The U.N. and the World's Hot Spots It's up to the United Nations, in many cases, to try to solve the worst of the world's crises. As world leaders gather in New York for the annual general assembly, crises simmer in the Middle East, Darfur and Iran. How will the U.N. handle these international problem spots?
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The U.N. and the World's Hot Spots

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The U.N. and the World's Hot Spots

The U.N. and the World's Hot Spots

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For two days every year, the United Nations finds itself at the center of global diplomacy. Today and tomorrow, nearly 200 world leaders address the annual United Nations General Assembly debate. Several crises top their agenda this year: security in the Middle East, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and the ongoing violence in Darfur.

The general debate offers a rare opportunity for government leaders of all political stripes to gather in one place. This morning, President George Bush spoke to the General Assembly. This evening, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets his chance. Also in the audience, leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement including Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

But what happens at these general debates? Critics call the United Nations a talking shop in dire need of reform. At a time when the United Nations finds itself stretched thin, and coping with crises on several fronts, what can we reasonably expect it to accomplish? Today, a closer look at the issues confronting the General Assembly.

If you have questions about the debate at the United Nations - what happens, how it works, who decides - join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Later in the program: papal infallibility and papal apology. We'll also talk about the crisis in Thailand where a military coup appears to be underway.

But first, the United Nations General Assembly debate. To begin, we go to NPR's Michele Kelemen who's at the United Nations.

And, Michele, good to talk you.


CONAN: Much of the General Assembly is speeches, and pomp, and circumstances. What news is there so far today?

KELEMEN: Well, President Bush painted this very broad image of his policies in the Middle East. That was the main theme of his speech was his democracy promotion. It's being met with a little skepticism here, I might say. But basically he said this is a struggle against moderate forces and extremists. He addressed the people of Iran, the people of Iraq, the people of Afghanistan, and Syria, urging their leaders to take appropriate policies. And he was very blunt with the Iranians that he wants the Iranians to pull back from their nuclear ambitions. That's going to be one of the main themes today.

As far as news, Kofi Annan was - had his speech today and it's his last. This is his last year, so this was his last big speech to the U.N. body. He was talking about how he views the struggles in the Middle East: extremism. He thinks that it is Israel-Palestinian issue that needs to be resolved, that that is central. And that's the theme that we're hearing a lot this week.

While President Bush talks about extremism versus moderate forces, a lot of other countries are saying, you know, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that'll be at least one less source of extremism in the world.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It's one thing when the president of the United States makes remarks like those he addressed, as you mention to Iran or Syria, in a speech from the White House briefing room or a hotel ballroom, or someplace like that. Does it get distinctly uncomfortable when he's looking across the room at the representatives of those nations?

KELEMEN: Well, I have to say Ahmadinejad was in the audience and didn't have much reaction. You had people like President Karzai of Afghanistan waving to the president when he - when his government was acknowledged. The leaders of Sudan were responding fairly, sort of laughing but in an angry dismissive sort of way, when President Bush talked about the need for Sudan to accept United Nations peacekeepers.

So you had some response in the audience. But most of it was just sort of a polite - and polite applause. I might say that Kofi Annan had a standing ovation, a long one, after his speech this morning.

CONAN: Secretary general's term expires at the end of December, as you mentioned.

This evening, Iranian President Ahmadinejad gets his chance to address the General Assembly. Do you think that President Bush will be there to hear him?

KELEMEN: I don't think he has any plans to be here. This was his only show here, was for this speech. He does intend to listen to these speeches and he definitely has ruled out any talks on this.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is going to have a dinner meeting tonight. This is where, you know, the diplomacy really goes on, on the sidelines of these big meetings. And she's going to have a dinner meeting tonight with the form - the informal grouping that has been dealing with the Iran issue...

CONAN: And the...

KELEMEN: ...the five permanent Security Council members and Germany, and Italy is now involved.

CONAN: And we're expecting, I gather, French President Jacques Chirac to discuss this issue at a news conference. Earlier today, he meet with President Bush and said no negotiations with Iran until Iran abides by that Security Council resolution passed earlier this summer, that says they must stop uranium enrichment by the end of August.

KELEMEN: Well, the issue now really, the Iranians missed that deadline. The Europeans have really been holding out hope that they can keep Iran talking and not have to move towards sanctions so quickly. The U.S. has said the Security Council's credibility is at stake - they have to move towards sanctions. And they're talking about this graduated sanctions; limited targeted sanctions at first and then moving ahead. So the dinner tonight is really about that strategy, what kind of sanctions to put in place.

So far, U.S. administration officials acknowledge that there's not really an agreement. There was an agreement, yes, to go ahead with some sort of sanctions, but early on. But no, you know, concrete agreement on what precisely should be in the next U.N. Security Council resolution. And we're hearing from Jacques Chirac and others that maybe we should go a little slower. They're looking for some face-saving way for both the Iranians and the Europeans to get negotiations back on track.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, more on Iran a little bit later in the program. But let me ask you a bit about Darfur and Sudan. And the president said, we need to call that what it is: genocide. He also announced that the former head of the Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, will be designated as a special representative for the United States. Is this to try to put more pressure on?

KELEMEN: Indeed. I mean, they haven't had much luck. President Bush has called President Bashir several times over the months, trying to convince Sudan to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force. Right now, there's an African Union force that is basically monitors. They don't have the logistical help; they don't have the financial means; and they don't have the manpower, really, to keep what's been, you know, a non-existent peace really, in Darfur. There's a lot of alarming talk about that.

Sudan is under a lot of pressure to accept an U.N. force. President Bashir is also speaking here. He will also be meeting with the African Union to talk about this idea of just extending the African Union a little bit more time, allowing Western nations to give more support for the African Union. But so far, no deal on a U.N. force.

CONAN: And finally, let me ask you about one delegation that arrived headed by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand. Today, news of what appears to be a military coup underway in his capital, Bangkok. I assume he's leaving to go back home.

KELEMEN: I haven't actually seen him here, so that is one of the issues he'll have to be dealing with.

CONAN: And Michele Kelemen, thanks very much for your time.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's Michele Kelemen joined us from the United Nations in New York.

Joining us now is Paul Kennedy, professor of international history at Yale University. His latest book is The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations, and he joins us from studios at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Nice to speak with you again.

Professor PAUL KENNEDY (International History, Yale University): It's nice to be with you again.

CONAN: Awful lot of speeches today and tomorrow. Each leader gets 15 minutes at the lectern. Typically this is a grand stage, but what's the purpose of all of this?

Prof. KENNEDY: Well it is a Parliament of Man to use a phrase.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KENNEDY: It is a talking shop. I mean, we shouldn't use that word just totally sarcastically. It allows the leaders of small nations to come and to talk, to tell their people they are addressing the world. Most of them speak about something that concerns themselves, what's going on in their country, something they're worried about. And we know that the General Assembly's powers are limited, that they are conciliatory, that they are the grouping of 192 nations who are the shareholders in the organization and that the really decisive stuff is not here but it's just a short way a way - a couple of floors upstairs, as it were - in the Security Council.

CONAN: And what's the protocol? Are leaders expected to be there to listen to each other to find out: hey, I didn't know that?

Prof. KENNEDY: Bear in mind just what your correspondent said. Much of what is done here in New York is not so much for the 15 minutes of glory and then you're finished, but your chance to discuss things with foreign leaders, with other leaders; to meet as the African caucus or Latin American caucus; to have a chance, at least for some of them, to talk with the President of the United States.

So that there are various thins going on offstage as well as the onstage deliberation. But whatever we think of it as a lot of, perhaps, hot air, symbolically this is where the nations of the world gather. And it's the only event that we have and it's the only institution and forum that we have like this.

CONAN: We have a forum here, too. If you'd like to join us, give us a call: 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. Email us, And let's speak with Maurice. Maurice is calling us from Virginia Beach.

MAURICE (Caller): Hi, Ira. Why is the session called the General Assembly debate when it doesn't allow for back and forth dialogue between two parties? For example, United States and Iran.

CONAN: Mm hmm. In fact, President Ahmadinejad said: I want to go to New York and I want to debate George Bush in front of the General Assembly.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes, can you imagine close to 200 impetuous leaders trying to debate? It is, as I said, the formal part. Bear in mind that we'll probably not hear much about a General Assembly after these two days, but it will split into its major committees. It will go ahead with different sorts of work, different sorts of technical work. It will meet when it needs in a crisis to pass resolutions. They are not binding. So that Maurice is right in saying that, you know, this is not like a big congressional debate or big parliamentary debate, and it is not something that is going to lead to a resolution. It is a sounding board.

CONAN: And they have to pay attention to the fact that these are all heads of government, for the most part, who are addressing them in this context - people whose dignity does need to be protected.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes, and who by protocol are accorded equal rights. The head of a small pacific island like Fiji accorded the same rights as the President of the United States of America, in terms of a protocol and being able to express a view - express an opinion.

CONAN: Yes, though Fiji or Vanuatu always finds itself scheduled to speak directly after the President of the United States so all the reporters can go file on what the President of the United States said. Maurice, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

We're talking with Paul Kennedy, a professor of international history at Yale University, about the challenges facing the U.N. as the General Assembly meets in New York. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. After the break we'll focus a bit more on the crisis with Iran, and you can also e-mail us: I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about some of the issues being discussed at the General Assembly Debate at the United Nations. World leaders have gathered to listen to speeches. Earlier today, President Bush was talking, and we'll hear more about that later. Right now we encourage your calls to discuss exactly what gets accomplished here? Who decides? How is it done? Our guest is Paul Kennedy, professor of international history at Yale University. His latest book: The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is, and let's connect with James. James is calling us from San Antonio, Texas.

JAMES (Caller): Yes, hello Neal. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

JAMES: I just wanted to say that there's a growing number of us - even those who don't really support President Bush - who would ask what solvency does the General Assembly really have when we live in a world where things like regional coalitions seem to make the most difference. I would ask what relevance does Angola have in a situation with Hugo Chavez, and vice versa.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Paul Kennedy?

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes, a good question. The sovereignty of the United Nations is only that which is given to it by the 192 member states. We deicide to give it certain powers in certain circumstances. In other circumstances, we withhold them. We - the nation states or governments haven't been able to give authorization too much to assist to poor people in Darfur. While on the other hand, we have authorized a regional peacekeeping security organization called NATO to operate in the Balkans and in Afghanistan.

The charter of United Nations on which all of these decisions rests, or is referred to, is deliberately vague and extraordinarily flexible - which frustrates many people because they look at the charter and say: Well, it can mean anything or nothing. And it's a bit like, you know, the red queen in Alice in Wonderland. What does this mean, said Alice? And the queen says: It means what I say it means. It means the United Nations and what it can do means what the big powers in the Security Council say it can do.

CONAN: And we always think of the analogy of the General Assembly being much like the House of Representatives and the Security Council a bit like the Senate. The analogy is far from perfect though.

Prof. KENNEDY: It's far from perfect. One uses words like the commonwealth of the world, or parliament of man, the assembly of world opinion. But it is not like a constituted congress, which has, you know - it itself has the powers of war and peace. It itself, most importantly has the powers of the budget. It itself has the powers of getting rid of a prime minister, which we are about to see fairly shortly in the United Kingdom, for example.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And even more shortly, perhaps, in Thailand.

Prof. KENNEDY: It's gone.

CONAN: It's gone. James, thanks very much for your call.

JAMES: Well, thank you so much.

CONAN: In his speech this morning President Bush discussed his focus on Iran. First he addressed the Iranian people and then the government in Tehran.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: To the people of Iran: The United States respects you. We respect your country.

CONAN: And then the but.

President BUSH: The United Nations has passed a clear resolution requiring that the regime in Tehran meet its international obligations. Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

CONAN: Now for more on Iran we turn now to Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of the forthcoming book, Hidden Iran: Power and Paradox in the Islamic Republic. He's with us from the studios at the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington, D.C. Ray Takeyh, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Senior Fellow, Middle Eastern Studies; Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks. Good to be with you.

CONAN: This is a dispute, which has been going on for some time at the United Nations and in other venues as well, but this summer it was located in the Security Council. Today, President Bush demanded that Iran abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not there in attendance for the speech. Not a scheduling conflict though, was it?

Mr. TAKEYH: No, I don't believe so. He wasn't present at President Bush's speech and President Bush or the American delegation are unlikely to be present at his speech. Last September when he addressed the United Nations, American delegation poignantly walked out.

CONAN: When the president of the United States, just to pick an example, gets up and - I'd like to address this to the people of Iran - are the people of Iran going to be hearing that?

Mr. TAKEYH: Yes, I suspect they are. Despite Iran's reputation as a draconian totalitarian state, it does have some degree of media that does discuss these issues and the president's message is likely to be broadcasted through other various international forums. I mean, in the age of globalization of media it's hard to keep such message under wraps. So Iranian people are likely to hear this message. Now the question is how they would respond.

CONAN: And as earlier, Michele Kelemen told us and as Paul Kennedy reminded us, a lot of the work of actual diplomacy that goes on at these meetings is not in the speeches themselves but on the margins of the speeches and meetings. For example, like the one that President Bush held today with Jacques Chirac of France. And that is an opportunity where real work can get done, no?

Mr. TAKEYH: It sure is. However, in this particular case I think what the president and Secretary Rice are doing, at least at this point, is trying to shore up the international coalition against Iran that appears to have fractured and the international solidarity that seems to have evaporated. When President Chirac of France suggests that sanctions should not be contemplated at this point, that is a serious rebuke to American strategy.

CONAN: Yet he also said we can't resume talks with Iran until such time as they do cease the enrichment of uranium, as demanded in the Security Council resolution. Trying to have it both ways.

Mr. TAKEYH: Sure, it's demanded by the IAEA resolutions before and the Security Council resolutions gave legal authority and legal force to those IAEA resolutions. Iranians have always suggested that these resolutions are politically contorted and therefore it is the United States that is misusing United Nations and United Nations' procedures to multilateralize its course of policy toward Iran, using the nuclear issue as an excuse.

CONAN: To some degree, the speakers at the General Assembly Debate are speaking yes to the audience in front of them, yes to the people of Iran and the rest of the world, but also to whatever audience they may have at home. President Bush seemed to be doing that to a degree today. Would you expect that President Ahmadinejad will do the same tonight?

Mr. TAKEYH: Yes. President Ahmadinejad's speech - actually all the speeches that he gives - he always looks to have multiple audiences. There is the audience, of course, of the Europeans and the Americans that are watching what he says. There is his attempt to appeal to a larger third world audience, and his stopover in Havana in a Non-Aligned community meeting was an indication of that. And finally, he of course appeals to his own constituents in Iran. And you saw that, of course, in his last time when he addressed the United Nations - where he was attempting to not just talk about Iran's national rights, which is an appeal to the Iranian people, but it was also talking about nuclear apartheid and how capitalist powers are determined to prevent third-world countries - developing countries - from acquiring technologies that is necessary for their economic development.

CONAN: Ordinarily, in the face of a Security Council resolution demanding that you do X - in this case stop enriching uranium - or by X date, that Iran might be on the defensive. Yet in his speech in Havana at the non-align meeting and other remarks from Iran, President Ahmadinejad does not seem to be on the defensive at all.

Mr. TAKEYH: Iran might seem indefensive as far as enumeration of Security Council resolutions, but realities in the region today in the Middle East actually produce an empowered Iran. The United States is obviously in a quagmire in Iraq and looking for an exit strategy that continuously eludes it. The Gulf States aren't about to confront Iran. Lebanon demonstrated the reach of Iranian powers. So today you have an Islamic republic led by a very assertive nationalist that seems to think the wind is in their back. Whatever the deliberations of the Security Council may be, they seem to think they have plenty of influence in the Middle East. And none of the conflicts in the Middle East - whether it's the civil war in Iraq, the emerging civil war in Lebanon, or the security situation in the gulf - are going to be relieved barring their participation.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.

Mr. TAKEYH: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us from the studies of the council in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. Still with us, Paul Kennedy, professor of international history at Yale.

Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Kathy(ph). Kathy calling us from Plymouth - I see Michigan. Is it Michigan or Massachusetts?

KATHY (Caller): It's Michigan.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KATHY: My question is if any of the leaders - if they're talking about oil and how oil affects world politics?

Prof. KENNEDY: Is that for me to reply to?

CONAN: I'm afraid so.

Prof. KENNEDY: No mention so far. And in fact it's more likely to be off the agenda. Why? Because those who have oil don't want it mentioned all that much. Those who don't have oil are just bearing the strain of paying for it. And many of them think that that is an issue, which will be dealt with by, you know, meetings of oil ministers, meetings of OPEC and it will not be on the agenda of these two days of general assembly talks - which will be essentially political.

CONAN: So oil - a political, highly political subject I think it - but it calls for conservation; calls for a new discovery; new drilling; whatever, you know, position you might want to take, however controversial it might be - that's not likely to come up.

Mr. KENNEDY: It's highly unlikely. Once again, listeners will know by now that these world leaders have 15 minutes. You got 15 minutes with the world listening to you. Are you going to spend that time encouraging a general program of oil conservation? I rather doubt it. You're going to say something about the needs of your people in Central America or what's going wrong in the Middle East.

CONAN: Kathy, thanks for the call. We appreciate it.

KATHY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye, bye. One of the things that the United Nations has been able to do is to organize - not this General Assembly debate - but special conferences in various places around the world to draw issues to special problems. Conferences in the rights of women, for example - even where they're located can sometimes be very influential.

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes it's true. And here we see a part of a General Assembly that is totally different from the array of things done by the Security Council. All of the U.N. global conferences of the 1990s - the one on human rights in Vienna; the one on the environment in Rio; the one on women; the one on habitat - all of those are caused or instigated by a General Assembly resolution asking for the secretariat to set up a special organization so that there is a world conference.

And at these conferences, important things have been done, targets have been established. Perhaps a more effective international human rights, setting up the high commission on human rights in 1993, '94, at Vienna. There are various reporting back five years later what have we achieved.

So although we see the General Assembly today and tomorrow more as a talking shop, some of its functional follow on programs and global conferences have real impact.

CONAN: One of the things that you may hear if you listen to the speeches at the U.N. this year is reference to the millennium development goals. What are they and how did they arrive?

Mr. KENNEDY: These were - as people guess from the adjective - these were passed by the U.N., prepared by a document from the general assembly and the secretary-general, passed at the year 2000, which were very ambitious goals to deal with what the assembly thought was the most pressing set of issues. Namely, global poverty.

The fact that we came into the 21st century with two billion people out of the six-and-a-half billion who live on this planet in dire poverty - malnutrition, no real clean water supply, no clean health. And a set of goals were established. They were, you might say, deliberately ambitious as if to kick the consciences of those who could help on this. And they would be referenced back to it.

It was, for Kofi Annan, one of his proudest achievements, to get the world body to say we have large-scale goals. Let's march towards them.

CONAN: We're talking about the general assembly debate where world leaders address the United Nations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we mentioned earlier, Michele Kelemen mentioned early, that Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose term expires at the end of this year, used his last address to this particular debate as secretary-general to focus where he said the issue lay in the Middle East on settling the Israeli/Palestinian issue.

The secretary-general does have the opportunity to exhort the world's nations to rally around goals. We were referring to Darfur earlier, and a few years ago, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said we must be able to rally to situations. Darfur hadn't happened yet, but he was talking about the aftermath of Rwanda and intervention in situations like this.

And that has to come as a great disappointment to him personally.

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes, I would think so. One of the things that has concerned Kofi -to his credit - all through his career, even before he was secretary-general, is what happens to societies where the government or the state is simply too weak, it collapses. There is mass impoverishments, civil wars, slaughters. And he has pushed forward for years, the notion that the world community has the responsibility to protect. That's a special phrase of the U.N. - derived originally from Canadian ideas - but the responsibility to protect the weak and those who cannot be protected.

Looking back and what happened at Rwanda and Burundi, and looking now at what's happening in Darfur, Kofi reflects on the fact that this is his African continent where the responsibility to protect has not been carried through and where the disasters, and as President Bush said it, the genocides are continuing.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is J.P. J.P. calling from Bryan Country in Georgia.

J.P. (Caller): Yes, hello.


J.P.: Great show. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

J.P.: I hope we have some good reception. I parked on the side of the interstate.

CONAN: It sounds very clear. Go ahead, please.

J.P.: Okay. My statement is I've noticed that there's been a lot of suspicion that's been cultivated against the U.N. and the United States. And I don't know if this is sort of an isolationist - sort of related to an isolationist-type psychology - but I really think that the world would be worse off if it were not for the U.N. And I would like ask that the American public and all the world that we give more support to the United Nations for what it was meant to be. Not necessarily the shortcomings we see it has now, but we need to get back to realize what it was intended to be. And I'd be glad to take my comment off the air if you'd like.

CONAN: All right, J.P., thanks very much for the call. Paul Kennedy, it's a big subject and I'll give you 30 whole seconds to answer.

Prof. KENNEDY: I think it's a very noble statement. Of course we should try to fulfill the aspirations of the creators of the U.N. and we should try to pursue the common goals outlined in the preamble.

But it's also worth bearing in mind that large countries, very large countries, are much more sensitive about the U.N. because they think they can do things by themselves, if necessary. So the three big elephants in the U.N. tent - China, Russia and the United States - are almost by their nature going to have publics which are somewhat more suspicious and going to have parliamentarians and congresses more suspicious than a small country like the Netherlands or Sweden.

CONAN: Paul Kennedy, thanks very much. Appreciate your time today.

Prof. KENNEDY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Paul Kennedy of Yale University. His new book, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations, with us from a studio at Yale University in New haven.

When we come back from the break, a rare apology from the Pope raises new questions over papal infallibility. Plus more on the possible coup in Thailand. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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