NEW YORK, New York — President Barack Obama is set to take the stage to address the United Nation General Assembly for the fifth time. At this point, Obama has become a pro at navigating the pomp surrounding General Assembly speeches. Nonetheless, 2013 might be a little bit out of the ordinary: he’ll be taking the stage after what will likely be the most awkward part of his time in New York this week.
Thanks to the way history has played out, the top places on the speaking order at the General Assembly are always held by two countries: Brazil and the United States. When Franklin Roosevelt was first developing the concept of the United Nations, a large part of his vision orbited around the idea of the Great Powers as global policemen. The United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union were to bear the brunt of the costs involved in providing global security, a group later expanded during negotiations to include China and France. That’s how we ended up with the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council.
But Roosevelt had one more policeman in mind to help take care of matters in the Western Hemisphere: Brazil. FDR’s personal pitch for Beijing’s inclusion — the key reason China has a UN veto today — was a hard enough sell to the rest of the allies; Brazil was a bridge too far. As a consolation prize, Brazil was given the Presidency of the first and second General Assemblies. Since then, by precedence, Brazil has had the honor of speaking first after the U.N. Secretary-General opens the General Debate. So when current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff took office, she made history as the first woman to open the G.A. She was immediately followed by Obama in his role as the host country of the U.N., and nothing’s changed that order this time around.
But the 2013 speeches might not be entirely pleasant for President Obama. Until recently, the two presidents were on such good terms that Rousseff was invited to be the first head of state feted at the White House in Obama’s second term, a show of his dedication to Latin America and respect for Brazil’s growing strength in the region.
But then Edward Snowden happened.
The former National Security Agency contractor revealed that the agency had allegedly tapped the emails of Rousseff and other members of the Brazilian government. While entirely within the NSA’s mandate to gather intelligence on foreign powers, it was understandably embarrassing for the United States. Obama’s bilateral meeting with Rousseff during the G-20 meeting last month didn’t seem to mend the damage much at all.
In fact, the spying controversy prompted Brasilia to cancel Rousseff’s trip to the U.S. entirely. The White House insists that the dinner has only been postponed and that the decision was entirely mutual, but that doesn’t change the fact that the very prominent event is no longer set to take place anytime soon. What’s more, Brazil is now moving to pass a law that would require foreign companies to host their servers in Brazil if they’re to do business within the country, a move that prompted some worry that the days of an open and unified internet may be coming to an end.
It’s entirely possible that Rousseff will use her time before the world to denounce foreign spying and at least allude to the United States’ current indiscretions. Since Obama will share the stage, however briefly, with Rousseff while she concludes her speech and he prepares to give his, that could be rather uncomfortable. Obama’s speechwriters may choose, as a consequence, to acknowledge the scandal in addition to focusing on Iran and Syria as they’ve planned. But even if Rousseff doesn’t poke Obama over NSA snooping, their moment in the sun together isn’t looking to be anything but an awkward time for Obama in a place where he’s more used to accepting accolades than scorn.