10/02/2012 05:57 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Obama in the U.N. Den

The sun had long set Monday night when the last speakers in the opening debate of the U.N. General Assembly, from Venezuela and Dominica, wearily trudged to the podium to contribute their countries' perspectives on the priorities for global action at the United Nations this fall.

The assembly hall was deserted, as indeed it was for most of the world leaders -- including over a hundred presidents, prime ministers, and royal potentates -- who journeyed from afar for this remarkable annual peregrination that New Yorkers mostly experience as traffic gridlock. While the United Nations dutifully records and uploads every word, only a few speakers can command a packed house.

Barack Obama is one of the few. By tradition, the president of the United States speaks on the first morning of the debate, just after the secretary-general's opening address and the president of Brazil, and the hall stays full through the American presentation.

There was a telling symbolism in the back-to-back opening speeches. Dilma Roussef is the first woman to be president of the largest country in Latin America (and was a torture victim of Brazil's nightmarish military dictatorship), and Obama is, of course, the first black person to be president of the largest country in the developed world. Yet in many ways two opening presidents' divergent emphases foreshadowed the five days of debate that followed.

The deadly September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and a wave of furious embassy protests forced a recasting of Obama's speech. It now had to deal with the repercussions, from Tunisia to Pakistan and onward to Mitt Romney's campaign headquarters in Boston -- of the "crude and disgusting video" a Coptic émigré in the United States had posted on the Internet.

Fully 85 percent of Obama's speech was devoted to political crises across the Muslim world, from ambassador Chris Stevens' death to the Arab uprisings to Syria to Israel-Palestine and Iran, with even a passing sentence about Afghanistan.

The lopsided proportion was telling evidence, despite all the talk elsewhere about Asian pivots, of America's preoccupation with the region and of the region's continuing potency in American politics. Obama raced through other items that loom large on the global agenda in just 151 words: nuclear arms reductions, world economic recovery and development, combating corruption, human rights, women and girls, and human trafficking: check, check, check.

One box Obama didn't check was climate change, an omission that raised eyebrows in other delegations. He didn't mention gay rights, his emphatic endorsement of which in last year's speech raised eyebrows then.

Climate change and the larger issues of the global environment charted in the U.N. "Rio+20" agenda figured prominently in Roussef's presentation before Obama. This made all the more conspicuous his silence on an issue that has figured prominently in his three previous Assembly addresses -- and that he took pains to cite in his Democratic convention speech three weeks before.

Climate issues would draw attention from nearly all the leaders who followed him, from President François Hollande of France, who ranked it among the world's three biggest threats, to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who pressed for commitment to low-carbon societies. Even India's Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna took pains to call for action on a "comprehensive, equitable, and balanced" climate pact, albeit recognizing "differential responsibilities."

Another hardy perennial of the annual debates is United Nations reform -- usually focused on Security Council revision -- on which the long-time battle lines have not shifted. On this Obama was agreeably silent. Not so Canada's foreign minister, John Baird, who derided such "endless, fruitless inward-looking exercises" and insisted the real priority should be "the achievement of goals -- such as prosperity, security and human dignity."

The Canadian went further than other speakers in specifying one crisis as the essential metric for U.N. performance, echoing American critics of the United Nations: "The crisis in Syria is a test of this organization's ability to achieve results" which "the United Nations continues to fail." Indeed, Syria figured in virtually every country's presentation -- a bleeding wound that drew a variety of prescriptions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed Western countries that "insist on a ceasefire only by the government and encourage the opposition to intensify hostilities... The number of war crimes is growing -- both on the side of government forces and the opposition." For Brazil, "The government in Damascus bears the largest share of responsibility," but blame also extends to "armed opposition groups, especially those that increasingly rely on foreign military and logistical support." For Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, however, "you cannot blame the people for the behavior of a brutal dictator... The only way out of Syria's nightmare is to move forward to a political transition and... a future without Assad."

Palestine likewise drew concern from virtually every speaker, and it is apparent that president Mahmoud Abbas's announced plan to seek recognition as a non-member state will pass the Assembly later this fall overwhelmingly. No one but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared opposition to this upgrade. Netanyahu himself offered only the most perfunctory remarks about peace with the Palestinians, since his focus was the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. His cartoon of an imagined terrorist bomb was perhaps the most memorable podium prop of this year's debate.

There were also calls for giving teeth to the rhetorical goal of the "rule of law." Ireland called for referring Syria's atrocity crimes to the International Criminal Court. Italy's prime minister Mario Monti announced that Italy would now submit to the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (which the United States had accepted during Harry Truman's presidency, and abandoned in Ronald Reagan's).

But the issue of law came full circle when Obama spoke of the infamous anti-Muslim video. "I know there are some who ask why we don't just ban such a video. And the answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech." Pakistani president Arif Zardari began his speech later that same day by demanding that the world community "criminalize such acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression."

Most leaders offered nuanced views between these two poles. Russia's Lavrov recalled that the international human rights covenant "prohibits the propaganda for war and incitement of national and religious discord." Italy's Monti called for "firmly rejecting the misrepresentation of religion or beliefs as an instrument of disruption and destabilization." The U.S. confidence that simply replying to hate with other speech was not widely echoed.

All these, of course, are words. The diplomats left behind in New York after the leaders have gone home have to find ways to harmonize these varying agendas. Their occasional success is what makes politics globally so interesting.