UN General Assembly 2013: 3 Meetings That Won't Happen, But Really Should


As the annual United Nations General Assembly gets underway, here are three meetings that, in all probability, will not happen this time around, even though it would be good for the world if they did:

1. Benjamin Netanyahu and Hassan Rouhani

This is the meeting that definitely will not happen in 2013, but really, really should. There are many similarities between the U.S.-Soviet Cold War and today’s Israel-Iran standoff. From nuclear weapons programs to vast ideological differences to Iran’s seeking of ever greater regional clout (much as the Soviets sought to dominate as much of the world as they could), it is perfectly understandable for Israelis and their government to feel threatened by Iranian strength, just as Americans in the latter half of the 20th century rightly felt threatened by Soviet strength.

But this is hardly a good enough reason for Jerusalem and Tehran not to at least have ambassadors in each other’s countries. If anything, the fact that Israel and Iran may soon be aiming nuclear weapons at each other increases the need for diplomatic relations between the two. One reason the 20th century Cold War never became World War III is that Washington and Moscow maintained diplomatic relations with each other during the whole period.

It’s possible that Rouhani’s overtures in his first few months in office have been nothing more than attempts to divert attention away from Iran’s nuclear program, and that he plans to keep said program going. But even if that is the case, Israel need not fear a nuclear-armed Iran so much that it cannot tolerate its very existence. Its own nuclear arsenal is more than large enough to deter an Iranian first strike. Unfortunately, Israelis will probably first have to elect a prime minister other than Benjamin Netanyahu if their country is to minimize its chances of a full-blown war with its primary nation-state rival.

2. Barack Obama and Raul Castro

The U.S. policy of economic sanctions against Cuba stopped making sense when the Cold War ended. Keeping Cuba on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism makes even less sense in this day and age. Now that President Obama no longer has to worry about winning reelection, he also doesn’t have to worry what Cuban Americans might think about him trying to establish diplomatic relations with a dictator named Castro.

More generally, though, American politicians should stop catering to the wishes of (a shrinking proportion of) a Florida voting bloc, and should instead approach Cuba the way their predecessors have approached erstwhile enemies like China and Vietnam: disapproving of political repression and warning against excessively statist economic policies, but ready to cooperate on solving problems of mutual concern, and eager to gradually nudge one-party regimes in the direction of liberalization and democratization. He probably won’t take advantage of it, but this year’s General Assembly provides Obama with an opportunity to end a diplomatic standoff that in 2013 is, quite frankly, silly.

3. The leaders of all the democracies in the Group of 20

Except for China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, the G-20 is composed of electoral democracies (16 nation-states, plus the European Union as a whole). For all the many differences between these powers (culture, economic policies, geography, etc.), there are many issues on which they can and should collaborate, from combating climate change to minimizing the damage done by recessions to preserving international peace and security. Unfortunately, the UN itself, especially the Security Council (where China and Russia have veto power), often stands in the way, as the world has seen in the case of the Syrian civil war

One observer of U.S. foreign policy has proposed a United Democratic Nations, an organization that would explicitly exclude non-democracies and would give itself the authority to conduct military interventions for humanitarian goals, among other powers. While a meeting of the world’s most powerful elected leaders doesn’t have to result in the creation of a new international institution, it could still lead to an understanding among the world’s strongest democracies that, even when they disagree about how to solve a particular problem, they can at least agree on which problems most need solving.

Oh well, there’s always 2014.