The United Nations is often perplexing, but never dull, writes Newsroom political editor Sam Sachdeva after a week spent covering Jacinda Ardern’s visit to the UN’s New York headquarters.

Word to the wise: if you are a global body subject to increasingly wild conspiracy theories about the real purpose of your existence, do not make your members place their hands upon a mysterious glowing orb for the world to behold.

It was little wonder Jacinda Ardern looked a little perplexed as she joined South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, India’s Narendra Modi and other leaders in caressing the strobing sphere at a United Nations event to mark the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.

The “plasma ball” was for a worthy case, in the form of the inauguration of the Gandhi Solar Park at the UN’s headquarters (although its exact significance remains unclear) – but the organisation is not averse to making decisions that defy logic.

Take its willingness to let media freely into the entrance for the UN’s conference rooms – where heads of state and government meet – only to put them through scanner checks on the way back out.

Then there is the insistence that paper tickets be presented to attend an event, only to find upon reaching the media liaison desk that no such tickets exist and be sent back from whence you came.

There may be little sympathy for the plight of a journalist on tour, but the UN also serves as a leveller for even the more powerful of the attendees.

All hail the orb.
World leaders including Jacinda Ardern (second from right) touch a plasma ball to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: United Nations.

Many bilateral meetings between politicians take place in drab, cramped cubicles which look like they have come from a 1970s accountancy firm.

The diplomatic chats can be strikingly brief, and the photo opportunities even more so: Ardern’s “grip and grin” with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his office was over in the blink of an eye, the Prime Minister checking with media that it had been sufficient to capture a photo (although had the response been negative, it’s unclear whether she would or could have dragged him back for a second chance.)

The cramped quarters at UNHQ are made to look even more dowdy by the glitzy sideline events run by NGOs, such as Bill and Melinda Gates’ Goalkeepers summit for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals where Ardern made an appearance.

But this year, there were some signs that the UN wanted to move itself a little closer to the 21st century.

With Guterres placing a heavy focus on climate change and sustainability, disposable plastic bottles were out and “boxed water” was in at the food vendors.

Young climate activist Greta Thunberg won a thunderous reception at Guterres’ Climate Action Summit, although politicians’ applause at times felt patronising as Thunberg admonished them for their failure to move beyond tokenism towards genuine change.

But some things stay the same – like the smothering security that sends entire city blocks into lockdown as a leader’s motorcade tries to navigate its way from one corner of New York to the other.

Snipers’ rifles are visible on rooftops around the United Nations HQ. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

That can turn a pedestrian’s routine route into a maze with a constantly changing exit as police direct you from one street to another; how native New Yorkers put up with it each year is beyond comprehension.

The protection extends well above street level too. Helicopters whip across the skies, while the view from the residence of New Zealand’s UN representative reveals snipers on rooftops with an array of weaponry in front of them.

At least the Secret Service is sunsmart, with small canopies for the snipers to stand under as they seek refuge from the heat.

Few sparks flew during Donald Trump’s UN address, with diminishing returns – in entertainment value at least – from the man who cried from the General Assembly floor in 2017 that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission” (a reference to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, with whom Trump now exchanges “beautiful letters”).

For a second year running, Trump’s actions outside the UN overshadowed his rhetoric inside it: last year, it was an extended press conference he held in defence of his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, while this year the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry stole the spotlight.

That meant that Ardern’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was delayed as it was in 2018, as the host’s writers scrambled to keep up with Trump’s train of thought.

Donald Trump again found himself in the spotlight less for his words at the UN than for his actions outside it. Photo: United Nations.

Her brief cameo this year came as a surprise, with New Zealand media assured in advance that late-night appearances were not on the cards this time around.

Officials must have calculated that the tourism benefits for New Zealand (Colbert announced he would film in the country next month, after Ardern extended an invite last year) outweighed the negatives of being seen to hobnob with celebrities.

Her overall schedule did seem more restrained compared to last year: partly due to the shortened duration of her trip, and perhaps partly to avoid any domestic blowback.

But Ardern can rightly point to the need to focus her time and energy on the Christchurch Call, an initiative which has put New Zealand in a rare place of influence on a globally significant problem.

That was a bright spot in what remains a gloomy global outlook. For all the multilateralism advocates’ cries of strength in numbers, the big players’ continued reticence to engage as needed remains a significant obstacle.

Trump’s domestic issues and Boris Johnson’s Brexit battle has taken two traditional superpowers out of the picture, leaving uncertainty around who will head off more moves towards nationalism and isolationism.

Where is the world heading? Hopefully the orb will tell us.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment