At the United Nations, there are, as you'd expect, flagrantly pointless press briefings going on in some wing or another, concerning some topic or another, at any given hour of the day. The diplomats and reporters accept the custom with knowing smirks and lazily upraised hands. It's the standard kabuki. Except, that is, when Reverend Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann is speaking. The president of the U.N. General Assembly, d'Escoto has apparently decided, at age 76, that he has no time left for politesse, and his briefings are another animal entirely--the kind of invective-laced bravura jags perfected by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, who, as it happens, are two of d'Escoto's heroes.
Take a March showing the Nicaraguan priest and onetime Sandinista put on after returning from a tour through Asia and Europe, during which he had cozied up to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and defended Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir against Darfur-related war crimes charges. Back in New York and pressed by reporters about such controversial stands, he scoffed at Washington's demonization of Ahmadinejad, given its "canonization of the worst of dictators," like Marcos and Pinochet. He blamed the United States for undermining the United Nations in the run-up to the Iraq war. He suggested that the Bashir indictment was racist and tied it (and, if his furrowed brow and hand-waving were any indication, the Darfur carnage itself) to the White House. "Who first raised the issue of genocide?" he said. "Bush. George W. Bush. That should tell you quite a bit already."
What made this monologue so startling was that it appeared not in the dark days of the previous U.S. administration, but in the early euphoria surrounding Barack Obama. Indeed, at this point Susan Rice, Obama's ambassador to Turtle Bay, could take on a full-time staffer for the sole purpose of reprimanding d'Escoto. In March, her deputy told The Washington Post that he "has repeatedly abused his position to pursue his personal agenda, and in doing so he diminishes the office and harms the General Assembly." Herein lies the challenge for the Obama administration: To make good on its promise of better using the United Nations, it doesn't just need to navigate the power politics of the Security Council. It must figure out how to manage diplomats like Reverend d'Escoto and the restiveness in the U.N. ranks he represents.
When its soporific secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, began work in 2007, the United Nations was in arguably the worst shape of its 60-year history--a byword for political impotence, with the war in Iraq stumbling into its fifth year and the rockets flying in Gaza, and a possible breeding ground for corruption, with Kofi and Kojo Annan having been investigated in the Oil-for-Food scandal. The contempt for the place expressed over the years by the likes of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, to say nothing of John Bolton, suddenly seemed all too justified. Even devoted internationalists and liberals found themselves asking whether it still served a purpose. What was desperately needed, it was agreed, was a revitalizing figure, a post-cold-war Dag Hammarskjold who could make the United Nations relevant again.
Ban is emphatically not that figure. He began work in 2007 with little fanfare and has governed with less. In certain quarters, the beleaguered Korean is known as Ban Ki Who? And that quiescence has left an opening through which d'Escoto has charged--carrying all the baggage from his colorful past.
Born in Los Angeles to a well-off Nicaraguan diplomat, d'Escoto entered the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America in his twenties and later attended Columbia Journalism School. A classics scholar trained in the Maryknoll priesthood, he made his name as an exponent of Liberation Theology, a movement that mingled the church reforms of the 1960s with the Marxist ideology then in vogue in Latin America. He allied himself with the Sandinistas in the late 1970s. The Vatican denounced Liberation Theology, and Pope John Paul II, angered at d'Escoto's leftist leanings and support for the Sandinistas, eventually barred him from administering sacraments and public masses. By that point, however, d'Escoto had risen through the ranks of the Sandinista regime to the post of foreign minister after befriending the right members of the Sandinista brass--in particular, a young fighter named Daniel Ortega.
D'Escoto's suspicion of the United States is not simply ideological, but personal. One CIA manual distributed to the Contras recommended terrorizing non-military personnel, including priests, and mentioned d'Escoto by name. And that certainly comported with the Sandinista version of events: In 1983, the Nicaraguan government alleged that d'Escoto was being targeted for assassination by CIA operatives who allegedly planned to give him a bottle of liqueur laced with thallium. The priest became something of a folk hero to the Nicaraguan left, which regained power in 2006 and nominated him to preside over the General Assembly.
When I met him in early April, d'Escoto, a short, round, balding man who has an unmistakable clerical warmth about him, gave me a hug, his preferred form of greeting. He suffers from Meniere's syndrome, an inner-ear condition that upsets his balance, so he was eager to return to his chair. The one time we'd spoken previously, two months prior, he'd referred to the IMF's policies as "bullshit." He'd also said that, if it was up to him, he'd see the Security Council "abolished entirely." Now he was more measured--kind of.
"We're trying to do something that is really quite revolutionary," he said, leaning forward. "The world has been living with laws and a design of government that is very exclusive. The rules for financial, monetary, commercial relations in the world were imposed--well, the United States imposed everything. Clearly it has been disastrous. Now we're seeing the consequences of it." But, he said, the global recession "is a great opportunity. The difficulties that the world is going through right now make it clear that we have no option but to put a halt on greed and social irresponsibility. The time has come to behave."
D'Escoto is a far cry from General Assembly presidents past, who've been notable mostly for their lack of notability. This is largely because the Assembly bows in almost all matters to the Security Council. Jan Eliasson, a Swede who was Assembly president from 2005 to 2006 and then became the U.N. special envoy to Darfur, said he couldn't get the Assembly to so much as put the issue of Darfur on the agenda, because its members knew the Security Council would have the final say. "I felt pretty powerless," he said.
D'Escoto has received praise, and censure, for trying to change this power dynamic. Even if Washington likes to dismiss the Assembly as a glacially paced rogues' gallery bogged down in cold war grievances and obsessed with castigating Israel, which it more than occasionally is, the Assembly and its president should, according to the U.N. Charter, have more power than they do. The president is arguably the organization's highestranking official and, with representatives from nearly every country on the planet, the Assembly is the only body that can actually be said to represent the world. What's more, unhindered by the veto that often stymies the Security Council, some diplomats argue that the Assembly is actually better suited to carrying out the United Nations' mission of promoting peace and security.
To be sure, the United Nations is never going to be a democratic institution--in no small part because countries like the United States have little interest in empowering men like d'Escoto. But some say the Nicaraguan has made more progress toward getting the United Nations to discuss Security Council reforms--meaning, for the most part, sharing some of the power currently held by the body's five permanent members--than many of his predecessors. Swiss U.N. Ambassador Peter Maurer told me that "the most important thing is that formal negotiations [on reform] have started in part because d'Escoto pushed for them."
But even those sympathetic to d'Escoto's goals suggest that the man himself is not up to the task. Some Assembly members complain that d'Escoto is inaccessible and removed, eschewing the working lunches and dinners and cocktail parties where the body's diplomats get to know one another and do a lot of their business. (D'Escoto claims this is largely because of the Meniere's syndrome.) He is said to have an icy relationship with Ban and the Secretariat. He sometimes seems unprepared on issues and uninterested in the procedural demands of his position.
Whatever the case, his efforts have bogged down. When we spoke, d'Escoto admitted that he'd more or less given up on Security Council reform. "It's needed," he said, "but I don't think the time is right."
D'Escoto's attempts to renovate the IMF and World Bank, meanwhile, are stalling. He put Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz in charge of a commission to recommend changes (other special advisers include, not surprisingly, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn), and the group suggested forming a global council to oversee financial institutions, requiring greater transparency and instituting less onerous lending terms. But the consensus seems to be that, even if reform is a worthy project, now is precisely not the time to pursue it. As former U.N. undersecretary-general Brian Urquhart put it, "Everyone is relying on the IMF at the moment."
But what was probably the nadir of d'Escoto's tenure came during the emergency session on Gaza he called in January. According to diplomats who were present during the final marathon six-hour meeting, d'Escoto acquitted himself disastrously. After a draft resolution was introduced by the Palestinians, Egyptians, and a European bloc, d'Escoto apparently tried to insert a vying resolution more condemnatory of Israel, crafted with Syria, Libya, and Cuba. In other words, he ignored the preference of the Palestinians themselves. He was only stopped when the Egyptian ambassador demanded to be given the floor back.
Susan Rice's office refused to comment for this article. According to a spokesman, they have no interest in aggrandizing d'Escoto. But perhaps there is hope. In April, d'Escoto confessed to me that, when watching Obama's recent speech in Strasbourg, France, he had had something of an epiphany. "I began to see Obama as more than a great political leader. I thought I was seeing in him a great moral and spiritual leader," he said. Any lovefest won't last long. D'Escoto's tenure ends in September. Next in line after Nicaragua for the General Assembly presidency--Libya.
James Verini is a writer in New York.
By James Verini