Being physically present in the US does not make the United Nations’ annual jamboree, the General Assembly, seem any less remote. For most Americans, UNGA, the confab, might as well be on the moon for all they care. If it strayed into the popular consciousness at all this year, it was in terms of the additional security in place in New York even as three amateurish bombs were discovered in the city and in New Jersey on Saturday night.
And yet, this UNGA could be pretty important in its own right. First, it is Ban Ki-Moon’s last as UN secretary-general and Barack Obama’s last as US president. Both men close out at a time when world institutions and global linkages are increasingly unpopular. Some might say the intensity and level of public anger in the industrialized world speaks to how poorly Messers Ban and Obama did their job.
The more rational would say that Mr Ban could hardly have held back the tidal wave of opinion about refugees just as he could hardly have prevented Syrians from hemorrhaging out of their bleeding country.
And it is common sense to recognize that there are limits to America’s ability to play Globocop. It cannot prevent global terrorism, de-radicalise extremists, enforce every border everywhere, force Hungary (or even the US for that matter) to accept harried refugees.
In some ways, the very obvious limits of American authority and aspiration leave a gap that the UN could – if it were so minded and so able – fill. Of course, it would need a pro-active leader and a new commitment to cajole member-nations into collaboration.
The UN could, for instance, become more active, particularly on climate change and refugees. At the level of talk, it already is, and admirably so. Monday’s High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants to seek humane approaches yields a grand declaration (pdf). And that’s it.
Meanwhile, today, Tuesday, September 19, Mr Obama and six other countries hold the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on the sidelines of UNGA. Don’t expect anything more than news they talked about what should happen.