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The Subtle, But Substantive Policy Shift in Obama’s UN Speech

Barack Obama’s Speech to the United Nations General Assembly is being widely praised as one of his best speeches to date in terms of delivery and style. But between the soaring rhetoric there was substance.

To understand the significance of the speech it’s helpful to understand a subtle tension that has existed at the United Nations among member states over how to best fight terrorism. This tension can best be described as the the need to confront and kill terrorists through bombing and drone strikes on the one hand, and on the other hand reducing the factors that make young men want to join ISIS or al Qaeda in the first place. (In UN Speak, disrupting these push factors is often referred to in short-hand as “countering violent extremism.”)

In debates about terrorism at the UN, the United States has historically emphasized the former, and most other countries in the world have typically emphasize the latter. What was so striking about Obama’s speech today was that even as American bombs are dropping on terrorist targets in Syria and Iraq, he chose to focus his remarks on the softer side of the global fight against terrorism. And, in fact, he did not even use the term the “global fight against terrorism.” Rather, he directly invoked the need to fight the attractiveness of “violent extremism” no fewer than four times.  This is the key passage.

 Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated fanatics, and the trends that fuel their recruitment. Moreover, this campaign against extremism goes beyond a narrow security challenge. For while we have methodically degraded core al Qaeda and supported a transition to a sovereign Afghan government, extremist ideology has shifted to other places – particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where a quarter of young people have no job; food and water could grow scarce; corruption is rampant; and sectarian conflicts have become increasingly hard to contain.  

Obama’s emphasis on fighting terrorist groups by fighting the “trends that fuel their recruitment”  has practical implications for diplomacy at the UN. For one, it means that the rest of the world–specifically the developing world that does not tend to want to focus on terrorism at the expense of development issues — may get behind a US-led strategy at the UN.

We will see this manifest later today,  President Obama is leading a Security Council meeting that is expected to adopt a legally binding, Chapter VII resolution, that obliges all UN Member states to take specific measures to prevent their citizens from flocking to Syria to take up arms. This is a crucial issue to the national security of the United States and many other member states. Intelligence agencies believe that between 12,000 to 15,000 foreigners have joined arms with ISIS and al Nusra in Syria. There is a deep and legitimate fear that these fighters will come home, battle hardened, and carry out attacks elsewhere in the world. The measure at the UN today could help staunch that flow.

But the measure is also accompanied by a section titled “countering violent extremism” that “Encourages Member States to engage relevant local communities and non-governmental actors in developing strategies to counter the violent extremist narrative that can incite terrorist acts, address the conditions conducive to the spread of violent extremism, which can be conducive to terrorism, including by empowering youth, families, women,  religious, cultural and education leaders, and all other concerned groups of civil society and adopt tailored approaches to countering recruitment to this kind of violent extremism and promoting social inclusion and cohesion;” 

This provision is why the resolution will pass unanimously. And it is why most of the rest of the world will want to line up behind the United States.

So, yes this was an impressive speech. But for those at the United Nations it was also a very public signal that the USA will not loose sight of the root causes of terrorism even as its takes its fight to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.


How the UN Fights Terrorism, a backgrounder:

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UNSC chaired by obama

How the United Nations Fights Terrorism

The Security Council holds an extraordinary meeting on Wednesday, chaired by President Obama, dedicated to stemming the flow of foreign fighters to the Syrian battlefield. The meeting demonstrates that the United States believes the United Nations has an important role to play in the global fight against terrorism. But what, exactly, does that mean?

Here to discuss the Security Council meeting and the UN’s evolving involvement on terrorism issues (including its strengths and weaknesses) is Naureen Chowdhury Fink of the Global Center on Cooperative Security.


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Obama Champions Civil Society at #CGI2014

President Obama took a break away from activities at UN Headquarters to make his annual appearance at the Clinton Global Initiative today. After making a few jokes about the havoc his presence always causes on New York City traffic, Obama took the opportunity to highlight the important role civil society plays around the world.

In comparison to the other appearances the president makes during the week – this year includes his annual address to the UN General Assembly, an address to the UN Climate Summit and hosting a UN Security Council meeting on the rise of foreign fighters in wars around the globe – CGI provides a chance to talk about important, albeit lighter, issues that impact the world. With all the events going on this week, focusing on the contribution of civil society seems an appropriate topic to raise.

Obama started by noting that the most important title a person can have is never president or prime minister, but rather that of a citizen. Often, both in democracies and non-democracies, it is through civil society that many people fight to gain the full rights and dignity that help societies grow and prosper.

These citizens remind us why civil society is so essential. When people are free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsive and more effective. When entrepreneurs are free to create and develop new ideas, then economies are more innovative, and attract more trade and investment, and ultimately become more prosperous.

When communities, including minorities, are free to live and pray and love as they choose; when nations uphold the rights of all their people -— including, perhaps especially, women and girls -— then those countries are more likely to thrive.  If you want strong, successful countries, you need strong, vibrant civil societies.  When citizens are free to organize and work together across borders to make our communities healthier, our environment cleaner, and our world safer, that’s when real change comes.

Such change is vital for progress but in countries that are less than free, pushing for this change can come at a high price for those on the frontlines. Obama highlighted numerous activists around the world who have faced harassment, imprisonment and death for trying to bring about change within their countries. While it is important to remember the sacrifices made, it is also important to remember what civil society has accomplished around the world. We would not have the world we do today if not for the perseverance of civil society groups who frequently push us to do better and speak out for those whose voices are lost amongst the many.

Yet civil society, particularly with NGOs, is facing rising crackdowns from several governments around the world. This is not an issue of developed versus developing states as sometimes represented in the media, but rather an issue of governments who fear the power of their own people. From Hungary to China, harsh new laws targeting NGOs are pushing civil society out of the public sphere. This phenomenon appeared to be the real focus of Obama’s address and the presidential actions he announced today.

Those actions include directing all federal agencies to consult with civil society more regularly in decision making processes as well as establishing centers of excellence around the world to serve as incubators for civil society actors to turn their ideas into concrete results. Obama also announced new initiatives to help “embattled NGOs” in oppressive states, the finalization of regulations to making financial transfers between international donors and civil society easier for all involved, and legal and political support for organizations battling these overbearing NGO laws.

Throughout the address, Obama pointed out the struggles civil society faces, suggesting that the issues raised today have been of concern for the US government for quite some time. Tomorrow the focus will shift to the General Assembly and the Security Council as well as the many urgent crises currently facing the international community. But behind the scenes will be civil society and today’s speech was one way of not only acknowledging the role they play, but to shine a light on the conditions they often must overcome to bring about the change we all seek.

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The Big Policy and Financial Commitments from the UN Climate Summit

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, greets Barack Obama, President of the United States, at the Climate Change Summit at the United Nations in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (Photo/Stuart Ramson/UN Dispatch)

UN confabs like this can sometimes devolve into gabfests that don’t result in much action. But what is distinguishing today’s meetings from others is that countries are bringing tangible commitments to the table. They are going on record —  before their colleagues and before the world — about what they are going to do about climate change. This is why today’s UN Climate Summit is so significant.

We are seeing two kinds of commitments: the first are financial ones. These are mostly going to the Green Climate Fund, which is an international financing mechanism to help developing countries grow their economies in sustainable ways. (The fund is a key lynchpin in getting developing countries on board with a legally binding climate change accord which will be negotiated over the next year.)  Additionally, developing countries are pledging to put their own resources to their own sustainable development. The second big kind of commitments we are seeing are policy commitments. Some of these are very bold–including pledges for entire countries to go carbon neutral by a specific date.

I’ll update this list throughout the day.

Some of the Big Financial Contributions and Commitments. 

-France kicked off the day with a big announcement. French President Francois Hollande pledged $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund “over the next few years. ” He added that this would be seed money that he hopes would attract others to the cause.

-Not to be outdone, Germany matches France and also pledges $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

-Danish PM Helle Thorning Schmidt announced that Denmark will give $70 million to Green Climate Fund, on top of existing $350 million

From the developing world, we are also seeing financial commitments in how they allocate their own budget. Here are a few examples:

-Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, says they have raised $385 million from within their own resources to adapt to climate change.

-Papua New Guinea is spending “$150 million on regional Pacific assistance”

-Myanmar is  introducing a 30 year forest strategy “to safeguard a further 30% of our forests”

2) Notable Policy Commitments. Countries are Now on the Record. 

-The European Union President Manuel Barraoso announced that the EU has committed to reducing emissions across its 28 member bloc by 80%-95% by 2050.

-President Obama issued an executive order today to “incorporate climate change resilience” into international development. The order formally and officially directs all US agencies that deal with international development and multi-lateral diplomacy to integrate sustainability into policy and diplomacy around development. He also announced that the USA would announce new emissions reductions targets by early next year.

-The Prime Minister of one of those member states, Denmark, announced that it aims to be fossil fuel free by 2050

-Sweden’s Prime Minister also said he predicts a 40% reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2020, and then down to zero by 2050.

- Belgium’s Prime Minister, Elio Di Rupo, says they will reduce emissions by 85% by 2050.

-But the commitments were not restricted to wealthier countries of the global north. Freundel Stuart, prime minister of Barbados said that by 2029, 29% of his country’s electricity will be green.

Mexico’s president said that by 2018, more than one third of electricity-generating capacity will be based on renewables.

-Trinidad and Tobago’s chief says 100% of its electricity is from natural gas.

- St Lucia sas that 35% of its electricity will be from renewables by 2020.

-China reiterated country’s goal to cut carbon intensity 40 – 45% by 2020 over 2005 levels and pledged to double its level of financial support to other developing countries.

3) Collective Commitments  Around Discreet Issues 

As the day progresses, there’s a third kind of commitment that we are beginning to see: joint action plans. These are public-private partnerships and other collections of governments and civil society groups banding together around a specific, common agenda.

One example: this afternoon 130 governments, plus companies, civil society and indigenous peoples signed onto the New York Declaration on Forests, “pledging to cut the loss of forests in half by 2020 and, for the first time, to end it a decade later in 2030.”

Another:  “Multinational oil and gas companies have joined forces with governments
and international environmental organizations to cut the emissions of methane.” This is called the “The Oil & Gas Methane Partnership.”

Big h/t and #FF to @Climate2014Live, which is compiling these commitments frenetically on twitter. When I wasn’t able to watch the speeches, I’ve borrowed some language from their tweets in an effort to be as precise as possible.   



Credit: Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, greets Barack Obama, President of the United States, at the Climate Change Summit at the United Nations in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (Photo/Stuart Ramson/UN Dispatch) 

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Airstrikes in Syria and Climate Talks at the UN

A big day here at the United Nations. Over 120 heads of state are coming to the United Nations today to participate in a one day summit on climate change. But with US-lead airstrikes in Syria underway, talk of terrorism and Syria will almost certainly creep into the conversation.

President Obama is addressing the summit at 12:50 eastern time. Just prior to that, Ban Ki Moon is expected to give a press briefing. It will be interesting–and exceedingly important — to see how he categorizes the legality of the airstrikes. Typically, a military intervention like this would require Security Council approval. That did not happen. But there are plausible arguments that could grant this intervention a patina of legal legitimacy — and these arguments matter inside the UN and for those who have sworn to uphold the UN Charter. I would expect Ban Ki Moon to address this question directly.

Meanwhile, hundreds of heads of state, key leaders, and — swoon — Leonardo diCaprio — are meeting at the United Nations to talk about climate change. The day kicks off at 830 Eastern with remarks from Ban Ki Moon, New York mayor Bill diBlaso, and Leo, among others. Speeches from Presidents and Prime Ministers kick off at 9am. Each country is formally slotted for four minutes of podium time, with three sessions running simultaneously. If they stay on schedule Obama will probably hit the podium in the early afternoon, around 1250 EST.

What’s this all about? I speak with Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions who helps put this historic meeting at the United Nations in the larger context of international climate change diplomacy. It’s a 20 minute conversation that gives good background on the significance of today’s meeting and previews what we should expect to come of it all. 

All the statements







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Tackling the Syrian Crisis at #CGI2014

The opening plenary of the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting kicked off today featuring discussion with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, IBM President and CEO Ginny Rometty, President of Chile Michelle Bachelet as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton. However breaking from the traditional focus of CGI on innovation and development programs, the session also involved a lengthy discussion with King Abdullah II of Jordan regarding the toll on states in the Middle East from the spiraling humanitarian crisis out of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Jordan is a small landlocked state with a population of 8 million, the majority of which is made up and descended from Palestinian refugees. Since the start of the Syrian War, the country took in another 600,000 refugees from Syria, pushing the state’s fragile economy to the breaking point. Since then Jordan has limited the ability of new Syrian refugees to enter by closing unsanctioned border crossings but the strain of taking on so many continues to weaken the state.

This raises an important question that former President Clinton poses to the audience: If Jordan fails for trying to do the right thing, what consequences will that have for the region and for the world as a whole?

Although applied only to Jordan in this discussion, it is an important question with wide reaching consequences for the entire international community. As High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres noted yesterday at the Social Good Summit, there are more refugees in the world now than at any point since World War II. This influx in the refugee population comes as international aid agencies face severe funding shortages and a growing number of humanitarian crises to address. In the case of Syria, after three years of taking in refugees neighboring states have largely reached their breaking point but the World Food Program is now preparing to slash food rations for Syrian refugees, as they simply do not have the money to continue to support them.

Apathy towards the plight of refugees is evident in the policies of states around the world from the current US “border crisis”, “Fortress Europe” policies and the Pacific Solution in Australia. In this context it is vital that those states who do step up not fail for risk that it may encourage further apathy by those who can afford to help but don’t want to.

For Jordan the stakes are considerably more personal. The economic crisis exacerbated by the turmoil of the Arab Spring and Syrian War is starting to subside but Jordan still faces numerous challenges. Without oil of their own, Jordan usually relies on a deal with Egypt for energy needs but the political instability of Egypt has ground this electricity and gas production to a halt. Moreover, the growing instability in Iraq threatens to unleash another humanitarian catastrophe that will likely spill over into Jordan much as the Syrian crisis has.

To this end, the Clinton Global Initiative is launching a multiyear effort to support Jordan much the same way it did with Haiti in 2009.  Encouraging investment in renewable energy, initiatives for youth employment, better service delivery and humanitarian assistance are all ways to boost the capacity and resilience of Jordan, which can potentially serve as a model for the region.

Numerous pledges to aid in the humanitarian crisis were also announced, including the creation and deployment of modular schools to serve Syrian refugee populations by Pilosio S.p.A. and the creation of a resiliency fund by Global Impact, which aims to raise $1 million to help support other commitments made by CGI members in the fields of healthcare, education and job training.

Although the size of the problems coming out of the region seems unsurmountable, these are important steps. King Abdullah pointed out that the payments offered by ISIS  to foreign fighters represents an upper middle class income in Jordan and can be incredibly appealing for young people who often have difficulty finding work under the current economic conditions. Aid agencies have warned of a “lost generation” for Syria as children miss out on educational opportunities and lack access to mental health professionals to help them deal with the trauma of the war. By addressing the underlying motivations and problems fueling conflict in the region, Jordan and CGI hopes to contain a problem before it develops further.

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