The 2022 United Nations General Debate: Using Text-as-Data Approaches to Unravel the Political Narratives of Leaders Panorama of the UN General Assembly by Fernand Léger is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The 2022 United Nations General Debate: Using Text-as-Data Approaches to Unravel the Political Narratives of Leaders

This blog aims to explore the untapped research potential of UN General Debate speeches to better understand the political preferences and stances of states on current global issues.

On the 24th of February 2022, Russia declared war on Ukraine. At dawn, Russian forces invaded the country from the land, air, and sea, and when the world woke up, the biggest conflict in Europe since WWII had begun. The invasion has strained the relationship between Russia and the West and has led to the re-assessment of the international communities’ relation with Ukraine. Indeed, the Russian aggression does not merely represent an inter-state conflict; it is often seen, both by world leaders and scholars, to form an existential challenge to the international security order.

In light of these developments, how could we explore the evolution of themes in foreign policy narratives?

Every year since the inception of the United Nations, the sessions of the General Assembly (GA) provide the countries the opportunity to discuss their governments’ perspectives on international politics. Of special importance are the opening sessions of the GA—called General Debate (GD)—which take place in September of each year. The GD offers the heads of states (and other senior officials) a special platform to address the world community and to show their support for or disapproval of the actions of others.

The speeches at the GD are currently a largely untapped source for research, yet they can provide an invaluable window into the political preferences and positions of states. As part of a class-project during the Diplomat 2.0 course of the Advanced Master of Science in International Relations and Diplomacy at Leiden University, we gathered and analyzed the GD speeches delivered in September 2022. In this blog post we provide a brief descriptive analysis of what the world leaders talked about in 2022 and how the topical mix of their speeches shifted as compared to the previous years.

The Data and Analyses

We employ a series of text-as-data techniques, ranging from simple word-cloud graphical illustrations to more sophisticated topic modelling techniques, to shed light on what the leaders talked about in 2022 and earlier years.

As expected, the world-cloud displayed in Figure 1 shows a clear shift towards the themes related to “war” and the “Russian” “aggression” in 2022. This shift in attention may represent what Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the European Commission, has called a geo-political awakening. However, the fact that terms such as “Covid-19” and “pandemic” were much more pronounced in 2020 may indicate that while the war topic was important in 2022 it was not mentioned as extensively as the coronavirus topic two years earlier. The keyness analysis, which detects differences in terms occurrence, provides the same pattern. It reveals that terms such as “Ukraine”, “Russia” and “war” are more distinctive for year 2022, along with terms such as “food” and “energy”, which indicate a potential war-induced crisis in these two sectors. One should further notice the absence of “sustainability”, “climate”, “development” and “poverty” among the top words both in 2020 and in 2022. It seems therefore that these terms and topics get tractions mostly in “non-crisis” years.

Word Cloud Word Cloud
Figure 1. Top terms broken down by years of analysis

Focusing on year 2022, and with the aid of the structural topic model, we further estimated that, on average, the leaders devoted 10% of their speeches to the “Ukraine-Russia” topic. Estonia, Lithuania, Belgium, Austria, and Poland were the countries with the greatest share of this topic. Some of the lowest references to this topic we observed, in turn, in speeches delivered by several leaders from Africa and Asia, who focused on issues related to terrorism, peace and development.

By the same token, we can also ask what countries rank top in terms of prevalence of the “climate change” topic—the topic which often tends to be crowded out by other crisis and idiosyncratic events. Not surprisingly, however, small island states such as Tonga, Palau, Nauru, Micronesia, and Grenada turned out to refer the most to the climate change topic broadly conceived.

Admittedly, this analysis has only scratched the surface of what could be done with these data. The overarching aim of this blog post is, to show how, with relatively limited resources, one can get a quick and informative synthesis of the UNGD speeches. Namely, to get an overview of what topics were dominant in a given year, how the topical attention changed over time and what topics were prevalent in selected countries. Want to learn these and even more advanced skills? Please join one of the programs at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University.