It’s time again for the United Nations General Assembly, which kicked off today in midtown Manhattan (the General Debate is slated to open on Sept. 25). The annual summit always guarantees a circus-like atmosphere, with its interminable gridlock, long-winded speeches by world leaders, and kooky rants from the globe’s most notorious despots.
Ever since Nikita Khrushchev famously banged his shoe during the 1960 General Assembly to drown out criticism of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the forum has—to the ongoing dismay of U.N. organizers—oft-times been co-opted by rogue rulers with controversial agendas. Recent years have witnessed the now-deceased Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi trying to pitch a Bedouin tent in Central Park to house his entourage of nubile nursemaids; Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisting the U.S. coordinated the 9/11 attacks; and Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe denouncing NATO for supporting the Libyan rebellion and making “unfounded allegations of destruction of civilian lives by Gaddafi.”
Despite the inevitable wackiness—and the near-guarantee of a delegate walk-out during Ahmadinejad’s diatribes—the General Assembly also shines a strong spotlight on the most pressing international issues of the day. Last year, the Assembly welcomed South Sudan as its newest member, cheered Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as the first-ever woman to open the summit’s debate, and discussed the ongoing revolutions of the Arab Spring. It’s also a bellwether for the fortunes of individual leaders. Just three years ago, Gaddafi was holding the Assembly captive with a protracted and eccentric jeremiad—culminating in his destruction of the U.N. charter—that touched on swine flu and the death of JFK. By the 2011 Assembly, Gaddafi was a hunted, haunted man on the lam, and rebel leaders were receiving invites to take his seat in New York.
So what kind of spectacle does the U.N. promise this year for its 67th Session? Here’s a quick rundown of the topics and personalities sure to dominate the discussion:
The Carnage in Syria
As Syrian president Bashar al-Assad continues the violent crackdown on his own people, the global community remains deeply riven over the bloody conflict, with the U.S. and Europe calling for sanctions against the Assad regime and Russia and China resisting intervention. Last month—a day after Kofi Annan quit his post as special envoy to Syria in frustration—the General Assembly voted 133 to 12 to condemn its own Security Council for failing to stem the crisis, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon slammed the great powers for turning the conflict into a “proxy war.” Expect a heated debate over Syria, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey lining up behind the Western powers to denounce the regime, and Russia and China bolstering their pro-Assad stance with support from Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.
The Coming Showdown of Israel vs. Iran
Iran's President Ahmadinejad is always a loose cannon at the Assembly, usually using his appearances to float bombastic conspiracy theories about Sept. 11 and to peddle Holocaust denials. This year, his speech could be more outlandish than ever, due to a host of political pressures mounting at home and abroad. Back in Iran, he’s been locked in a covert power struggle with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and faces an uncertain future after the 2013 elections. Meanwhile, Syria—which Iran counted as a critical regional ally—is crumbling toward civil war, and Israel is loudly sounding off about bombing Tehran’s nuclear program before November, despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s calls for restraint. Ahmadinejad has long positioned Israel as the ultimate enemy, once calling it a “stinking corpse ... on its way to annihilation” and demanding that it be “wiped off the map.” What will he say now that its fighter jets are aimed squarely at Iran?
While he can’t quite top Ahmadinejad’s invective, longtime Iran pal Hugo Chavez has had more than a few bizarre U.N. rants of his own—most memorably, in 2006, when he called then-president George W. Bush “the devil.” Since then, Chavez has claimed the U.S. has been using cancer as a weapon of mass destruction in South America (he underwent his own radiation therapy for an undisclosed form of the disease in Cuba this year, during which time he effectively ruled Venezuela by Twitter) and has strongly denounced the revolutions of the Arab Spring. This year, he’ll arrive in New York on the eve of a heated presidential election, desperate to show that he’s strong enough to continue his rule. Meanwhile, Wall Street analysts are predicting that a Chavez victory could tip Venezuela into default. In other words, all the elements are in place for vintage Chavez weirdness at the Assembly.
The Queen of the Prom
Last year, Brazilian President Rousseff was the undisputed belle of the Assembly with her history-making speech declaring a “century of women.” Which female leader will command the spotlight this year? Strong bets include Germany’s Angela Merkel, who continues to steer Europe through its worst financial crisis in a generation; Argentine “Teflon Lady” Cristina de Kirchner; or the ever-dynamic Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia.
Expect a heated debate over Syria, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey lining up behind the Western powers to denounce the regime, and Russia and China bolstering their pro-Assad stance.
On the one hand, Obama will go into the Assembly with good news on the domestic front, as rival Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign continues to make spectacular gaffes barely a month before the November elections. But the White House faces a dire international situation in the wake of the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya, and ongoing violent protests across the Muslim world in response to an obscure film denigrating the Prophet Mohammed. Obama is slated to meet with Egypt’s newly-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, at the General Assembly, and the meeting could be tense: Morsi has struggled to stop protesters from storming the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and his administration is walking a thin tightrope between pacifying the U.S.—a critical source of aid for the country—and heeding the will of his Muslim Brotherhood voters.
Beijing is sure to be central to the Syria debate—and will likely continue to stymie the U.S.’s calls for condemnation of the Assad regime—but the real interest in China this year will center on the Communist Party’s big leadership transition, which just keeps getting odder and odder, spiraling from murky murder plots to vanished Veeps. Even though heir apparent Xi Jinping has just reappeared after weeks off the radar, it’s unclear whether he’ll be heading to New York to represent China’s interests. And if not him, then whom?
It’s been a year of tremendous changes for the isolated Southeast Asian nation in the throes of a historical political thaw, and September brings two monumental visits from Burmese leaders to the United States. First, Nobel Peace laureate and newly-elected opposition Parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi visits Washington today to receive a Congressional Medal from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It’s been barely two years since Suu Kyi was released from her decade-and-a-half of house arrest under the Burmese junta, and the Lady’s appearance in the States marks just how swift and sweeping the changes inside Burma have been. Then, on Sept. 25 and 26, Suu Kyi will travel to New York, overlapping with the arrival of Burmese President Thein Sein, who will attend the U.N. Assembly. Ahead of his visit, Thein Sein released more than 500 political prisoners in Burma as a sign of the government’s ongoing commitment to reform. While challenges remain ahead for Burma, Thein Sein’s appearance at the U.N. marks a big step forward for the government in its attempts to engage with the outside world.