It is an annual event that New Yorkers profess to hate. With more than 150 world leaders descending on Manhattan at the same time for the United Nations general assembly, traffic meltdown is normally the upshot.
But the grumbling is not just a result of the disruption and the millions spent on security, which the city has to bear. It is that little of significance ever emerges from an event which is high on theatrics and low on substance.
The White House is hoping that this year will be different. An exotic and varied cast list is expected, including a Chinese president — for the first time in 40 years — and, crucially, a US leader who unlike his predecessor values the international peace organisation.
When Obama delivers his speech at the opening of the general assembly on Wednesday, he can expect an enthusiastic reception. John Bolton, Bush’s ambassador to the UN and one of its fiercest critics, has said the former president described UN trips as “an annual visit to the waxworks”, referring to the silent hostility that greeted his appearances before the general assembly. “Obama’s reception will be adulatory in contrast with Bush,” Bolton predicted. “It will be a great photo-opportunity for the White House.”
But Obama is not the only head of state who will command attention.
In attendance for the first time is Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, whom the Swiss fear will use the platform to bizarrely call for the abolition of Switzerland following the arrest of his son, Hannibal, in Geneva earlier this year over an alleged hotel incident.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may, meanwhile, find the ranks of his opponents swelling following the brutal post-election crackdown in Iran and his renewed denial of the Holocaust on Friday.
Hu Jintao, the first Chinese head of state to attend since the country rejoined the UN in 1971, is also likely to face protests — in his case over Tibet and the Falung Gong.
Restrictions on air traffic over the city will be even tighter than usual. There will be at least 8,000 police on duty, and thousands more members of the secret service watching over the 40-odd hotels where the leaders are staying. Protesters will be out in force, with Gaddafi a target because of the reignited Lockerbie bombing row.
In recent years, the general assembly has been largely about theatrics, with Fidel Castro ignoring the five-minute rule to launch lengthy tirades against the US, and the US delegation walking out during Ahmadinejad’s speech in 2007. But the Obama administration argues that this year will be different. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said: “As President Obama leads our US delegation at this year’s general assembly, I hope we can demonstrate that the UN does not have to be just a diplomatic talkshop on First Avenue.”
Obama will speak at a meeting of world leaders on Tuesday to try to pave the way for a new climate change agreement at the Copenhagen summit in December.