The Delicate Diplomatic Dances at the UN

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: So what happens when leaders "just happen" to awkwardly bump into each other in the UN hallway? That's "just happen" in quotation marks. Joel Rubin is a former US State Department official who now works at the non-proliferation group Ploughshares. He'll be attending General Assembly events this week. I asked him earlier how likely an Obama-Rouhani meeting might be.

Joel Rubin: Well, if you read the tea leaves about what the White House is saying, it sounds like they're not ruling it out. I think there's a lot of anticipation of some type of interaction. If so, this would be the first time in more than three decades that a president of the United States and the leader of the state of Iran were to meet. But there are risks as well, and the risks are that it would be seen as rewarding Iranian behavior without concrete results. So when President Obama does go forward, if he does choose to meet, he's going to have to also communicate how this is part of the process towards really getting results on the nuclear program that Americans are concerned about.

Werman: Let's say Syria's Bashar al-Assad shows up. It's highly unlikely, but let's just pretend. Is there some handling of that going on in the back room so there would not be an accidental meeting between Obama and Assad, or do you just let the chips fall where they may and if they meet, they meet.

Rubin: Well, delegations are right now full of different requests they have in their in-box, trying to identify where their principals, meaning the president, secretary, the ambassador to the UN, where they should go and who they should meet with. It is highly structured and choreographed. But if Assad were to come, certainly they would be aware of it, they would know where their principal is, where their leader is, and try to make sure that type of an encounter wouldn't take place.

Werman: There's also the case of Sudanese President Omar Bashir who's indicted by the International Criminal Court. Now, Bashir says he's coming. What are the protocol rules surrounding someone like Bashir showing up?

Rubin: Well, Bashir, if he were to be at the UN, he would have some freedom of movement at the UN, but getting to the UN is another question. The International Criminal Court does want him there, they want him on trial.

Werman: Do you think the UN would actually want Bashir to stay away given the bad publicity it could produce?

Rubin: When an individual is running into the UN and sort of daring the UN to take action, it does create tensions and certainly the UN does not want to be seen as not able to bring him to justice.

Werman: This is all very big stuff at the UN and the diplomatic stage, important protocol. For Obama in the domestic scheme of things, how important is the General Assembly meeting and these brief diplomatic encounters with other heads of state?

Rubin: Well, the President is going to be speaking to multiple audiences at the same time publicly when he gives his address. He's certainly going to be addressing the international community, the United Nations as well as a particular body. He's going to be speaking to, in the case of Iran, the Iranian people, as well as the Iranian government and the leadership. He's also going to be speaking to American allies in the region in the Persian Gulf and in Israel who are going to really want to see where the United States is heading on its diplomacy. And then of course the American people, who are the most important listeners to this, they're going to take it all in. It's a very complex speech, but there's a lot of work done behind the scenes as well so the President's work behind the scenes is going to be as important as his public speech.

Werman: What about protocol stuff that you had to deal with, Joel, in your time at the State Department? Anything that was really kind of eye-opening and just surprised you?

Rubin: What was really eye-opening and surprising was how competitive it was. Every minute is precious. A touch between Rouhani and Obama may only last 15 seconds, who knows, but that is an eternity in many ways in terms of how the public will be looking at it. A photo lasts and lasts and lasts.

Werman: Alright, Joel. Thank you very much.

Rubin: My pleasure. Thanks, Marco.

Werman: That was Joel Rubin, formerly with the State Department, currently with the non-proliferation organization Ploughshares. Now, today's Geo Quiz takes us to a swanky German neighborhood.