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The U.N. General Assembly Meets As The U.S. Is At The Center Of Many Disputes


If you're a United States diplomat attending this week's meeting of the United Nations, one plausible question you could ask is, where to begin? The U.S. is at the center of multiple crises and disputes. The Taliban are tightening control of Afghanistan and, step by step, erasing women from public life. The pandemic remains deadly - and especially so in the United States. Not only that, France recalled its ambassador to the U.S., furious to be cut out of an arms deal, all of which assures a busy week for NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, who begins our coverage this morning.

Michele, good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start with that submarine deal with Australia that made France mad. On the surface, it just seems like it's about money, who gets to sell submarines. What makes it bigger than that?

KELEMEN: Well, the French say it's not just about this submarine deal that they lost when the Australians decided to buy nuclear-power subs instead from the U.S. This is about being left out of a partnership in the Indo-Pacific, which is a region that is important for France, too. And, Steve, it really raises a lot of questions about the way the U.S. conducts foreign policy. The Biden administration is very focused on countering China, but it also says that it wants to maintain and strengthen alliances. And in this case, it alienated America's oldest ally.

INSKEEP: Which, of course, is just one of the issues, as we mentioned. And how is the pandemic casting a shadow over all this?

KELEMEN: Well, diplomats were hoping for a more normal U.N. gathering, but the delta variant has dashed those hopes, as we're about to hear in this report. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is trying to set an example, saying her first job today is getting a COVID test.


LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I will get my COVID test at the COVID testing and vaccination van that will be set up outside the U.N. before I engage in meetings with U.N. - at U.N. headquarters.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. is determined to make sure this U.N. General Assembly week doesn't turn into an international superspreader event. And she says world leaders need to behave responsibly. President Biden, who has vowed a return to multilateralism, is limiting his time at the General Assembly for that reason.


THOMAS-GREENFIELD: He will give his speech, and he will go back to Washington and continue to have virtual events related to the United Nations.

KELEMEN: Last year, the entire event was online, and this year, a lot of leaders were hoping to get back to normal. Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group expects many will be disappointed.

RICHARD GOWAN: It is going to feel like a significantly trimmed-down General Assembly, and I think a lot of foreign ministers and others are going to be a bit irritated, frankly, that they come all the way to New York and then discover that a lot of their meetings are still online.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be there to try to manage a major diplomatic dispute with America's oldest ally, France. Another potential focus is Iran's nuclear program, though he's not planning to meet separately with Iran's new foreign minister, who's making his U.N. debut, nor will he have any run-ins with Afghanistan's new rulers. The Taliban aren't planning to attend, says Gowan, who points out that if they did go to New York, they'd have to sit through speeches about women's rights and human rights.

GOWAN: And the Taliban would suddenly find themselves sort of being attacked in New York - or at least criticized in New York. I think from their perspective, it's much preferable to sit in Kabul, sit in Doha, have the U.N. coming to them, begging for access to the country.

KELEMEN: U.N. officials have been meeting with the Taliban in Kabul to find ways to get aid to Afghanistan and stave off an economic collapse of the country. That will be one of the topics on the sidelines of the United Nations' General Assembly, along with other conflicts and crises from Yemen to Ethiopia.

ELIZABETH COUSENS: It's an all-hands-on-deck moment.

KELEMEN: That's Elizabeth Cousens of the U.N. Foundation, which advocates for more U.S. engagement in the world body. She says U.N. member states need to cooperate more to deal with humanitarian crises, climate change and the uneven distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Less than 2% have been vaccinated in some African countries.

COUSENS: I think that will permeate almost every conversation. The world has been seeing in a very visceral way over the last year and a half how much we are connected and how much we are interdependent in solving a challenge and a threat of this kind. But we've seen tremendous inequity in response.

KELEMEN: President Biden is gathering world leaders Wednesday to set an ambitious goal - a 70% vaccination rate worldwide by this time next year. President Biden's summit will be virtual.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.