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‘Sunak’s Failure to Attend the UN General Assembly is a Disrespectful Missed Opportunity’

Britain cannot assume other countries will automatically bend the knee to it based on the country’s past historic greatness, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the G20 Summit in India in September 2023. Photo: Dan Kitwood/PA/Alamy

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Rishi’s Sunak’s decision not to attend UN General Assembly is a sign of disrespect and a missed opportunity. 

Imagine you are the chief executive of a growing young business, eager to clinch deals with bigger, more established, companies in the same field. For months you try to cultivate connections with the leaders of the oldest, and most successful, companies – but it has been a challenge to fix meetings with them, as they are all busy people.  

The best opportunity seems to arise when you are invited to the annual retreat in New York of the chief executives of every company in your field. Your staff works assiduously to ensure that you are present at all the big set-piece events; to get you high up on the list of registered speakers; and to set up bilateral meetings with your most important prospective partners – from the US, the UK, France, Russia, and China. 

When you arrive in New York, you discover that there is no bilateral with the Russian, as he has been uninvited from the summit, for unethical practices. You are not that disappointed, because you are aware that he has a record as an unreliable partner and that his business model is struggling. You do not want your brand to be tarnished by association. You were only ever making a pro-forma effort at engagement anyway, to avoid offending one of the Big Five.   

The head of the Chinese company has also decided to stay away, because he rarely attends such large gatherings or travels overseas. However, you have already met him once before, when you were invited to Beijing as part of an official delegation from your region. His company has also sent several working level delegations to your headquarters to explore opportunities for collaboration. They have already proposed a draft partnership with you on very attractive terms. However, you want to hold off signing it, to see if you can get a better deal elsewhere. Privately, you are worried that if you let the Chinese into your business, they may end up taking it over altogether, as you have seen happen to rival companies.   

The chief executives you are most keen to see are the ones from France, the US, and the UK. So you are delighted to learn that both the French and the American chief executives have set aside time in their schedules in New York to meet you.  

Both meetings go well, though in different ways.  

The meeting with the American is a bit rushed. The deal he offers is on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and includes difficult conditions on labour and environmental standards. You feel a bit bruised by the encounter. However, you decide to put your pride to one side. You know that the Americans are the biggest, most powerful, players in the market and that a partnership with them, even on less favourable terms than the Chinese, will give you the best long-term development prospects and security. You instruct your team to keep talking with their team.  

The French are not able to match the terms offered by either the Chinese or the Americans. However, the chief executive is charming, and effusive in his meeting with you. He displays knowledge of your country and culture. He asks lots of questions and listens to your opinions and concerns. He invites you, your wife, and your board members to visit him in Paris, and promises to visit your headquarters in return. He compliments your staff. You and your team come out of the meeting feeling appreciated and respected.  

The Frenchman also points out that a business partnership with his company will open up access to the entire European Union market, the largest trading bloc in the world. You are impressed. You instruct your staff to keep talking with them as well.    

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You hope to have your last meeting with the British. Though they are no longer in the EU, and therefore cannot offer access to a market as big as either that of the Chinese, French or Americans, they have unparalleled expertise in your field, through their top-class universities. As a member of the Commonwealth, your country has historical connections with the UK. English is a common language. You and many of your top team studied in the UK and feel an affinity towards it. If the terms are right, this is the company you most want to strike a deal with. You are confident your warm feelings will be reciprocated.  

However, your staff regretfully inform you that the British leader is not attending the summit. 

They have invited you to meet his deputy instead. You feel surprised and affronted. Your company may not be the same in size or importance as that of the UK, but you had serious business to discuss and had expected to be treated as an equal.  

You are even more offended to learn, a few days later, that one reason the head of the UK company may have decided not to turn up to the summit is because his company has failed to adhere to the minimum climate change standards all had pledged to sign up to just a few years before. This is particularly galling, since the British had set themselves up as the world leaders on this matter and had often lobbied other smaller companies, including your own, to do better. You wonder why smaller companies like yours should be expected to exert themselves on climate change, when an important member of the Big Five cannot be bothered to do so.  

Your staff also mentions to you that the British side has passed them a document, explaining that in the event of a business partnership, it will not include a right for your staff to travel and work in the British company’s headquarters, due to the UK’s introduction of tighter immigration controls. Instead, all your staff, including senior executives, will have to apply for a visa on a case-by-case basis, involving time consuming and expensive paperwork, with no guarantee of success. 

To compensate for any hard feelings this might cause, they wonder if we might like to host a royal visit – perhaps from the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh? 

You instruct your staff to decline the meeting with the British deputy, and cross them off your list of potential partnerships. 

This is the effect Britain’s current approach to other countries is having in diplomatic terms, encapsulated by Sunak’s decision to skip the UN General Assembly.   

For the leader of a mid-sized power like the UK, the UNGA might seem like a tedious waste of time – hours spent listening to other leaders drone on in endless negotiating sessions, lunches and dinners, while you have important business to attend to at home. Your deputy can surely cover adequately for you.  

But the UN General Assembly is about far more than the big set piece events. Its most important business takes place in the margins, in bilateral meetings and private discussions with leaders from other countries, including from those you are unlikely to be able to find the time to visit in person. It’s a huge opportunity to build partnerships and forge goodwill.  

It’s all the more important for a country like the UK to be represented at the highest level at the UN’s biggest event of the year, since it is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. The UK helped to establish the UN and drafted many of its core guiding documents. The UK claims to attach important to an international rules-based system, which is already under unprecedented strain. Why should other countries take it seriously, if the leader of the UK can’t be bothered to turn up? 

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The Americans can get away with a few rough edges, due to their sheer size and power. No one seriously expects the Russians and Chinese to pay more than lip service to the UN. The French take their position on the Security Council seriously and assiduously cultivate smaller powers. British diplomats try to do the same, but need the full backing of their leaders, to be truly effective.  

Since Brexit, we have a little less to offer third countries than before. We can no longer advocate for their interests within the EU. We are in need of new trading partners and relationships. We have reduced our aid budget. We need other countries’ cooperation on matters such as migration, climate change, or to secure sources of energy or critical minerals. We want other countries to back us on our priorities, such as supporting Ukraine in its fight for survival against Russia.  

We can’t just assume other countries will automatically bend the knee to us, based on our past historic greatness. If we want to continue to be a great power, we have to behave like one. That means treating other nations with courtesy and respect; being willing to engage with the leaders of other countries on an equal basis; taking the time to meet them and hear their concerns; and investing the effort to cultivate trust and relationships. These things can’t all just be relegated to deputies.  

I have never forgotten an experience early in my diplomatic career, when a senior Thai diplomat told me his country had become fed up at being received at a junior level by other countries. From now on, his ministry had instructed embassies that, if other countries failed to receive their prime minister or foreign minister at the same level, they would not be received at the same level in Bangkok.   

The point is: other countries have their pride too.   

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

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