The annual meetings of the UN General Assembly are sometimes surreal experiences. Formally, the General Assembly is the seniormost element of the UN structure, representing the coming together of the heads of the states that constitute the “international community”. In reality, everyone knows that real power in the UN rests with the five permanent members of the Security Council, and that the General Assembly has little real power, as reflected by the utter ineffectiveness of its routine resolutions condemning Israel for its policies against the Palestinians. Every now and then, however, it becomes the occasion for what appear to be significant political developments that transcend the limitations of the Assembly’s position.
In hindsight, the 61st session of the General Assembly last month may prove to be one of those occasions, a tipping point in the shifting balance of power between the humiliated and discredited American hegemon and the global resistance to the sole superpower, led by the Islamic State of Iran, the leading edge of the global Islamic movement that is the main element of the global resistance. Although the Assembly was the occasion for discussing many international political issues, from global warming to the tragedy in Darfur, it was dominated by speeches by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who clinically dismantled the US’s claim to global leadership, and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who has emerged as a leader of the anti-American resistance in the non-Muslim world, whose caustic and humorous criticism of the US led Hizbullah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah to hail him as a “great Arab”.
As usual, and as befitting the US’s claim to global leadership, US president George Bush spoke on the opening day of the session, September 19, shortly after the speech by UN secretary general Kofi Annan, who will step down later this year. With US troops under severe pressure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and just weeks after unreservedly supporting Israel’s attack on Lebanon, described by Condoleezza Rice as the birth of a “new Middle East”, Bush could have expected little support for his claims that his policies are promoting democracy and freedom for the people of the world. His demands that the UN lead the way in opposing Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons programme was undermined by the publication earlier the same day of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s own nuclear monitoring agency, accusing his government of lying about the IAEA’s operations in Iran and its findings. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that he got a lukewarm welcome and little sympathy for his calls for action on Darfur, a transparent attempt to appear to be a force for good in the world. His claim that the credibility of the UN was at stake on the issue echoed his language during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. However great the tragedy caused by the war in Darfur, the government responsible for the atrocity of Fallujah, and numerous others in the five years of the Bush administration, can hardly claim the moral high ground on such issues. Bush’s speech seemed little more than the tired protestations of a failed leader.
The contrast when Ahmadinejad spoke later the same day could hardly have been greater. In a scathing attack on the US and its allies, he accused the US and Britain of being “prosecutor, judge and jury” whenever they have differences of opinion with other countries, using their privileged position whenever anyone tried to restrict them. “Which organs of the UN can hold them to account?” he asked rhetorically. He also critiqued US policy more broadly, speaking both as president of Iran and a leader of the global Muslim Ummah on issues such as Palestine and Lebanon, and defended Iran’s nuclear programme, saying that it was doing nothing more than was its right under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. He contrasted this with the possession and use of nuclear weapons by some of the countries attacking Iraq: “Some of them have abused nuclear technology for non-peaceful ends, including the production of nuclear bombs, and even have a bleak record of using them against humanity”, he said. (For the full text of Ahmadinejad’s speech, see p. 23 below.)
Hugo Chavez, who is emerging as Iran’s closest ally in the non-Muslim world, similarly targeted the US, albeit in a more casual manner. He provoked laughter in the chamber -- not a common phenomenon at the UN -- and around the world in his speech the following day, when he stood at the same podium and proclaimed that “The devil came here yesterday... It still smells of sulphur today.” Citing a book by Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, as an analysis of US policy, he accused Bush of “talking as though he were the owner of the world”, while promoting “a false democracy of the elite” and a “democracy of bombs”. He demanded drastic reform of the UN to reduce the US’s influence, saying that “ I don’t think anyone in this room could defend the system... Let’s be honest, the UN system born after the Second World War has collapsed -- it’s worthless.”
In truth, none of these critiques of the US or the UN is particularly original; they are merely statements of realities that have been obvious for a long time, and have been said many times before by political dissidents, commentators and analyists all over the world. But the fact that they were so clearly stated at the UN by leading world statesmen, and greeted with sympathy both in the chamber (US commentators protested that even UN officials were seen nodding during Ahmadinejad’s speech and laughing at Chavez’s mocking jokes) and around the world, is indicative of the extent to which the US has wasted the sympathy and credibility it had in the aftermath of the events of September 2001. American officials often protest that the UN is ineffective and irrelevant because it does not support their policies around the world, which they portray as attempts to police the world. In truth, as reflected in the speeches of both Ahmadinejad and Chavez, the UN has been discredited by the US’s own abuse of it and its agencies.
American imperialism is now naked, barely disguised and widely recognised. The result is that those who have the courage to stand up to it are the new heroes of the world. It is no coincidence that Islamic Iran is emerging as both the main target of US policies and the leading edge of anti-American resistance. For nearly 30 years Iran has been the only genuinely independent state in the Muslim world. It has maintained this status despite direct and indirect warfare from the US and its allies, designed to undermine and subvert it, and ultimately to force it back into a subservient position within the international order. At the same time, it has also developed immensely in its internal political institutions, as part of its object to develop a modern Islamic state based on the political ijtihad of Imam Khomeini. Its strength in this area is typified by the emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a popular leader embodying many of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, as well as its continuing support for Islamic movements elsewhere, including Hamas and Hizbullah.
In hindsight, the “new American industry” may come to be regarded as still-born, as a result of both its own arrogance, but also because of the policies of the Bush administration. In which case, the humiliation of Bush at the 61st session of the UN General Assembly may come to be seen as a turning point in the shifting balance of power away from the US to its critics and opponents, particularly in the Muslim world.