President Obama’s Speech to the UN General Assembly
As you undoubtedly know yesterday President Obama gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. The complete text of the speech is here. Was the speech important or not and why or why not?
President Obama’s fluent, rhetorically soaring speeches continue to be a welcome relief from those of his predecessor albeit becoming a little too familiar. I think my own reaction to the speech echoes the reactions of many Middle Eastern commentators to his Cairo speech: rhetoric is well and good but I’ll judge by his actions rather than his words. Where’s the beef?
Any number of people have characterized the speech as naive. Niles Gardiner’s column in The Telegraph (known none too fondly as The Torygraph by its detractors) is pretty typical:
Overall this was a staggeringly naÃ¯ve speech by President Obama, with Woodstock-style utterances like “I will not waver in my pursuit of peace” or “the interests of peoples and nations are shared.” All that was missing was a conga of hippies dancing through the aisles with a rousing rendition of “Kumbaya”.
The New York Times editors noted that Afghanistan was conspicuous by its absence from the speech:
No one can argue with the importance of the issues he dwelled on: nuclear proliferation, climate change, the global economy and Middle East peace.
There was, however, one large gap. Mr. Obama said almost nothing about Afghanistan, which just a month ago he called a “war of necessity,” fundamental to American security and to the broader fight against terrorism.
The United Nations is not the ideal place to address Americans’ doubts about the war, the brewing rebellion within his own party or the fierce disagreement among his top advisers about whether to send more troops or begin to draw them down. Seven years of neglect by the Bush administration has made defeating, or even containing, the Taliban far harder. And any policy decision must be carefully reviewed. But there is not a lot of time.
Listening to President Obama’s speech you might come away with the conclusion that the world’s pressing problems can be solved by the proper understanding of self-interest. For example:
In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world; nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.
The time has come to realize that the old habits, the old arguments, are irrelevant to the challenges faced by our people. They lead nations to act in opposition to the very goals that they claim to pursue — and to vote, often in this body, against the interests of their own people.
Unfortunately, the problems faced today don’t fall into a single classification. For some, like nuclear arms reduction, we would all be better off if an agreement can be reached. However, for others, like the elimination of nuclear weapons—a stated goal of President Obama’s just as it was of President Reagan before him, while we would benefit enormously if such a feat could actually be pulled off, that’s not true of Russia, which would be relegated from its present status of world power to regional power in an effective regime of the elimination of nuclear weapons.