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Schmooze diplomacy at the U.N.

Although leaders' speeches are the most visible part of the General Assembly's debate, they obscure the real business.

October 01, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — So many world leaders have converged on the United Nations over the last week that at one point billionaire Bill Gates was left cooling his heels on East 46th Street in a "pedestrian freeze" while a presidential motorcade whizzed the wrong way down 1st Avenue.

The founder of Microsoft was on his way to a U.N. summit to donate $167.8 million to eradicate malaria. Which makes you wonder: Which president was that anyway?

It's hard enough to get your arms around what goes on across the globe in a single day. But that might be easier than coping with the Manhattan traffic jams and restaurant reservations when nearly all of the world's leaders turn up in a single building over a single week.

Petty despots and benevolent dictators, venerable prime ministers and newly minted presidents all have been floating through the curved corridors of the U.N. complex and riding the elevators at least once to the top of the 38-story tower on the East River for a brief meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Coiffed and crisp, the 75 heads of state and 36 leaders of government who came are trailed by security guards. Reporters managed to corner Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe in a hallway, where the BBC's U.N. correspondent asked whether he would be back next year.

"What, are you a witch?" the 84-year-old president asked.

"Of course I'll be back, why not?" he added with a chuckle, before turning to questions about a power-sharing deal with his longtime rival, Morgan Tsvangirai.

No matter the size of the entourage, no matter the ability to bring peace or wreak havoc, the leaders are equalized by decorum as they take to the podium for the General Assembly's annual debate.

Taro Aso had been prime minister of Japan for less than 24 hours Saturday when it was his turn. When the equipment used to provide simultaneous translations malfunctioned, Aso showed no signs of stage fright. "It's not a Japanese machine?" he quipped in English.

U.N. technicians laid about 1,300 miles of television cables around the complex to ensure that the talk-fest could be broadcast to every country. And so a sheik declares his government's agenda to improve the lot of women and the president of a small island complains that his country isn't profiting enough from the sale of tuna taken from its waters.

Although the speeches are the most visible part of the annual gathering, they obscure the real business -- a mountain of diplomacy at meetings, cocktail parties, seminars and dinners.

One morning, a low-level minister from Africa, who asked not to be named because it might appear unseemly to talk to a foreign reporter, was arguing with other African delegates about how to schedule a meeting on aid to rural women. By dinner, she was listening to glamorous first ladies from France and Jordan and the wife of press baron Rupert Murdoch hold forth on maternal mortality.

"I go back to my country with new ideas and new business cards," the minister said, "and very sore feet."

The Bush administration failed to gain agreement on its priority: new sanctions to press Iran to stop its nuclear program.

But agreements have emerged from other leaders talking quietly.

Asif Ali Zardari, who had been sworn in as president of Pakistan 15 days before flying to New York, spent 30 minutes in a Midtown hotel suite with Manmohan Singh, prime minister of his country's traditional rival, India. Then they called their foreign ministers in to write up a two-page statement listing agreements on fighting terrorism and opening roads and rail routes for trade. (Their meeting also produced a photo of them in a bear hug, smiling.)

Delegates from smaller countries that didn't want to pay for expensive hotel suites booked cubicles adjacent to the domed General Assembly chamber to sort out their problems.

For Pacific island states threatened by rising ocean levels, the General Assembly is the most audible platform for a 911 call to the world.

Offstage, Tuvalu and nine other Pacific island nations with a total population smaller than that of New York City are lobbying to put climate change on the Security Council agenda.

"It doesn't involve a foreign army crossing a border with guns and tanks, but ultimately these are the weakest countries in the world asking the largest countries for help," said Stuart Beck, who serves as Palau's ambassador to the U.N. "Otherwise, you're going to see islands, actually countries, disappear from the globe."

David Thompson, the prime minister of Barbados, got on a panel about climate change with renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs and R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year with Al Gore. As low-level ministers drifted in and out of U.N. Conference Room 3, Thompson described how his nation's beaches were eroding.

"It's a lot of talk here, yes," said Christopher Fitzherbert Hackett, Barbados' U.N. ambassador, "but sometimes the talk leads to action, and we have to maintain pressure by being part of the process. . . .

"This for us," Hackett added, "is like terrorism in other parts of the world."


Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux contributed to this report.

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