Distancing himself from George Bush and embracing the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt — to the point of quoting the 32nd president on the need for “the cooperative effort of the whole world” to build peace and prosperity — Barack Obama addressed the United Nations Wednesday as an old-school liberal internationalist.
After reviewing the breaks he has made with the Bush administration’s unilateralist approaches — with a heavy emphasis on the determination of the United States to engage with the UN and international groupings that promote human rights and cooperation between nations on issues such as disability rights — the president said in his first speech to the UN: “We have reached a pivotal moment. The United States stands ready to (usher in) a new era of international cooperation.”
Obama portrayed that readiness as an opportunity that nations that had come to distrust the U.S. during the Bush-Cheney era should now embrace. And he suggested an ambitious global agenda.
Like Roosevelt speaking in the last days of World War II, when he outlined “four freedoms” to be promoted across borders and continents, Obama described “four pillars” of progress for the planet.
“The magnitude of our challenges has yet to be met by the measure of our action,” said Obama, who called for action to address the “four pillars” that he described as:
1. Nuclear Nonproliferation. “We must stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek… a world without them,” said Obama as he committed to new negotiations to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction. He promised that the United States would live up to its responsibility to lead in the endeavor.
2. Pursuit of Peace. Declaring the United States to be “committed to diplomacy,” “partnerships to target terrorists, peacekeeping and development aid,” Obama said, “I will not waver in my pursuit of peace.” He drew applause with an aggressive embrace of Middle East peacemaking, in which he announced: “America does not accept the legitimacy (of Israeli settlements).” Said Obama: “The time has come to re-launch negotiations — without preconditions — that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders, refugees and Jerusalem… The goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.”
3. Protecting the Environment is Essential to Peace and Prosperity.”We must recognize that in the 21st century, there will be no peace unless we take responsibility for (climate change on) our planet,” said the president. He added that, “The days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over.”
4. A Global Economy That Advances Opportunity for All People. Speaking of setting “new rules of the road” that address greed and speculation, Obama promised to promote “a course for growth that is balanced and sustainable.” But his primary focus was on working with other countries to address hunger, disease and poverty. “We will set out sights of the eradication of extreme poverty in our time,” he said, emphasizing the responsibilities of wealthy nations to do more to aid and respect developing nations.
Obama acknowledged that his words were just that — words. And he spoke bluntly about the need for leaders to return to their countries and “do the hard work” of making real the promises presented at the podiums of the United Nations.
Obama, whose rhetoric has too frequently extended beyond his reach, has plenty of work to do in Washington.
He admitted that “America has too often been selective in our promotion of democracy,” and his administration has yet to make a full enough break with the lawless and anti-democratic approaches of the Bush-Cheney years.
Indeed, if Obama would simply live up to the lofty language of his address, it would represent a break not just with Bush but with compromises on issues ranging from extraordinary rendition and the use of military force that have continued since January 20. That’s a message that domestic activists should highlight, particularly in debates about torture and respect for international law.
But what was encouraging about Obama’s speech was his recognition of the need – and the value – of distancing his presidency from that of George Bush and his determination to link his mission with that of a more worthy predecessor.
Speaking the language of Roosevelt rather than Bush, Obama promised to “redouble our efforts” to strengthen the United Nations because, as this president rightly noted that: “Amid many crises… food, energy, recession and pandemic flu, hitting all at once… the world looks to us for answers. If ever there were a time to act in a spirit of renewed multilateralism… a moment to create a United Nations of genuine collective action… it is now.”