President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly moments ago. The big theme was “peace,” which was mentioned 39 times. (And 4 times followed by the phrase “is hard.”).
A few of things stand out from his address this year:
1) The speech took the tone of one of his annual State of the Union speeches to Congress, but adapted as a “State of the World” for a global audience. Even though this is now his third UN speech, it is still interesting to see the extent to which Obama treats this as an opportunity to deliver an update on the changes and challenges that the world has faced since the last time he visited the UN. Cote D’Ivoire, the creation of the new Republic of South Sudan, the Arab Spring and the death of Bin Laden all were all listed. What’s striking is the extent to which people like me have come to expect this of him. Key Quote:
So it has been a remarkable year. The Qadhafi regime is over. Gbagbo, Ben Ali, and Mubarak are no longer in power. Osama bin Laden is gone, and the idea that change could only come through violence has been buried with him. Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way they will be.
2) There was nothing new on the Palestine question. In the speech immediately preceding Obama, the President of Brazil re-iterated her unequivocal support for full Palestinian membership to the United Nations. President Obama simply re-iterated the American position which is that the UN should be focused on getting the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down face to face, and not, by inference, on a vote for Palestinian UN membership. Key quote:
” The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live in peace and security, with dignity and opportunity. We will only succeed in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down together, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and fears. That is the project to which America is committed. And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come.”
3) As expected, President Obama hit on the “global problems require global solutions” meme which is a welcome endorsement of the enduring value of the United Nations at a time when certain cadres on Capitol Hill are seeking to gut American financial contributions to the UN. Obama specifically cited nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, which have been a pet issue of his since his first UN meeting. (Indeed, during his first visit to the UN three years ago, he became the first American president to chair a Security Council meeting on non-proliferation.)
Now, even as we confront these challenges of conflict and revolution, we must also recognize once more that peace is not just the absence of war. True peace depends upon creating the opportunity that makes life worth living. And to do that, we must confront the common enemies of human beings: nuclear weapons and poverty; ignorance and disease. These forces corrode the possibility of lasting peace, and together we are called upon to confront them.
In all it was a very decent speech–especially the first and third parts. But if you were looking for the United States to offer some clarity on the question of Palestinian membership the United Nations (and how far it is willing to go to support, say, elevating Palestine to Observer State status) well, this was not the speech for you.
Here’s the full text of his speech:
Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, fellow delegates, ladies and
gentlemen: I would like to talk to you about a subject that is at the
heart of the United Nations – the pursuit of peace in an imperfect
War and conflict have been with us since the beginning of civilization.
But in the first part of the 20th century, the advance of modern
weaponry led to death on a staggering scale. It was this killing that
compelled the founders of this body to build an institution that was
focused not just on ending one war, but on averting others; a union of
sovereign states that would seek to prevent conflict, while also
addressing its causes.
No American did more to pursue this objective than President Franklin
Roosevelt. He knew that a victory in war was not enough. As he said at
one of the very first meetings on the founding of the United Nations,
“We have got to make, not merely a peace, but a peace that will last.”
The men and women who built this institution understood that peace is
more than the absence of war. A lasting peace – for nations and
individuals – depends upon a sense of justice and opportunity; of
dignity and freedom. It depends upon struggle and sacrifice; on
compromise, and a sense of common humanity.
One delegate to the San Francisco Conference that led to the creation of
United Nations put it well – “Many people,” she said, “have talked as if
all we had to do to get peace was…to say loudly and frequently that we
loved peace and hated war. Now we have learned that no matter how much
we love peace and hate war, we cannot avoid having war brought upon us
if there are convulsions in other parts of the world.”
The fact is, peace is hard, but our people demand it. Over nearly seven
decades, even as the United Nations helped avert a third World War, we
still live in a world scarred by conflict and plagued by poverty. Even
as we proclaim our love for peace and hatred of war, there are
convulsions in our world that endanger us all.
I took office at a time of two wars for the United States. Moreover, the
violent extremists who drew us into war in the first place – Osama bin
Laden, and his al Qaeda organization – remained at large. Today, we have
set a new direction.
At the end of this year, America’s military operation in Iraq will be
over. We will have a normal relationship with a sovereign nation that is
a member of the community of nations. That equal partnership will be
strengthened by our support for Iraq – for its government and Security
Forces; for its people and their aspirations.
As we end the war in Iraq, the United States and our coalition partners
have begun a transition in Afghanistan. Between now and 2014, an
increasingly capable Afghan government and Security Forces will step
forward to take responsibility for the future of their country. As they
do, we are drawing down our own forces, while building an enduring
partnership with the Afghan people.
So let there be no doubt: the tide of war is receding. When I took
office, roughly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By the end of this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will
continue to decline. This is critical to the sovereignty of Iraq and
Afghanistan, and to the strength of the United States as we build our
nation at home.
Moreover, we are poised to end these wars from a position of strength.
Ten years ago, there was an open wound of twisted steel and broken
hearts in this city. Today, as a new tower rising at Ground Zero
symbolizes New York’s renewal, al Qaeda is under more pressure than ever
before. Its leadership has been degraded. And Osama bin Laden, a man who
murdered thousands of people from dozens of countries, will never
endanger the peace of the world again.
Yes, this has been a difficult decade. But today, we stand at a
crossroads of history with the chance to move decisively in the
direction of peace. To do so, we must return to the wisdom of those who
created this institution. The UN’s Founding Charter calls upon us, “to
unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.” And
Article 1 of this General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human
Rights reminds us that, “All human beings are born free and equal in
dignity and rights.’ Those bedrock beliefs – in the responsibility of
states, and the rights of men and women – must be our guide.
In that effort, we have reason to hope. This year has been a time of
transformation. More nations have stepped forward to maintain
international peace and security. And more individuals are claiming
their universal right to live in freedom and dignity.
One year ago, when we met here in New York, the prospect of a successful
referendum in South Sudan was in doubt. But the international community
overcame old divisions to support the agreement that had been negotiated
to give South Sudan self-determination. And last summer, as a new flag
went up in Juba, former soldiers laid down their arms; men and women
wept with joy; and children finally knew the promise of looking to a
future that they will shape.
One year ago, the people of Cote D’Ivoire approached a landmark
election. And when the incumbent lost, and refused to respect the
results, the world refused to look the other way. UN peacekeepers were
harassed, but did not leave their posts. The Security Council, led by
the United States, Nigeria, and France, came together to support the
will of the people. And Cote D’Ivoire is now governed by the man who was
elected to lead.
One year ago, the hopes of the people of Tunisia were suppressed. But
they chose the dignity of peaceful protest over the rule of an iron
fist. A vendor lit a spark that took his own life, but ignited a
movement. In the face of a crackdown, students spelled out the word
freedom. The balance of fear shifted from the ruler to those that he
ruled. Now the people of Tunisia are preparing for elections that will
move them one step closer to the democracy they deserve.
One year ago, Egypt had known one President for nearly thirty years. But
for 18 days, the eyes of the world were on Tahrir Square, where
Egyptians from all walks of life – men and women; young and old; Muslim
and Christian – demanded their universal rights. We saw in those
protesters the moral force of non-violence that has lit the world from
Delhi to Warsaw; from Selma to South Africa – and we knew that change
had come to Egypt and to the Arab World.
One year ago, the people of Libya were ruled by the world’s longest
serving dictator. But faced with bullets and bombs and a dictator who
threatened to hunt them down like rats, they showed relentless bravery.
We will never forget the words of the Libyan who stood up in those early
days of revolution and said, “Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you
Day after day, in the face of bullets and bombs, the Libyan people
refused to give back that freedom. And when they were threatened by the
kind of mass atrocity that often went unchallenged in the last century,
the United Nations lived up to its charter. The Security Council
authorized all necessary measures to prevent a massacre. The Arab
League called for this effort, and Arab nations joined a NATO-led
coalition that halted Qadhafi’s forces in their tracks.
In the months that followed, the will of the coalition proved
unbreakable, and the will of the Libyan people could not be denied.
Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to
Misratah to Benghazi – today, Libya is free. Yesterday, the leaders of
a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the
United States is reopening our Embassy in Tripoli. This is how the
international community is supposed to work – nations standing together
for the sake of peace and security; individuals claiming their rights.
Now, all of us have a responsibility to support the new Libyan
government as they confront the challenge of turning this moment of
promise into a just and lasting peace for all Libyans.
So it has been a remarkable year. The Qadhafi regime is over. Gbagbo,
Ben Ali, and Mubarak are no longer in power. Osama bin Laden is gone,
and the idea that change could only come through violence has been
buried with him. Something is happening in our world. The way things
have been is not the way they will be. The humiliating grip of
corruption and tyranny is being pried open. Technology is putting power
in the hands of the people. The youth are delivering a powerful rebuke
to dictatorship, and rejecting the lie that some races, religions and
ethnicities do not desire democracy. The promise written down on paper –
“all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – is
closer at hand.
But let us remember: peace is hard. Progress can be reversed. Prosperity
comes slowly. Societies can split apart. The measure of our success
must be whether people can live in sustained freedom, dignity, and
security. And the United Nations and its member states must do their
part to support those basic aspirations.
In Iran, we have seen a government that refuses to recognize the rights
of its own people. And as we meet here today, men, women and children
are being tortured, detained and murdered by the Syrian regime.
Thousands have been killed, many during the holy time of Ramadan.
Thousands more have poured across Syria’s borders. The Syrian people
have shown dignity and courage in their pursuit of justice – protesting
peacefully, standing silently in the streets, dying for the same values
that this institution is supposed to stand for. The question for us is
clear: Will we stand with the Syrian people, or with their oppressors?
Already, the United States has imposed strong sanctions on Syria’s
leaders. We have supported a transfer of power that is responsive to the
Syrian people. Many of our allies have joined us in this effort. But for
the sake of Syria – and the peace and security of the world – we must
speak with one voice. There is no excuse for inaction. Now is the time
for the United Nations Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime,
and to stand with the Syrian people.
Throughout the region, we will have to respond to the calls for change.
In Yemen, men, women and children gather by the thousands in towns and
city squares every day with the hope that their determination and
spilled blood will prevail over a corrupt system. America supports their
aspirations. We must work with Yemen’s neighbors and our partners around
the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power
from President Saleh, and a movement to free and fair elections as soon
In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability, but
more are required. America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will
continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc – the
Wifaq – to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that
is responsive to the people. And we believe the patriotism that binds
Bahrainis together must be more powerful than the sectarian forces that
would tear them apart.
Each nation must chart its own course to fulfill the aspirations of its
people, and America does not expect to agree with every party or person
who expresses themselves politically. But we will always stand up for
the universal rights that were embraced by this Assembly. Those rights
depend upon elections that are free and fair; governance that is
transparent and accountable; respect for the rights of women and
minorities; and justice that is equal and fair. That is what our people
deserve. Those are elements of a peace that lasts.
Moreover, the United States will continue to support those nations that
transition to democracy – with greater trade and investment, so that
freedom is followed by opportunity. We will pursue a deeper engagement
with governments, but also civil society – students and entrepreneurs;
political parties and the press. We have banned those who abuse human
rights from travelling to our country, and sanctioned those who trample
on human rights abroad. And we will always serve as a voice for those
who have been silenced.
Now I know that for many in this hall, one issue stands as a test for
these principles – and for American foreign policy: the conflict between
the Israelis and Palestinians.
One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent
Palestine. I believed then – and I believe now – that the Palestinian
people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that
genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians
themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and
others, the parties have not bridged their differences. Faced with this
stalemate, I put forward a new basis for negotiations in May. That basis
is clear, and well known to all of us here. Israelis must know that any
agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve
to know the territorial basis of their state.
I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. So am I. But
the question isn’t the goal we seek – the question is how to reach it.
And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict
that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and
resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been
accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who
must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians –
not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on
borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.
Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long
after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted. That is
the lesson of Northern Ireland, where ancient antagonists bridged their
differences. That is the lesson of Sudan, where a negotiated settlement
led to an independent state. And that is the path to a Palestinian
We seek a future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their
own, with no limit to what they can achieve. There is no question that
the Palestinians have seen that vision delayed for too long. And it is
precisely because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the
Palestinian people that America has invested so much time and effort in
the building of a Palestinian state, and the negotiations that can
America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable, and our
friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any
lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that
Israel faces every single day. Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by
neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens
have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on
their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the
region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country
of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of
much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish
people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the
fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply
because of who they were.
These facts cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful
state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It
deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the
Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends
of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two state solution with a
secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.
That truth – that each side has legitimate aspirations – is what makes
peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side
learns to stand in each other’s shoes. That’s what we should be
encouraging. This body – founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and
genocide; dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every person – must
recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the
Israelis. The measure of our actions must always be whether they
advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live in peace
and security, with dignity and opportunity. We will only succeed in that
effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down together, to listen
to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and fears. That is
the project to which America is committed. And that is what the United
Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come.
Now, even as we confront these challenges of conflict and revolution, we
must also recognize once more that peace is not just the absence of war.
True peace depends upon creating the opportunity that makes life worth
living. And to do that, we must confront the common enemies of human
beings: nuclear weapons and poverty; ignorance and disease. These forces
corrode the possibility of lasting peace, and together we are called
upon to confront them.
To lift the specter of mass destruction, we must come together to pursue
the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. Over the last
two years, we have begun to walk down that path. Since our Nuclear
Security Summit in Washington, nearly 50 nations have taken steps to
secure nuclear materials from terrorists and smugglers. Next March, a
Summit in Seoul will advance our efforts to lock down all of them. The
New START Treaty between the United States and Russia will cut our
deployed arsenals to the lowest level in a half century, and our nations
are pursuing talks on how to achieve deeper reductions. America will
continue to work for a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons, and the
production of fissile material needed to make them.
As we meet our obligations, we have strengthened the treaties and
institutions that help stop the spread of these weapons. To do so, we
must continue to hold accountable those nations that flout them. The
Iranian government cannot demonstrate that its program is peaceful, has
not met its obligations, and rejected offers that would provide it with
peaceful nuclear power. North Korea has yet to take concrete steps
toward abandoning its weapons, and continues belligerent actions against
the South. There is a future of greater opportunity for the people of
these nations if their governments meet their obligations. But if they
continue down a path that is outside international law, they must be met
with greater pressure and isolation. That is what our commitment to
To bring prosperity to our people, we must promote the growth that
creates opportunity. In this effort, let us not forget that we have made
enormous progress over the last several decades. Closed societies gave
way to open markets. Innovation and entrepreneurship has transformed the
way we live and the things that we can do. Emerging economies from Asia
to the Americas have lifted hundreds of millions from poverty. Yet three
years ago, we confronted the worst financial crisis in eight decades.
That crisis proved a fact that has become clearer with each passing year
– our fate is interconnected; in a global economy, nations will rise, or
Today, we confront the challenges that have followed that crisis.
Recovery is fragile. Markets are volatile. Too many people are out of
work. Too many others are struggling to get by. We acted together to
avert a Depression in 2009. We must take urgent and coordinated action
once more. Here in the United States, I have announced a plan to put
Americans back to work and jumpstart our economy, and committed to
substantially reduce our deficit over time. We stand with our European
allies as they reshape their institutions and address their own fiscal
challenge. For other countries, leaders face a different challenge as
they shift their economies towards more self-reliance, boosting domestic
demand while slowing inflation. So we will work with emerging economies
that have rebounded strongly, so that rising standards of living create
new markets that promote global growth. That is what our commitment to
To combat the poverty that punishes our children, we must act on the
belief that freedom from want is a basic human right. The United States
has made it a focus of our engagement abroad to help people to feed
themselves. And today, as drought and conflict have brought famine to
the Horn of Africa, our conscience calls on us to act. Together, we must
continue to provide assistance, and support organizations that can reach
those in need. And together, we must insist on unrestricted humanitarian
access so that we can save the lives of thousands of men, women and
children. Our common humanity is at stake. Let us show that the life of
a child in Somalia is as precious as any other. That is what our
commitment to our fellow human beings demands.
To stop disease that spreads across borders, we must strengthen our
systems of public health. We will continue the fight against HIV/AIDS,
tuberculosis and malaria. We will focus on the health of mothers and
children. And we must come together to prevent, detect, and fight every
kind of biological danger – whether it is a pandemic like H1N1, a
terrorist threat, or a treatable disease. This week, America signed an
agreement with the World Health Organization to affirm our commitment to
meet this challenge. Today, I urge all nations to join us in meeting the
WHO’s goal of making sure all nations have core capacities to address
public health emergencies in place by 2012. That is what our commitment
to the health of our people demands.
To preserve our planet, we must not put off the action that a changing
climate demands. We must tap the power of science to save those
resources that are scarce. Together, we must continue our work to build
on the progress made in Copenhagen and Cancun, so that all of the major
economies here today follow through on the commitments that were made.
Together, we must work to transform the energy that powers are
economies, and support others as they move down that path. That is what
our commitment to the next generation demands.
And to make sure our societies reach their potential, we must allow our
citizens to reach theirs. No country can afford the cancer of
corruption. Together, we must harness the power of open societies and
open economies. That is why we have partnered with countries from across
the globe to launch a new partnership on Open Government that helps
ensure accountability and empower their citizens. No country should deny
people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand
up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere. And no country can
realize its potential if half its population cannot reach theirs. This
week, the United States signed a new Declaration on Women’s
Participation. Next year, we should each announce the steps we are
taking to break down economic and political barriers that stand in the
way of women and girls. That is what our commitment to human progress
I know that there is no straight line to progress, no single path to
success. We come from different cultures, and carry with us different
histories. But let us never forget that even as we gather here as heads
of different governments, we represent citizens who share the same basic
aspirations – to live with dignity and freedom; to get an education and
pursue opportunity; to love our families and our God. To live in the
kind of peace that makes life worth living.
It is the nature of our imperfect world that we are forced to learn this
lesson over and over again. Conflict and repression will endure so long
as some people refuse to do unto others as we would have them do unto
us. Yet that is precisely why we have built institutions like this that
bind our fates together – because those who came before us believed that
peace is preferable to war; freedom is preferable to suppression; and
prosperity is preferable to poverty. That is the message that comes not
from capitals, but from citizens.
When the corner-stone of this very building was put in place, President
Truman came here to New York and said, “The United Nations is
essentially an expression of the moral nature of man’s aspirations.” As
we live in a world that is changing at a breathtaking pace, that is a
lesson that we must never forget.
Peace is hard, but we know that it is possible. Together, let us resolve
to see that it is defined by our hopes and not our fears. Together, let
us work to make, not merely a peace, but a peace that will last. Thank