To the cynic, the UN General Assembly can seem like a high school cafeteria where a group of diplomats, foreign ministers and politicians spend lots of time in cliques plotting, posturing and whispering. Then there are the bullies and despots in the bunch who throw intimidating spitballs and absurdly get appointed positions to head a human rights commission. Inevitably the Hollywood luminary will show up to hang out with some policy nerds,which makes the star feel smarter and the wonk feel more fulfilled at pursuing their hard and often thankless work.
But to the idealist/pragmatist, this annual get-together in New York can be an opportunity for clashing cultures and personalities to see each other in the hallways instead of viewing each other in headlines and TV interviews. It can be an opportunity to hear other points of view away from TV cameras in private conversations over coffee and pastries. It can be an opportunity to cultivate contacts and ideas.
This 62nd UN General Assembly has also proven to be an opportunity for the new secretary- general Ban Ki-moon to shine. Following the oil-for-food scandal of his predecessor Kofi Annan, the notoriously disciplined Ban Ki-moon wanted to showcase a session that produces positive results and respect. He encouraged more smaller gatherings for discussions vs. big summit gabfests that often play to the public and the leaders' countries. As one observer called it, "Ban Ki-moon wants to demonstrate that the action is occurring under the UN umbrella."
His agenda was also chock full of humanitarian efforts to ease the world's pain, including discussions on Darfur, climate change, Iraq and Afghanistan. He wisely said that Iraq is now the world's problem and that conflicts are exacerbated by the distrust festering from "cultural misunderstandings and religious prejudices." Under his leadership this week, the gatherings didn't digress completely into political posturing.
"There is no other event that brings together as many leaders to one place," noted Gillian Sorenson, a senior advisor for the UN Foundation. It is also a time to be reminded that the U.S. only represents four percent of the world's population and our survival depends on having allies.
The UN also served another vital purpose this week. By having representatives from 192 countries, seminars took place around New York to take advantage of all the political power assembled here. And this week, a lot of action took place at these gatherings.
There was the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia. Yes, Columbia University President Lee "The Botcher" Bollinger was an ungracious host, which reflected poorly on us and made Ahmadinejad seem the underdog instead of the growling, menacing hate-mongering hardliner. A smarter move would have been to insist on the Q&A without the commentary and let Ahmadinejad hoist himself on his own petard -- which he did with his ridiculous comments of having no homosexuals in Iran. But the full impact of such hypocrisy got drowned out by Bollinger's bungling and its aftermath. Yet, this again is the beauty of the UN gathering. We see our weaknesses as well as theirs.
The Council on Foreign Relations was able to have discussions for their members with foreign ministers from China, France and Egypt as well as with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
There was the Clinton Global Initiative to discuss climate change and poverty which attracted a dazzling array of politicians, business leaders and high profile stars. Al Gore, elevated by his well-deserved achievements from his environmental work, took center stage with Bill Clinton. No longer in Clinton's shadow, Gore was a star in his own right and the audience could feel his ease and transformation. Brad Pitt proved to be an effective ambassador for good when he pledged $5 million as part of his Make It Right project to create 150 green homes in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Can we give this guy credit for using his megawatt profile to shine the spotlight on causes that the Bushies have ignored? And he does it with gracious manners and a genuine desire to be informed and helpful.
My favorite moment was reported by the talented Michael Roston, the political writer of the Huffington Post.
In his story, he wrote how at the CGI, Jens Stoltenberg, the Prime Minister of Norway, announced how his government would channel $1 billion to improving child and maternal health care. As Roston reported, "Prime Minister Stoltenberg emphasized in the talk that the question of keeping children and their mothers healthy was not a partisan political issue in his country. Pointing to a Norwegian opposition parliamentarian who was in attendance, he remarked, "If I lose the election, he will take over."
That single comment is one of the most important points of having the UN gathering every year. With all its flaws, there are still many unsung heroes who are instrumental in creating programs that improve the human condition for the global community.
Last but not least, these discussions all take place in New York City, where the every day cab driver, pedestrian, shopkeeper and waiter become the greatest of ambassadors in showing the possibility and sturdiness of cultural diversity.