Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez may be best known these days for vividly undiplomatic language about President Bush. Yet throughout his consolidation of power at home, the blunt-tongued Latin leader has been driven by a quest to build a bloc of like-minded countries united in opposition to the American superpower.
At first focused on South America, his vision has grown to embrace the world – in particular other energy-rich countries such as Iran and Sudan.
When Mr. Chávez called Mr. Bush "the devil himself" before the UN General Assembly last week, his remarks generated giggles, even applause. But can he form an alliance against American power?
The next test of his ambition will come next month, when the General Assembly is to decide if Venezuela will be among the next five countries to hold two-year seats on the United Nations Security Council.
"Chávez wants to be a global player taking a part in the big issues of the day – like Iran's right to a nuclear program – and he realizes the [Council] is the perfect platform for him to play that role," says Michael Shifter, vice president at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Although UN diplomats and analysts say that other criteria, including regional ties and economic relations, figure in how countries vote for the coveted Security Council seats, they also acknowledge that the Chávez factor will play a role.
One country that supports Venezuela's campaign is China, which is perhaps not enthralled with the Chávez rhetoric but is lured by the idea of more countries holding its worldview on the Council. China has not been shy about its preference to see greater respect in Security Council deliberations for nation-states' rights, and less attention to individuals' universal rights – ideas implicit in Chávez's discourse.
China also wouldn't mind beefing up the bloc of Security Council countries willing to stand up to the United States, analysts say. Others point out that Venezuela's competition for the open Latin American seat is Guatemala, which has opened diplomatic relations with Taiwan – a move China is keen to discourage.
Some "fence-sitting countries" might be "sympathetic to the notion that some counterweight to American power could be a good thing," says one UN diplomat who asked to remain unnamed because his position in dealing with UN members demands neutrality. "But imagine the pressure that could follow a vote for someone who just called the US president the devil."
Of course the Chávez campaign, joined most publicly by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not the first time countries have joined to check American power, as some foreign-policy practitioners note.
"It's been this way at the UN for quite some time," said John Danforth, former US ambassador to the UN, commenting at a Monitor breakfast this week.
Iconic figures of the cold-war era, from Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro, also rose to the UN dais to challenge the US. One difference with the Chávez effort is that it is backed by Venezuela's oil wealth and Chávez's willingness to use his petrodollars to further his cause.
Even countries in the developing world with good relations with the US are not deaf to Chávez's siren song, some experts say. "Across the developing world, there's no doubt that in their view, the US has hijacked the actions of the Security Council," says Jeffrey Laurenti, a UN expert at the Century Foundation in New York. "To their eyes, special allies are protected – that means Israel – and others who get in [the United States'] way are labeled as rogues."
That view has been exacerbated by a "perfect storm" of actions in Washington, he says – including disregard for some international treaties – that leads some countries to nod in approval "at the notion of the US as a superpower rogue."
Despite that, Mr. Laurenti says that Chávez "may have a price to pay" for his attacks when it comes time for the vote on Council seats, set for Oct. 16. "Before the speech, I would say Venezuela had a substantial lead," he says. "But there's also a sense that you don't want to have two years of constant invective in the Security Council."
Venezuela's bid for a seat is dividing Latin America, as countries consider what profile Chávez would give the region against that of Guatemala – which has US support. Regions often submit consensus candidates for the rotating Security Council seats, but last year Latin America was also the focus of the only contested election – which ended with Peru prevailing over Nicaragua.
The divisions fed by Chávez's rise is one reason for Latin America's lack of consensus, Mr. Shifter says, but so is the proximity and historic influence of the US. "The asymmetry of power between the US and Latin America continues to be a unique and defining factor of politics in this hemisphere," he says. "Chávez knows that and is trying to exploit it."
Still, Laurenti says that history suggests Venezuela's presence would not disrupt the Security Council, which remains dominated by its five permanent members. Noting that Cuba was on the Council in 1990-91 when the UN sanctioned the Gulf War, he says, "We could expect some bearbaiting in public, but behind closed doors Venezuela would be just as businesslike" as Cuba was.