from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

A World of Troubles: Obama at the United Nations

September 23, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 24, 2013.
Blog Post

More on:

International Organizations

Diplomacy and International Institutions

United States

In his rookie address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama famously announced “a new era of engagement.” After the tumultuous Bush years, his reception was rapturous, even giddy (remember that Nobel Peace Prize?). Five bruising years later, the president’s dreams of a harmonious, cooperative world have been torn into shreds from Crimea to Syria. This week the aging prize-fighter-in-chief climbs back into the ring at a time of great peril. He must convince both foreign and domestic audiences that the world is not spinning out of control and that the United States is determined to keep it that way.

At home and abroad, pessimism about the state of the world runs high. As it should. Syria is collapsing, Iraq is fragmenting, and Libya is disintegrating. Authoritarian leaders are tightening their grips from Cairo to Moscow, while Palestinians and Israelis murder each other. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is running rampant over the debris.

Meanwhile the return of geopolitics mocks Obama’s hope for multilateralism. Relations with Russia have indeed been “reset”—back to the Cold War, apparently. The United States keeps trying to “pivot” to Asia to deter Chinese imperialistic ambitions, but the Middle East briar patch and Moscow’s revanchism keep pulling it back. As if these headaches were not enough, the world looks to Washington for leadership in confronting the most horrific outbreak of Ebola in history, with 1.4 million lives on the line. And beyond these headlines lurks the greatest existential threat to humanity: the planetary disaster of global warming, which continues unabated.

This parade of horrors calls for more than another thoughtful speech. The president needs to come out swinging. He needs to define—starkly—what is at stake. And he needs to show he has the spine to respond. The speech should drive home that he has a game plane to:

  • Destroy ISIS: ISIS is the world’s most pressing global terrorist threat, thanks to its control of extensive territory in Syria and Iraq, sophisticated weaponry, large membership, and financial resources (including more than $1 million per day in oil revenues). In the past twenty-four hours, airstrikes by the United States and its Arab allies have signaled that ISIS will not find safe haven in Syria. At the podium in the United Nations, President Obama needs to convince us that ISIS will be crushed. More importantly, he needs to show us that the “broad international coalition” he has announced is real—and that its members are more than just window-dressing. When it comes to fighting ISIS, President Obama can at least count on solid support from Russia and China, which both face struggles with Sunni terrorists in border provinces. For U.S. audiences, the president should subdue the shrill and ill-informed “yes or no” debate over U.S. “boots on the ground” by noting that more than a thousand U.S. Special Forces are already on the ground in Iraq, advising and training local security forces. As he has done in the past, he must stress that ultimately, only Iraqis and Syrians can win this war—but that they cannot do it without U.S. support. Finally, he needs to explain how this can be done without the (explicit or tacit) cooperation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

  • Cut off the foreign fighter pipeline: ISIS cannot be defeated if it has access to an endless supply of jihadists. The CIA estimates that half of ISIS combatants are “foreign fighters”—thousands of whom are from Western countries, including the United States. Wednesday afternoon, Obama will chair a special session of the Security Council to win support for a resolution on staunching the flow of terrorists across state borders. The president can use his UNGA speech to build momentum for his proposed Security Council resolution, designed to decimate the “global supply chain” of foreign fighters. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the resolution would oblige all UN member states to criminalize support for foreign fighters, launch deradicalization and anti-recruitment efforts, share more information (including airline passenger manifests) with other governments, tighten restrictions on travel documentation and terrorist financing, and assist weak states to meet these obligations. The president will need to alleviate skepticism about whether UN members—who have famously never agreed to a comprehensive definition of “terrorism”—can agree on which “foreign fighters” to interdict. He should also explain what the UN—and the United States—can do when countries exhibit tacit support for foreign fighters (as Turkey has done recently).

  • Resist great power aggression: ISIS may pose a threat to regional order, but it’s the return of geopolitics that most endangers international stability. President Obama must defend the UN Charter against global anarchy. He should condemn Russia’s unilateral seizure of Crimea and support for secessionist rebels in eastern Ukraine, which constitute an egregious attack on state sovereignty and the sanctity of borders. He should denounce Moscow’s continued assertion of a sphere of influence in Russia’s “near abroad” and its elevation of the principle of ethnicity over citizenship to justify meddling in foreign nations. Failure to stand up to Russia on these critical points would only invite further challenges—not only from Moscow, but also Beijing.

  • Bolster global epidemic response: The president should also call for a global framework to respond to infectious disease outbreaks—beginning with the Ebola epidemic. Today the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that a jaw-dropping 1.4 million people could be infected with Ebola by January. The United States will deploy three thousand military personnel to the region, as well as build a center of operations and seventeen treatment centers in Liberia. In New York, the president should propose a more coherent framework for global public health emergencies that will allow the international community to react quickly and effectively in the next crisis. Priorities would include creating a World Health Organization contingency fund for rapid response and shifting a greater proportion of official development assistance to building health capacity in fragile post-conflict states.

  • Energize climate change action: As if these clear and present dangers were not enough, the president must demonstrate U.S. leadership on the most catastrophic threat confronting humanity: the ecological disaster of climate change. Today, the day before his UNGA address, the president joined leaders from nearly all UN member states, as well as corporations and environmental groups, in a one-day conference designed to renew political momentum for action. Occurring on the heels of a World Meteorological Organization report that greenhouse gas emissions soared to their highest level ever in 2013, the meeting’s sole purpose is to mobilize political will for a binding global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol in December 2015. The president may be tempted to avoid the topic altogether given the upcoming midterm elections. That would be a terrible mistake. He must speak truth to Capitol Hill and to the American people about the enormous U.S. stakes in curbing carbon emissions. He can lean on the arguments of prominent political and financial figures like George Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, Robert Rubin, and Hank Paulson, who are sounding the alarm over the disastrous risks unabated climate change poses to the global economy.