United Nations Provides Platform for U.S. Critics Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a highly anticipated speech to the U.N. General Assembly. It may turn out to be another in a long history of controversial addresses to the United Nations by critics of the United States.
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United Nations Provides Platform for U.S. Critics

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United Nations Provides Platform for U.S. Critics

United Nations Provides Platform for U.S. Critics

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From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up on the program. As the United States Air Force celebrates its 60th anniversary, it's trying to redefine its role within America's military.

COHEN: But we begin at the United Nations where two bitter foes address the General Assembly today. First up, President Bush who spoke this morning.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This great institution must work for great purposes - to free people from tyranny and violence, hunger and disease, illiteracy and ignorance, and poverty and despair.

BRAND: Later today, his nemesis, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will address the U.N. And if his statements yesterday are any hint of what's to come today, fasten your seatbelts.

While thousands of protesters listened outside on the grounds of Columbia University, inside a packed and tense lecture hall, Ahmadinejad said the Holocaust is a theory, not a fact. He questioned who carried out the September 11th attacks, and he said his country Iran has no homosexuals.

Police are expecting a bigger crowd of demonstrators today outside the U.N. in anticipation of the speech. He joins a veritable smorgasbord of colorful, contentious foreign leaders to address the U.N. over the years - Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and just last year, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who said this about President Bush.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Through translator) The devil, the devil himself is right in the house. And the devil came here yesterday.

(Soundbite of people laughing)

Pres. CHAVEZ: (Through translator) Yesterday, the devil came here. The president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as at the devil came here, talking as if he owned the world.

BRAND: Joining me now is Aaron Friedberg. He's a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and welcome to the program.

Dr. AARON FRIEDBERG (Professor, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University): Thank you very much.

BRAND: Well, we just heard Hugo Chavez pretty much not mincing any words there, and I'm wondering is this a tradition now for contentious foreign leaders to come before the U.N. and make these outrageous statements?

Dr. FRIEDBERG: Well, there certainly has a long history of it, particularly in the West. Thirty or 40 years, you mentioned the number of names - Castro, Arafat, Chavez. So yes, I think it has become something of a tradition, particularly for leaders of smaller countries, not so much world powers.

BRAND: Although we did have the example in 1960 of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. And we do have a clip of tape. Here is British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who is interrupted while he was speaking by Khrushchev.

Prime Minister HAROLD MACMILLAN (United Kingdom): None of us particularly will welcome. In our country, a large number of officials...

Prime Minister NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV (Russia): (Russian Spoken).

Prime Minister MACMILLAN: ...a large of officials from abroad...

Prime Minister KHRUSHCHEV: (Russian Spoken).

Prime Minister MACMILLAN: A large number...

Prime Minister KHRUSHCHEV: (Russian Spoken).

Prime Minister MACMILLAN: Well, I'd like you to translate it, if you would, certainly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: So Aaron Friedberg, that was back in 1960. Did Khrushchev start this tradition, if you will, of speaking contentiously before the U.N.?

Dr. FRIEDBERG: He may well have. I can't think of another example prior to that, and that's certainly one of the most notorious ones but it is also unusual in that he was the leader of a superpower or what was thought to be a superpower. That performance hasn't been repeated by his successors. But other leaders of smaller countries have made this - used this platform to speak to the world.

BRAND: What is the point of being so controversial each year in September before the U.N.?

Dr. FRIEDBERG: Well, I think from the point of view of these leaders, first of all, it's an irresistible opportunity. It's a wonderful chance to speak up and to be noticed. They're at the center of the world's stage. The eyes of the world are upon them. Moreover, they're in the belly of the beast there in the New York City, right in the heart of the United States. So if they want to say critical things about the U.S., about U.S. leaders, they can make themselves appear very brave and bold by doing it in the safe confines of the United Nations.

But I think it's also important to remember that, in most cases, these leaders are speaking to multiple audiences. They're appealing to a domestic audience back in their homes. They're speaking to an international audience, in most cases, and well beyond the General Assembly of the U.N. And last and probably least, they are talking to Americans. Although I think often that's not really what's at the top of their minds.

BRAND: So it's almost like a theater performance.

Dr. FRIEDBERG: Absolutely. And those who have used it to greatest effect have been the most theatrical performers.

BRAND: And what comes out of it substantively? Is it just for entertainment largely or do serious things come out of it? In other words, diplomatic relations, are they afraid from these kinds of speeches irreparably? Are there any gains to be made, either at home or abroad, by these events?

Dr. FRIEDBERG: Well, I think it's certainly not just entertainment. It's serious business, and particularly for these leaders, they can gain in front of domestic audiences and to some degree in front of international audiences. I think Chavez boosted his stature, his profile among developing countries, particularly those that maybe resentful or hostile towards the United States. So there can be gains.

On the other hand, these performances - although they rarely disrupt relations in any profound way - often wind up solidifying opinion in the advanced industrial countries, and the United States particularly, against these leaders and their regimes.

So in that sense, there's usually a price to be paid for speaking in this way.

BRAND: Although, you know, they've probably made that calculation and decided to gamble and thought, well, you know, we're not doing so well as it is. Why not just bolster the opinion back home?

Dr. FRIEDBERG: I think that's right, although I think also these leaders are at times a little tone deaf. They don't really know how they are coming across in front of an American audience. And they'd be much worse than they believe.

Ahmadinejad is an interesting example because he said things that seemed frightening and extreme, even irrational, provocative, and that really got people's attention. And if he carries on today in a way that he did yesterday at Columbia, I think that message is going to be further reinforced with the American domestic audience but also in other countries as well.

BRAND: Are there any examples of controversial leaders who have come before the U.N. General Assembly and actually improved their reputation after their speech?

Dr. FRIEDBERG: Well, I was trying to think of one and I couldn't. That may just be because my knowledge isn't deep enough. But if you ask yourself what would Ahmadinejad have to do to have that effect, for example, today, and think of a speech that he could give in which he appeared conciliatory, in which, for example, he made the gesture of suspending enrichment of uranium in return for some reasonable seeming request, the direct talk with President Bush or something like that, he could conceivably put the onus back on those who were pressing him. But I think the likelihood of that is very small.

BRAND: Aaron Friedberg is a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. FRIEDBERG: Thank you.

BRAND: And to read about other moments in history when colorful figures came to the U.N., you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

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