There are two opposing theses about the U.N. General Assembly: It’s a place that shows the true power of words, where leaders inspire action with rousing speeches on the urgent issues of our times; or it’s a talking shop, where leaders perform for domestic audiences with political rhetoric on the cause of the day.
These dueling viewpoints were tested when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much in-person diplomacy for several years. After three years of virtual, then hybrid General Debates, the scores of top leaders who attended the annual U.N. summit this week exhibited the return of in-person diplomacy, and provided ammunition to those who advocate for its importance.
It wasn’t just drama, like whether Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy would be addressing the Security Council in the presence of Russia’s top diplomat (the two ultimately did not cross paths).
Many of the formal speeches delivered before the green stone in the General Assembly could have been performed straight to camera, with few other people in the room (and in 2020, they were). More than the speeches, at the heart of the annual meetings is the face-to-face interaction between leaders. And as important to day-to-day relations between countries is the face-to-face interaction between lower-level staff, shown this year as diplomatic delegations and non-governmental organizations packed the U.N. headquarters and hotels and meeting spaces nearby.
The diplomatic agreements worked out in informal interactions have been key to accomplishments that weren’t formally laid out in the U.N.’s founding document — activities like peacekeeping in recent years and decolonization decades ago, said Katie Laatikainen, a professor of political science and international relations at Adelphi University.
Much of the world looks at the General Assembly like a world government body, she said, and ignores the less high-profile work that’s advanced in behind-the-scenes interactions.
“People expect governance but that’s not really what the U.N. does,” she said. The General Assembly, she said, actually “overshadows what the U.N. does well.”
Side meetings on themes running from conservation to Middle East peace were taking place throughout the week. In-person relations are as important, if not more so, for non-governmental organizations with stakes in the outcomes, attendees said.
The La Jolla, California-based Waitt Institute works on ocean conservation and during the pandemic, “we were all on Zoom, of course … it actually served an enormously important function,” in communicating with the small island nations where Waitt does much of its work, said executive director Kathryn Mengerink.
However, real life is not “how we engage when we’re in a box on a screen,” she said, from midtown Manhattan, where she was engaging in the sort of in-person communication that she called essential to her group’s work.
Scott Hamilton, a former State Department official who has worked in Cuba, among other locations, described how the pandemic hurt diplomacy because “face-to-face, you can build trust and comfort between people.”
Despite the more robust attendance, this year did see some notable absences: With the exception of U.S. President Joe Biden, the leaders of China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom — the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — did not attend.
United Nations officials say it’s a mistake to confuse in-person attendance, particularly by national leaders, as a referendum on the meeting’s importance.
“We’re fully aware that there are competing demands on heads of states, domestic demands,” said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “So, we’re not taking it personally.”
Even without a president or a prime minister in town, delegations still get work done — and the in-person contact helps set the agenda for the year ahead.
“The really hard work is what happens the rest of the year,” Laatikainen said.
Many at the General Assembly, and those observing it closely from afar, declined to discuss the substance of negotiations that may never ultimately come to fruition. But they said that the 2023 summit underscored how essential it was to meet in person again, providing an invaluable way to interact that was more confidential and efficient than virtual communications.
“Technology provides a facility to carry those (interactions) without personal contact, but it’s inferior to personal contact,” said Jeff Rathke, president of the American-German Institute at Johns Hopkins University and a retired State Department official who focused mainly on U.S. relations with Europe..
But the General Assembly week “provides a critical mass that allows you to do all the things that you would prefer to do in person,” Rathke said.
“You can exchange papers all day and have video calls,” Hamilton echoes, “but it’s all about doing what diplomats are supposed to do: It’s easy to understand people’s positions by exchanging papers but it’s more important to understand people’s interests.”