The List

Five Stories to Watch for U.N. Week

What to expect when Obama, Hu, Qaddafi, and 120 other world leaders descend on New York.

CLIMATE CLIMAX

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

When: Tuesday

What: Heads of state from over 100 countries are scheduled to attend Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “high level meeting” on climate change. The idea behind the meeting is to generate some political momentum ahead of the critical international climate talks in Copenhagen this December. This momentum is badly needed:  The Kyoto Protocols will expire in 2012, and it will likely take a few years for countries to ratify a new climate change treaty.

Last time the secretary general hosted one of these confabs was in September 2007. Back then, heads of state from the two top emitters, China and the United States, didn’t even bother to show up. The atmospherics, as it were, are different this time around. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao plan to attend the meeting. The Chinese government in particular is playing up Hu’s scheduled speech as an “important address” that will lay out policies China is willing to undertake to combat climate change. Because China recently surpassed the United States as the world’s largest carbon emitter, environmentalists will be watching closely.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE WORLD

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When: Thursday

What: For the first time since the United Nations was created in 1945, a sitting U.S. president will chair a session of the Security Council. This is partly the result of a happy coincidence. The position of Security Council “president” is one that rotates between all 15 members on a monthly basis.

The United States just happens to hold the presidency during the month of September when world leaders descend on Turtle Bay.  Thursday’s meeting will focus on nonproliferation, but don’t expect a new round of sanctions on Iran or North Korea. According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, the meeting will focus on disarmament, nuclear trafficking, and the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which is up for review next year.

The U.S. mission circulated a draft text of a four-page resolution last week spelling out specific ways the council can support the international non-proliferation regime. This included a paragraph stating that a country’s “right” to civilian nuclear technology is contingent on fulfilling other obligations to the non-proliferation treaty -- a clear reference to Iran.

We will probably have to wait until the morning of the meeting to find out the specific contours of the draft resolution -- or if a resolution will be voted on at all. Another likely outcome is a so-called “presidential statement,” which is a mechanism to offer a consensus view of the council without getting into the specifics of a resolution text.

OBAMA THE ORATOR OR OBAMA THE WONK?

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When: Wednesday

What: Obama’s address to the United Nations this week won’t be his first, but it will certainly be his most-anticipated. The question for many U.N. watchers is how the president will frame the U.S.-U.N. relationship. In a speech in August, Susan Rice described the United Nations as an indispensable institution that advances American interests and the cause of universal rights. She further described how the United Nations is on the “front lines” of a new era of American engagement.

Needless to say, this is a significant departure from the attitude of the previous administration. The question, though, is how specific the president will get in elucidating how the U.N. does, as Rice said, “promote America’s core security interests.” For example, Rice has stated repeatedly that her top priority as ambassador is to bolster the United Nations’ overburdened and under-resourced peacekeeping operations. To that end, Obama will host a meeting for delegations from the U.N.’s top troop-contributing countries. Peacekeeping advocates will be watching to see how, if at all, the president uses this platform to communicate the value of peacekeeping to U.S. interests.

QADDAFI IN THE HOUSE

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When: Thursday

What: For the first time since assuming control of Libya in a coup 40 years ago, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi will attend the U.N. summit in New York. Even prior to setting foot in Turtle Bay, Qaddafi’s trip has sucked up a quite a bit of media attention. His plans to pitch a Bedouin-style tent on Libyan-owned property across the river in Englewood, New Jersey, didn’t go over well with municipal authorities, who found pretext to deny him a permit.

And then, of course, there’s the hero’s welcome he gave to convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi upon his repatriation on Aug. 20 -- a spectacle that Susan Rice described as offending “virtually every American.” Qaddafi has also used the run-up to his U.N. trip to settle some old scores -- with Switzerland. Last year, Swiss authorities arrested his son and daughter-in-law for allegedly beating up a domestic servant. Qaddafi has responded in kind by circulating a nonsensical resolution to have the country abolished.  

Antics aside, Qaddafi has perfectly legitimate reasons to make 2009 his first trip to First Avenue. Veteran Libyan diplomat Ali Triki will serve as president of the 64th General Assembly, an annually elected position that rotates between the five geographical groups. He won the spot after receiving the backing of the Africa group on Sept. 15.  Libya also currently sits on the Security Council, which means that Qaddafi will be seated across the room from Obama during the Council’s non-proliferation meeting. Observers are waiting to see whether the mercurial leader will use his allotted five minutes to grandstand on topics beyond non-proliferation. Could he be this year’s Hugo Chávez?

WHICH CHINA?

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When: All week

What: For the first time since the official Chinese seat at the United Nations was restored to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, a Chinese president will be a near ubiquitous presence during U.N. week. Expect to see President Hu Jintao at the climate summit, the Security Council meeting on non-proliferation, the General Assembly, and later in the week at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh. 

The question is, which China will show up? “If China addresses concerns about its trade imbalance with the United States and Europe, makes constructive compromises that would move the Doha round forward, or makes any numerical commitments to carbon reduction with a timeline,” explains Rand Corp. expert Scott Harold, “this would be a clear sign that China is ready to play a more substantial role in global governance.”

On the other hand, should Hu’s speeches show a preference for addressing issues surrounding terrorism (i.e., recent ethnic domestic disturbances in Xinjang) or “territorial integrity” (i.e. nationalist movements in Taiwan and Tibet), this optimism might be misplaced. Still, if the climate sentiments expressed by Chinese authorities prior to the meeting are any indication, September 2009 may be something of a coming-out party for Beijing.

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