Few terms are as abused, misused and overused as "world leader." While headlines daily suggest that the planet is operating without adult supervision, the folly of classifying most of our heads of state and government as "leaders" is never clearer than at the opening of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
This year, the U.N. circus was once again welcomed to New York by snarled traffic and snarling Manhattanites -- all of whom almost certainly wish that just once, the entourages and press conferences and cocktail receptions and empty, rambling speeches would be directed to the citizens of somewhere else. Detroit's been having a tough time, how about there? Or Athens? Or how about they just set up a Facebook page and let national governments simply post their speeches for all to see? Think of the savings. Or, to put it in better perspective: Think of what would be lost if we skipped the meeting altogether.
That's right, nothing. Nothing at all.
Once again, all of the Commedia dell'arte cast of players on the global stage are fulfilling their roles. While Muammar al-Qaddafi, one of the great buffo characters of recent U.N. history -- perhaps the greatest of them all -- is but a memory, we got to see the final performance in this eight-year run of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Like Qaddafi, he will be missed by no one except the connoisseurs of the ludicrous and students of abnormal psychology -- and for them, there are always reruns of Sascha Baron Cohen's The Dictator.
But Ahmadinejad, for all the headlines he generates while fulminating and spitting out nonsense about Israel's lack of legitimacy or Iran's invincible might, is also illustrative of just how misplaced the term "world leader" is. For one thing, he is not even the real leader of his own country. Instead, true power lies with the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Council of Guardians, and other top religious leaders. Ahmadinejad, for all his bluster, is much more like the country's top spokesmodel than he is the final word on any of its key decisions. Indeed, to those present at his press briefing on Monday morning, it seemed impossible to imagine this guy -- who clearly has a screw loose -- actually administering much of anything.
One of the starring roles in each year's autumn pageant in New York goes by default to the president of the United States. Since the founding of the United Nations, he has been called "the most powerful man in the world." This naturally makes him the most important of the world's leaders. For this reason, President Barack Obama apparently decided to wedge in an appearance in front of the U.N. between his interview with Whoopi Goldberg and the crew at The View, his stop at the conference of America's true president-for-life, Bill Clinton, and other campaign-related appearances.
Obama's decision not to meet with other world leaders was brushed off by the White House with a "well, if he met with one he'd have to meet with 10" line. This of course implies that meeting with world leaders is actually really just a slippery slope leading to wasted time. There is no room in this defense (which, let's be honest, boils down to choosing Whoopi over Bibi) for the notion that something might be gained from meeting with these men or women. Which certainly suggests that the world's most important leader doesn't think much of his colleagues.