'This progress is real': Obama makes case for diplomacy in blunt UN speech

President Obama’s speech at the UN Monday was light on specifics, instead focusing on the argument that diplomacy – not strongman tactics – is the means for human progress.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
United States President Barack Obama, center, arrives for a United Nations Peacekeeping Summit, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, at United Nations headquarters.

President Obama offered his own version of “you’re either with us or against us” at the United Nations Monday, presenting world leaders with a choice between rule of law and diplomacy to resolve conflict – or deepening disorder and chaos.

The president hailed the Iran nuclear agreement reached over the summer – contrasting that diplomatic effort and its “potential to avert a war” with the “strongman” approach behind the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts.

Bluntly calling out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin for disregarding the rule of law, Mr. Obama said those two conflicts exemplify a threatened “return” to the old ideas that “might makes right, that the rights of individuals don’t matter, and that order must be imposed by force.”

In that way, Obama’s speech was not about new initiatives or proposals for global development.

Instead, the president chose the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN and his own twilight in power to underscore to the international community the principles of democracy, inalienable human rights, and international cooperation that are at the basis of the progress he said an imperfect UN has achieved.

“This speech was a strong affirmation of the commitment to international law and the real power of multilateral cooperation,” says Michael Doyle, director of the Global Policy Initiative at New York’s Columbia University and a former UN special adviser. “I think the point was to remind the leaders about the principles that we have learned to advance human progress, but also the actions and motivations that set things back.”

Obama cited the success of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, the ability of diplomacy to stop regional conflicts and international rivalries from setting off a third world war, and the global community’s recent success in raising a billion people out of extreme poverty.

“This progress is real,” he said. “It can be documented in lives saved, and agreements forged, and diseases conquered, and in mouths fed.” But he added that “the march of human progress never travels in a straight line,” and warned that “dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world.”

Obama acknowledged that as the president of the United States, he leads the most powerful military in the world. But, he said, the US did not become the world’s most powerful nation because of military might, but because of the ideas the country is founded on and the respect for individual rights that foster an entrepreneurial spirit and allow individuals and families to prosper.

“Democracy in the United States is certainly imperfect,” said Obama, who was delivering his seventh and next-to-last speech to the annual opening of the UN General Assembly. But at the same time, he said, the country’s strength lies in the ability of individuals of any background to better their life.

“You can find everybody from everywhere here in New York City,” he said to applause. “The fact that, in this country, everybody can contribute, everybody can participate no matter who they are, or what they look like, or who they love – that’s what makes us so strong.”

But that lofty rhetoric did not suit everyone, including some Obama critics with longtime experience at the UN.

“This was a speech that could have been given at a Model UN convention. It was all theory and idealism, but nothing based on the reality of the world today,” says Richard Grenell, who served as the US spokesman at the UN during the George W. Bush administration. “I found it shocking that the president of the United States, after seven years of doing diplomacy, could give a speech so philosophical and devoid of anything concrete that it was totally impractical.”

Obama’s speech contrasted with that of Mr. Putin, who spoke at the General Assembly for the first time in a decade.

Putin filled his time at the podium with talk of initiatives intended to put a beleaguered and sanctioned Russia back on the world stage. Those include a robust defense of Mr. Assad as the only force in Syria capable of thwarting the Islamic State; and a grand coalition of countries, including Iran and Iraq, to defeat the forces of Islamist terrorism.

“In some ways, you can’t blame Putin for coming up with a plan to combat ISIS,” says Mr. Grenell, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State. “Obama talks about doing something, but he also talks about being leery of the options. With him messaging that he’s unsure and reluctant to get involved,” he adds, “no one should be surprised that Putin is ready to jump in and take the initiative.”

Mr. Doyle of Columbia agrees that Obama’s speech could have had a bit more of the concrete. “He could have said a lot more about climate change, for example, and the specific steps the US and other countries are going to have to take,” he says.

But that didn’t appear to be the point of Obama’s remarks. Doyle sees the speech as an effort to stand back and take stock of the principles that have led to recent progress. “It was almost a timeout speech.”

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