AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 40/2007

A Meeting of Clueless Leaders The UN Gets a Bad Case of the Flu

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad served as the star of a New York week that was otherwise filled with ego massages and fights between leaders of the international community. The UN General Assembly underscored the fact that the global community is ailing.

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Protesters at New York's Columbia University: "A narrow-minded dictator"
AFP

Protesters at New York's Columbia University: "A narrow-minded dictator"

The absurd events that took place last Monday at Columbia University were a prime example of how things can go badly wrong even when people are actually determined to talk to one another.

Thousands of demonstrators had turned up on Columbia’s South Plaza displaying posters, despite temperatures of 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Against a background of campus walls prominently displaying the venerable names of Homer, Herodotus and Plato, rival protestors hurled insults at one another: “Ahmadinejad is a dictator!” “So is Bush!“ “Torturers!“ “Murderers!” “Down with Ahmadinejad!” “Down with Bush, too!” After a while, the level of noise drowned out any voices.

Meanwhile, inside the Alfred Lerner Hall auditorium, Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s distinguished white-haired president, mounted the stage and took his place behind one of two podiums. With his glasses perched on the end of his nose, he introduced his guest as a “petty and cruel dictator” -- even though the latter had assumed power following democratic elections. Bollinger presumably wanted to dampen the criticism that had rained down on him for inviting the Iranian president to speak. Yet his attempts to placate his critics backfired on account of his outrageous remarks.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was standing a few meters away, wearing an open-necked shirt and blazer and sporting his familiar clipped beard. The Iranian president remarked that, in his country, guests were normally treated with respect and given a chance to speak before being criticized -- a statement that earned him some initial applause. However, when he went on to call for more research into the Holocaust -- "granted this happened" -- his audience started whistling at him. And when he said: “In Iran, we do not have homosexuals like in your country, the phenomenon is unknown to us,” virtually the whole auditorium erupted in laughter.

Then, suddenly, the whole thing was over before anyone had the chance to grasp what it all meant. In the end, it was just another event on the week’s agenda of the UN General Assembly, which brought together heads of state and foreign ministers representing 150 nations.

A description of the week’s events might sound something like this: they met, they ate good food. There were some brilliant speeches, but no resolutions were passed. Or, in the words of one German: “It was all about money and who could manage to get what. It was all about massaging each other’s egos.” Swedish-born Mats Karlsson, vice-president of external and UN affairs at the World Bank, put it a little more diplomatically: "I am worried about the calibre of our global leadership."

It is common for critics of the UN committees and their secretary generals to bemoan the bureaucracy, how long everything takes and how much it all costs despite the fact that a multilateral organization is only as strong as its members desire. This time, though, the situation seemed more dire. Ambassadors and foreign ministers -- at least, those who were brave enough to abandon the cliches surrounding the whole event -- said there is something wrong, seriously wrong, with the UN. "Our entire system of international policy is falling apart,” said one participant, a veteran at the UN.

“We must show determination and act together if we want to be successful,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her speech before the UN General Assembly last Tuesday. Everyone else agreed, since problems such as poverty, climate change, mass migration and AIDS are no longer confined to individual states. But strong words will mean little as long as leaders at the highest levels continue to dismiss multilateral slogans as a naive way of pursuing a change in policies. A weak US government is blamed for all this. “We are only now beginning to realize what we Americans have destroyed with the Iraq campaign, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib,” says one Washington diplomat. “All trust,” he continues, "all norms, belief in international law and our leadership role.”

At last week's UN General Assembly, George W. Bush once again sought to divide the world between good and bad.
AFP

At last week's UN General Assembly, George W. Bush once again sought to divide the world between good and bad.

The EU has also grown weak and seems no longer capable of thinking and acting collectively. In fact, few international organizations seem capable of taking any meaningful decisions at the moment. The World Bank, for example, is still trying to figure out its role and the direction it will take under its new chief, Robert Zoellick. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization constantly holds meetings, but can never produce trade agreements.

Then there’s Ban Ki-moon.

If you look closely at Ban Ki-moon, who took over as UN secretary-general in January, you notice certain things immediately. It is almost impossible to quote him. He speaks softly and in a gentle tone of voice. He never reproaches anyone or makes any demands. Kofi Annan was different in that respect and one has to ask: Can the powers that be in world politics take such a gentle, quiet man seriously? The obvious answer is that they cannot.

It was almost shocking to hear the way the secretary-general’s colleagues at the UN’s Manhattan headquarters talked about him. He has no vision, they said. He has no substance. He is far too close to the Americans. Anyone who could bear it could hear these three sentences from thousands of people. Especially devastating is the image of him kissing up to the Americans.

"I still remember Americans and Koreans shaking hands with one another," Ban says, speaking in his conference room on the 38th floor. His hair is neatly parted, and he wears serious-looking glasses, a blue suit with a blue UN badge pinned to his lapel as he describes his memories of the Americans in Korea.

Today Ban is 62 years old, but he was only a child during the Korean War when GIs protected his family and drove the North Koreans out. As a teenager he traveled to the US and met John F. Kennedy. Such episodes from his past don't necessarily have any deeper meaning. But when Bush says that climate change can be tackled without agreeing on international standards, Ban doesn't protest. And when Bush says the UN ought to return to Iraq, Ban says, indeed, the UN ought be going back.

Others who have worked with Ban, a former career diplomat from Seoul, over the last nine months say it is an important part of a UN secretary-general’s job to demand the observation of human rights or to publicly denounce genocide and that he has the power and the right to do so. But this aspect of the job seems to be deeply distasteful to the man at the top.

But he has introduced something new: he holds talks with virtually all heads of state, including agitators and warmongers, in private -- all aides must leave the room. Ban says this creates an atmosphere of trust which allows him to build up a personal relationship so that both can work together afterwards. “This takes time but I am not someone who shines immediately,” he says.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, smiles as Dr. Henry Kissinger, left, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, right, join others in applauding after presenting her with the World Statesman Award on Sept. 25. "We must show determination and act together if we want to be successful," she told the UN General Assembly.
AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, smiles as Dr. Henry Kissinger, left, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, right, join others in applauding after presenting her with the World Statesman Award on Sept. 25. "We must show determination and act together if we want to be successful," she told the UN General Assembly.

In all fairness, it has to be said that one of the highlights of the UN assembly was Ban’s climate summit at the beginning of the week which proved an unexpectedly festive occasion. For a start, Arnold Schwarzenegger asked if they were all there to “talk about talking” or “decide to act.” Then everyone, with the exception of Bush, began talking with verve about their joint obligations; not least, of course, because speeches like these are broadcast on TV back home and, anyway, no one had committed to legislation at that point. But at least they all talked about climate change, and in the diplomatic world that means everyone now firmly believes there will be a breakthrough followed by an agreement by the time the forthcoming climate summit takes place in Bali.

But George W. Bush, in particular, no longer seemed in any way amused by the proceedings. In his opening statement at the UN General Assembly last Tuesday, the American president once again simply divided the world into good nations and bad ones. He did not even seem to be quite aware of where he was.

In contrast, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad didn't seem to understand that he excludes himself from the international community every time he utters phrases like "granted this happened” in reference to the Holocaust. Alternatively, perhaps he was aware of the consequences of such words but said them all the same because, of course, his speech was also broadcast on TV back home.

Were he to decide not to say such things, he might even become dangerous for Bush, because he earned enthusiastic applause in the General Assembly for his criticism of the “unfair Security Council” as well as “superpowers who take the moral high ground and tell others what they have to do even though, in reality, they only want to satisfy their own greed.” It wasn't just Venezuela, Nicaragua and Belarus who were applauding him -- about half of those present in the General Assembly did as well. Of course, the Americans failed to notice any of this because they always leave, of course, as soon as Ahmadinejad arrives.

There's just no other way of saying it: The whole week was a mess. And what German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier experienced during that time only served to reinforce that impression. First, he had to mediate between the Russians and the Americans after Condoleezza Rice accused her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, of tolerating Iran’s nuclear program. The Russian was outraged but his German colleague managed to calm things down. Then Steinmeier had to work hard to pacify the Chinese, who were intent on being deeply offended by the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel had met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, without informing the Chinese.

However, there was some progress made in New York, even if it took place away from the arena occupied by the international community. A working group, Global Leadership for Climate Action, founded by billionaire financier George Soros and headed up by Mohamed El-Ashry, a global environment expert from Egypt, produced a 20-page paper entitled “Framework for a New Global Agreement on Climate Change” aimed at post-2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires. The group’s recommendations, which include the introduction of carbon taxes, are the most concrete proposals ever put forward on the subject of climate change.

Then there was the new alliance of senior citizens -- and former leaders -- known as "The Elders," who have decided to get together and tackle global problems including climate change, poverty and AIDS because their political grandchildren have failed to learn how to communicate properly with each other. Richard Branson is providing the financial backing and alliance members include Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter. They're looking to open a new headquarters soon in London or Geneva. Last week, Mary Robinson, one of the 12, addressed the New York Society for Ethical Culture located in Central Park.

The former Irish president admits she doesn't like the idea of growing old. Neither does she blame those who ask themselves: “Would I really want to belong to a group like that?” But she also says there is only one way forward -- people have to work together regardless of their origins because “genocide and discrimination are still happening” and addressing climate change will require a "common vision by mankind."

This would be the right moment for enthusiastic exclamations about African tribes and their centuries-old traditions: When people are at a loss about what to do next, a Council of Elders gets together to discuss possible solutions. However, judging by the state Africa is in, one might want to ask if this is such a good idea.

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