Queen Elizabeth at the United Nations

On July 6, Queen Elizabeth addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations for eight minutes.  The speech received little of no attention and I wouldn’t even have known about it until I read the most recent Newsweek and Jon Meacham’s very interesting thoughts on the speech.

Queen Elizabeth

First from the New York Times

Queen Elizabeth II addressed the United Nations for the first time since 1957 on Tuesday, paying homage to the organization’s accomplishments since she last stood at the famous green podium of the General Assembly.

It was a brief speech (see text), just eight minutes, assuring that  the queen’s remarks would not join the annals of infamous harangues from the podium delivered by long-reigning leaders like Muammar al-Qaddafi, who spoke for more than 90 minutes last fall, or Fidel Castro of Cuba. It was the first of three public visits during the queen’s daylong stop in New York City.

On her first visit, just four years after she took the throne, the queen came gliding into the United Nations in a black slip dress (or at least it looked black in the rapturous newsreels about the visit), high heels and a fur wrap. There was definitely no need for the fur wrap in the suffocating July heat on Tuesday — the queen wore a flowered suit and a curvy, elegant hat.

If the monarch, now 84, did not exactly sweep through the hall with the same grace as her 31-year-old self, the United Nations building itself looked rather more tattered, only now undergoing its first renovations since it was built around 1950.

So what did Jon Meacham make of the speech?

Given her audience and the constitutional restraints on her role—the personification of political life, she must be above politics—Elizabeth’s brief address could be read as an exercise in ceremonial conventionality. Yet her little-noted remarks offer a meditation on globalism and post-imperialism from a woman whose ancestors ruled much of the world. For American conservatives who worry that President Obama (or, really, any Democratic president) veers dangerously close to “one worldism,” the queen’s speech in New York serves as an inadvertent endorsement of a habit of mind in which power, both military and economic, is best exercised cooperatively rather than coercively. Saluting the U.N.’s diplomatic and relief work, she specifically cited the challenges of terrorism and climate change; the latter is of special concern, she said, for a “careful account must be taken of the risks facing smaller, more vulnerable countries, many of them from the Commonwealth.”

Meacham continues

What she takes very seriously—and I use that “very” advisedly—is the British Commonwealth, the loose association of 54 countries of which she is the titular head. There is no single superpower in her realm; she came to the throne in 1952 in the aftermath of World War II, a conflict in which the U.K. saved freedom but lost an empire. She has spent the last half century offering the Commonwealth a kind of subtle but steady rhetorical leadership—not unlike that provided by the U.N.

In a world of asymmetrical threats—terror, nuclear proliferation, disease, poverty, and climate change—multilateralism is not, to borrow an image from Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy of choice but of necessity. This does not mean America ought to go limp. Quite the opposite, in fact: the projection of our strength is magnified when we project it in concert with allies, whether through the U.N., NATO, or some provisional force created for a given military or policy purpose.

Foreign-policy doctrines are, in my view, chiefly useful in retrospect, not in real time, for the making of policy is almost always provisional, subject to the forces and the exigencies of a given moment. Which is why if we have to go it alone, we will. We learned how from Elizabeth’s first prime minister, Winston Churchill. But those hours will prove the exception, not the rule.

The rule is a world like Elizabeth’s Commonwealth. And the work endures. Quoting the late U.N. secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, the queen said, “ ‘Constant attention by a good nurse may be just as important as a major operation by a surgeon.’ Good nurses get better with practice; sadly, the supply of patients never ceases.”

This quote from Queen Elizabeth sums up what she believes and what I think Barack Obama’s view of diplomacy comes close to

It has perhaps always been the case that the waging of peace is the hardest form of leadership of all.  I know of no single formula for success, but over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal, and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration, to work together.

I have to think that the conservative, George W. Bush/Dick Cheney/Tea Party view of the world where the United States is the ultimate power and can just tell other countries what is going to happen is rapidly becoming outdated.  The world is becoming a large democracy with everyone needing to have a say.  We need to listen to the Queen and work together.

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