United Nations – President Trump, and other world leaders, won’t appear in person at the U.N.’s annual meeting of world leaders next week, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told reporters on Thursday.
Much like swallows to Capistrano, the world’s national leaders typically migrate each year to Manhattan’s East Side for the United Nations General Assembly in the third week of September. For the last several weeks, world leaders have been debating whether to travel or simply send a video.
While the U.N. Secretary General, the president of the General Assembly, U.N. agency representatives and New York-based country representatives will be present on site for the event, no heads of state or government are expected to make in-person appearances – making the meetings at what is called “UNGA” almost fully virtual.
Mr. Trump’s first appearance as president at the U.N. in 2017 was met with great fanfare, and despite the fact that his administration is confronting European allies on several fronts and has withdrawn from many U.N. agreements, there was a great deal of interest this year in his appearance at U.N. headquarters.
“The UNGA high level week will be an opportunity to reflect on the current COVID-19 crisis, and to reaffirm the crucial role of the United Nations and of multilateral cooperation, which are badly needed in these times,” French Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said.
With the severity of COVID-19 and the resulting world economic downturn, the speeches will be heard around the globe. But the fine art of in-person diplomacy will not take place in the iconic Hall, or in the corridors, this year.
The conundrum of whether to travel to the U.N. or send a video was resolved by New York State and federal rules, whose quarantine effectively bars all but a few world leaders.
With so many countries entering the building, some call the headquarters of the U.N. a “petri dish” and many diplomats expressed relief that the 10,000 visitors will not be straining the decades-old, renovated ventilation system.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and a handful of others are quarantine-exempt. But French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and even the Queen of England, who needs no passport for travel, cannot make it into the General Assembly’s hallowed halls this year, unless they chose to sit around in New York for two weeks.
The U.S. Mission to the U.N., headed by U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft, sent a diplomatic note to country delegations on September 2, obtained by CBS News, saying New York State has imposed a 14-day quarantine for anyone – including a head of state, with “no exceptions” – who has traveled to a country for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevented has issued a Level 2 or Level 3 health notice.
“Note that this list currently includes almost every country in the world,” the note said.
Not everyone was happy with a virtual event for the assembly’s 75th anniversary, including its new president, Volkan Bozkir, who groused: “I have supported the idea from the beginning that physical meetings must come back.”
Will anyone watch? Some are skeptical: “I really doubt that presidents and prime ministers are going to be sitting at home with a bucket of popcorn watching all their counterparts’ UNGA videos,” Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank, told CBS News.
“It’s hard to explain the rush and buzz of the General Assembly if you haven’t been there,” Gowan said, adding, “you see remarkably powerful and respected politicians wandering about in a bit of a daze. That glamour factor is also one thing that keeps leaders coming back to the U.N.”
“Take that away and, in essence, you have the world’s highest-profile Zoom meeting, but not live. It just isn’t the same.”
Coronavirus should by all rights top the agenda this year, with climate change a close second. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has done his level best to sound the alarm bells on climate change’s wildfires and storms.
Because of the ease of sending a video – rather than traveling to New York – more countries will have their leaders’ voices heard, the U.N. chief said, by means of their video presentations.
The “General Debate” as it is called, runs from Tuesday, September 22, for five days.
In addition to coronavirus, humanitarian aid, climate change and Iran will be a big issue this year. Iran’s nuclear program will be front and center because the U.S. says that all U.N. sanctions on Iran will be reimposed on Saturday, a point challenged by most other world powers, including the United Kingdom.
Several high-level meetings will take place at the sidelines of the “debate”: a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the U.N., a “Biodiversity Summit,” the 25th anniversary of the World Conference of Women, financing for development, and a day to advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Celebrities will be there as well – virtually that is. It’s been eight years since Beyoncé Knowles rocked the UN General Assembly in the fabled Hall. This year she is back, not in person but with a message entitled, “Nations United,” a virtual event along with Messenger of Peace Malala Yousafzai, U.N. goodwill ambassador actress Michelle Yeoh, and the U.N. Secretary General, on Saturday.
Some U.N. experts are not concerned about this year’s virtual meeting. Stephen Schlesinger, a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of “Act of Creation,” told CBS News: “I don’t think it will start a trend. Leaders like the public presence on the U.N. podium before the GA assemblage. It gives them global recognition.”