When 120 world leaders and their entourages gather at the United Nations this week, the woes of the world will be onstage in all their tragic detail: a civil war in Syria, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, reignited ethnic conflicts in Africa and uphill battles against poverty and global warming.
What is likely to be in short supply at the General Assembly are fresh ideas for resolving the kaleidoscope of crises afflicting the planet. The U.N. Security Council has been hamstrung by internal conflicts among its permanent members in devising effective intervention in the Syrian bloodletting, and a colossal conference on sustainable development hosted by the world body three months ago was widely viewed as unproductive.
The Middle East and its myriad security challenges are expected to dominate the marathon of speeches beginning Tuesday, especially against the backdrop of worldwide Muslim outrage over an amateur video made by U.S.-based Christian zealots depicting the Prophet Muhammad as vile and sadistic.
Violent protests over the 14-minute film clip flared earlier this month after a version of "The Innocence of Muslims" was dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube. Conservative Islamists, some backed by Al Qaeda-aligned holy warriors, have attacked U.S. and other Western embassies and businesses across the Islamic crescent spanning the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. In the worst of the violence on Sept. 11, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed along with three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi. On Friday, the Muslim sabbath, enraged demonstrators clashed with police in Pakistan, killing at least 18 people.
The turmoil stirred up by the film isn't formally on the General Assembly agenda, but it will cast a shadow over the forum, said Stewart M. Patrick, who monitors international institutions at the Council on Foreign Relations.
What Patrick describes as "an extraordinarily amateur, clumsy and obviously offensive film" has antagonized Muslims worldwide and exposed an East-West fault line -- the balance between free speech and the defamation of religion.
Further complicating the prospects for making headway on Middle East crises, Patrick noted, are the potential implications for the U.S. presidential election if President Obama fails to take Russia and China to task for blocking Security Council action against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Obama also will be expected to use his speech to chastise Iran and spotlight a recent U.N. nuclear agency report that accuses Tehran of stepping up its enrichment of uranium and efforts to shield its suspect programs from international detection.
Assad is not expected to attend the General Assembly. Nor will Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Hu Jintao be present.
Obama also faces a diplomatically awkward situation in wanting a sit-down with Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, while he is in the United States for the first time since his election. But Obama has had to beg off a proposed meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose arrival in New York will be delayed and his stay shortened by Jewish holidays.
Netanyahu's demands for definitive U.S. warnings to Iran about its nuclear program have irked the White House, as they were seen as meddling in the U.S. election. Any failure of Obama to meet with the Israeli leader this week could give Republican challenger Mitt Romney an opportunity to repeat "unfair" accusations that Obama has abandoned Israel, Patrick said.
Some prospects might exist for getting international consensus on broad goals for sustainable development. The United Nations is nearing the 2015 deadline for implementing an eight-point strategy developed at the start of this millennium for eradicating poverty, achieving equality and improving health, education and the environment.
But there, as well, lie huge institutional obstacles to getting all 193 U.N. member states to agree on a blueprint. Bruce Jones, head of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pointed to the "disappointing" results of the massive Rio-plus-20 sustainable development conference in Brazil in June as cause for keeping in check expectations that the General Assembly will do better.
U.N. officials acknowledge they face daunting challenges but put an optimistic gloss on the state of the world and the bureaucratic institution's ability to improve it.
“In this tense global climate, we need a message of tolerance, dialogue, cooperation and harmony to resonate across the world," said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday at a ceremony honoring the world body's declared International Day of Peace.
He also hosted a visit by a former U.N. staffer, Myanmar opposition activist Aung San Suu Kyi, and heralded global support for her pro-democracy work as evidence that international collaboration can have its payoffs.
Ban has scheduled 145 bilateral meetings with General Assembly delegates and will attend 50 side events, he told journalists in New York.
"Convincing world leaders to live up to their commitments -– that will be quite an important mission for me," Ban said of his hope for making some progress on the sidelines.
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Photo: Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar Jaafari speaks before a special General Assembly session that was called last month to vote on a resolution denouncing the Syrian government for ongoing violence that has killed at least 20,000. The symbolic gesture was made after the Security Council repeatedly failed to sanction Syria because of objections by Russia and China. Credit: J.C. McLlwaine / European Pressphoto Agency