Despite being the most prominent elected leader, or perhaps because of it, Obama’s final speech here came across sounding like an unsettling, exigent swan song.
Today marks the opening of the 71st United Nations General Assembly. As habitually occurs, it falls upon Brazil and the United States to deliver the first speeches following those of Ban Ki-moon and Peter Thomson, the president of the General Assembly, who is a citizen of Fiji. Now, over the course of several days, an almost unending sequence of speeches will follow and be delivered according to a predetermined list distributed in advance. The delegations will spend the day on the run, dividing their time between bilateral meetings and side events that take place in parallel to the General Assembly session, as well as the General Assembly session itself.
The high point for each country is the time when the delegation head—typically the head of state, but someone who could also be the prime minister or minister for foreign affairs—speaks. It is at this point that the delegation is given the floor, bolstered by members of the various missions, and appears within the chamber, which is filled to the brim. No matter the content of speech being given, it never fails to spark one’s patriotic spirit during those scant minutes that our country speaks before the whole world and is heard on a global level. If all member states are equal, in theory, then, in practice, it is well known that they all don’t enjoy the same weight, the same ability to speak or, more significantly, the same power of influence. Nevertheless, the annual General Assembly session continues to be an exceptional moment for international life, a sort of forum of equals, providing each member state the ability to share concerns, underscore priorities and appeal to peers during this or that speech.
For many years, for example, Portugal fought to have the issue of Timor-Leste occupy a place of importance on the international agenda, making use of this very forum to secure this goal. So, too, has the ever insolvable and complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict been a recurring issue. The examples are both numerous and varied.
All in all, the common denominator—or, at least, the “central core”—for all speeches is a sort of agenda that, presumably, summarizes United Nations priorities for the forthcoming year. From this point, it’s quite important to ensure that determined themes be included within the speech, as it provides a good indication that said issues will be in focus over the course of the year. I have experienced the meaning and importance of both “references” and “paragraphs” [within delegations’ speeches] numerous times when I was dealing with the fight against tuberculosis as well as in the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. A speech that would mention, in the worst of cases, either public health issues or efforts to fight pandemics, or in the best of cases, that either the fight against tuberculosis or that a particular head of state had made the Alliance of Civilizations a priority for their country, would bring with it enormous satisfaction, as such an allusion would be interpreted as an unequivocal signal of [that country’s] support, which would eventually lead to a diplomatic follow-up. And, naturally, the level of this enthusiasm felt would be proportional to the international prominence of the speaker.
This year, given that the secretary-general will be delivering his final speech, as his time in office is nearing an end, it is expected that his speech will provide accountability to and a final review of all objectives achieved over the past decade, while also summarizing those challenges that will dominate coming years, with the war and ceasefire in Syria, the refugee and migration crisis, issues arising from climate change and the fight against terrorism and extremism presumably being among the primary concerns. The grave attack on a humanitarian aid convoy, which killed more than ten humanitarian workers and will keep essential goods away from millions of Syrians that had been counting on them, must also be condemned vehemently by a significant number of speakers.
The speech to be delivered by the president of the United States, always regarded with great anticipation, will have an equal air of suspense surrounding it this year, as it will be Obama’s final speech before the General Assembly. I was there in 2009 when he delivered his first speech as U.S. president, and I still remember it seeming like a gust of fresh air, the almost “collective exaltation” his words elicited, the strong applause and the formidable feeling of hope that it created. Eight years later the feeling is, for many, one of disillusionment, while for others, it is understood that his administration has done everything that it could. In truth, however, in spite of his administration’s historic normalization of relations with Cuba, the nuclear treaty with Iran and the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change, many nations’ foreign policy expectations for the United States have still fallen short—particularly with respect to everything he’s said about the devastated region of the Middle East and North Africa. Worse still is the hovering uncertainty about the future of U.S. politics and, even more chilling, the fact that this isn’t just an isolated situation but rather a much wider phenomenon that has translated into a general, conspicuous trend across the European continent.
In spite of the protocol being, by definition, rigid, the unforeseen does occur at times, even with rituals as highly regimented as those of the General Assembly. Just such a thing happened this year with the speech to be delivered by President Obama, which was postponed for a later time due to his not being able to be present at the time initially foreseen. I likewise remember another embarrassing moment, about which it was impossible to conceal the humor, when a high-level representative from an important country began to read a page from a previous speaker’s speech that had been left by mistake on the podium. This political blunder took the form of an unusual reference to prioritizing the relationship between Portuguese-speaking countries—a moment made all the more funny as it immediately put this same community of countries on a state of alert who, left quite bewildered, were then settled down some minutes later once the speaker realized his mistake. I confess that I wouldn’t have wanted to be that minister’s assistant, who was responsible for having placed the folder containing his speech on the podium…
During the afternoon, a summit for heads of state will be taking place outside of the General Assembly in which President Obama will be the primary host. Once more, he will be emphasizing the issue of refugees in the hope of securing a political agreement in the sense of finding practical solutions for this global challenge. Only select countries were invited to this event, among which was Portugal, which may be seen as recognition of our national position, a position that has been marked by openness and frank cooperation.
Our president will be the 25th speaker of the day, delivering a speech scheduled for the middle of the afternoon, followed thereafter by Mexico and King Felipe VI of Spain. Due to the time difference as well as my own day’s agenda, I have to send in these notes at lunchtime, a good deal of time before his speech. It is my anticipation that, through his voice, Portugal will reiterate its firm commitment to the value of peace and peaceful conflict resolution, the attainment of continually greater human rights, the objectives of sustainable development, our willingness to contribute to resolving the refugee crisis on the basis of a strong reaffirmation of the value of multilateralism—embodied, in particular, by the United Nations family—as well as the importance of continually “looking toward the future,” something that the General Assembly president also exhorted member states to do, using an expression from his own native language: “Rai ki liu!”
Postscript: As always, the president of the United States found the right words for his farewell address, which had, however, a prevailing tone of somberness and pessimism to it. He gave a sober review of his performance in office, thereby unceasingly defending his legacy. He provided a firm analysis of the weighty, diverse challenges that lay ahead for the world in the future. He also made a vigorous appeal for greater cooperation between member states and for more comprehensive international action, warning that the alternative to this would be deepened divisions and exacerbated conflicts. Despite being the most prominent elected leader, or perhaps because of it, Obama’s final speech here came across—using a colorful, perhaps awkward metaphor—innocuous, like an unsettling, exigent swan song.
The author is the former president of Portugal.