Behind the Scenes at UNGA

October 1, 2009
Delegations Arrive at UN Headquarters in Advance of the Start of the General Debate
Vehicle and Pedestrian Traffic is Frequently Interrupted and Redirected During the Busiest Days of UNGA
State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly Looks up from His Blackberry
News Organizations Squeeze onto the Media Island Across the Street from UN Headquarters
Mark Schlachter Surveys the Empty General Assembly Hall

About the Author: Rebecca Goldenberg served as Deputy UNGA Coordinator for the Department of State.

After running around the 1950s-era United Nations Secretariat building, going through endless security checkpoints and literally bumping into heads of state, I finally found a TV carrying the scene from the UN General Assembly Hall. But I wasn’t alone. On a normal day, the Vienna Café in the bowels of Secretariat building would have been a quiet, if smokey, getaway from the buzz of the day-to-day work of the UN, with scattered diplomats from across the globe chatting over cups of coffee. A Starbucks to the world. Last Wednesday, however, dozens of the UN-accredited who were not so fortunate as to have the proper combination of badges, overlays and tickets to enter the actual General Assembly Hall had gathered in the café to hear President Obama’s first address at the United Nations.

As President Obama appeared on the TV screen, the diplomats grew silent. For 38 minutes, we watched as if it were game seven of the World Series. The nearly one hundred diplomats crowded into the Vienna Café focused intently on Obama’s powerful speech; a stark contrast to the buzz before his remarks that made it hard to hear yourself think. The quiet of the café was a powerful signal to me of how much the world is truly watching the United States.

The President's speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was the highlight of U.S. engagement during UNGA, but there was much more to come during the General Debate, a two week period when heads of state gather in New York to open the new UNGA session. As coordinators for the 64th UNGA, Doug Sun and I have been working for months. We’ve spent many late nights in the office drafting speeches and memos, determining schedules, and collecting and editing hundreds of papers for President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and other principals. Needless to say, it has been a busy time. The coordination came down to the wire, with last minute details still being arranged as we hopped on the train to New York City for the big event. By the time we arrived, the city was already bustling with motorcades shuttling heads of state, Secret Service and police officers on every street corner out-numbering pedestrians, and security barriers closing off various busy New York City streets.

This year, as it was President Obama’s first UNGA, everything seemed to have an added edge of anticipation, reflected in the assembled crowd at the Vienna Café. This also meant that the President's schedule was packed to the brim. Over the course of approximately ten days, I met and chatted with dozens of the world’s leaders at President Obama’s reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, found myself lost more than once in the labyrinthine UN Secretariat buildings, watched scrambling reporters drop and break their cameras in an effort to catch a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, watched as an unnamed delegation was quickly pulled from a malfunctioning elevator to the horror of the security detail, and worked into the wee hours of the morning in our hotel-room-turned-control-office in the Waldorf Astoria with some of the most dedicated, capable, and funniest colleagues out there.

On Saturday, Secretary Clinton came through the control suite to thank us for all of our hard work. We all appreciated the visit, especially Doug. It has been an experience as rewarding as it has been exhausting, but absolutely worth it. And even though I’m nursing an exhaustion-induced cold, I hope to have the opportunity to do it all again next year.



New Mexico, USA
October 1, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Hi Rebecca,

Paul McCartney had this to say about the creative process...,one might say the same about creating change in mindsets throughout the world.

"You compose in isolation, you record in isolation. The gig is where it's at."

Now a large bowl of green chile stew to blow that cold away and a good night's rest should do you a world of good. So go get've earned it!


New York, USA
October 5, 2009

Ron in New York writes:

UNGA 2010...

IDEA: Set up an NGO/Civil Society liaison center near the Waldorf; where new information can be shared with USG on issues of import to the agenda of the 2010 UNGA. Often, the NGO's are 5 years ahead on trends and needs facing the U.S. and international organizations.


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