New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Wall Street Journal U.N. Gathering Will Be Virtual, Hampering Informal Diplomacy by William Maudin

U.N. Gathering Will Be Virtual, Hampering Informal Diplomacy

The United Nations is gearing up to hold its annual General Assembly in a mostly virtual format later this month, curtailing the informal diplomatic hobnobbing that occurs every year in New York but giving some leaders who rarely travel the chance to address the world, at least online.

The heads of state of Iran and Venezuela are set to address the annual meeting through video messages, according to a preliminary schedule of the speeches, which will give online airtime to controversial leaders and far-flung heads of state who in past years have had lower-level officials speak in person at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

President Trump, on the other hand, has said he may speak in person at the event, potentially taking advantage of his ability to visit New York when other delegations face travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we can do it, I’ll do it directly,” Mr. Trump said last month at the White House. “This will not be like it is in the past because some countries will not be able to escape the problems they’re having.”

A spokeswoman for the office of Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., referred questions about U.S. participants at the annual General Assembly to the White House. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

“Diplomacy has gotten creative over the last few months and UNGA is still an important diplomatic moment,” Ms. Craft said. “The United States is looking forward to continuing with our important diplomatic engagements and with plans to shine a spotlight on some of our key priorities.”

Normally, each of the nearly 200 U.N. member states has six seats reserved for its officials in the familiar assembly hall, where the podium is backed by serpentinite, a green stone.

This year, only one or two seats will be allowed for each country, and those officials will likely introduce a prerecorded video speech from the country’s head of state or other leading official, according to Reem Abaza, spokeswoman for the president of the U.N. General Assembly. The “general debate” speeches will start with Brazil and the U.S. on Sept. 22 and end with North Korea on Sept. 29, according to the preliminary schedule.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and the incoming U.N. General Assembly president, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, are two of only a handful of officials set to address the assembly in person, according to Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Mr. Guterres.

While the leader-level speeches frequently generate significant interest, much of the useful interactions during a normal General Assembly occur in the hallways or in small booths that officials can reserve in the U.N. compound, Mr. Dujarric said.

“What won’t happen is the side meetings,” he said. “There’ll be some, but those are virtual.”

The pared-down event schedule also may affect climate-change demonstrations and other gatherings meant to catch the attention of top officials from around the world and the media.

The lack of a surge of diplomats will hurt New York economically in September, especially when the U.S. Open has no fans and New York Fashion Week will be reduced in size.

“A lot of restaurants, hotels and other venues are going to go unbooked, losing millions of dollars for the city,” said New York City Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents an area of Manhattan north of the U.N. “The only group of people I know who won’t be complaining is anyone who drives a car in Manhattan. That is the only silver lining.”


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