Where Have All The U.N.’s Crazies Gone?


Then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses the U.N. in 2006

Then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses the U.N. in 2006

CREDIT: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

UNITED NATIONS — Later on Thursday, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe takes the podium to deliver yet another address before the U.N. General Assembly. The vicious, eighty-nine year-old strongman’s speech may be the best chance yet for the sort of spectacle that the annual meeting has become known for, an oddity in light of the past few years of ridiculous speeches.

Indeed, this year’s General Debate — now entering its third day — has been downright staid compared to the high-drama that has been seen in the past. The speeches have even largely been germane to the topic at hand, how to advance development goals after 2015. Nothing has yet come close to the — likely apocryphal — story of when Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe on his delegation desk while scolding the Philippines.

Part of it is that many of the past firebrands who spoke at the U.N. have left office, one way or another. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent eight-years railing against the United States in front of the green marble, always an, erm, fascinating bit of theatre. The more moderate Hassan Rouhani has now replaced the term-limited Ahmadinejad, whose speech on Tuesday didn’t exactly cause an international uproar in the way that Ahmadi’s rants routinely did.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died of cancer earlier this year; in 2006 he proclaimed after then-president George W. Bush had spoken that “the devil was here yesterday.” Libyan dictator Moamar Qaddafi, who once spoke for over an hour when his country’s ambassador was President of the General Assembly, was killed after being deposed by rebels assisted by NATO in 2011. Cuba’s Fidel Castro is too old to travel and has turned over control of the island country to his brother Raul, who has yet to attend the Assembly. Bolivia’s Evo Morales once chewed coca during his speech, a feat he opted not to repeat on Tuesday — though he did expound on the narcotic leaf’s many uses in a press conference, including as a toothpaste.

Another factor is that the hot topics this year aren’t the sort that draw major attention to the body. Last year, the Palestinian Authority was pushing for a vote to become a full member of the United Nations, rather than the Permanent Observer it currently is. The U.S. and Israel both vigorously opposed of the move and managed to keep the motion from carrying both in the Security Council and General Assembly. This year, however, Israel and Palestine are both back at the negotiating table, forestalling any need for Palestine to push for international recognition through the U.N.

The lack of fiery speeches denouncing the United States isn’t exactly because the U.S. is more popular around Turtle Bay, though. According to the Monkey Cage’s Erik Voeten, support for the U.S. from the General Assembly has remained largely flat during President Obama’s term. Analyzing voting patterns in the body, Voeten concluded that the U.S. actually remains relatively isolated, though this is likely due to extremely lopsided votes such as the annual condemnation of the American embargo on Cuba than extreme enmity from the body.

Turtle Bay hasn’t been completely buttoned-down, however. The very first speaker, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, used her time to denounce American spying overseas and call for the United Nations to take more direct control over the Internet’s functions. As she spoke directly before President Obama due to the Assembly’s protocol, this served as a very public and embarrassing denouncement of U.S. policy. And while a repeat performance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s choice of graphics seen during his speech last year is unlikely, his flair for the dramatic is well-known and likely to be on display on next Tuesday.

But compared to the years past, there don’t seem to be many opportunities for the memorable moments that last beyond the closing gavel of a session. Then again, fewer than half of the United Nations’ 193 member-states have spoken so far. There may yet be a chance for a world leader to make headlines and history on the world stage.