Leading up to the speeches by heads of state at the United Nations this week, there was quite a bit of speculation about which world leader would say the craziest thing. Foreign Policy magazine even published a piece titled “The Top 10 Craziest Things Ever Said During a U.N. Speech,” and MSNBC ran one on “What to watch for at the U.N.: World leaders who dislike U.S.”
Each year yields a bounty of bizarre rhetoric ranging from the silly to the dangerous. On the silly side this year was Bhutan’s call for world leaders to adopt “Happiness” as the ninth U.N. Millennium Development Goal:
Let us grow forth from this summit to not only rededicate to the eight goals to banish disease and extreme poverty, but also to the new ninth voluntary goal, to build a world that can sustain happiness for all its people, today and for generations to come.
If only all U.N. discussions were focused on harmless efforts like figuring out how to measure Gross National Happiness. Unfortunately, more often the bizarre is far less benign.
Granted, this year was calmer than recent years, because many of the world’s worst leaders are absent. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the perennial contender for “Most Outrageous Statement” who famously called Pres. George W. Bush the devil, is out of the running, since he’s skipping this year’s U.N. meetings. (But just to make sure no one forgets him, he sent his proxy to denounce “market totalitarianism [which] prevents the exercise of human rights and the right to development.”) Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who holds the record for the longest address to the U.N. General Assembly at a crushing four hours, is also absent. Nor will we be treated to a repeat of last year’s 90-plus-minute screed from Muammar Gaddafi, also not attending.
But don’t worry, there are other contenders.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, after destroying his country’s economy and violently repressing his political opponents, chastised the assembled world leaders at the MDG summit for “the debilitating sanctions” hindering his country’s progress toward the Millennium Development Goals. Never mind that the sanctions focus not on the general population of Zimbabwe but on him, his family, and other Zimbabwean officials linked to corruption and violence. He kept to this tone in his General Assembly speech (available here), condemning the use of “illegal” sanctions by the U.S. against Zimbabwe as a violation of the U.N. Charter; demanding that the U.S. lift the embargo on Cuba; accusing veto-wielding nations of hypocrisy for failing to welcome a dramatic expansion in the size of the U.N. Security Council; calling for inclusion of two veto-wielding seats for African nations; and demanding a host of concessions and increased assistance from Western nations.
Bolivian president Evo Morales took the stage and defended his actions to nationalize private industries, urged states to allow the free movement of people without immigration restrictions, and “criticized the building of walls in Mexico and Palestine” and “policies that expelled migrants.” He concluded by calling for “democratization” of the U.N., observing:
. . .the authoritarian regime led by the United States was only emboldened by the right to veto extended to it and other permanent members of the Security Council. The international community must ensure that the United Nations was [sic] an anti-capitalist Organization. He proposed a “war cry” for saving humanity, with the slogan: “The Planet or death”.
The favorite, however, was the reigning champion for “Most Outrageous Statement” — Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who rises to the occasion every year to condemn the “American empire” and the “Zionist regime,” or to declare capitalism dead.
This year was no different. At the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) summit, Ahmadinejad called for reform of “undemocratic and unjust” international institutions dominated by the United States and the West, “now that the discriminatory order of capitalism and the hegemonic approaches are facing defeat.” Earlier in the week, he threatened the U.S. with terrorist retaliation if it launched a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and dismissed the “Zionist” regime in Israel. To cap off the week, Ahmadinejad rolled out 9/11 conspiracy theories, stating that the U.S. government was behind the attack on the World Trade Center.
The administration called the remarks “totally outrageous” and “vile conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic slurs that are as abhorrent and delusional as they are predictable,” but apparently was not outraged to the point where it would end its unrequited efforts to negotiate with Iran.
Sadly, this is all par for the course in Turtle Bay, so much so that the outrageous no longer elicits shock, merely curiosity and rote response by public-relations spokesmen. According to State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley, “We didn’t offer engagement with Iran because we agree with what Ahmadinejad says. We have offered engagement with Iran because we think it’s in our national security interest.”
Really? The president of Iran is a crazy, dangerous conspiracy theorist, and that has no bearing on your diplomatic strategy?
The bulk of the speeches are unobjectionable for the most part. But, in the end, it’s hard to take the U.N. seriously when it gives such unserious and irresponsible people free rein to espouse craziness while the assembled dignitaries clap politely.
No wonder that only “thirty-one percent of Americans say the United Nations is doing a good job of solving the problems it has had to face.” The U.N. has earned its low esteem.
— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives.