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Obama's UN Call to Action

Author: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
September 23, 2010

Obama's UN Call to Action - obamas-un-call-to-action


President Barack Obama's second speech to the UN General Assembly was actually three speeches in one: a campaign-style speech that touted his foreign policy accomplishments, a policy speech to try to create momentum behind his efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and an inspirational speech on humans rights and democracy as the core principles of the world he is working to create.

Obama's remarks on Israel and Palestine will draw the most attention. He bluntly acknowledged the difficulties the negotiations face. He was equally blunt, however, in laying out the "hard realities" that await if the Israelis and Palestinians don't make peace. And he spoke plainly to those who claim to be friends of the Palestinians, challenging them to promote "genuine reconciliation with a secure Israel" and to "help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially."

But Obama's remarks on Israel and Palestine highlighted his limited leverage over the peace talks. He implicitly called on Israelis to extend the settlement moratorium that is set to expire this weekend. He also implicitly called upon the Palestinians to stay at the negotiating table even if Israel does not extend the moratorium. Left unanswered is what to do should either side ignore his plea. Likewise, the habit of Palestine's friends to say one thing and do another is deeply rooted in ideology, domestic politics, and regional rivalries. Yet another exhortation from an American president to do better is unlikely to produce better behavior.

Frequently criticized at home for downplaying the importance of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy, Obama placed both center stage in his concluding remarks. He put as a cornerstone principle for the world he is working to create a "simple" idea: "that freedom, justice, and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings." He added a full-throated endorsement of democracy as the best form of government and predicted its ultimate triumph not "because the United States dictates it" but because "individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed." Yet the appeal of such an idea faces challenges at bodies like the UN. This is not, for example, the future world that Chinese leaders envision.

Obama used his opening remarks to tout his administration's achievements. In doing so he was speaking as much to Americans who will be voting in midterms this fall amid a struggling economy as he was to the delegates in the UN hall. He stressed that he "had no greater focus as president than rescuing our economy from potential catastrophe." He similarly cited his efforts to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq, focus more resources on defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and find a way to hand over responsibility for Afghanistan to the Afghans.

Obama's second appearance on the General Assembly's dais received much less applause than his maiden address. That had everything to do with the fundamentally different message that he delivered today. Last year he sought to signal that U.S. foreign policy was "under new management" and intended to work better with others--just what his audience wanted to hear. This year he made clear he wants to get things done, and that will require others to do things they would prefer not to do. So while Obama may be intent on leading, he shouldn't be surprised to discover that others are slow to follow.

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