Beyond the pageantry of the UN general assembly

Walid Jawad
Walid Jawad
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In September of every year, the Oscars of International Relations is held at the UN Headquarter in New York. The whos-who of global leaders wants to see and be seen by other heads of state. All converging here like clockwork.

This is where the 120 leaders who once played follow-the-leader as children get to realize their sandbox games as adults. Each standing tall on the shoulders of their nation’s status in the world propped by national achievements, economic status, and military arsenal.

Each of them projecting more than what their country is entitled to yet less than what they think they deserve. They are all stars in their own nations, but here they hope to rub elbows with the superstars. The powerful soak up the attention and relish their rockstar status amongst their peers.

In 1648, over long and arduous months in Westphalia, Europeans signed treaties to bring peace the religious wars of the day. It did, but more importantly, it was the moment of inception of the current international system.

The Peace of Westphalia advanced the concept of sovereignty, in essence putting in motion the system of sovereign nation-states, which Trump reminded us of mere days ago.

The Peace of Westphalia advanced the concept of sovereignty, in essence putting in motion the system of sovereign nation-states, which Trump reminded us of mere days ago

Walid Jawad

In his UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) address, the American president emphasized sovereignty as his guiding principle in rebuffing multinational collaborations “We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

Nationalism under the justification of sovereignty has negative consequences, including marginalizing the role of the UN. Conversely, French president Francois Macron spoke to sovereignty saying, “I shall never stop upholding the principle of sovereignty ... even in the face of certain nationalism which we’re seeing today, brandishing sovereignty as a way of attacking others.” A diverging stance, one to harken back to the past while Macron recommits to forward movement.

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The failure of the treaties of Westphalia to keep the peace in Europe is not surprising. As war broke out within Europe during and after the Peace of Westphalia, so it did in the 20th century beyond the boundaries of the European continent. It is those two great wars that gave rise to the United Nations. The UN in its current form is the second iteration of the failed League of Nations – WWI gave us the League of Nations, and WWII rendered it obsolete.

Sovereign nation states entered into an agreement to create the UN for the higher purpose of avoiding the next all-out global war. Resolving conflicts and keeping the peace are enshrined in the UN charter. But, the UN doesn’t have an inherent enforceable authority other than what the members assign to it. Member states continue to predominantly operate outside the narrow limitations of the UN rendering it ineffective as a proactive measure to stave off destructive conflicts.


The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is the current reality holding back a WWIII. The potential outcome of such a war, should it happen, is the self-annihilation of the human race. For the moment, citizens of the world can breathe nervously in the shadows of that real threat, no thanks to the UN.

Yet, the UN offers a platform for nuclear nations to present their concerns on the global stage, limiting the power struggles within the margins of the UN and its Security Council (UNSC). The effectiveness of the busy work and ensuing resolutions is in question. UN resolutions don’t achieve peace nor does it resolves conflicts.

Many times, UN resolutions only create a pause in the conflict, this is in part due to the lack of enforcement capabilities within the UN structure. It is relying on the member states to send peacekeepers to the affected areas without any legal authority to use its full capabilities. As a result, conflicts are prolonged, and the status quo of unacceptable levels of violence and suffering persist.

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The list of intractable conflicts the UN is attempting to address through resolutions is long. We need not dig too far into the past to observe these effects. Good examples can be found in Iran, Syria, and Palestine to name a few relevant conflicts to the Middle East.

Conflict resolution is such a lofty goal for the UN to guarantee in this era of weapons of mass destruction. An era where death is a result of pushing buttons in virtual reality shielded from experiencing the agony of ending a life and the stench of death.

Courage is not a quality that comes with fighting today’s wars, on the contrary cowardice is the prerequisite. Being too afraid to face one’s enemy makes a preemptive strike a more appealing choice.

Seeing eye-to-eye

Initial face-to-face interactions between leaders have caused transformative outcomes. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” said former president George W. Bush in 2001 after meeting Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” he concluded.

Trump said of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “A worthy negotiator ... a very worthy, very smart negotiator. We had a terrific day and we learned a lot about each other and our country’s.” Lavishing accolades onto the young leader in a press conference after their Singapore summit last June. These are examples of the power of personal connection in altering powerful geopolitical dynamics, which brings us back to the pageantry of the UNGA.

The personalities of the leaders attending the annual UN spectacle play a much more decisive factor than meets the eye. Typical diplomatic channels between nations are advanced or hindered by the personal dynamics between the top decision makers. Gestures and demeanors, charm and charisma all come into play. Here is where the annual event offers a critical opportunity to leards.

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Some leaders lean toward the theatrical. Not surprising as the gathering inherently feeds a sense of flair for the dramatic. Some leaders are inspired to make fashion statements and on occasions toss papers in protest. Leaders walk away at the end of the annual assembly with a simple judgment; can I trust this person?

Agreement doesn’t factor into this equation. Having trust is a prerequisite for any negotiation to take place particularly over serious disagreements. When trust is lacking, mediators and facilitators are charged with holding the parties honest during negotiations.

When trust is personal and organic between leaders, doubt and suspicion leading to fear and defensiveness are avoided. Perhaps the UN can advance its mission by creating more opportunities for world leaders to interact in an elite club-like atmosphere.

Conflict resolution stands a better chance when decision makers are present in a calm and relaxed atmosphere working through their nations’ conflicts trying to see eye-to-eye.

Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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