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At the UN’s Big General Assembly Day, Big Egos on Display


Frosty relations did not keep Presidents Obama and Putin from eating lunch at Ban Ki-moon's heads of state luncheon on Sept. 28, 2015. AMANDA VOISARD/UN PHOTO
Wine may have helped ease the frosty relations between Presidents Obama and Putin at UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s heads of state luncheon on Sept. 28, 2015. The two presidents did shake hands, the UN said. AMANDA VOISARD/UN PHOTO

Monday marked another memorable day for the United Nations, drawing a record number of international leaders for the opening of the General Assembly, but it took an altogether different tone than Friday’s welcome for Pope Francis.

On Friday, at the start of a three-day special session of the assembly devoted to the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, the pope spent 40 minutes reminding heads of state that the poor will be with us as long as their needs and conditions remain ignored. His spiritual message, invoking human suffering and the sanctity of the planet, was very different from the tense, barbed speeches on Monday at the formal opening of the UN’s 70th year by President Obama, followed an hour or so later by Vladimir Putin of Russia.

With their veiled and direct warnings to one another, their lectures on, respectively, the virtues of democracy and the ugly results of interference, the two men provided the UN delegates sitting in the General Assembly Hall a spectacle akin to watching gladiators maneuver. In between, before lunchtime, the UN heard more typically moderate notes from King Abdullah of Jordan; Andrzej Duda of Poland; and Xi Jinping of China. By tradition, Brazil spoke first, so that privilege went once again to Dilma Rousseff, the president.

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The posturing by Obama and Putin, much anticipated for revealing signs of the hostility between them in words and body language, were then put aside for more practical matters in the afternoon at a peacekeeping summit held by the United States. Scores of nations spoke of making specific commitments to peace operations in the UN — like donating helicopters and speedboats, forming all-female police units and building hospitals. But Russia was absent from the conference, at which Obama presided. A sense of unity prevailed: everyone wants UN peace operations to work.

Obama, more comfortable at his own conference on such essentials as peacekeeping troops, sat politely through hours of short, concise speeches. On his right was Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda; on his left, John Kerry, US secretary of state. Dress was charcoal gray or dark blue suits for the men, who predominated; some brightened their suits with bright blue ties.

Back at the early morning session in the General Assembly, Rousseff, whose career is in jeopardy in Brazil, took a more conciliatory approach in her speech this year than last year, when she was livid with Obama for US eavesdropping on her cellphone.

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This year, Rousseff, not afraid to show her feminine side by wearing a lacy white blouse, pearl necklace and beige slacks, stood at the podium and demonstrated why she is president: her ability to talk like a technocrat, expounding on her government’s progress on development, anticorruption and righting the wrongs of the financial squeeze her country is stuck in.

Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, showed personal umbrage at Russia for its recent suggestion that Poland helped to start World War II. Duda, to remind the world of the meddling of its large neighbor, emphasized Poland’s adherence to rule of law and international treaties and its particular “sensitivity to armed aggression” and “violations of human rights.”

King Abdullah of Jordan, clearly vexed by the violence in his region, talked about the need to return to the “deep values of love, compassion and peace” amid the necessity to rid the Middle East of “outlaw gangs of Islamic extremists.” Even China’s president, Xi Jinping, came off relaxed and almost nostalgic for the early days of the UN (when Nationalist China, not the communist government, held the Chinese seat on the Security Council), as he relied on the word “development” as a panacea for the world’s ills.

Xi’s definition of “development,” however, may be jarringly different from other nations’ meaning. Indeed, the “sunshine” of development, he noted, would erase all clouds. To assure the delegates in the General Assembly of China’s good will, he announced, among other donations, a contribution of “free military aid” of $100 million for an African Union standby force.

It was Obama who enthralled the audience as he emphasized benefits and strengths of democracy, as if to say to Putin: See, our way is the better way. Much of what he said was pointed at Russia.

“The strength of nations depends on the success of their people — their knowledge, their innovation, their imagination, their creativity, their drive, their opportunity — and that, in turn, depends upon individual rights and good governance and personal security,” Obama said. “Internal repression and foreign aggression are both symptoms of the failure to provide this foundation.”

In his standard method, Obama also mentioned US sins, including the 50-year cold shoulder to Cuba, a small country in the Caribbean that is desperately poor but determined to retain its socialist political system.

Obama’s remarks on Cuba generated the first burst of applause. “We have to be strong enough to acknowledge when what you’re doing is not working,” he said. “For 50 years, the United States pursued a Cuba policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people.

“We changed that. We continue to have differences with the Cuban government. We will continue to stand up for human rights.  But we address these issues through diplomatic relations, and increased commerce, and people-to-people ties.  As these contacts yield progress, I’m confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore.”

Putin spoke after the King of Jordan, rambling in Russian, touching on the need for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to stay glued to power; to attack ISIS and other extremists; to avoid another Libya, where NATO helped usher in a regime change; the major missteps of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan; and capitalism and its wanton legacies.

Noting that since those at the “top of the pyramid” think they know better, he added that they also think they don’t need to “reckon with the UN.”

Yet the tensions magnified by Obama and Putin in the General Assembly Hall melted during the post-luncheon peacekeeping summit, where the mood couldn’t have been more cooperative. (Wine was served at the lunch.)

Countries as varied as Uruguay and the Netherlands, Japan and Pakistan, Senegal and Indonesia declared their commitments to UN peace operations, which now count 16 missions, using contributions from 120 countries to support 125,000 personnel and other material donations like helicopters, aircraft, ships, trucks, boats and even the all-important manuals on the protection of civilians. As Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said of the scale of peacekeeping: It’s a symbol of troubled times.

The peacekeeping meeting convened by the US worked toward a single common goal, revealing the UN’s better side, with countries eager to announce their increased military or cash contributions, including Japan donating $40 million for a trial engineering training program in Kenya; field hospitals from Pakistan (and a canine platoon); Colombia’s first staged deployment of 58 personnel (as it unwinds from a 50-year civil war); Britain’s sending troops to South Sudan and Somalia; and Italy’s hope for a cultural preservation unit.

Will the commitments become real? Leave it to Germany to finish its announcement by saying: “We will stand by the seven pledges we made today.”

And in no small endeavor, Sierra Leone, rising from the hell of the Ebola outbreak last year, pledged 300 female officers and 200 male officers to UN peace operations.

By contrast, Russia contributes 79 personnel to peacekeeping.


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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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