Rhetoric at the U.N.: Does It Exacerbate Conflict?

The Vietnam War is no longer tearing at the hearts and minds of America. My colleagues at Princeton who had been condemning the draft, demanding peace and surrender have received their Ph.Ds, and both Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were offered the Nobel Peace Prize. About 3 million Cambodians, however, perished under the Pol Pot regime, Vietnam is essentially a Soviet colony, and Central America is rapidly being infiltrated by Cuban terrorists. Today, America is not at war. But only the most innocent will pretend that it is at peace. When millions die at the hands of governments — often their own — anywhere on the face of the earth, the world is not at peace, America is not at peace.

It would be comforting to suppose that discourse — indeed, even the semblance of dialogue — could alleviate at least some of the dangers facing us: the danger of nuclear holocaust, the danger of chemical warfare, of psychological manipulation and totalitarian rule. It would be comforting to know that by providing a forum for discussion to antagonistic parties’ rationality might emerge, if only by accident, or by the sheer mechanics of linguistic intercourse. It would be comforting to believe that the U.N. provides such a forum. The evidence, unfortunately, proves the very contrary.

The reasons are not inscrutable. In the first place, language is not necessarily rational. Quite the opposite, words often provide one more — sometimes exceptionally potent — weapon in confrontations where one and sometimes even all parties are irrevocably committed to self- annihilation. At other times, language just barely masks irrational animosities that defy analysis; hostile rhetoric is often its own reward: a weak enemy who has no other way of proving his worth, his power, his identity, may delight in the sheer exercise of his lungs.

The parameters of rhetorical usage are as varied as the human soul. But difficult as it may be to determine intentions in various contexts, it is clear that the U.S. has, over the years, been far less adroit in this field than have many other members of the U.N. in understanding the crucial significance of concepts and style. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the crescendo of inflammatory anti-American (and, indeed, anti-Western) rhetoric at the U.N. has become one of the most disturbing features of that organization. Especially in the sixties, after the membership of the U.N. virtually tripled, the U.S. was charged increasingly with enormous crimes against humanity.

By way of example, consider the outrageous statement by M.S. Aulaqi, representative of South Yemen, in the General Assembly on October 11, 1971:

“The insistence of the U.S. in continuing (its imperialist and colonialist) policies, which are in contradiction of the interests of humanity in progress and cooperation, will lead that country once again into isolation and eclipse, against its own will.”

In fact, reading through speeches made by representatives from Cuba, Libya, Niger, Albania, and most of the other Third World nations over the last decade reveals a disturbing rhetorical battle. It is incredible how many years it has taken the U.S. to realize its importance. Former U.S. Special Representative to the U.N. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was right to accuse the U.S. of complacency, back in 1975. Moynihan argued that such an attitude could only be due to “the failure to perceive that a distinctive ideology was at work (in the Third World), and that skill and intelligence were required to deal with it successfully.”

A major victory for the proponents of that ideology was the condemnation, on November 10, 1975, of Zionism as “a form of racism.” This move so outraged American lawmakers, who saw the resolution as an insult to language and to common sense, that many questioned whether the U.S. should continue contributing money to the U.N. The following day, the Senate unanimously called for prompt hearings to “reassess the U.S.’ further participation in the U.N.” In the Senate debate, Robert Packwood of Oregon said, “I can’t think of anything in the last 30 years as odious. Wherever Hitler may be I am sure he drank a toast to the devil last night.”

A more recent case of the anti-American offensive took place at the end of September 1981, when 93 Third World nations endorsed a document accusing the U.S. of being the only threat to world peace and prosperity today. Then on October 1, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Felke Gedle-Giorgis unleashed a tirade from the General Assembly podium.

“International imperialism, spearheaded by the United States, has intensified its futile effort to reverse national liberation and social emancipation in southern Africa . .. We are being daily threatened by United States imperialism. There are some ten United States military bases in and around our region alone. These keep a constant watch on countries in that region which are not amenable to Washington’s dictate. The now all too familiar bogey being employed is, of course, the Soviet threat. No one, except those who worship the demigod in Washington, will be fooled by such a smokescreen.”

Gelde-Giorgis went on to claim that the U.S. was “bent on dominating the people of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.”

The next afternoon, U.S. Special Representative to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick stingingly countered with a hard- hitting speech condemming the Ethiopian minister’s “strident and vituperative attack on the United States.” She accused him of the “Big Lie”:

“The pattern is a simple one: He accuses others of committing crimes which have, in fact, been perpetrated by his own regime and by those countries with which his regime is allied . . . He speaks, for example, of “the extermination of Africans” . . . In fact, it is his own regime that is guilty of the very savagery of which he speaks . . . It is estimated that some 30,000 persons in Ethiopia were summarily executed for political reasons between 1974 and 1978 — 10,000 in 1977 alone.”

Adding that Cambodia “is occupied by 200,000 troops from Vietnam,” the Representative said “these are the ‘imperialist meddlers.'” In her closing words, she expressed the U.S. commitment to international cooperation, but warned that this country “cannot sit by quietly when the Big Lie echoes in these chambers.” The Big Lie has a good forum at the U.N. Its very statement, unfortunately, increases rather than decreases the danger of confrontation.

One of the most astute analysts of the human propensity for evil, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, understood the relationship between violence and falsehood. In his Noble Prize Acceptance Speech written a dozen years ago, he urged mankind not to “forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood.” Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Solzhenitsyn’s analysis is worth citing in full:

“Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk.”

I would suggest, therefore, that falsehood, if allowed to go unchallenged, may well breed further violence. In late January of this year, a top U.S. official from the U.N. Mission suggested that the U.N., far from preventing conflict, actually fosters it. As a prime example, the “Group of 77” — a loose coalition of some 120 Third World countries — would probably, in his opinion, never have been formed were it not for the U.N. That organization makes it possible for feelings to become even more inflamed, for animosities to become reinforced in a congenial forum complete with rent-free quarters and pencil sharpeners.

Along the same lines, in February of 1982, Representative Kirkpatrick addressed a conference of the American Legion with the message that “conflicts, rather than being resolved (at the U.N.), are in fact polarized, extended, and exacerbated. They are much harder to solve rather than easier to solve, generally speaking.” She continued: “If we look at what happens in New York in the General Assembly then I guess I believe it is a very dismal show.” And “what is worse,” she told the audience, “its effect, I think, is almost precisely the opposite of the intentions of the founders of the U.N. (which were) . . . above all to assist in conflict resolution.”

In a way there is nothing particularly new in the revelation that U.N. rhetoric borders on the bizarre and it can inflame hostile nations even further. In the April 1982 issue of the Atlantic, for example, Bernard Nossiter — U.N. bureau chief of the New York Times — refers to the U.N.’s “selective vision, its use of language that conceals rather than reveals, the diplomatic comedy of manners.” Since at stake, however, is not a lady’s possibly ruffled reputation but the survival of mankind, I must take exception to the last metaphor, as I do to Nossiter’s rather too categorically optimistic conclusion that the U.N. is, in the final analysis “a useful rather than a dangerous place.” Nearly 3 million Afghans are currently homeless, notwithstanding three resolutions condemning foreign intervention in their homeland. The boat people keep drowning, women and children and old men, in the seas of Indochina — by the thousands. The Gulag Archipelago is still bleeding the Soviet Union to spiritual if not physical death (with a legacy of millions already burned by the terror while the U.N. watched, helpless). Nicaragua is currently exterminating the Miskito Indians. And, of course, there is Poland.

No, I do not suggest that we get up and leave the U.N. but neither do I think that we should stay without attempting to make some very major changes, lest the world should become even more dangerous yet. I am tempted by Solzhenitsyn’s solution: “the simple step of a simple courageous man,” he said in his Nobel speech, “is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions.” Falsehood and truth, of course, do not fall into neat categories; the proper rhetorical allure can do much to clothe an uncomfortable fact, to soothe a supercilious adversary. As one high UN official from the U.S. mission told me in private conversation, “we are now working to develop a more successful language.”

And there are successes: during 1981, we have seen the passage of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief; we have seen a much smaller majority chastise Israel for its Golam Heights move; and as a result of Michael Novak’s and Richard Schifter’s perseverance and commitment, the U.S. succeeded in having a resolution passed at the Committee on Human Rights meetings in Geneva in March of 1982 condemning the Soviet invasion of Poland.

Solzhenitsyn may have been too optimistic when he predicted: “no sooner will falsehood be dispersed than the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its ugliness — and violence, decrepit, will fall.” And then again, maybe he was right. What have we to lose but the illusion of diplomacy that will never fool the shrewd — though essentially very weak — totalitarian adversary.


  • Juliana Geran Pilon

    In 1943, Juliana Geran Pilon was a Policy Analyst with The Heritage Foundation.

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