President Obama’s final address to the United Nations General Assembly was not a foreign policy speech. He barely mentioned key global accomplishments of the last nine years like the Paris Climate Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals or the Iran Nuclear Deal. Neither did he analyze key failures, like Syria. There were no applause lines, and little soaring oratory.
Rather, President’s Obama used his final address to the world to make an argument for the power of liberalism — at home, internationally, and even in the hearts of individuals around the world.
This was an interesting choice. Indeed, he spent more time discussing the important role of unions in reducing income inequality than, say, conflicts in the middle east or Africa. “Economies are more successful when we close the gap between rich and poor,” he said. “That means respecting the rights of workers so they can organize.” President Obama also acknowledged that the the liberal economic order that has been forged over the past half century is leaving too many people behind and creating concentrations of wealth that are ultimately unsustainable. “The existing path to global integration requires a course correction. Too often, those have ignored inequality amid and among nations,” he said. Indeed, parts of his speech sounded more like Bernie Sanders on the stump than a president’s address to the United Nations.
But that is not necessarily a bad thing, because the implication is that illiberalism at home–in the United States or elsewhere–can lead to a fracturing of the UN system and liberal international order it represents. “Our system is so successful, that people take it for granted that world powers no longer fight world wars,” he said. He cited actions like Russia’s annexing of Crimea or Chinese provocations in the South China Sea as chipping away at the principle that rule of law should replace rule of the jungle. “I’m convinced that in the long run giving up some freedom of action but binding us to international rules enhances security, and not just for us…As imperfect as they are, the principles of open markets, accountable governments and international law that we have forged provide the firmest platform for human progress,” he said.
And finally, President Obama connected the persistence of the liberal international order to the contents of an individual’s character, including the value of personal traits like empathy. “Our identities don’t have to be defined in opposition to others,” he said. “The choices of human beings created World War Two. But individuals also created UN…and we have shown that we can choose a better history.”
Sitting in a prison cell, a young Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that, “Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.” And during the course of these eight years, as I’ve traveled to many of your nations, I have seen that spirit in our young people, who are more educated and more tolerant, and more inclusive and more diverse, and more creative than our generation; who are more empathetic and compassionate towards their fellow human beings than previous generations. And, yes, some of that comes with the idealism of youth. But it also comes with young people’s access to information about other peoples and places — an understanding unique in human history that their future is bound with the fates of other human beings on the other side of the world.
So, in his final speech to the world, President Obama made his closing argument, for liberalism in countries, internationally, and in the hearts of individuals. It’s a fitting send-off for the president, whose own country faces a profoundly stark choice over these ideals in just 50 days time.
(More key quotes to come as transcript becomes available.)