At a time of clamor in New York over the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and division in Washington over Iraq, President Bush gave both countries scant mention in his annual address to the UN General Assembly. Bush instead issued a broad appeal for fostering human rights and improving global development. The September 25 speech marked a departure for a president with a “history of laying out a hard line and challenging the United Nations to join him” (LAT).
But Bush’s speech was consistent with the “freedom agenda” first introduced in his 2005 inaugural speech. He hailed the “strides toward liberty” of countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Morocco, and emphasized the need for more international cooperation in efforts such as fighting malaria and spreading literacy. Bush scorned the actions of regimes in Zimbabwe, Cuba, and North Korea and announced sanctions against the military dictatorship in Myanmar, which has been cracking down on a new wave of popular dissent.
Some of the strongest opening day remarks on issues vexing Washington came from the new UN secretary-general and the new president of France. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the chamber that “Iraq has become the whole world’s problem (PDF)” and urged a UN role in its political reconciliation. He also reaffirmed his goal of UN reform, adding: “We need an internal climate change at the UN.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy sounded the toughest notes on Iran, saying “if we allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, we would incur an unacceptable risk to stability (PDF) in the region and in the world.”
Ahmadinejad in numerous appearances in New York this week (IHT) has rejected charges his country seeks to develop a nuclear weapons capability. In his address to the General Assembly late Tuesday, he reasserted Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear power and denounced UN Security Council sanctions as illegal. He said in light of Iran’s agreement on a work plan last month with the UN’s nuclear agency, “the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed and has turned into an ordinary Agency matter.” The agreement (PDF) with the International Atomic Energy Agency gives Iran three months to clear up outstanding ambiguities related to its nuclear program.
Earlier, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega defended the rights of Iran and North Korea to develop peaceful nuclear energy. Ortega scoffed at Bush’s comments on humanitarian assistance, calling it “no more than the debt they are repaying our people.”
This could revive what the Economist calls the new tradition of anti-American leaders fulminating on the UN podium “to attract the world’s attention by briefly sharing a forum with George Bush.” That would likely trigger scorn from UN critics who see the organization accommodating dictators and terrorists (NYSun). But the opening of this year’s debate has so far been distinguished by a new tone from the UN’s biggest and most influential donor, the appearance of new, plain speaking actors, and an apparent fresh attempt to make the UN more central to global problem solving.