No face-to-face meetings or hallway secrets: what’s the point of the UN summit today?

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This year, due to the pandemic, the heads of state and government give their speeches from a distance. Thus the most intimate diplomacy is lost.

Every year for nearly seven decades, the show unfolded grandly and with a script: World leader after world leader takes the podium inside the colossal chamber of the United Nations General Assembly to deliver carefully calibrated speeches, take a public stance. and speak the language of the art of government.

And every year, in the corridors of the United Nations and the hotels that surround it, they take place intensive doses of a more intimate and genuine diplomacy, in quiet conversations, in small two-way meetings, in one-on-one encounters that foster subtle understanding and sometimes even avoid wars.

This year, the part of the show continues to take place, this time remotely, on video, previously recorded, away from the maddened diplomatic crowd. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, that other, more personal part of UN diplomacy is quietly, deafeningly absent.

With her something intangible but vital to the art of nations disappears that get along: the human touch in person. This is a time when it would really help the world to be able to talk to itself. And this week, on the socially distant terrain of the United Nations, he can’t.

“When you think about the UN, that’s the essence of it. For the game to work, you have to have empathy. You have to deal with diplomacy. How does that look when you take away the real humanity?” David wonders Sax, author of “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter” (“The revenge of analog: real things and why they happen”).

At the annual high-level “meeting” of the General Assembly of leaders this week, the UN halls will be mostly empty. On the floor of the chamber, delegations will be limited to one person for each of the 193 member countries of the UN.

The giant screens will be filled with distant leaders who did not take any plane to meet but recorded messages in the safety and isolation of their home countries and their offices.

“I’m not expecting much, to be honest,” says Richard Gowan, UN director for Crisis Group. “The idea that prime ministers and presidents are going to be sitting at home with a cone of popcorn watching each other’s televised speeches is a bit silly,” he says.

Diplomatic meetings in the era of the pandemic could be more secure, less expensive and less logistically challenging. They could be even more efficient; there will be a screenshot at the end of the week.

What they are not, however, is intimate and nuanced, and filled with serendipitous opportunities for breakthroughs.

“There are subtleties that are lost, and the potential to explore ways to solve problems is also lost,” says Jeff Rathke, who was director of the press office for the US State Department in 2014-15 and before that. , Deputy Chief of Staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels.

“We’re stuck with the game pieces of shapes, and we’re deprived of all the lubrication or cushioning that surrounds all of those things,” says Rathke, now president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

“It makes the system more fragile in some ways, because you don’t have that cushion that diplomacy usually provides,” he adds.

This week at the United Nations – or, more accurately, NOT at the United Nations – is both a dramatic expression and a microcosm of what many people have been dealing with in the months since Covid-19 began shutting down or restricting large fringes of civilization.

As many retired to their homes, and the lucky ones who kept their jobs began to do so in the same spaces where they live their personal lives, human contact in the workplace became a thing of the past for now.

The question was endlessly debated: Can we actually get along, collaborate, achieve the same results with our colleagues without the subtleties and cues of in-person contact?

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