The world still shows high hopes at the UN

José Vela Zanetti, living in exile after the Spanish Civil War, created the mural ''Mankind's Struggle for Lasting Peace'' for the United Nations in 1953. Evgeniy Vuchetich's bronze sculpture ''Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares'' was a gift from the Soviet Union in 1959.
José Vela Zanetti, living in exile after the Spanish Civil War, created the mural ''Mankind's Struggle for Lasting Peace'' for the United Nations in 1953. Evgeniy Vuchetich's bronze sculpture ''Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares'' was a gift from the Soviet Union in 1959. (David Lyon for The Boston Globe)
By David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2008
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The line on the plaza was hardly a proper New York queue. People weren't jostling for position, and except for British high school boys showing off for British high school girls, they were unfailingly polite. But then I was a good 200 feet outside of New York - 200 feet outside the United States, for that matter. The United Nations is foreign turf you can reach on public transit.

Many people I know visited the UN on high school class trips for an uplifting lesson in world citizenship. My coastal Maine school didn't have the budget for long jaunts, so we took a bus to Bangor to see the Paul Bunyan statue and experience Maine's first McDonald's.

The Delegates' Dining Room at UN headquarters is a far cry from the Golden Arches. It's often described as one of New York's "secrets" because it offers an elegant lunch to the public. Jeans and sneakers are taboo, and men are expected to wear jackets. On a recent business trip to Manhattan, I made a reservation for a late lunch. And, while I was at it, I signed up for the United Nations tour.

I had been warned to bring photo ID and leave behind anything that wouldn't pass muster at an airline checkpoint, but not everyone got the message, so the security line stuttered as people were relieved of pocket knives and nail clippers. But once inside, the wait was brief, as a 45-minute English-language tour departs every 15-20 minutes.

The members of my group were all adults, mostly Americans by their accents. Our guide was South Korean, and admitted to speaking only Korean and English, though some guides speak up to seven languages. When asked her name, she demurred, then led us through another security gate and into the corridors.

Our guide dutifully recited the relevant facts and figures about the complex. Except for the library, it was designed by a team of 10 architects with Le Corbusier contributing the overall composition. It was constructed from 1946 to 1952 on land purchased with a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. When the original UN convened in June 1945, it had 51 members. (There are now 192, in part because the UN oversaw the transition of more than 80 former colonies to independent nations.)

Maybe seeing the UN on television had raised my expectations, but I had pictured listening in on a debate at the General Assembly (not meeting that day), or at least seeing the Security Council chamber (off-limits because that body was discussing the situation in Darfur). I was reminded of palace tours where I had been told that the king was in the next room, but wouldn't be coming out to meet us.

The hallways themselves were filled with exhibits relating to the UN mission, like José Vela Zanetti's monumental 1953 mural, "Mankind's Struggle for Lasting Peace," and a world map pinpointing hot spots where UN peacekeepers had served - and died. It was humbling as an American to see that the rest of the world does most of the heavy lifting for humanitarian missions.

While we stood outside the Economic and Social Council Chamber, our guide introduced us to the UN tasks that often get less press. A display on the Millennium Development Goals showed a challenging 2015 deadline to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education and gender equality, and empower women. That's the UN in a nutshell: high aspirations for the future of humankind tempered by the recognition that things aren't exactly rosy in many of the member states.

A chart showing the progress in nuclear disarmament is juxtaposed with photos and personal relics from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The proud words of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights face Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado's images of refugee children.

Responding to a question about the ambitious agenda, our guide struck a note of realism, pointing out that the UN is not a world government. "Its effectiveness depends on the member states," she said. "The United Nations began discussing environmental issues in the 1970s, but it took almost 40 years to get certain member states to take the subject seriously."

I wondered whether the Delegates' Dining Room was yet another program to promote world harmony. After all, it's hard to stay mad at someone when you're breaking bread together. Befitting such a large organization, the venue seats 300 in a bright room where the plaza outside overlooks the East River. Every table was set with a single fresh rose (from the rose gardens outside, I was told) and a full complement of three forks, two knives, and two spoons in silver plate. Were all diplomatic settings so civil, we might yet attain world peace.

I was intrigued by the prospect of an "international buffet." What, exactly, do you serve people from all over the globe, with their cultural and religious dietary restrictions and a universe of tastes? Visions of exotic meats in tamarind sauces and impossible-to-pronounce vegetables from distant lands danced in my head.

But no anthropological revelations awaited. The buffet tables could have graced a high-end ocean liner. I watched a gentleman in colorful African garb pile his plate with slices of roast sirloin and potatoes mashed with feta cheese. A post-retirement-age couple from the East Side scarfed up most of the egg rolls, though more came out quickly. When I spoke with the woman later, she said, "My husband and I always come here to celebrate our birthdays. You should have been here on St. Patrick's Day. Oh, the salmon!"

Me, I made for the roast leg of lamb with rosemary sauce after I filled my salad plate with chilled asparagus and slices of a duck and pork terrine. Two slender women in severe pantsuits (vegetarians, no doubt) looked askance at me as they helped themselves to fresh tomato soup and bowls of pasta primavera.

If there's a worldwide common ground, though, it must be the sweet tooth. The dessert buffet table practically groaned under a spread of apple and pumpkin pies, cheesecakes, tarts, half a dozen cheeses, sliced fruits, bowls of berries, and, off to one side, three urns of ice cream (Oreo cookie, pistachio, and green tea).

The creamy coconut cake was ethereal. Even the vegetarians had some.

David Lyon can be reached at

If You Go

United Nations headquarters

Visitors' entrance at First Avenue at 46th Street


Guided tours Monday-Friday 9:45 a.m.-4:45 p.m., adults $12.50, seniors and students $8, ages 5-14 $6.50.

Delegates' Dining Room


Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, $25 (drinks extra). Reservations required and should be made as far in advance as possible.

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