Since the establishment of the United Nations 78 years ago, the General Assembly has brought the world’s most influential leaders together under one roof to solve the world’s most pressing issues. Every year, this summit serves as a reminder of just how much responsibility is borne by so few — whose decisions, even those seemingly unimportant, can change the fates of billions, writes Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
This year, that responsibility weighs even heavier than usual. Not only is our international order more polarized than it has been in decades, but it is fragmented at a time when we cannot afford division, given the reality that these are decisive years in our planet’s history.
Whether on climate change, on artificial intelligence,or in countless other areas, the decisions taken by global leaders over the next few months and years will resonate for decades, if not centuries. As such, every moment of international dialogue takes on a new dimension of importance.
My message, then, to my colleagues from around the world is that while we cannot disregard the immediate crises and concerns that consume so much of our time as leaders, we must never forget that we have a solemn responsibility to a future beyond our own political careers, beyond even our time on Earth.
The experience of recent years has shown us that we have been woefully underprepared for threats which we were clearly aware of, but unconcerned with. We were wrongly confident in the assumption that such threats were unlikely to be realized on our watch.
The pandemic is the most obvious example. It is difficult to argue that any single country was fully prepared for the havoc that a simple viral strain inflicted on every last one of us.
Climate change is another obvious example. Though this is a crisis that has unfolded over decades rather than days, our inherent short-sightedness has led to delay after delay. Only now, when significant damage has already been done, are we coming close to action that would turn the tide. Only time will tell whether we will succeed.
Perhaps the most terrifying of all these threats is that of nuclear annihilation — a threat that has become more apparent in recent months, as tensions between nuclear powers across the world have risen to levels unheard of since the darkest days of the Cold War.
As a country deeply affected by nuclear proliferation during those years, Kazakhstan has been at the forefront of global denuclearization efforts. Progress was made in this regard. Yet the fact that we continue to live only seconds away from existential collapse shows that, collectively, we failed to capitalize on the opportunity afforded by years of peacetime.
Despite their disproportionate importance, these longer-term issues rarely register on our agendas. Driven as we are by the relentless pace of modern politics, these are issues that we opt to confront when they emerge as imminent threats — at which point it is often too late.
Even climate, which has established itself as a defining feature of every international agenda and gathering, is all too often pushed down the priority list, supplanted by ephemeral crises demanding immediate resolution.
This is not to say we must allow anarchy to reign while we worry about the fate of our grandchildren’s generation. We do, of course, have a responsibility as leaders to the short-term — to do everything we can to improve daily life for our citizens. Our political careers will be short-lived if we forget that.
What it should mean, however, is that we need to contextualize the issues we face, and consciously reprioritize, so that we can dedicate a more proportionate amount of our attention and resources to the issues that will shape our future.
In addition to our efforts on denuclearization, Kazakhstan has been making efforts in several of these areas.
We have persistently called for the establishment of a UN biological security agency, which can help us prepare for the pandemics of the future. We have been outspoken on global water and food security. We continue to work with our international partners to lay the foundations for the economy of the future, by searching for the most effective way of harnessing our significant deposits of uranium, lithium, rare earth metals and other critical minerals.
These efforts can be meaningful and effective, however, only if they are truly internationalized. This will require vision, determination and foresight from leaders across the world. It is no small challenge, particularly in a world where globalization and the mass media have ratcheted up political pressure and polarization, near and far.
Yet, if we are to chart a sustainable and prosperous course through human history, we do not have a choice but to think with the bigger picture in our mind. We must focus our efforts on the choices that will define our century, not just the next few months. Anything less would fail to meet the responsibility we have to our own citizens, and to humanity as a whole.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has served as president of the Republic of Kazakhstan since 2019.
Share this article: