Circus tricks: a week in New York


The circus was in town.  I had a ticket:  but I did not really want to see the show.  I’ve not much appetite for tightrope-walking, especially when you know in advance the performer – in this case the United Nations –  has been set up to fall.  The choreography is predictable: the performance cliché. Here are the men in navy and grey suits, shoes shined.  Here are women in power dresses and block-colour blazers.  Here they are watching their smartphones, not the speakers at the roundtable. After all, everyone knows that the main event is just a sideshow: real powerbrokers hover in the corridors. That’s where the coffee is.

I skipped the headline act altogether this time – the United Nations High-Level Summit on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants – and arrived in New York in time for the off-Broadway numbers that followed, including the Concordia Summit Private Sector Forum on Action for Migrants and Refugees.  Given that even the United Nations seemed unable to muster much more than half-hearted enthusiasm for its New York Declaration, it seemed reasonable to miss the performance, spokespeople reading out their pre-prepared statements to a vetted audience. Everyone had known for a month that this meeting’s outcomes would not amount to much at all, beyond some half-hearted promises to “consider” better outcomes in two years’ time.  For yes, in 2018, we can expect to revisit all these debates again, by bureaucratic (if not popular) demand. Whether two “Global Compacts” – one on migrants, one on refugees – will offer anything of substance is yet to be seen.  I will not hold my breath. The acrobatics feats of diplomatic language too often mask sleight-of-hand and disappearing convictions.

What struck me once actually in New York, however, was not so much failure as irrelevance.  New York was the centre of the show: but up close you fix on the details, not the drama.  You see the greasepaint, the taped cracks in the scenery, the seat-fillers and the empty rows behind them. You see how unimpressive it all is. Of course, the show goes on: the real audience is elsewhere, somewhere beyond the fourth wall, tweeting about #Brangelina.

Even when we were talking about Syria, no one was really talking to Syrians. Let alone other refugee crises or other refugees. Politicians appealed to domestic voters, with promises to be tough on immigration, and tough on the causes of immigration.  Theresa May could as well have been speaking in Brussels or Washington as New York: a political performance for the Daily Mail.  The UN logos simply added a touch of gravitas.  The same was true of David Miliband – currently of the International Rescue Committee – whose remarks at the Concordia summit, about the need to distinguish between refugees and migrants, made the most sense to me framed by British politics, and continuing speculation about whether he’s going to attempt a prodigal son’s return to rescue the UK Labour party from itseslf.  Even the op-ed writers and the critics – rightfully angry – were mostly reduced to calling foul from the sidelines.

So what, exactly, is the point of all this pagentry? I hoped a week in New York would help me shape an answer to that question: it didn’t.

At the events and meetings I attended in New York there were, of course, many people I respect and admire – who I know share my politics and beliefs, who are outraged and sickened by our failure to deal with this refugee crisis, at our collectivity hostility and selfishness in choosing to build walls rather than open doors. Some of the bravest and most committed people I know work for the UN.  Out in the field, humanitarians save lives. But agency is nothing without structure.  And the UN’s institutions add up to less than the sum of their parts.

All this is the stuff of obituaries. And there is plenty to grieve.  Yet in fact, though the week has left us exactly where I expected – which is no claim of clairvoyancy as much as it is an ability to read the words published a month ago – I left New York calmer than I arrived, strangely comforted by the sharing of failure.  No one in New York I spoke to wanted to pretend that this was good enough. And that is important, because it is not good enough.  Recognising that failure is a first step.

And then, instead of turning in, I looked out, and I saw New York.  A dirty, noisy, sweaty city… that on every street corner offers a testament to what free movement can achieve.  This is a city where migration has always been contested, always disputed, but which has also been at its most successful when it has also been at its most open. New York – with all its energy and all its possibilities – would not exist without newcomers. Immigration is the city.  Meeting a friend – and recent immigrant – she confessed that when she hears the Star-spangled banner now, she cries: ‘How did that happen?’ she marveled.

I’ve had enough of performance politics. I don’t want to watch the circus.  This is not the way we change the world.  But I also know that was never what the UN was intended to be: it’s very formation was a piece of Cold War realpolitik whose very purpose was inaction, with a dose liberal imperialism thrown in.   The UN is a means, not an end: the end is a fairer world, better migration, sanctuary for refugees.  If the means no longer serve the end, we must find another way.

So my week in New York was ultimately a reminder that the answer doesn’t lie in bureaucratic diplomacy, inching forward without reference to urgency. But the answer also doesn’t lie in doing nothing. When a private citizen can make more immediate difference than many states – which is what happened when George Soros pledged to invest $500 million in refugee businesses – it’s a sign that there is possibility to be measured alongside states’ and institutions’ failures. There are many people out there who want better. There are still places of welcome. The UN may be a lost cause: a better world is not.