less-wealthy countries, the U.N. forum is a rare opportunity to plead their case before the world’s big powers. Many of these countries don’t get invited to gatherings like the G20 or the G7.
“Just like the G20, China’s absence provides something of an opening for the United States to say, ‘Hey, actually, we’re here and we care about developing countries,’” says Stewart Patrick, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The most recent G20 was just last weekend, and Biden appeared to take advantage of the absences of the Chinese and Russian leaders there to engage with countries such as Brazil, South Africa and India — reminding them of America’s interest, resources and power.
White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the U.S. believes the annual U.N. gathering remains “extremely relevant.”
“The president understands the importance of showing up to talk with his counterparts about critical issues,” Watson said.
Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping often skips the gathering in New York and isn’t expected this year. But there has also been some intrigue raised over his decision not to send his foreign minister, Wang Yi, to the event. The Chinese foreign ministry confirmed Friday that Xi is dispatching a vice president, Han Zheng, instead.
Wang is a veteran of high-level engagement with U.S. officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has invited Wang to visit the U.S., and there were expectations he’d see Blinken on UNGA’s sidelines. It could have been a key step in ongoing U.S. efforts to organize a meeting between Biden and Xi later this year.
China’s vice presidential role is mostly ceremonial. That means Han will play more of a placeholder role at the U.N. gathering rather than pursuing active diplomatic engagement.
Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin also frequently skips the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting. Because the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for his arrest related to the war on Ukraine, travel is dicier than usual for the strongman. (That said, due to complicated legal reasons, including diplomatic privileges, Putin would be unlikely to be arrested in New York — that’s if the U.S. would even issue him a visa in the first place.)
French President Emmanuel Macron has scheduling conflicts, according to several French officials familiar with the issue. He’ll be hosting Britain’s King Charles III for a trip that’s already been rescheduled once before, followed by a visit from Pope Francis.
“Macron has just been at the G20 summit. He will have done a lot of foreign policy, so there’s a question of balance and time,” said a French minister, who, like others mentioned in this story, was granted anonymity to candidly discuss a sensitive topic.
“The other point of UNGA is to make a big speech, [but] there hasn’t been an overhaul of French foreign policy so there’s no need to do one every year,” he added.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s absence is more surprising given that it would be his first General Assembly since taking his post last October. That said, Sunak and his Conservative Party have taken a beating in the polls recently, suggesting election troubles ahead.
A British embassy official familiar with the issue said Sunak cares deeply about international diplomacy, but that, in looking at a jam-packed calendar, it was decided domestic priorities had to take precedence. Sunak’s office has noted that he’s attending multiple other gatherings of world leaders in just the space of a few months.
“This fall’s schedule of summits is especially intense, set against busy domestic agendas,” the official said, stressing that other top U.K. officials will be in New York: “Our deputy prime minister and foreign minister will be engaged throughout the week.”
Summit travel can be tiring as well as logistically challenging for any world leader, especially when gatherings are stacked close to one another. Biden skipped a pair of summits in Asia earlier this month, sending Vice President Kamala Harris instead. He also has an advantage when it comes to the United Nations: it’s in his usual time zone.
Still, the absences of four leaders of the so-called Permanent Five, or P5, could fuel the sense among many diplomats that the United Nations is a less action-oriented — and thus less consequential — multilateral venue than, say, the recent G20 meeting, where high-level deals were announced.
The situation indicates “that not only is the U.N. not the only game in town, it may not even be the preferred game,” Patrick said.
The fact that the world powers wield vetoes on the U.N. Security Council often means that the body is paralyzed on big issues, such as the war in Ukraine, that have put those countries at odds.
The annual General Assembly gathering often feels performative at best. Its highlight is the speeches given by world leaders. Foreign ministers and other officials who fill in for absent leaders are usually relegated to speak at the end of the week-long program.
But these countries still value the U.N. as a major global platform.
“Failure to engage at the U.N. General Assembly is often seen by a lot of countries as a lack of commitment to the U.N., and that doesn’t sit well,” said Peter Yeo, a senior official with the U.N. Foundation.
This year, developing nations are eager for the SDG Summit, being held alongside the normal General Assembly events. It’s focused on the Sustainable Development Goals — a U.N. initiative whose ambitions include reducing inequality and promoting quality education.
The SDG Summit is being held amid a growing sense among many countries in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia — often called the Global South — that Western nations are not as committed to international development as they could be, analysts say.
Feelings are particularly raw in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which wealthy countries were slow to share vaccines with poorer nations. There’s also anger over the disruptions to food supplies caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The White House is not confirming details of Biden’s schedule, but it’s possible he will deliver a speech at the SDG Summit. If so, he’ll be seizing another stage other top leaders are ignoring.
Sarah Paillou, Clea Caulcutt and Phelim Kine contributed to this report.