The BBC headline was certainly enticing. Purest click-bait in fact. ‘Trump’s UN “Hate Speech” criticised’ was how the corporation chose to headline its lead article on the US President’s first speech to the UN General Assembly in New York. After Charlottesville and a hundred other events the BBC must have relied on the general reader’s desire to know, ‘What on earth has he said now?’
Of course you had to click on the piece to discover that Trump’s UN speech had not been described as ‘Hate speech’ by any international arbiter of hate-speech (whether or not any such entity is imaginable or desirable). Instead the clicker would learn that it had only been described as such by ‘some of the member nations he [Trump] singled out for criticism’. Specifically it had been criticised by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who said, “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times, and not the UN.” To which one might only reply, as Mandy Rice-Davies immortally put it, “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
The BBC’s reporting (they subsequently thought better and chose “Trump’s first UN speech met with criticism from some leaders” as the headline) was not an aberration. It was in fact the perfect embodiment of a central problem – a problem which sits not with the BBC but with the UN and simply seeps out from there. There should be a term for it. UN-itis, or UN-thinking perhaps. Because it is a specifically UN-centred thought-disease.
The problem that the UN suffers from today is the same problem it has suffered from since its inception in 1945. In principle it is a very good thing to have a place where the world’s leaders can meet: a physical embodiment of the concept of the ‘community of nations’. In reality a problem emerges from the first time they meet. On the one hand you have, say, the elected President of the United States and the other governments of the world’s democracies. And then you have the other countries: the states led by countries which have meaningless, engineered or rigged elections (Iran, for instance), and the governments of countries which don’t even bother to go through with that charade (e.g. North Korea).
What are the world’s democracies to do in this chamber when they meet the world’s dictators? Are they to regard themselves as a cut above the others – as indeed they are? Or would this be terribly impolitic? The consensus forever is that it is impolitic. If the delegates of the world’s democracies at the United Nations were to regularly turn to the world’s despots and remind them of their true moral and representative standing then the business of the UN would break down daily. Instead a form of diplomatic politesse exists, where people listen thoughtfully to the latest eruption from the noble representative of some satrapy or other and grants its emissions a similar weight and judgement as it would accord to representatives who are elected by and accountable to their people.
Throughout its history the UN has occasionally hit obstacles so grotesque that the world has paid attention to this inbuilt problem. The most striking was in 1975 when the UN passed the infamous Resolution 3379 which declared that ‘Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination’ which was ‘a threat to world peace.’ This motion – supported by a panoply of racist and dictatorial regimes across the Middle East and Africa – was led by the genocidal wife-eater Idi Amin. The night after it was passed there was a party to celebrate the motion, thrown in Idi Amin’s honour, by the then UN Secretary General – formerly SS Oberleutnant – Kurt Waldheim. And so the old racism met the new.
It was the UN’s usefulness as a mouthpiece for the world’s dictators that led a growing distaste for the institution in the country which gave it a berth on 1st Avenue New York. One low point in relations was reached in 1983 when the then deputy chief to the UN mission, Charles Lichtenstein, responded to a proposal to move the UN from New York by saying, “We will put no impediment in your way, and we will be down at the dock bidding you a fond farewell as you sail off into the sunset.”
As President Trump found out this week, all these now almost ancient problems continue. The Iranian regime – which has regularly called for the destruction of one UN-member state in particular, and has even done so from the podium of the UN itself – gets to present itself as some kind of arbiter of moral judgements. And it is presented as such in the world’s press. Only in UN-world can the American President condemn the Iranian and North Korean regimes only for those same regimes to be given equal or greater weight to sit in judgement on the American President. And the effect of this seeps out. After Trump’s UN speech the distinguished British journalist Michael Crick asked ‘When was the last time a world leader threatened to destroy an entire country?’ Only for his Twitter timeline to fill up with reminders of the various threats from the Ayatollahs among others.
But that is one of the things the UN’s strange moral universe propels. It begins by embedding the idea that the world’s governments are effectively on a moral equilibrium. And then in time people forget that the pretence is just that and judge the democracies worse than they judge the autocracies and dictatorships. Nobody expects the Iranian regime to behave well and so they forget that it behaves badly. Everybody expects the democracies to be better than they are and ends up judging them to be worse than they imagined.
The resulting 1st Avenue cocktail was appropriately summed-up some years ago by the writer Mark Steyn: “It’s a good basic axiom that if you take a quart of ice-cream and a quart of dog faeces and mix ’em together the result will taste more like the latter than the former.” Indeed it does.
The UN tastes more of North Korea and Iran than it does of the country in which its headquarters sit. All of which is an ongoing irritation for the world’s democracies but a tragedy for the community of nations.
Donald Trump’s UN speech was discussed in UnHerd’s new weekly podcast.