NEW YORK — Tuesday was the biggest day of the weeklong United Nations General Assembly, with leaders of the world’s biggest superpower rivalry — the United States and China — addressing the gathering of dignitaries from across the globe.
President Joe Biden gave his first speech as president on the international stage, but on a local level, the gathering created intense traffic backups for miles.
The congestion begs the question of whether holding the event is justified. Many commuters say no, but a political analysis suggests otherwise.
The gathering is officially called the U.N. General Debate, but no actual debate takes place. It’s really a series of speeches by the heads of state of at least 130 nations.
In the case of Biden, it was a 32-minute speech meant to seize the opportunity to address the majority of the world’s leaders in person.
“Instead of continuing to fight the wars of the past, we are fixing our eyes on devoting our resources to the challenges that hold the keys to our collective future: ending this pandemic, addressing the climate crisis, managing the shifts in global power dynamics,” Biden said, weeks after the bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
He made more detailed comments about each of those areas of policy, but some of the content was more aspirational. He spoke of his climate change goals, but those goals are still reliant on congressional action that has yet to take place.
“In April, I announced that the United States will double our public international financing to help developing nations tackle the climate crisis,” the president said. “And today, I’m proud to announce that we’ll work with the Congress to double that number again.”
It’s still unclear if his proposed measures can get through Congress.
Biden also tried to assure allies and other countries that the United States’ messy withdrawal from Afghanistan was behind them, and that the U.S. will lead a global effort to counter anti-democratic efforts by China.
“We’ll stand up for our allies and our friends, and oppose attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones,” he told the gathering, which was smaller than usual due to pandemic restrictions.
For its part, China changed its plan on Monday to have a senior diplomat address the assembly. Instead, the country’s premier, Xi Jinping, recorded a speech on video. He was one of a few dozen who submitted video statements.
Xi’s speech attempted to show his country as a growing international power. It was viewed by the assembled delegates in the General Assembly building in UN Headquarters.
Outside of its gates, however, there was heavy traffic in every direction, especially when Biden’s motorcade — more than 50 vehicles long — was on the move.
One passenger in a yellow cab spoke with PIX11 News, since the vehicle wasn’t going anywhere fast — or slow.
“It’s just, we’re literally crawling,” she said. “It’s go, stop, go, stop, go, stop.”
Alain Sanders, an emeritus political science professor and former Time Magazine reporter on world affairs, said much of what local commuters have to put up with outside of the UN can lead to real advances in world affairs inside the building and its environs.
“What’s important … when you bring leaders together is what happens in the private meetings. That’s where the constructive aspects of the United Nations are most important,” he said.
Sanders said the leaders of countries that may even be at odds can get together at the annual General Assembly and lay the groundwork for agreements down the road.
“You have to separate the public nature of the United Nations versus the private discussions, some of which — not all of which, but some of which — can be very constructive,” he said.