Diplomatic Correspondent for BBC News, James Landale, reports from the diplomatic front lines at the UN General Assembly
To the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the annual gathering of diplomatic tribes. To the outside world, UNGA – as it is known – is a week-long conveyor belt of world leaders delivering speeches that do not always storm the barn. In theory, the statesmen are supposed to make like Andy Warhol and grab no more than 15 minutes of fame. But inevitably they go on for longer. Fidel Castro still has the record for speaking for 269 minutes in September 1960. Thankfully the Cuban leader is no longer seen as quite so much of a role model as he once was and no one approaches his record. But they do bang on. And the protocol headaches this can cause are huge. I do not envy the UN official who must tell President X or Y that they have just been shunted to the early afternoon slot, and might they fancy another cup of tea while they are waiting?
Behind the scenes at UNGA, the real work is done by the foreign ministers of 193 countries cramming as much gossip and business as they can into five days of frenzied diplomacy. The indefatigable British Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, compares it to a blend of speed dating and tennis. Each meeting lasts no longer than 20 minutes. Each side lobs their points to and fro across the net. And the great fear is that they run out of things to say, are unable to answer a question or – even worse – confuse their opposite number for another. Diplomacy can be like the Eton Wall Game. Very rarely does one score an actual goal. But both sides always know which has won.
There is a certain literary one-upmanship at the United Nations. The Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, casually lets slip in interviews that his secret pleasure is AJP Taylor or the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. The UN special representative to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, tweets gobbets of French poets, Pauls Verlainé and Eluard. But this week the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, trumps the lot, telling delegates that his country is now conducting its diplomacy through poetry. “Our ambassadors are our poets, our mystics, our philosophers,” he tells the assembly. You do not get that from Theresa May.
Despite there being lots of serious stuff to talk about – the threat from North Korea and the plight of the Rohingya and so on – I find myself once again chasing around after the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. This has been a recurring task in my career, one I can never decide is a blessing or a burden. We were colleagues in Brussels more than 25 years ago, he working for the Daily Telegraph, I for The Times. And many a weekend was lost trying to make head or tail of a Johnson scoop that on occasion bore only distant kinship to the truth. I often remember his story claiming that the UK was about to leave the European Community and join EFTA. Only Boris Johnson could have written a story that might yet come true more than two decades later.
We are led through the labyrinthine corridors of the UN headquarters to the British delegation room, a cramped cubbyhole overlooking the East River. I am there to interview the Foreign Secretary for the first time since his infamous 4,000-word diatribe on Brexit. There is talk of him resigning if he does not get his way. When I ask about this, he tells me I am barking up the wrong tree. So, I ask if he is enjoying being Foreign Secretary. “Of course,” he replies. “Are you going to miss it?” I ask. And he laughs nervously. It is a cheeky question but I cannot claim authorship. Jeremy Paxman used it once on the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont. On both occasions, it produced a telling response.
Two examples of Boris Johnson’s diplomacy that, as always, divide opinion. Amid the hullaballoo about Brexit, he chairs a meeting of foreign ministers with the Burmese national security adviser, a rare moment for the international community to speak directly to the Myanmar government. And diplomats pile out of the meeting beaming with satisfaction. “Despite everything, the Foreign Secretary was rather good,” said one. “The Burmese chap was left in no doubt about how concerned we were and Boris’ charm meant he couldn’t walk out.” There is less success at another meeting to discuss the weather in the Caribbean. The Foreign Secretary is doing fine until he betrays his ignorance about Hurricane Lee. “I thought they were all named after girls?” he asks. Polite smiles all round.
To Vanderbilt Avenue for a party hosted by Tony Blair’s former partner in crime, Tim Allan. It is a classic UNGA affair, full of diplomats, journalists and aid workers, all embracing the excitement and energy that only Manhattan can offer. Chelsea Clinton is there. She cuts an elegant, restrained figure, her demeanour almost a physical antithesis to her parents’ excess of character and ambition. None of this stops some usually quite sensible men fluttering around her in star-struck awe. It is as if we have just walked into a scene from The West Wing.
More prosaically, we lunch at the UN canteen. One minister compares it to the bar in the first Star Wars film where Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi find Han Solo for the first time, a cosmopolitan, polyglot hangout for the seriously peripatetic international traveller. Here there are diplomats, ministers, officials, journalists and all manner of NGOs. And, surprisingly, they are all obliged to eat out of reprocessed paper dog bowls and foil tins. This probably saves on washing up and water. And perhaps it reminds those enjoying the Manhattan fleshpots of the food handouts they are organising for the world’s poor. Yet it undoubtedly detracts from the gastronomic experience. “It probably took a working party seven years to agree this was the most environmentally friendly way to eat,” says one official gloomily. “And it will probably take another seven years to discover that it is not.”