5 Stories to Follow During UN Week

The 68th General Assembly swings into full gear as hundreds of world leaders descend on New York for the annual confab. Here are five stories that will drive diplomacy during the United Nations General Assembly meeting this week.

1) How Do You Say “Constructive Engagement” in Persian?

What a difference a year makes. Last September, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a rather typical speech for him, and the USA and other countries rather typically walked out. In June, the moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president amid popular displeasure with hardline social policies and an economy struggling under harsh international sanctions. It now appears that he is engineering an opening with the United States that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

Since taking office last month, Rouhani has been on a charm offense. He’s wished Jews a happy New Year on Twitter; sat down with American television anchors; and wrote a perfectly reasonable op-ed urging a new era of constructive engagement (his words) with the west and the United States. Deeper still, the has exchanged letter with President Obama which indicate a newfound willingness to kick start the so-called “P5+1” negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program (which is the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany.) This week in New York will provide a key testing ground for how far Iran is willing to go with these negotiations—and how far the United States is willing to reciprocate.

White House officials stress that there is no planned meeting between Rouhani and Obama, but lower level contacts this week could provide a springboard for the most meaningful negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in a decade. The mood is decidedly optimistic.

2) Can the Syria Agreement Survive?

Three weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov averted a potential US military strike on Syria by hammering out an agreement on turning Syria’s chemical weapons over to UN control. The “Framework for the Elimination of Syria’s Chemical Weapons” was certainly a breakthrough, but it was short on details for putting the plan into action. Rather, the agreement called for the Security Council to back up the agreement with a firm proposal for implementing the plan, verifying compliance, and punishing Syria for non compliance.

Hammering out that resolution has been tricky. The USA, UK and France want a strongly worded resolution, swiftly passed. “Our position is going to seek the strongest possible response under Chapter VII,” White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said in a conference call last week. The Russians are pushing back on that. They do not want, for one, an explicit threat of the use of force.

The framework agreement puts weapons inspectors on the ground in Syria by mid November. To get there, the Security Council needs to find some way to agree on punitive measures to compel Syrian compliance that does not cross Russia’s red line. There is very little chance that a resolution on Syria will make it to a vote this week, but this question will certainly be foremost on Security Council diplomats’ agenda.

In the meantime, countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey will add some urgency to this debate by focusing on the region-wide destabilizing effect of this festering conflict. Expect these countries and UN officials to issue calls for greater support for a humanitarian appeal for Syria, which has shamefully only received 40% of its required funding. No matter what happens on the diplomatic front, the over 2 million refugees will need assistance for the foreseeable future.

3) Enter the “Post-2015 Development Agenda”

The has been a big year for the international diplomacy of international development. The Millennium Development Goals, which were agreed to by UN member states in 2000, are set to expire in 2015. And even though a few of the MDGs may not be reached, progress has been tremendous; billions of people were lifted out of poverty, and billions are living healthier, more productive lives. There is general consensus that having universal development targets around which the international community can coalesce was an overwhelmingly positive experiment.

In part because of that success, deciding what should replace the MDGs has been a very intense process. Everyone wants a piece of the so-called “Post 2015 Development Agenda.” For over a year, various High Level Panels, Working Groups, and assorted of collections of diplomats have met in various forums around the world and offered ideas for what should replace the MDGs. These recommendation will feed into a major meeting of the General Assembly on Wednesday to agree on the next steps for deciding and implementing the Post 2015 Development Agenda, and also a strategy for achieving the MDGs before they expire.

This meeting is supposed to result in an action oriented “outcome document” to serve as the single guide for the process by which the Post 2015 Development Agenda will be crafted and adopted by member states over the next two years. But with one week to go before the meeting, consensus on a final draft of the outcome document was yet to be reached. There were still some very big unresolved questions about the various roles of the developing and developed world countries in this process. The stakes are very high, so expect negotiations to come down to the wire.

4) Climate’s Brief Moment in the Sun

The next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be unveiled at the United Nations on Friday. This is a big event for climate change diplomacy. Every six or seven years, this panel — which is a group of hundreds of scientists from around the world—issues what is considered the most authoritative summary of the current state of scientific research on climate change. In theory, this report should serve as a guide for political leaders as they craft policy on climate change. In reality, it will probably serve as another reminder of how pitifully incommensurate current climate policy is compared to the urgency of the problem.

A draft of the final report leaked last week, and biggest news is that scientists are even more sure that humans are responsible for climate change–they have increased their certainly from 90% in 2007 to 95%. The report says we can expect global temperatures to continue to rise, with all the attended negative consequences, “There is high confidence that [human activity] has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level, and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

“There will be enough information provided so that rational people across the globe will see that action is needed on climate change,” says IPCC chairman Rajendra K Pachauri. The backdrop, though, is that progress toward a single, internationally binding climate change treaty has all but stalled. In its place are a series of regional agreements or public private partnerships like Sustainable Energy for All that seek to address one specific part of the climate change dilemma. This report should serve as a dire warning for policy makers about the planetary consequences for inaction. But it probably wont move them any closer to that single internationally binding agreement.

5) No Sideshows

This was a rough year for demagogues. Hugo Chavez left this mortal coil and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left office. For the past 6 years those two could always be counted on to put on a cringeworthy performances that tended to suck up the media air and capture UN watchers the same way that car crashes entrance passersby. You could always count on the USA leading a walkout.

To the extent that we can expect a bombastic performance this year, the torch may be passed to the president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Evo Morales. He doesn’t have the flair of Chavez or Ahmadinejad, but he does have a bone-to-pick with the host country.

But the fact is, that these sideshows will be far less prominent this year.  And that is a testament to the gravity of the issues being discussed and debated.  How far to press Syria, what should replace the MDGs, a diplomatic opening with Iran, the first direct talks between Palestine and Israel in years, climate change, exploding violence in Iraq, the humanitarian fallout from Syria’s refugees, Egypt’s backslide, terrorist attacks in Africa, a new and complex peacekeeping mission in Mali — these are serious, sober issues. And this year we can expect a more serious and sober international community to take them on.