The United Nations' 60th anniversary celebration this week is supposed to be about heads of state setting aside their differences in the cause of peace and international brotherhood.
Unless you're Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and the country you rule like a KGB chief has been labeled an "outpost of tyranny" by the Bush administration and one of your best friends is sitting in an American military prison awaiting trial for being the much-maligned Butcher of Baghdad.
Then your 18-hour stay in New York is lame. Then you won't be holding bilateral meetings with the likes of Tony Blair or Dominique de Villepin (subbing for the recuperating Jacques Chirac) or mingling at any closed-door cocktail parties hosted by Upper East Side cognoscenti.
If you're Alexander Lukashenko and you're the president of a poor, irradiated country and even the thugs call you a thug, with your secret secret police and your thick, peasant patois, then you spend your one night in New York City in your suite at the Waldorf Towers.
"Certainly, we have some sort of tensions on a political level, but nevertheless we are open to fruitful dialogue for the benefits of the two countries," Aleg Ivanou, deputy permanent representative at the Belarusian mission to the United Nations, said of Lukashenko's visit to the United States.
Ivanou noted that "the main reason for the visit of Mr. Lukashenko to the United States is the visit to the U.N. headquarters. This is not a fully depoliticized organization, but it is the largest international forum."
Sounding a bit like a Soviet-era press officer, Ivanou added: "Belarus is among the first 45 regional states that signed the U.N. charter, and it would be rather strange if the head of the country, one of the founders of the organization, will not participate in such an event." This is true—technically. But only because Joseph Stalin allowed Belarus, then a Soviet Socialist Republic, to act as an independent signatory—and only because it served the interest of the Kremlin (which, only a few years earlier, had ordered the execution of the great bulk of Belarusian nationalists, intellectuals, and sundry troublemakers).
So what will President Lukashenko do—or not do—while he's in the city?
First, he'll skip all the niceties, starting with the group photo shoot that was scheduled, according to the U.N. Web site, for 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon. (Lukashenko's Boeing didn't land at JFK until early evening.)
And he won't visit any local sights, not even the Guggenheim, with its new Chagall exhibit. (Chagall being a native of Vitebsk, about a two-hour drive northeast of Minsk, the artist has become something of a national, albeit Jewish, treasure in a country devoid of gothic cathedrals, sprawling museums, Roman ruins, and other things that draw foreigners to European countries.) "The program of our president is a very pragmatic and practical one," Ivanou said Wednesday, shortly before Lukashenko landed. "Only practical meetings. No culture program or sightseeing this evening. It's for sure."
Worst of all for a mini-despot from a minor country surrounded by neocons and liberal internationalists, Lukashenko won't be able to meet with his counterparts from North Korea, Libya, Uzbekistan, or Cuba—people who speak his language. They have visa troubles or scheduling conflicts or something better to do. "Only our permanent representative, Pak Gil Yon, will attend," an anonymous male voice at the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's U.N. mission said before hanging up. Which is to say that in the race to the bottom, Lukashenko as been out-dictatored by some very gifted mass murderers and traffickers of conventional weaponry.
No matter. The collective-farmer-turned-member-of-parliament-turned-president recently rammed through an illegal constitutional amendment back home in Belarus enabling him to "vie" for a third five-year term next year. The democratic opposition, which convenes in early October in Minsk for its first nominating convention, promises to run a viable candidate. Perhaps. Still, it's hard to see Lukashenko simply waiting for the next Viktor Yushchenko to turn up in October Square rallying the masses to storm the Bastille. Whoever is nominated as the democratic standard-bearer will be lucky if he reaches the finish line with little more than a poisoned face.
All of which suggests Lukashenko will be back at the Waldorf Towers for the United Nations' 65th anniversary celebration in 2010. By then, the United States' newly appointed U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, will be gone. So, too, will George W. Bush. So, too, quite possibly, will Sen. Norman Coleman, who, as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, has spent the last 16 months investigating the oil-for-food scandal, conducting three hearings, issuing four reports, and, most recently, introducing a U.N. reform bill with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar.
Reforming the United Nations, at root, means deciding who is a member of the international community and who is not. It means saying that certain countries, certain regimes and ideologies, do not comport with our morality or our global aspirations. And it means marginalizing anyone who would undermine peace and the rule of law in the name of grand illusions or petty, egomaniacal pursuits.
Simply existing—erecting barbed-wire fences, issuing internal passports, delimiting borders and jurisdictions—is (or should be) insufficient. If the United Nations is truly changed by the time its next birthday party rolls around—if the newly proposed Democracy Caucus isn't a caucus but a plenum—Lukashenko won't be on the guest list, no matter how the Belarusian opposition fares next year.