September 21st, 2011
03:11 PM ET

Evaluating Obama's UN speech

Editor's Note: Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security. The following Expert Brief is reprinted with permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Stewart Patrick – Special to CNN

In his eloquent address to the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama outlined an optimistic vision for a world without war, though his treatment of important issues like Palestine fell short. For nearly seven decades, the UN has struggled with the overriding objective to pursue peace in an imperfect world.  Yet, President Obama argued that the world is closer than ever before to realizing that goal, thanks not to the balance of power but concrete steps to advance human dignity, security and prosperity.

“Peace is hard”, the President repeatedly reminded his audience. But it is within our grasp. “The tide of war is receding,” as the United States draws troops down in Iraq and Afghanistan. The death of Osama bin Laden and the degradation of al Qaeda have reduced the threat of transnational terror.  The demands for freedom that have “lit the world from Selma to South Africa” have now “come to Egypt and to the Arab World,” he proclaimed. Now, the President contended, “We stand at a crossroads of history with a chance to move decisively in the direction of peace.”

For an administration regularly pounded for being AWOL on human rights, Obama’s speech placed surprising emphasis on the fundamental human aspiration for freedom as the driving force of global change and the UN as ultimate guarantor of enduring peace. The President celebrated the world’s “extraordinary transformation” during 2011. Over the past year, the international community has supported the cause of human freedom in dramatic ways. It has shepherded the peaceful independence of South Sudan; supported non-violent political transitions in Tunisia and Egypt; and authorized military interventions to topple enduring dictators in Côte d'Ivoire and Libya. “This is how the international community is supposed to work,” the President declared, “nations standing together for the sake of peace and security; individuals claiming their rights.”

The President made a convincing case that oppression, insecurity and poverty are the ultimate causes of violence in the twenty-first century. Like the father of the United Nations, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Obama understands that enduring peace depends on ensuring freedom from fear and freedom from want for the peoples of the world.

What the President failed to do was to persuasively account for the many inconsistencies in U.S. efforts to advance human freedom and dignity around the world - or to offer alternative paths when the United Nations responds weakly to glaring atrocities. The President’s toughest moment came in explaining the U.S. stance on Palestinian statehood. As expected, he insisted the only true route to Middle East peace - and secure Palestinian statehood - must come through direct bilateral negotiations with the Israelis. “There are no shortcuts,” he insisted. But the overall message was incongruous, after his previous paeans to democratic self-determination in the Arab world. And it surely fell on deaf ears, given Palestinian impatience with Israeli obstruction, notably on settlement issues.

At this stage, Palestinian leaders feel they have little to lose from seeking statehood and the legitimacy that accompanies it. The President gave them few reasons to desist in this effort. The administration hopes to delay a Security Council vote on statehood indefinitely, to avoid casting a U.S. veto.  But the Palestinians have another route to advance their aspirations - through the UN General Assembly.

Nor did the President provide any indication of how the United States intends to proceed on Syria, where the regime’s atrocities have exceeded those committed by Gadhafi - but without triggering the vigorous UN sanctions (much less armed intervention), given Russian veto threats. Obama was left with the toothless phrase, “Now is the time for the United Nations Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime, and to stand with the Syrian people.” He could have sharpened this demand considerably by explicitly calling on Moscow (and Beijing) to authorize a robust sanctions effort against the government of Bashar al-Assad - or at a minimum abstain from such a resolution.

President Obama concluded his speech with passing references to various other pressing issues. He called on the membership to “insist on unrestricted humanitarian access” in the Horn of Africa, but without proposing concrete action to ensure that this occurs. He entreated the membership to “build on the progress made in Copenhagen and Cancun,” without specifying which commitments should take priority. More substantially, he proposed increased international cooperation to give the World Health Organization the capabilities it needs to meet emerging threats to bio-security, both natural and man-made.

But the most striking aspect of Obama’s speech was less such particulars than its ethical and moral tone. In the president’s mind, world peace depends on the global advance of liberty, equality and justice. And “though there is no straight line to progress, no single path to success”, he left no doubt that, in his mind, the world is on the right track.

The President closed by recalling what Harry Truman had said when the cornerstone of the UN’s headquarters was being put in place: “The United Nations is essentially an expression of the moral nature of man’s aspirations.” While one may admire Truman’s (and Obama’s) idealism, the intervening seven decades have shown just how hard it can be for the United Nations - or any other international body - to fashion moral results from humanity’s crooked timber.


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soundoff (107 Responses)
  1. JOE

    Palestinian onced believed in Obama

    I do not think that president Obama is anti-Palestinian or against it getting it's own state but I fully understand your frustration and dissapointment. However, you also have to realize that president Obama cannot go into Israel by force and divide the country without support from our congress. let's face it, two and a half years later, the GOP and their Tea Party are yet to respect president Obama as president or allow him to do his job as president. I'm glad you mentioned slavery in America and the president's heritage but do you know how many United States presidents it took to convince congress and this nation that racial segregation and discrimination in America was wrong?

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt was my alltime favorate American president for many reasons and of course his favorate line during his 1933 Inaugural address in talking about the Great Depressionwas "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." However, when there was an outcry for pasage of an anti-lynching law to be passed to prevent white supremacists from making a sport out of lynching blacks in the American South, president Roosevelt refused to respond because he was afraid that his re-election chances would be diminished if he were to alienate influencial Southerners who made up a majority of congress at that time. And it was his wife Eleanor Roosevelt who had the courage to speak out against these outrageous lynchings. Just a little lesson in American history.

    So you see, it's only so much president Obama can do to restructure Israel by force without the support of all of congress including the Tea Party. But I do know what can be done to get the Palestinians a homeland. That is the powerful oil rich Muslim nations of the world must use their economic leverage in the form of a global oil embargo to force the western world to it's knees and then I guarantee you, the Palestinian would get a homeland overnight. See, the Western world depends on these oil imports to run their economies and these oil imports are important to their survival. Just go and tell the Arab League to do their home work and then they would begin to see real results.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  2. r w

    obma need 's leave the palestine people alone and let the have there stathood they have every right and know one should stop them qite trying obma need to quite trying to contol people it is the state show they should have every say in the mattter and dont anyone read the bilbe israel and palestine people have peace with eachother then that will breing about world war three and russia will try to take isreal oil the have with isreal should just go ahead and share there oil with russia so that doesnt happen and then after then all christians will parish is they dont take the implant that has the numbers 666 whitch are the devils numbers and there will be false prophest claming to be jesus whitch they are not there is only one god and all this bizare weather is apart of tribulation whitch we are in now so is we can pervent all this frome happening if we just let the palestine have there state hood if you dont not belive me read the bible and this nation with all was be under god they cant take that away this is his world not are he contorls it and us oh did also mintion the devil come to earht after palestine and ireal have peace .

    September 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Reply
    • r w

      i ment bible not bilbe and flase prophet quit sorry for all the miss spelled word my computer always mess my spelling up

      September 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  3. Palestinian once believed in Obama

    is not about how much information is accessible to the learners *regardless of the issue of concern", it is about the perceived importance of the issue to those learners. The problem with the Palestinian cause is that it is not a part of the public sphere here in the U.S., but it is a prominent part of the politicians' sphere. This gap is what allows the politicians to be hold captives to the very resourceful and organized Zionist lobby in the U.S. Politicians can sell themselves as much as they like in regard to this issue without being punished publically. The question is how to make the people understand the importance of this issue to them at the personal and national levels. I have no answer to this question yet, but I think more work should be done in that regard.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Reply
  4. JMorcan

    "The United Nations is essentially an expression of the moral nature of man’s aspirations.”

    If that were even remotely true, the UN would still recognize Taiwan's right to sovereignty.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  5. Brian McGill

    One debate has been decisively ended at the United Nations. There can no longer be any quesetion that the Israel Lobby has complete and utter control over American foreign policy.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  6. david

    To Abbas and all those cursed that want to divide the land that belongs to ISRAEL I dedicate this verse to you.

    Now also many nations have gathered against you, Who say, “Let her be defiled, And let our eye look upon Zion.”
    But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD, Nor do they understand His counsel; For He will gather them like sheaves to the threshing floor. Micah 4:11-13

    September 22, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Reply
    • maggie

      and this is precisely why this will never be resolved in the practical terms that Obama described.

      September 22, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Reply
    • jason

      lol .. that is why negotiations dont work .. because of people who are brain washed like you David .. i now see why the palestinians left the negotiaion table, when every israeli thinks like that

      September 22, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  7. maggie

    While Obama is right, that the ultimate solution will come from a resolution between both states themselves, unfortunately, so long as Israel has and keeps the upper hand, it will never happen. It has not happened in decades of war and strife with one another and an equal amount of time trying to implement one peace process after another by the west; it will not happen in the future without a leveling of the playing field. That's just reality.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  8. jason

    To my knowledge ... its the israelies refusal to halt the building of illegal settlements that have stopped all negotiations between the two sides , even though every nation in this world, including the U.S, agrees that those illegal settlements are the cause of violence and the reason behind the failure of negotiations, you are still talking about palestinians asking to achieve on their own ! What do you want them to do ? israelies embaressed our president Obama so many times by continuouing to build those illegal settlements, even at the time when Obama, Abbas and Netenyaho were all in a meeting, a report on the news came along stating israel intentions of building 15,000 extra illegal homes on palestinian territories, which led to cancelation of the meeting ..

    It seems here that israelies are the ones that do not want to negotiate, and it seems that our president have sold his dignity for jewish voters, and then blaming the palestinians for trying to get peace on their own .. way to go ..

    And for the ones who keep talking about the holocaust, i still fail to see, how are the palestinians made to suffer because of it ? if anyone has to pay for your suffering it should have been Germany and Europe countries, not the palestinians.. The fact is jews were living peacefully with muslims and christians in palestine before the establishment of israel speeks volumes, and then we punish the palestinians by dumping the jews problems into them and give their land away to jews, so the Europeans country dont have to deal with their crimes..

    Three days ago, those illegal settlers set fire to fields of olive trees, and you know what the israeli army did ? the israeli army refused to allow the palestinian firefighter trucks to pass through to put the fire down ... Now is this a nation that wants peace ? You tell me

    September 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  9. JOE

    There's a saying, if you don't succeed, try again but what has the Arab world actually done to resolve this conflict since the 1967 war with Israel? Absolutely nothing! It's one thing to point fingers at the United States but what is the Arab and Muslim world actually doing to help the Palestinian cause? Let's face it, global terrorism solves nothing but create more golbal distrust and hatred. So who is to say that the Arab and Muslim world cannot accomplish this themselves?

    President Obama said that peace in the Middle East should not be decided by the UN but by the countries involved in the conflict. Well, who are the countries involved in the conflict? It's the Arab and Muslim world, not just Palestine. And unless the rest of the Arab/Muslin world start showing solidarity and concern for the Palestinine people, then their cause is a lost cause.

    Every year oil rich UAE and Dubai spend billions of dollars building exclusive resorts to entertain the rich and famous from the Western world while their brothers and sisters are living in poverty and are oppressed by the Israeli government. And oil rich Saudi Arabia is no different. So when are these influencial countries going to step forward and address the Palestinian cause and do something concrete to help them get a homeland? No you don't need the United States to do this for you. This is your opportunity to show the United States and the rest of the world that you can help get the Palestinian people a homeland.

    First you need to have a national day or recognization and reconcialiation throughout the entire Arab/Muslim world to show your solidarity and support for the Palestinian people and then the world would begin to take notice that you people are dead serious. Remember Apartheid in South Africa? Well, it lasted as long as it did because the oil rich nations of the region turned the other cheek while their brothers ans sisters were being oppressed and killed by the Apartheid government. And it was only until sanctions and pressure and condemnation started coming in from the outside world that the Apartheid government eventually toppled. However, the outside world here is the rest of the Arab/Muslim world and if nothing else worked, you need to impose an economic oil embargo on the Western world and then the Palestinians would get their homeland.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  10. Blogson

    Obama in his speech may have lauded such principles as human rights, but he signed the extension of portions of the human rights-suppressing PATRIOT act which impinges upon citizens in the U.S. His and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's approach towards other countries has been to attempt to coerce them into accepting the American Wall Street agenda despite the fact that it has in many instances resulted in increased human misery. The speech was partly somewhat empty articulated principle and partly propaganda.

    September 22, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Reply
  11. Israel, no restraint, no concession to the Arabs rev1.

    No Palestinian State
    Because Israel belongs there for the past 3000 years plus. The Palestinian Arabs do not exist as a nation and never existed.
    The Qur'an 17:104 – states the land belongs to the Jewish people

    September 23, 2011 at 1:14 am | Reply
  12. jbm66

    650,000 Jews were kicked out of their homes in 1948, not in Europe or Russia, but in Arab lands, that is the big Secret the arabs have been trying to hide from the world, and with great success i might add. They settled in land not settled by the arabs. The arabs still had their villiages, remember Palistine was never a country, only arab villages as part of the Ottoman empire. They could have kept those villages and made a country of their own called palistine that could have lived side by side with Israel, but their Genocidal racism got in the way and tried to drive the Jews into the sea. Well gues what they lost, and have been living with their lies, jealosy and hatred ever since. Facts can be very annoying...

    September 23, 2011 at 7:59 am | Reply
  13. Kaizer

    http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-a-president-who-is-helpless-in-the-face-of-middle-east-reality-2359433.html

    September 23, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Reply
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  16. Saidu

    The speech was so powerful but u guys can't get it because it's election time,if u guys love America as u said why can't u help the president turns things around,o I forgot u want him to fail so that u will come and mess it up again it will not happened in Jesus name

    September 22, 2011 at 10:15 am | Reply
  17. ed galbraith

    Say what?

    September 22, 2011 at 11:12 am | Reply
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