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President Obama addressed the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, as did Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. As heads of state address the body and the world, their delegates debate perennial issues like nuclear disarmament and Millennium Development Goals. Kojo explores the General Assembly’s role in the Syria debate, the Kenya terrorist attack and the world.
- David L. Bosco Professor at American University's School of International Service; author of the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine; author of "Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World" (Oxford University Press, 2009)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but first, President Obama made his fifth address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday pledging to work on a better relationship with Iran and to press for an Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the evening, Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani addressed the world body for the first time criticizing U.S. foreign policy in his region, but pledging to negotiate over Iran's nuclear program. The possibility that the two might meet for an impromptu handshake or brief conversation never materialized reportedly because such an encounter was too politically fraught for the new Iranian leader.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the speeches and choreography of the day illustrate both the opportunities and the limitations of the annual General Assembly session in New York bringing world leaders together in one place clearly offers up opportunities for interactions that couldn't take place unilaterally. But critics say the General Assembly is all pomp and no power.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me to look behind the scenes at the United Nations General Assembly is David Bosco. He is a professor at American University's School of International Service. He writes the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine and he is author of the book "Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World". David Bosco joins us in studio, welcome.
PROF. DAVID L. BOSCOThanks so much, it's great to be here.
NNAMDIWelcome to you, too. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850 with your questions or comments. How important do you think the speeches that world leaders give at the United Nations General Assembly are? 800-433-8850, you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
NNAMDIDavid Bosco, Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rouhani addressed the General Assembly yesterday. Compared with the fiery speeches of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his remarks were tame. This forum gives leaders a chance to signal their intentions both to their own domestic audience and to the world. How was that reflected in what Rouhani said yesterday?
BOSCOYeah, no, there is a complex game that these leaders are engaged in where they're both speaking to their public but also to the world public and to other leaders and his speech was notably different in tone as you indicated from his predecessor, Ahmadinejad.
BOSCOYou know, it was, he certainly was critical of the United States. He certainly talked about ending, you know, what he called the kind of oppression of emerging powers and non-Western powers by the Western states. So all of those themes were very much in the speech but he signaled a willingness. And that's been very consistent with what we've seen over the last weeks and months from Iran, these openings, these gestures that they're willing to talk.
BOSCONow the devil is really in the details in terms of what this means because, you know, there have been openings in the past and there have been ongoing talks and so this is just a first gambit in the new iteration of this game I would say.
NNAMDIPerhaps more important than what leaders say publicly on the floor of the General Assembly is what they say privately to each other in the halls. The annual General Assembly session does offer a unique chance for low-key, no-fuss discussions between leaders whose nations may be unfriendly, unlikely to arrange high-profile summits.
NNAMDIThe White House had signaled that such an encounter might take place between Presidents Obama and Rouhani but it did not. Why?
BOSCOIt did not and it's quite interesting that it was the Iranian side that seemed to pull back on that. And that's a good reminder that, you know, we always think about the U.S. domestic political pressure and limitations, but of course other leaders have those same pressures and limitations.
NNAMDI(unintelligible) all politics is local.
BOSCOAll politics is local and you know, it may be intra-government politics within Iran, intra-regime politics but for whatever reason they didn't feel comfortable doing it. And so, you know, some people have interpreted that as a rebuff, you know a cold shoulder to the president. I'd be inclined to take it with a grain of salt and in the context of all of the other conciliatory gestures that have been made.
BOSCOSo, but you know, there are going to be meetings between the foreign ministers and so in the context of this P5+1 formulation so you know, John Kerry will be sitting down with the Iranian foreign minister and in a substantive sense that's more important.
NNAMDIYou know, on the one hand the face-to-face meeting would have been historic. On the other hand, if from the point of view of the Iranian delegation it could undermine what to them was more important and that is the talks that take place outside of the public eye.
NNAMDIOne can understand how they might make that decision.
BOSCOYeah, absolutely and you know the theatrics of this all are quite complicated. I mean how do you arrange a quick handshake in the hallway? This is not simple stuff when you've got security details and everything else and other heads of state. And so it doesn't surprise me necessarily that it was deemed too complicated.
BOSCOBut what you say about the General Assembly and the ability of heads of state and also foreign ministers to just collar people and have these quiet conversations. I mean the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was tweeting about how, you know, the General Assembly is remarkable because you can sit in the café there and 20-25 foreign ministers that you might want to talk to, will walk by and that's really a remarkable thing and not to be taken for granted.
NNAMDIOur guest is David Bosco. He's a professor at American University's School of International Service. He writes the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine. He's also author of the book "Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World". You can call us at 800-433-8850. Other than the speeches David, is the General Assembly likely to deal with international concern over Iran's nuclear program?
BOSCOThey may, you know, there may be a resolution that gets passed through the General Assembly and every year, you know, there's kind of a slew of resolutions that get passed. One of the notable features about General Assembly resolutions is that they're not binding in a legal sense. It's really the Security Council that has the power to issue binding resolutions.
BOSCOAnd you know, the General Assembly does weigh in on these issues and it certainly has weighed in on the past on Syria. But the dynamics within the General Assembly on Iran are quite complicated because this, you know, these notes that Rouhani hit in his speech about the hypocrisy in the international system, the one standard for the powerful states and another standard for the less powerful. That resonates with a lot of the General Assembly.
BOSCOAnd Rouhani was clearly trying to hit that nerve in his speech. And so, you know, it's not at all predetermined what a vote on Iran would look like.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, don your headphones please David because we're about to hear from Morani in Washington, D.C. Morani, you're on the air, go ahead please.
MORANIGood morning Mr. Nnamdi, I went to school with your two sons and I've heard that they're doing well.
NNAMDIYes, they are. Thank you for thinking about them.
MORANIYes, and I would like to mention two things. First, if you can give me the name of your guest speaker and the name of his book because I am going to buy it.
NNAMDIHis name is David Bosco, B-O-S-C-O and the name of the book is "Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World."
MORANIOkay, he's very well informed and he's able to really dissect things that are being said and those things that are not being said so I really appreciate that. And I just wanted to just briefly mention that my daughter and I spent the month of August in Iran and the people really, really liked President Obama and I believe that both sides really want to come to the table and do some real negotiation. I don't believe that it's just talk.
MORANIAnd based on the economy it has been shaken quite devastatingly bad and right now I still have their currency and the other countries that I visited I was not able to change the money, the currency so I know that both parties really want to talk and come to some type of understanding.
NNAMDIMorani, thank you very much for your call and Morani does underscore a very important issue David Bosco and that is it's not just internal politics in Iran but the internal economic situation that may be a factor in the desire to come to the table.
BOSCOThat's right. I mean Morani is exactly right that there, you know, there have been a series of sanctions imposed on Iran, both through the Security Council and through other mechanisms and you know, experts on the Iranian economy really do validate what she was saying, that this has taken a toll.
BOSCONow there's a lot of debate out there about how often economic sanctions work and you know, do they really compel states to do things, you know, to change policy on something as central as you know, a nuclear weapons program and we'll see. But it's a good reminder that there is this set of sanctions and they really have taken a bite.
NNAMDIThe other major speech yesterday came from Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff who criticized the United States for electronic snooping on Brazilian government communications but she also talked about changing the membership of the U.N. Security Council. What did she say and how does it reflect the challenges facing the Security Council in the 21st century?
BOSCOYeah, her speech was interesting because she did make this kind of frontal challenge to the United States over its spying program. And recently she had cancelled a state visit to the United States which was really quite remarkable. But you know, once you get beyond the criticism of U.S. spying she really hit on themes that Brazilian politicians and other big emerging powers have talked about which is the unfairness of the U.N. structure and in particular the Security Council.
BOSCOYou know, why are the five permanent members the same permanent members that we had in 1945?
NNAMDIChina, France, the U.K., the U.S. and Russia...
BOSCOYep, that's them. That was them in 1945 and that's them now with a couple of you know regime changes in there. But, and Brazil and India and Japan, Germany feel like they are credible candidates for permanent seats and lots of the U.N. General Assembly, you know, the general U.N. membership agrees.
BOSCOThey cannot agree, however, on how to change because for every Brazil that thinks it deserves a permanent seat on the council there's an Argentina or a Mexico which has a different view of how the council should be changed.
NNAMDIBut did she make any detailed or persuasive argument about just how it would change the Security Council...
NNAMDI...if other nations from developing countries were allowed?
BOSCONo and I think that was, you know, a defect of that speech. You know she suggested that the council would be different with a more representative cast of characters but how and you know, what would it do on Syria? She didn't really say anything about Syria and, you know, how important the chemical weapons norm is. There was a real lack of content and instead this insistence that the architecture needs to change, the question of substance was a lot more vague.
NNAMDIPlus she was a little upset about the NSA...
NNAMDI...spying on Brazil and spent some time talking about that.
BOSCOI was joking with some colleagues that President Obama should have joked that he had read Rousseff's speech the day before it was given but he decided not to.
NNAMDISyria is the big issue right now but the General Assembly has very little leverage over Bashar al-Assad. The real power lies with the aforementioned Security Council. What tools are available to each of those bodies in order to reprimand Syria or to deal with Syria in some way?
BOSCOWell, the Security Council, I mean the General Assembly has the power of the pulpit essentially, you know, they could. They have already chastised the Syrian government and they could do so again. The power in terms of more concrete measures is with the council and they could, if they agreed, impose an arms embargo. They impose sanctions. They could ultimately authorize military action. That does not appear to be likely. We have the same dynamic that we've had now with Russia and China, hostile to any measures that would tend to undermine the regime. So the Security Council diplomats are, at this moment, trying to hash out some kind of resolution that kind of puts in place and operationalizes this deal that had been struck the U.S. and Russia on chemical weapons.
NNAMDIWe're going to be taking a short break right now. But if you've called, stay on the line. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. When we come back we'll be talking about the General Assembly and comparing its power and influence with the Security Council. What do you think? Should the General Assembly more power with the Security Council? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the United Nations General Assembly, something this broadcast will be focusing on increasingly over the course of the next year or so. Our guest is David Bosco. He's a professor at American University School of International Service. David Bosco writes the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine. He's also author of the book "Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World."
NNAMDIDavid, has the General Assembly taken up the issue of terrorism in the light of the al-Shabab killings at the shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya over this past weekend? And what tools does the General Assembly have to address terrorism?
BOSCOThe assembly likely will pass some kind of resolution on that and it's gonna feature speeches that have been given thus far. I mean, most world leaders have made reference to it. But the question of terrorism for the General Assembly has been a really difficult one over the years. And, in fact, there really isn't -- and this is hard to believe -- but there really isn't a binding definition of whatever is amiss.
BOSCOAnd it's something the General Assembly has been debating on and off over the years. But you can't get agreement because you always go back to this question of, well, is somebody's cause just? And, you know, then, you know, you get mixed up between tactics that are used in the just cause. And so that's been a real sticking point. And it's hampered the ability of the General Assembly to deal in a kind of systematic way with terrorism.
NNAMDIOne remembers the debates over the African National Congress in South Africa, once considered a terrorist organization. Now the government of the country. There's another perennial debate over the power of the General Assembly compared with that of the Security Council. The General Assembly has 193 member countries, many of which resent the greater power of that exclusive 15-member Security Council.
NNAMDIFive prominent members, another 10 on a rotating basis. Are we likely to see any shift in the relative power of these two bodies?
BOSCOThis has been a back and forth throughout the United Nations history because from the perspective of most states at the U.N., the General Assembly is the most legitimate body. And the Security Council is this kind of oligarchic feature that has this elite group of big powers. And, you know, some -- and then you do have these non-permanent members who are elected by the General Assembly but they often feel on the Security Council that they're kind of tourists.
BOSCOYou know, they get to walk through the Security Council for two years. But by the time they really become acquainted and expert with what's going on, they're ushered out. So, yeah, there's a push and pull. I don't think we're likely to see any formal changes in the relationship between the assembly and the Security Council, but that is a real perennial issue of discussion and tension out at the U.N.
NNAMDITell us what you think. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you think the United Nations is playing an important role in the world today? Should the General Assembly have more power compared with the Security Council? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. David, the tensions among some of the permanent members of the Security Council often seem comparable to the tensions between American political parties on Capitol Hill. Is there a similar gridlock on the Security Council?
BOSCOYou know, it's interesting, there is on certain issues. And so on Syria, that's where we are. On Syria, we're on gridlock. But it's important to remember that the Security Council does all sorts of other stuff. And so even as they're gridlocked on Syria, they may be passing resolutions authorizing peacekeeping missions, you know, monitoring economic sanctions in other places around the world.
BOSCOAnd so there's -- the gridlock gets a lot of the attention. But there is also this productive side of the Security Council. And we haven't -- you know, since the end of the Cold War, we really haven't gone back to the kind of paralysis that we had during those decades when the Security Council really couldn't do much. And some people thought, you know, if the U.N. is going to do anything, we need to have the General Assembly do it.
BOSCOAnd in fact the U.S. in the 1950s kind of pushed to have the General Assembly take responsibility. Once the composition of the General Assembly changed and it became less pro-American, the United States conveniently forgot about that tactic. But there is still this productive side of what the Security Council does.
NNAMDIGoing back to the Security Council, we got an email from David who says: Please ask your guest, which nations, if any, he would support add into the U.N. Security Council. I don't know if David Bosco has that kind of influence but he might want to talk a little bit about what purpose it might serve to add certain nations to the Security Council.
BOSCOYeah. I think Brazil should be there. I think India should be there. I think Japan should be there. I think Germany, you know, there's such a heavy European representation already.
NNAMDIYes, it is.
BOSCOYeah, with Britain and France. And plus, you have Europe attempting to have a kind of unified foreign policy. I don't think there's much chance and I'm not sure it would be good if Germany were there. But I think certainly India, Brazil and Japan. You know, Japan is the second largest funder of the U.N. and I think they have a strong case to be there. So I think...
NNAMDIAnd Brazil and India as emerging regional powers?
BOSCOYeah. Brazil and India is emerging regional power. India is the largest democracy in the world. India is a huge participant in U.N. peacekeeping and has been for years. Brazil actually almost made it on to the Security Council as a permanent member back when negotiations were going on in the 1940s because the U.S. was pushing for Brazil but the Soviets and the British weren't enthusiastic.
NNAMDIThe General Assembly's power lies partly in its budget authority. How does controlling U.N. financial resources help it shape the agenda?
BOSCOYeah, that's an important reality of the U.N. system is that while the Security Council has the binding legal authority and the ability to authorize sanctions and military force, when it comes to what the U.N. is going to spend money on, that's the General Assembly's purview. And there's no veto there. And so when it comes down to budget issues, it's -- the United States has one vote and everyone else has one vote.
BOSCONow, the United States has influence that others don't. But you have seen over the years a lot of tension between the United States in particular and the other states about how the U.N.'s budget is being spent. The U.S. is constantly hammering the U.N. to save money because the U.S. pays about 24 percent of the U.N. budget. So it's a big chunk.
NNAMDILast year we had the opportunity to spend a little time with the U.N. and just walking around you realize that it's an awesome idea. But the current American attitude toward the United Nation, the general -- and the General Assembly, the U.S. is the largest U.N. funder, contributing 24 percent of the U.N.'s budget. Is there still a lot of anti-U.N. sentiment here in Washington?
BOSCOOh, yes, absolutely. There is a great deal of anti-U.N. sentiment and a lot of it I think has to do actually with the General Assembly itself because over the years the United States, you know, which back in the '40s and '50s was pretty much could command the majority in the General Assembly when it wanted to. That all changed in the 1960s when you had decolonization, a lot of new African states, Asian states.
BOSCOAnd many of them felt very skeptical about the West, and the U.S. in particular. And that -- that really has never -- the effect of that, I think, hasn't worn off for the United States because, you know, the feeling of being outvoted consistently or often enough on issues that the U.S. cares about, particularly Israel, that really rankles and that I think is at the basis of a lot of the hostility to the organization.
NNAMDIOur guest is David Bosco. He's a professor at American University School of International Service. He writes the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine and is author of the book, "Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World." Do you feel the United Nations is playing an important role in the world today? Give us a call, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIDavid, one complaint about the General Assembly is that it's a bunch of speeches that don't add up to any meaningful action. What's the role of the General Assembly meant to be? And what happens to the other 50 weeks of the year when the General Assembly is not in session?
BOSCOYeah, that's interesting. I mean, when Franklin Roosevelt was thinking about the U.N. structure back in, you know, during World War II, I think he, at one point, described what the General Assembly should be as a place for every country to vent. And so, you know, that idea that this is a place where everyone can sound off was, you know, was in the mind of at least some of the people who were quite influential in its creation.
BOSCONo, but there's a lot of other work that goes on. And the General Assembly's work really goes on throughout the year. They have committees that deal with legal issues. They have, you know, they deal with contributions to peacekeeping. They deal with human rights. And so there's a whole program of work. Now the relevance of that work varies a lot, issue by issue. And so on some issues, the U.N. does stuff and its committees meet around the year.
BOSCOBut it's hard to point to any impact. In other areas, it is fairly influential. There's a sub-body of the General Assembly that the U.N. Human Rights Council and people pay quite a bit of attention to what it's saying, you know, about various situations around the world.
NNAMDIIndeed the panel discussion that I moderated last year was under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
NNAMDIWhat role does the secretary general play at the General Assembly? Ban Ki-moon is in his second five-year term as secretary general. Is he well regarded?
BOSCOHe is, I think, regarded as diligent, as having been a capable steward of the organization. I do not think he will go down as one of the notable secretaries general. He really hasn't -- there's been not -- there's no real issue where you can say that Ban Ki-moon is at the center of diplomacy. You know, Kofi Annan had several situations in which he was at least briefly right at the center of events.
BOSCOAnd Ban Ki-moon, it's hard to point to those kinds of episodes. So, you know, I think he's seen as capable but not brilliant as a secretary general.
NNAMDIOne regular topic on the General Assembly's agenda is the millennial development goals. What are they? And how have they affected the world's less wealthy nations?
BOSCOYeah, this was a set of goals created, you know, almost a decade ago that set out certain economic and health and, you know, equality goals that leaders should strive for. And I think they've been much more successful maybe than many people had anticipated in giving a focal points for the question of economic development. And so, you know, World Bank refers to them. The, you know, nongovernmental organizations refer to them.
BOSCOSo I think they've been seen as very successful. And a lot of progress has been made in reaching some of these goals, not all of them. And so for the U.N., the question -- one question that's being wrestled with up in New York is how do we replace this? Well, what comes next? Because, you know, they were designed as this kind of decade-long struggle. And so there's a lot talk about, you know, should it be environmentally focused?
BOSCOShould it be -- have some other focus? And that's something that I think will be worked out in the course of the next year or so.
NNAMDILet's hear from Stephanie in Washington, D.C. Stephanie, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
STEPHANIEYes, good afternoon. I wanted to talk about -- expand a little bit on the animus in the U.S. towards the United Nations and talk a bit about the U.S. Senate's unwillingness ratify various United Nations treaties, most recently the convention on the rights of prisons with disabilities where there was a bit of an absurd disaster in the Senate's final vote on the treaty last December.
BOSCOYeah. So one of the other things that the General Assembly does, and Stephanie, you know, points to this is that it often facilitates the drafting of big, international treaties. And, you know, we saw recently there was an arms trade treaty, which basically said that every country has to take into account human rights concerns when it transfers weapons from one -- to another government essentially.
BOSCOAnd so the General Assembly plays a big role in that. But we do find that the United States in particular has been extremely hesitant to ratify a number of these treaties, even though the administration is often supportive of them. Now how much that matters on a practical level in terms of what's happening here in the United States is, I think, quite debatable. The U.S. -- the administration often argues that the U.S. is already complying with the terms of these treaties.
BOSCOAnd in fact some of these treaties are based upon U.S. law and U.S. regulations. And -- but it sends a signal around the world that it gets back to this point we were discussing about hypocrisy and double standards that, you know, the United States seems to think that these treaties and instruments are tools to moderate the behavior of other states. But they're not tools that the United States is willing to be bound by.
NNAMDIWell, the United States will sign an international arms trade treaty today.
NNAMDIThat aims to stem the flow of weapons to human rights violators. But that treaty won't take effect until 50 countries also ratified and only four have done so thus far. What's the significance of this international effort to keep arms out of conflict zone?
BOSCOIt's -- there was a big push to get this treaty and, you know, several important government, including the U.K. government were quite supportive. You know, as with so many of these treaties, it doesn't have an enforcement mechanism. It doesn't have, you know, a structure -- there's nobody who can hold to account a state that's violating the terms of the treaty.
BOSCOAnd so a lot of this treaty making in the General Assembly context is about creating norms and creating expectations and standards for how states will act even if they don't follow those standards all the time and even if there's no mechanism for forcing them to do so. My guess is that this treaty, this arms trade treaty, which has attracted the ire of the National Rifle Association and others will not be ratified by the U.S. Senate any time soon.
BOSCOAnd so I think it will go into that increasingly large category of treaties that had been signed by the United States but not ratified.
NNAMDIDavid Bosco, thank you for joining us.
BOSCOThanks so much. David Bosco is a professor at American University School of International Service. He writes the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine. He's author of the book, "Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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