- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
Diplomats, by trade, are not naturally funny people.
And the lofty "permanent representatives," as the most senior U.N.-based ambassadors are called, are often among the least funny.
They can come across as a bit too earnest, overly confident, even pompous, and they are usually pitching a cause that doesn’t translate well into snappy one-liners. While they may possess masterful negotiating skills they’re rarely quick enough on their feet to parry a lethal jab from a hardened comic. And frankly, how does one offer up a riposte when the national honor has been mocked?
But every season, there they are, lining up for appearances on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, confident that they can take advantage of a massive audience that could never be reached through a U.N. press conference.
But they commit comedy at their own peril.
Ask Switzerland’s U.N. ambassador Peter Maurer, who got skewered by the Daily Show‘s faux news reporter John Oliver over his country’s neutrality during World War II. ("Mr. Ambassador, is that neutral anger, or real anger?") Or Nassir al-Nasser, Qatar’s then U.N. ambassador, who got visibly tense when Oliver challenged his pronunciation of "Qatar" and asked him what his country was doing to de-stabilize the Middle East. ("I’ll just pause now to gauge the tension. Yep, that’s tense; that is very tense indeed.")
Then there’s the big screen, where the South Park creators have made a habit of lampooning U.N. officials or diplomats, including Hans Blix, the former U.N. weapons inspectors, who was thrown into a shark tank by Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police and torn to pieces for a laugh.
But you get the point.
No one is a choicer prey for a comic than a diplomat, particularly one that speaks with a foreign accent, represents a country with a funny name, and can’t take a joke.
But not everyone falls victim.
Remember how the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, playing Ali G coaxed the former Egyptian U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali — "the geezer" he called him — to say, and spell out, the French word for human excrement — "merde." But Boutros Ghali prevailed by playing along, offering his opinion on the funniest language — "maybe Arabic" — and patiently explaining why Disneyland can’t become a U.N. member: "it’s not an independent state."
Susan Rice emerged relatively unscathed in her bout with Stephen Colbert, but not before he got in a zinger about the effort to contain Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs. "Excuse me for interrupting you, but I enjoy it," Colbert said. "Iran is still working toward a nuclear weapon. [North] Korea got their nuclear weapon. I’m just as scared of both of these people. How are we stopping them? I mean, I know sternly worded letters are the bread and butter of the U.N. But maybe we should start typing them in all caps to let them know that we are really angry."
Last week, the Palestinian U.N. envoy, Riyad Mansour, tried his hand at sitting with Oliver, in a skit entitled "Who wants to be a member of the U.N.?" Mansourplayed along with the jokeas Oliver set some "preconditions" for the interview. "First this entire interview must be conducted with the 1967 vocabulary. Is that groovy with you?"
"Groovy? It is agreeable with me. Yes," Responded Mansour.
It moved onto a negotiation over who would control the studio’s thermostat. (Thanks to Mondoweiss for the transcript.)
John Oliver: "…is it hot in here?"
Riyad Mansour: "It’s fine."
John: "So you’re not hot? Because I’m definitely hot."
Riyad: "I am not."
John: "OK, look, Ambassador, I think before we do anything, we are gonna have to come to a provisional status agreement on the temperature in this room."
Riyad: "If you want to lower the temperature, it’s fine with me."
John: "But who’s going to control the thermostat?"
Riyad: "The thermostat … should be shared by all of us."
John: "Don’t even think about dividing this thermostat."
Riyad: "We will not divide the thermostat, but it should be accessed by all those who cherish it and think that it is a holy place that should be accessed to everyone."
John Oliver [voiceover]: "After three and a half hours of laborious negotiations, we finally came to an agreement."
John: "We agree that at an unspecified time in the future, we will announce a summit to discuss the possibility of discussing a negotiation towards an agreement on temperature. Yes?"
John: "Shake hands for the camera. Thank you, Ambassador, this is a historic day."
Riyad: "Yes indeed."
So, how did Mansour fair for the first half of the program? He remained on message, keeping the focus on Palestine’s bid for U.N. membership. And he didn’t lose his temper. It helped that Oliver went a little easy on him, avoiding any awkward questions about suicide bombers or rockets from Gaza. So, let’s see how he did in the game show portion of the interview.
John: "Hi Riyad where are you from, Riyad?
Riyad: "I’m from Palestine."
John: "Palestine? I’ve never heard of that. Ok, so question number one: What does U.N. stand for?
Riyad: [Long pause] "United Nations."
John: "That’s correct. That’s correct, Ryad, Congratulations. That’s great. So, how do you think it’s going so far?
Riyad: "We’re doing good."
John: "Ok… It’s the bonus round. You’ve come all this way. Now do you take what you’ve won so far … or do you take what’s inside the mystery box"
Riyad: "I take what’s inside the mystery box."
John: "He’s going to go for the mystery box. Ok good luck. [Opens box and removes a card with the verdict.]
John: "Riyad, oh I’m sorry it’s a veto from the U.S."
Riyad: "If we’re vetoed once well come back again."
John: "That’s the spirit. He’ll come back again, next time."
Indeed, if there’s a comic willing to poke fun at him, he probably will.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch