Driving around midtown New York is suddenly easier now that presidents and heads of state concluded their debate upon the opening of the United Nations General Assembly session. Summary: the annual “speechathon” droned on oblivious to time zones and a world weary of clichéd pageantry.
I will not add to the easy disparagement of the United Nations. One finds plenty in editorials at this time of year. They peg the U.N. as missing in action on issues from rising authoritarianism abroad, to Russian aggressions in Ukraine, to a very slow-go on meeting its sustainable development goals.
The absence of four heads of state - Chinese, French, Russian and British — was enough for even the wonkiest editorialists to discount dismissively the U.N.’s day-to-day yeoman accomplishments rarely translated to the reading public. Those VIPs missed the first hors d’oeuvre of autumn.
Why not throw in my two cents? Because it is an easy exercise to disparage the United Nations given our outsized need for real-time results in very complicated matters.
And it misses a bigger point.
Recall that rarely did a head of state personally appear at the U.N. podium until 50 years into it. Now in the organization’s 78th year over 125 such excellencies routinely attend the opening of the assembly session.
And with purpose and flourish they conduct the world’s business, not only in Turtle Bay’s diplomatic aquariums, rather increasingly in private salons and halls, both sparkling and flat, all over the city.
This autumnal grind of yeomen and parade of chieftains have become staples to international discourse. At base, such busyness keeps the United Nations’ mainframe up and running as a standing, readiness resource when and if crisis-driven cooperation and agreement approach a harmonic convergence, fleeting as such might be.
And only recently hundreds of public side-events, from Clinton Foundation confabs to citizen-warrior/church-lady mixers, have clamored to be within the U.N.’s September forcefield. A new acronym suggests itself: UNFOMO — (Fear of Missing Out)
All this gives testimony to the U.N.'s unique advantage bar none. No, not its power to agree, rather its power to convene. In setting a table, bringing all to that table, and keeping them at the table the United Nations Organization delivers.
This puts into the right perspective those inking reflexively that the U.N, particularly its Security Council, is stuck and failed.
In fact (and this could get me cancelled) the layabout Security Council nonetheless manages to perform the most critical function of all — keeping adversaries at that table. This has been its enduring legacy in the wake of a League of Nations ill-designed to such a task.
How does the U.N.’s Security Council do that? Unless present, a consequentially powerful state is not available to veto a proposal threatening its values, interests, or policies.
So, essentially, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
More to the moment: Where else would Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov be compelled to have to appear in the presence of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, witnessed by third parties and cameras? Note: September’s was the first Russia-Ukraine diplomatic encounter since the invasion lo these 20 months. Such is the force of nature which is the United Nations.
So, instead of disparaging remarks about an "irrelevant" United Nations which is a storyline that writes itself out of frustration, let's appreciate the United Nations for its power to convene adversaries to some useful effect within peaceful rather than violent circumstances.
And it is worth stating that convening adversaries is part and parcel of a bigger purpose — convening friends.
This year delegates from all 193 states will advocate for “We the Peoples.” Their General Assembly agenda is preternaturally ambitious as always: to agree on norms of behavior for a better world neighborhood.
They task their secretary-general and thousands of “Secretary-troops” to this agenda and its considerations — relying upon diplomatic formats nurtured to make friends of adversaries.
President of the General Assembly Dennis Francis, a seasoned statesman from Trinidad and Tobago, kicked off the protocol-heavy event by welcoming several former Assembly presidents in the house — friends all. To wit, the U.N.’s convening power continues: these senior figures will support “We the peoples” through their newly revived Council of Presidents of the United Nations General Assembly.
So, may the wisdom of the ages convene with that of the present to make friends with adversaries — at the United Nations and beyond.
Hugh Dugan served as Acting Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Senior Director for International Organization Affairs in the National Security Council after having advised 11 U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations since 1989. Read Hugh Dugan's Reports — More Here.
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