On Wednesday, members of the Yale community gathered for a Jackson Institute town hall meeting with Joseph Deiss, president of the United Nations General Assembly. Deiss, a Swiss politician and economist who served as president of the Swiss Confederation in 2004, was elected president of the 65th session of the General Assembly on June 11, 2010. Though Deiss acknowledged that today more problems are “crossing borders,” his overall message was one of optimism. After the meeting, Deiss explained what being president of the GA really means, broke down the nuclear situation in Japan and described why Friday-morning Spanish class is worth the struggle.
Q. To start, can you please give a description of your duties as president of the United Nations General Assembly?
A. Well, this is quite simple. I have to chair the meetings of the GA, which is the most important duty, but this means also that I have to look after the institution as such and make sure our meetings, our decisions, our work can be accomplished in the best possible conditions. The president is also a kind of super-facilitator or networker in that you bring the members together and enable them to find solutions.
Then, as president, you are also representing the institution. Even though the secretary-general is the most visible, you are the one who represents really the whole membership, since the GA is the only body of the U.N. where you have all the 192 member states present. So I’m also doing outreach and today’s conference is an example. I cannot go to all the Americans, but I want to meet some of the people in our host country, since we should never forget that our headquarters are hosted by the Americans. So I am doing outreach activities here but I’m doing, of course, outreach activities all over the world.
Q. With so many trouble spots in the world today, how does GA effectively respond to so many crises at once? How does the GA prioritize?
A. The GA is a place where all matters that are in line with the charter, and I would say that are of importance for humanity, can be addressed. The GA is not a body that has to take action. It has not the power to take action, but it is a place where the important issues concerning humanity have to be discussed. Of course, this will in many cases go into action once the resolutions are passed and new bodies and new institutions are created. Once the decision is taken, it is up to the officials of U.N. and up to the secretary-general to do the work and to go into action. It is the Security Council who has the duty to look after peace and security. And when you are saying that there are a lot of problems and issues I would add that there are not only many difficult situations, but that there are also many happy and many positive situations.
Q. Are there lessons to be learned from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that can be communicated through the GA? If so, what do you believe those are?
A. I would say that the GA did not wait for the most recent catastrophes in order to address any issues. We had in February the first thematic debate that I organized in this 65th session of the GA on disaster risk reduction, and in particular we addressed the situation in cities. We had, for example, the mayors of four major cities of the world present and one of the major lessons of these debates was prevention.
Prevention is one of the most important elements in order to reduce the risk of casualties in disaster situations. On the occasion of these debates, examples were given. Haiti was hit by a strong earthquake which devastated the country and resulted in many deaths andd casualties, because the country was unprepared, while New Zealand and Japan were given as examples for their important work on prevention. Now they have been hit by very heavy earthquakes and also Japan by its tsunami which went beyond their own prevention. On the other hand, it is unbelievable that given the strength of this earthquake in Japan and the closeness to a city like Tokyo, the human casualties in Tokyo itself were very little compared to the power of the earthquake. So, I would say that the lesson to be learned is that prevention is essential but has probably to go beyond even what was supposed to be reasonable up to now.
Q. In the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis, do you see a role for the GA in reassessing nuclear power in developing and developed countries?
A. There is a certainly a role for the U.N. and, again, it’s of course not this crisis or catastrophe that brings U.N. on the plane. We have already an agency which is in charge of all nuclear dimensions and there is already an important cooperation between U.N. members where civilian use of nuclear energy is concerned. But I think that the catastrophe we now experience in Japan effectively goes quite far beyond Japanese responsibility and action to be taken. It will certainly make the civil use of nuclear power a topic that has to be addressed in the U.N. and most probably also in GA.
Q. Do you personally feel that the rewards of nuclear power outweigh its risks?
A. I am not a specialist in physics or in energy but what I can say is that again we are at a crossroads of different strategies in regard to different goals. The development of the whole world economy, especially the capacity of developing countries to reach a fair standard of living, needs probably even more energy than the quantity at our disposal today. We know, at the same time, that the use of oil and other energies of that kind are a huge problem for the environment through the emission of carbon. Climate change is linked with that, so nuclear energy was seen as being a rescue to the carbon problem and could be an alternative.
There are, of course, other alternatives that are not developed as strongly as we could hope for at the moment, but this Japanese case shows how difficult it is to make the balance between all the interests and all the threats. What I would say as an economist is that the solution of the energy question will in many case have to go through the question of paying the fair price for the impact of any use of energy. Up to now it was possible to get energy without paying the full price — be it oil, be it gas, be it nuclear energy or other sources.
Q. What measures will the GA undertake to cushion the economic impact of the crisis in Japan?
A. I think that the economic impact has to be addressed by the special organizations of the U.N. system in the economic field. I think the IMF and World Bank will have to work on that and it’s not that much a matter of the GA.
Q. What advice can you give to Yale students — international relations majors or not — who have ambitions to promote global change of their own?
A. Learn foreign languages.
Q. And why do you say that in particular?
A. There is a schoolbook called “French with a Sentence” from a German writer, Goethe, who says, “If you don’t know a foreign language, you don’t know your own language.” So why should American students learn foreign languages? In order to better understand their English, or their own country.
Q. Finally, what motivated you to pursue international relations?
A. Very early in my university studies my teachers brought me to work on international economic issues. I found it very motivating to work on the most important lesson international economics can teach, namely that one of the rare games where everybody is a winners is international division of labor and international trade. This today is true for much more topics than only trade and economy. In all dimensions, we can win if we work together rather than against each other.