Obama, in a U.N. bow, stumps for open world

He notes ris­ing global un­ease but re­jects call for na­tions to turn in­ward


united na­tions — Pres­i­dent Obama, in his fi­nal speech to the United Na­tions Tues­day, made an im­pas­sioned plea on be­half of a lib­eral world or­der that he ad­mit­ted was un­der grow­ing threat from wars in the Mid­dle East and ris­ing na­tion­al­ism at home and in Europe.

Speak­ing to the U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly for the eighth and last time as pres­i­dent, Obama sought to rise above the con­flicts of the mo­ment and out­line a fu­ture of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion, stress­ing the im­por­tance of the global lib­eral in­sti­tu­tions formed after World War II, in­clud­ing the United Na­tions.

“The world is by many mea­sures less vi­o­lent and more pros­per­ous than ever be­fore,” Obama said. But he ac­knowl­edged a grow­ing global un­ease, fu­eled by ter­ror­ism and eco­nomic anx­i­ety, which has led some Western politi­cians, in­clud­ing Repub­li­can nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump, to call for tough, new re­stric­tions on im­mi­gra­tion and global trade.

Obama of­ten seemed to be speak­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously to his­tory and to an Amer­i­can elec­torate fac­ing a his­toric choice.

The prob­lems plagu­ing the world called for a “course cor­rec­tion,” the pres­i­dent said. He then cat­a­logued the crises that have ex­posed “deep fault lines in the ex­ist­ing in­ter­na­tional or­der,” de­scrib­ing the fi­nan­cial dis­rup­tions caused by glob­al­iza­tion, chaos in the Mid­dle East and the mas­sive refugee flows into Europe.

“Our so­ci­eties are filled with un-

cer­tainty and un­ease and strife,” he said. “De­spite enor­mous progress, as peo­ple lose trust in in­sti­tu­tions, gov­ern­ing be­comes more dif­fi­cult and ten­sions be­tween na­tions be­come more quick to sur­face.”

Obama re­jected the strong­man, top-down model pushed by many of his in­ter­na­tional ri­vals, in­clud­ing Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. In the same breath he crit­i­cized those who push re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism, ag­gres­sive na­tion­al­ism and a “crude pop­ulism” that prom­ises to re­turn ci­ti­zens to a “bet­ter and sim­pler age free of out­side con­tam­i­na­tion” — a not-so-veiled ref­er­ence to Trump’s cam­paign prom­ise to “Make Amer­i­can Great Again.”

“We can­not dis­miss these vi­sions,” Obama said. “They are pow­er­ful.”

Through­out his pres­i­dency, Obama has stressed the im­por­tance of diplo­macy and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as the United Na­tions. From his ear­li­est days as a pres­i­den­tial hope­ful he has preached the im­por­tance of reach­ing out to long-stand­ing en­e­mies.

Obama used his speech Tues­day to try to ce­ment that legacy, point­ing to his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to re­store re­la­tions with Cuba and Burma, and its his­toric agree­ment with Iran last year.

“When Iran agrees to ac­cept con­straints on its nu­clear pro­gram, that en­hances global se­cu­rity and en­hances Iran’s abil­ity to work with other na­tions,” Obama said.

The days lead­ing up to Obama’s last United Na­tions ad­dress, like much of his pres­i­dency, were dom­i­nated by con­cerns about war and ter­ror­ism. Obama’s re­marks came one day after a man­hunt led to the cap­ture of a sus­pect linked to bomb­ings in New York and New Jersey and hours after a ten­u­ous cease-fire in Syria seemed to have col­lapsed. There were re­ports that Syr­ian or Rus­sian air­craft had struck an aid con­voy near Aleppo, just days after planes from the U.S.-led al­liance mis­tak­enly struck Syr­ian troops.

Obama steered clear of these top­ics in his speech, fo­cus­ing on his broader vi­sion for pre­serv­ing the in­ter­na­tional or­der.

The pres­i­dent spoke of the eco­nomic un­ease caused by glob­al­iza­tion, which has man­i­fested it­self dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial race in wide­spread op­po­si­tion to in­ter­na­tional trade deals. Such agree­ments, Obama said, could bol­ster la­bor unions in the de­vel­op­ing world and en­sure that prof­its of the global econ­omy are more evenly dis­trib­uted.

“A world in which 1 per­cent of hu­man­ity con­trols as much wealth as the other 99 per­cent will never be sta­ble,” Obama said.

He called for more vig­i­lance to elim­i­nate tax havens, fight cli­mate change and curb the “ex­cesses of cap­i­tal­ism.”

“A so­ci­ety that asks less of oli­garchs than or­di­nary ci­ti­zens will rot from within,” he said.

At times, Obama’s re­marks were di­rected at his ri­vals in Rus­sia and China who have in re­cent years force­fully pressed an al­ter­na­tive to his vi­sion.

Obama dis­missed sug­ges­tions by Rus­sia that the West had played a role in the up­ris­ings in Ukraine, in­sist­ing that the Ukraini­ans were fight­ing for uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples and a more re­spon­sive govern­ment.

“They took to the streets be­cause their lead­er­ship was for sale and they had no re­course,” Obama said.

He called for more work to re­solve the Is­rael-Pales­tinian con­flict, an un­ful­filled goal of his pres­i­dency, and for more diplo­macy to try to halt the blood­shed in Syria. He in­sisted China’s buildup in the South China Sea — which he dis­missed as the “mil­i­ta­riza­tion of a few rocks”— could not pro­vide a last­ing so­lu­tion to the ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes there.

In other mo­ments, Obama seemed to be ad­dress­ing the Amer­i­can elec­torate and the deep di­vi­sions that have been re­vealed by the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. He re­jected the idea that a border wall could block the spread of dis­ease, in the form of the Zika virus, or ter­ror­ism.

“The world is too small for us to be able to build a wall and pre­vent it from af­fect­ing our own so­ci­eties,” Obama said. The pres­i­dent’s ref­er­ences to the fu­til­ity of walls drew some chuck­les in the Gen­eral Assem­bly hall among world lead­ers who picked up the ref­er­ence to Trump.

Near the end of his re­marks and in a U.S.-spon­sored refugee sum­mit fol­low­ing his speech, Obama chal­lenged his fel­low lead­ers to do more to help the grow­ing di­as­pora of refugees across the globe.

“We are fac­ing a cri­sis of epic pro­por­tions,” Obama said. “I am here to­day, I called this sum­mit be­cause this cri­sis is one of the most ur­gent tests of our time.”

Many of the world’s refugees come from three coun­tries — Syria, Afghanistan and So­ma­lia — be­sieged by long wars with no end in sight. “The men­tal­ity that al­lows for vi­o­lence with im­punity is some­thing we can­not ex­cuse, and col­lec­tively we con­tinue to make ex­cuses,” Obama said. “We all know that what is hap­pen­ing in Syria, for ex­am­ple, is un­ac­cept­able and we are not as uni­fied as we should be in push­ing to make it stop.”

The White House said it had se­cured $650 mil­lion in pledges from the pri­vate sec­tor and Obama has promised to boost the num­ber of refugees the United States ac­cepts next year to 110,000, a 30 per­cent in­crease from 2016.

The pres­i­dent con­cluded his U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly speech by re­turn­ing, as he of­ten did in the ear­li­est days of his pres­i­dency, to his re­mark­able per­sonal story. “My own fam­ily is made up of the flesh and blood and tra­di­tions and cul­tures and faiths from a lot of dif­fer­ent parts of the world,” Obama said.

Obama cited his story as ev­i­dence of the ex­is­tence of uni­ver­sal ideals and prin­ci­ples that are in­creas­ingly un­der as­sault in a glob­al­iz­ing world.

“I can best serve my own peo­ple; I can best look after my own daugh­ters by mak­ing sure that my ac­tions seek what is right for all peo­ple and all chil­dren,” Obama said.


Pres­i­dent Obama spoke to the U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly for the eighth and last time as pres­i­dent Tues­day.

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