After World War II, nations exhausted by conflict and determined that diplomacy was better than war, created the United Nations. It was to be a kind of linguistic bazaar to which international problems could be brought and resolved by peaceful, reasonable discussion among representatives of the various member nations.
Each September, high-ranking representatives of the membership convene in the General Assembly, a kind of high temple of international diplomacy at UN headquarters in New York.
On this occasion, mere ambassadors to the UN are outranked by their foreign ministers or prime ministers or presidents who bring parts of New York City to a standstill as their limousines, sandwiched between security vehicles, wind their way between their hotels and the UN complex.
In contrast to the chaos outside, debate in the General Assembly is supposed to be genteel, focused – as Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, points out – on unity, not disunity. Alas, this year's General Assembly is more notable for the rantings of demagogues than constructive efforts to achieve world peace.
Last week, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, probably speaking more for his audience at home than in the assembly chamber, went on a tirade clearly directed at the United States and leveled his ire at the existing composition of the UN Security Council, which has deplored Iran's suspected program to develop nuclear weapons. The Security Council is shortly scheduled to decide whether to impose sanctions on Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad seemed intent on questioning for the viewers in Iran and elsewhere in the Islamic world the legitimacy of such UN action.
Outside the General Assembly hall, he went on a charm offensive with the American press, granting media interviews to almost everyone, it seemed, short of Women's Wear Daily. He was a skillful but evasive interviewee, responding to every probing question with a counter-question to his interlocutors. Did he really believe the Holocaust had never happened? Well, shouldn't there be more impartial studies to determine that? Did he really mean that Israel should be wiped off the map? Well, he loved Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, but shouldn't voters in the region (presumably Palestinians) decide that?
He also delivered brazenly misleading, or untruthful, statements about Iran's nuclear program, asserting that Iran was transparently open to UN inspectors and had no desire to build a nuclear bomb.
It seems doubtful that much of this double-talk would be convincing to American audiences.
Even more strident a speaker at the General Assembly was Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez. Throwing protocol and good manners to the wind, he delivered a performance about as sensational as that of Nikita Khrushchev's shoe-banging attack on the US at the UN in 1960. Mr. Chávez compared President Bush to the devil, and said the podium from which Mr. Bush had spoken the day before "still smells of sulphur." In a speech later to a Harlem audience, he made even more scurrilous remarks about the American president.
Whereas there was restrained response to Ahmadinejad's speech to the UN, there was laughter and cheering at Chávez's anti-Bush antics. Some Western diplomats boycotted the Chávez speech.
The White House wisely declined to get into a verbal slanging match with the Venezuelan president, although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Chávez's remarks were unbecoming of a head of state.
However, Democrats who have been critical of Bush expressed outrage. Democratic congressman Charles Rangel of New York said that Chávez should not think that because some Americans were opposed to President Bush that the Venezuelan president could come into America and offend the chief of state without also offending Americans.
California Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was even sharper. "Hugo Chávez fancies himself a modern-day Simón Bolívar," she said, "but all he is is an everyday thug."
Chávez has been recruiting Iran and other nations unfriendly to the US to support Venezuela's campaign for one of the upcoming rotating seats on the Security Council.
He appears to dream of succeeding Fidel Castro as Latin America's leading socialist spokesman and encouraging a leftward drift throughout the region. Ahmadinejad appears to dream of a Middle East subordinate to Iran.
It is a mark of America's greatness that it permits critics like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chávez to enjoy a freedom of speech on American soil that might not exist in their own countries.
That does not mean that the US should support a seat for Venezuela on the UN Security Council. Or permit the Security Council to waffle over Iran's quest for a nuclear bomb.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary general of the UN in 1995. He is currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.