What I learned listening to 100+ World Leaders’ speeches at the United Nations General Assembly

Simon Pastor
10 min readJan 12, 2020

This article reflects solely my views and in no way that of the United Nations, my supervisors or my colleagues.

Boris Johnson speaking at the 2019 United Nations General Assembly

The United Nations General Assembly high-level week is a very unique moment in world politics. For a few days, heads of state and/or government, ministers and ambassadors unite in New York to engage in bilateral meetings, side-events, hallway confrontations, and address the General Assembly. Some of these addresses have become infamous, among them are Qaddafi’s 90-minute address in which he tore the United Nations Charter or Khrushchev’s ‘shoe-banging incident’.

While some of the 196 speeches have become prominent episodes in world affairs, awaited and analysed by international experts, most of them have limited reach outside of national media. A New York Times article quotes author Stephen Schlesinger stating “I don’t think anybody has ever done a real study of General Assembly speeches because nobody listens to them”.

Well, I had to listen to more than a hundred of them. Here’s what I learned:

A world of Patriots and Globalists

Guess what, the world is neither homogeneous nor peaceful.

So if you unite all world leaders on the same stage for a week, you’ll likely get confrontation and contrasting visions. For most of the United Nation’s history, the main dichotomy was a direct result of the Cold War. Today, while the world arguably remains divided among similar lines, the situation has undergone several changes. Many new countries surfaced as a consequence of decolonization and the dismantlement of the USSR. The European Union and China have emerged as new powerful actors, while under President Trump, the United States have modified their position on the world stage. Climate change and gender equality now appear as paramount issues.

Among the different contrasts observed in the 2019 UNGA speeches, the strongest one appeared to be that of patriots and globalists. As the 2nd speaker of the session, President Trump introduced the contrast by stating: « The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. » Like the previous year, Macron’s speech clearly…

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Simon Pastor

🇪🇺🇫🇷🇺🇸 @YaleMPP • Previousy @LSEGovernment, Institut Montaigne, CitizenLab, UN 🇺🇳