President Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon toast at a luncheon during the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters, Sept. 20, 2016.

President Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon toast at a luncheon during the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters, Sept. 20, 2016. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Progress or Oppression—You Decide, Obama Tells the UN in His Final Address

From mass migration to North Korea’s nukes, Obama’s lofty speech contained little guidance about how to resolve the world’s intractable problems.

President Barack Obama used his eighth and final address to the UN General Assembly to share his noble vision of a world order in which equality, liberty, and unity trump injustice, oppression, and division. Part sermon, part pep-talk, the speech exuded an unflinching faith in liberal ideals and a progressive optimism that humanity can surmount any economic, political, and ecological challenges it faces. All that is required, the president suggested, is that leaders and citizens listen to the better angels of their nature. The big-picture speech contained little guidance about how to resolve intractable problems, from mass migration to North Korea’s nukes. But it was an eloquent effort, delivered by a reasonable man living in unreasonable times. Its biggest flaw was in ignoring the practical difficulties and inherent trade-offs of applying such high-minded ideals to a fallen world.

The president began by identifying “the paradox that defines our world today.” By all measures, global integration has made the world more prosperous and less violent than ever before. Since the end of the Cold War, extreme poverty has declined dramatically, the information revolution has expanded access to knowledge, and individual freedom has spread to more countries. Equally impressive, “Our international order has been so successful that we now take it as a given that great powers no longer fight world wars.” And yet around the globe, people are more anxious about their future and uncertain about their fates. They have lost trust in institutions and are divided into rival communities.

The root of this angst, Obama suggested, is a battle of “competing visions.” The first outlook believes that continued global integration will generate human progress. This hopeful outlook “recognize[s] our common humanity” and the imperative of working together to achieve shared goals. The second is a dark, backward-looking worldview that would exploit, oppress, and divide the Earth’s inhabitants. The world must move forward, Obama declared. But it also needs “a course correction.” He identified four big priorities:

  • Make globalization work for all. The first task is to “make sure the global economy works for all people, not just those at the top.” Channeling his inner Bernie Sanders, the president criticized an international economic system in which the top one percent of humanity holds as much wealth as the other 99 percent. Contemporary capitalism busts unions and deprives workers of decent wages, even as it permits titans of finance to stash $8 trillion in offshore havens. The way to fix this system is not to retreat into the “failed models of the past”, by embracing mercantilism or beggar-thy-neighbor trade and monetary policies. Rather, Obama insisted, nations must make the global economy “more inclusive and sustainable.” The way to do so is by respecting workers’ rights, investing in citizens, strengthening social safety nets, combating corruption, strengthening financial regulations, and fighting global warming.
  • Choose Freedom. The second great challenge is to spread democratic governance. The world faces a “growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism,” the president declared, adding, “I am not neutral in that contest.” Obama criticized those nations (including, implicitly, China) that embrace “free markets” but reject “free societies.” He acknowledged that democracy is a work in progress. But the story of the United States—and indeed his own life story—shows that nations dedicated to liberty can correct mistakes and extend freedom to all of their citizens. The president rejected the notion that democratic aspirations are limited to particular nations or cultures. “I believe that spirit is universal.” Around the world, he has seen young people yearning “for freedom, and dignity, and the opportunity to control their own lives.”
  • Reject division and walls. The president’s third injunction was that nations must condemn any form of fundamentalism, racism, or nationalism that divides people, whether domestically or internationally. Around the world, too many societies permit discrimination on the basis of tribe and ethnicity. “The world is too small, we are too packed together, for us to… resort to those old ways of thinking,” Obama declared. The Middle East is a case in point. Too often, leaders in that region maintain power through persecution and oppression, eliminating public space for debate and “encouraging a mindset of sectarianism and bloodletting that will not be easily reversed.” The president pleaded with his fellow leaders to do a better job “tamping down rather than encouraging a notion of identity that leads us to diminish others.”
  • Defend global rules. Finally, the president appealed to all nations to “strengthen international cooperation rooted in the rights and responsibilities of nations.” In the end, international security depends on the willingness of governments to support and defend a rules-based world order. “We are all stakeholders in this international system,” the president said, and it was incumbent each nation to “invest in institutions” from UN peacekeeping to the nonproliferation regime. He was “proud” that the United States, for all its flaws, had been “a force for good,” choosing to embed its power in international law and institutions. The lesson of the American experience was clear: “[W]e can only realize the promise of [the UN’s] founding—to replace the ravages of war with cooperation—if powerful nations like my own accept constraints.”

What the president’s speech lacked was sufficient acknowledgment of how difficult it is to realize such noble goals in an often crooked world—or when liberal aspirations clash with more pedestrian but pressing interests. Consider this passage, shortly after discussing the struggle for human liberty and dignity in the Middle East. “So those of us who believe in democracy, we need to speak out forcefully.” And yet Obama’s own administration, like many before, has applied democracy promotion selectively—promoting it in Myanmar, for example, while cozying up to authoritarians like President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, when the logic of geopolitics prevails.

At other points, the president’s high-mindedness verged on naiveté. Most jarring was his observation about the ongoing wars in the Middle East—including in Syria, where the United States has remained on the sidelines as more than 400,000 have died in a bloody sectarian war. “Across the region’s conflicts,” Obama declared, “we have to insist that all parties recognize a common humanity and that nations end proxy wars that fuel disorder.” It is not hard to imagine how Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin would react to such wishful thinking.

A hallmark of Obama foreign policy—and a recurrent theme of his UN addresses—has been the tension between idealism and realism. This year, the president veered strongly toward idealism, turning the UN lectern into a bully pulpit—with an emphasis on “pulpit.” Toward the end of his speech, he almost seemed to concede as much: “Time and again, human beings have believed that they finally arrived at a period of enlightenment, only to repeat, then, cycles of conflict and suffering,” he noted. “Perhaps that’s our fate.”

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