To see the progress made this week at the United Nations, one has to wade through a great deal of muck in the form of international political theater.
Many in the American press were easily distracted by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi's tent-placement debacle. His hour-plus long oratory exercise in endurance (for both speaker and listeners) was a tirade against the U.N., dubbing the Security Council the "Terror Council" and advocating sending top Western officials to the International Criminal Court - an extremely hypocritical claim coming from a man who just welcomed home the Lockerbie bomber with open arms. Al-Gaddafi, thankfully, was not taken seriously by most.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had his own personal brand of crazy to spew, and went off on one of his favorite topics: Holocaust denial. The delegations from the U.S. and Israel left their posts as the alleged president of Iran justified his refusal to acknowledge the sovereign state of Israel through claims that the death toll of the Holocaust was deliberately modified by Western powers in order to grant the Jewish people the land of Israel.
The day after Ahmadinejad spoke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a rebuttal, asking those delegates which remained as an audience to the Iranian president, "Have you no shame? Have you no decency?"
Netanyahu expressed his belief that Iran should never be permitted to gain access to nuclear weapons technology, and that the Jewish state "reserves the right to self-defense." He also stated, however, that Israel and the Israeli people are willing to work towards peace if the Palestinian and Middle Eastern countries are also willing to work toward peace. Netanyahu added the stipulation, though, that any Palestinian state would have to lack a formal military; a condition deemed unacceptable by most in the Middle Eastern world - understandably, of course.
Nevertheless, political theater aside, some good certainly came of the recent U.N. meetings of the General Assembly and Security Council. U.S. President Barack Obama presided over a session of the Security Council that, with no formal resistance, passed a new resolution on the containment of nuclear weapons. The new resolution positively affirms the Security Council's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and can potentially serve as justification for future actions, should the Irans and North Koreas of the world continue to prevent U.N. inspectors inside their borders to have a look. It could also place some pressure on Israel to sign the non-proliferation treaty, a move they have yet to make, as "strategic ambiguity" is a part of their security strategy.
Obama also spoke out on environmental topics, reassuring the international community that his new administration seeks to actively work toward the reduction of carbon emissions and believes the international community - mid-level industrial powers included - needs to follow suit. Interestingly, the U.N. itself purchased carbon offsets to nullify the impact of the transportation required by delegates to reach New York City, the first time it has ever done so. Setting this kind of example is an important first step in convincing the world that collective action needs to be taken if serious consequences are to be avoided.
Last week's activity on the East Side of Manhattan is not to be dismissed as purely political theater on an international level, though. There were moments of disrespect.
Al-Gaddafi's denouncement of the U.N. Charter and Netanyahu's overall callous tone towards the nature of the U.N. were reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev's shoe-pounding incident of the 1960s. (Shoes, apparently, are the No. 1 choice of apparel used to make political points.)
On the other hand, some very positive developments in the form of the Security Council's resolution on nuclear non-proliferation as well as the "take-charge" attitude displayed by Obama both go to show that, when one puts the theater aside, the U.N. as an international organization is positively working towards its goals as outlined in the original charter.