Our colleague Christian Doktor is a press officer at Germany’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. During Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s trip to the UN General Assembly, he looked after the journalists and camera teams in town to cover the event, organised press briefings – and discussed the UN with New York cab drivers. Here he reports on an intense week’s work.
Tuesday, 23 September 2014, still dark outside. Foreign Minister Steinmeier arrived in New York for the annual UN General Debate five hours ago. It was a short night, and I’m running late. The Minister wants to give his first statement to the press at 8 a.m. So I grab a cab and head for the Permanent Mission.
Traffic chaos in UN week
When I tell the driver where I want to go, he gives a loud groan. “Impossible,” he says, absolutely impossible to get through to the UN, where more than 120 heads of state and government and even more foreign ministers will be gathering today. We try it all the same; after all, time’s short. But that’s a real beginner’s mistake, as I gradually realise.
The cab crawls up Third Avenue, police cars everywhere, half of Midtown is blocked off. The driver swears, honks his horn, curses passers-by and police officers, gives me dirty looks. But actually he’s already long made his mind up about who’s really to blame for the traffic chaos: the United Nations! “Why can’t they hold this General Assembly thing in Canada?” he asks, probably a rhetorical question. “There’s more space there than in Manhattan.” Which is true, of course, but it’s a bit late now to start thinking about moving UN headquarters from the East River to the St Lawrence.
The press are always there
It’s also getting a bit late for my press briefing with the Minister and by now the traffic has come to a complete standstill. President Obama is driving through the city and we’re stuck in the “freeze”, the total traffic gridlock dreaded not only by cab drivers. So I leave the cab and continue on foot.
Sprinting through Midtown, I mentally go through the agenda for the next few days: more than a dozen press statements by the Minister, a G7 foreign ministers meeting chaired by Germany, crisis diplomacy on Ukraine, Iraq or Syria, debates on climate change, Security Council reform, illegal trade in wildlife and, in between all these, countless bilateral meetings. The sheer number of meetings and topics is incredible. And the press always want to be there.
This is a huge logistical challenge for the press team at the Permanent Mission. What meetings are the press actually allowed into? How will the journalists and camera teams get into the UN and the hotels where many of the events are taking place, which have been turned into fortresses? When and where does the Minister want to issue a statement, and on what? It would be absolutely impossible to look after the 40 or so German media representatives from Berlin, Washington and New York without support from the Press Division in Berlin.
Topics ranging from Ebola to the small island states
Then, of course, journalists have substantive questions they want answered too: How does Germany intend to push forward Security Council reform? What’s the Federal Government doing in the fight against Ebola? What’s the international strategy to counter the Islamic State? Who’s the current chair of the Alliance of Small Island States? (Yes, someone did ask me that.)
Five days later. Pretty exhausted, I treat myself to a cab for the trip home. I’m even more tired than on Tuesday, but happy to have survived the week of the Minister’s visit without any disasters. The last few days are a strange blur in my mind, but before I nod off completely, the cab driver wakes me. He wants to know whether I work at the UN.
A fan of the UN
I answer truthfully, expecting the usual tirade against the United Nations, the road blocks, the traffic chaos. But instead I get a little miracle in New York: instead of complaining, this cab driver proudly tells me about his brother‑in‑law, who’s been a UN peacekeeper. His country, Pakistan, is the second-largest troop provider, he tells me, and he himself a big fan of the UN.
And so, at the end of an intense and occasionally chaotic week, it seems that everything is back in order. Even the New York cab drivers have once again reconciled themselves to the United Nations – until the end of next September, at least.