The Politics of Diplomatic Parking

by Bhaskar Menon*

United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when she was ambassador at the United Nations, was once asked by a journalist why so many of her compatriots in Congress were anti-UN. She did not miss a beat. “Because it’s filled with foreigners” she said. Although the answer was in jest, it was not without a substantial kernel of truth.

The United States is made up mostly of immigrants and has one of the most diverse populations of any country on earth, but it has the distinction of being about the only place where politicians can get popular attention and approval by attacking the United Nations. This is especially so in New York, where UN bashing can be said to have achieved the status of a fine political art. Perhaps its most elegant practitioner was Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose passage from egg-head Harvard academic to United States Senator, was helped enormously by the tough-guy image he earned during his brief stopover at the UN. Former Mayor Edward Koch too was a Major League UN-basher, but in contrast to the cerebrally detached Moynihan, who managed to convey a sense of distaste for what had to be done, Mr. Koch seemed to relish behaving like a Yahoo. His most memorable comment about the UN was that it is “a cesspool”.

In such company, the current Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, seems possessed of a Victorian rectitude. He has not invited the UN to sail into the sunset. He has not held the Organization up to public ridicule. He has, in fact, said quite a number of nice things about the UN and the enormous benefits it brings to New York. Surveys of tourists in the city have found that the UN is second in popularity only to the Metropolitan Museum as a destination. His office has documented the fact that the diplomatic community in New York pumps several billion dollars into the local economy every year.

Why then in the last few weeks has there been such a sudden flap over diplomatic parking in New York? Why was Mayor Giuliani unrepentant about the unseemly confrontation between New York City policemen and two diplomats in which one was hospitalized? Why did New York City unveil a new Diplomatic Parking Programme which UN Legal Counsel Hans Corell described as being not entirely consistent with international law? What could have got into the terse Mr. Giuliani that he should, at the sight of every television camera, rail at the iniquities that diplomatic parking scofflaws pile on New York?

To all of the above, there is one answer: politics. The Mayor is up for reelection and down the road, he has his eye on a Senate seat. While his excellent record in fighting crime and squeegee-men in New York is a solid foundation for his political future, he needs something extra to go up against as declasse a streetfighter as Senator Alfonse D’Amato. That something must make his combative, problem-solving persona visible beyond the level landscape of New York’s outer boroughs in a way that every Joe Shmoe can understand.

What better solution to this political need than an attack on diplomatic parking scofflaws? Everyone gets mad at people who park illegally, especially at fire hydrants. And everyone is jealous of diplomats, for in the popular imagination they are a jet-setting, let-them-eat-cake bunch of people, much given to driving their limousines through puddles to splash the honest hoi polloi. Of course, the reality is quite different from the image: most diplomats are pretty ordinary meat and potatoes type of people. Many take the subway or bus to work. Most who get parking tickets in New York pay up promptly. But in politics, as everyone knows, truth is always one of the early casualties. And truth about the UN is an especially vulnerable thing in the political battlegrounds of America.

* Bhaskar Menon is the editor of International Documents Review, a weekly newsletter on the UN.