U.N. Meeting Melds Diplomacy and Theater

BY Ray Suarez  September 22, 2011 at 5:44 PM EDT

On Wednesday morning, President Obama took the stage at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to present the world body with an American’s view of the State of the World. How’s the world doing? Not bad, it turns out, but with plenty of room for improvement.

The American president talked to the world’s representatives about how much change had occurred since the last General Assembly meeting — no more Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Gadhafi in Libya, or Osama bin Laden anywhere. Decades of war had come to an end in Sudan, creating the latest U.N. member, South Sudan.

The president’s audience wasn’t giving him much encouragement. After an enthusiastic welcome for the first woman to open the General Assembly, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, President Obama got little more than polite applause. His audience, after all, knew what was coming.

After a long litany of accomplishments for the international community, unambiguous praise for the world body, and his insistence on the centrality of the United Nations, Mr. Obama turned a corner. That great U.N. he was just telling you about isn’t the place to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If it was as easy as getting a U.N. declaration, the president said, it would have been done a long time ago.

The president stressed the legitimacy of Palestinian desires for a state, and reminded his audience that a two-state solution has long been part of U.S. policy. Moments later he stressed that the American commitment to Israeli security was “unshakeable,” and that the Jewish people had long suffered to force a state of their own on to a map of the Middle East. “Friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring these truths,” Mr. Obama said.

The General Assembly was very quiet. The president finished his speech, more polite applause, and he was gone. A few minutes later Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani of Qatar was getting a hand after exhorting the General Assembly to listen to the hopes of the Palestinian people for a state of their own.

That same afternoon French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to steer a middle course between statehood and a certain American veto in the Security Council. Sure, vote the Palestinians in, said Sarkozy, but avoid a Security Council fight over full statehood by voting on lower level non-member status in the General Assembly.

At any given time there are 15 members of the Security Council. The five permanent members are for the most part a legacy of the end of the Second World War: Russia, France, Britain, the United States and giant China. The other 10 seats rotate between the members of the General Assembly.

Of the current 15, nine members have already recognized Palestinian statehood. Members of the very influential Brazilian and Indian delegations told me they want to see the text of the Palestinian proposal before they decide how they would vote on a request for recognition.

Later, King Abdullah of Jordan, the head of state whose country once included most of the territory to be included in a future Palestinian state, urged both statehood and a quick resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The king assured Israel recognition from states across the Arab and Muslim world would follow a settlement between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.

I ran over to a press briefing by Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath. Like so many at the General Assembly this week, he was splitting the difference. Were the Palestinians going to reject the Sarkozy proposal? Not at all! In fact, it was something they wanted to explore further — if the first choice, full recognition, is bottled up in the Security Council. Shaath fully recognized the United States was not going to change its mind, and insisted the Palestinians were going to move ahead just as resolutely.

It’s hard to know how much difference worldwide recognition of Palestinian statehood would mean on the ground to people in Jenin, Hebron, and Ramallah. A lot of ink was to be spilled over a statehood bid many already knew might amount to nothing. But as Winston Churchill said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

Apart from all the real life business being conducted, there is still a slightly goofy tempo to the annual goings-on In New York. It took a minute to remember there were ever this many limousines in the world, sufficient to traffic the delegations of even the smallest and most penurious countries from place to place. Every single General Assembly member seems to need not only a limo, but an accompanying black luxury car for the overflow crowd, and an enormous tricked-out Suburban with blacked out windows to comfortably sit in gridlocked traffic.

Though military regimes are decidedly out of fashion in most of the world, serious men in dress uniforms dripping with medals and festooned in braid purposefully walk from here to there, and there to here across the United Nations compound. You might linger on a colorfully decorated uniform to wonder what wars this or that country’s been involved in to deserve all that braid, only to be distracted by a gaggle of gorgeous women in traditional garb, a leader in tribal dress surrounded by a delegation in gray business suits, and running reporters — all jangling credentials and trailing wires.

The air is thick with the babble of Babel, an earnest interview in Russian just to your left, colleagues sharing an apparently hilarious joke in Portuguese, a minister smoothing his jacket and checking the knot on his tie before an open-air news conference in Arabic.

The life of the city and the life of the General Assembly used to meld more comfortably and unremarkably in the days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. I worked my way through high school and college in the lobbies of East Side hotels, and enjoyed the swelling crowds and ringing registers the United Nations would bring to the shops. There were cops and Secret Service agents back then, sure, and beefy men with radios tailing political celebrities from every part of the globe.

What’s changed is the weight of the police presence, the sealing off of streets, the magnetometers and screeners at hotel doors, the barricades lining sidewalks a long, long way from the main entrance of the U.N. compound. Delegates and U.N. visitors used to flow out into the city and experience it as individuals. Now moving around has become difficult, and the long list of parties makes it easier to remain in midtown.

Through it all, New York still manages to be New York with all the wonderful and infuriating things that implies. Before the world had to brace itself so unrelentingly for something awful to happen, more of the city experienced the world’s arrival, and the world got a better look at the United Nations’ home town.