Obama’s Idealistic UN Speech: Where Was the Meat?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Barack Obama gave his United Nation’s Address to the General Assembly on Wednesday, covering everything from Syria, Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Russia and the crisis in Ukraine, Ebola aid in West Africa, and economic growth in developing countries. Yet he still managed to actually say very little of substance, despite the fact he used over 4,000 words.

Obama succeeded in summarizing a great deal of his speech in a single paragraph (the fifth one, if you’re wondering), using the rest of his time to outline specific examples using very familiar lines. It’s almost as though his speech writers were feeling a little overwhelmed at the prospect of a UN Address and just pulled bits and pieces out of old speeches from over the course of this last month.

“Fellow delegates, we come together as United Nations with a choice to make. We can renew the international system that has enabled so much progress, or allow ourselves to be pulled back by an undertow of instability. We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability,” said the President, adding that, “For America, the choice is clear. We choose hope over fear.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t have much in the way of practical value, and what it’s mostly doing is reiterating to American citizens and to the world as a whole that America will not be stepping in to manage problems overseas alone. I repeat: America will be stepping in, just not alone or with both feet pointing in the same direction.

There was a distinct lack of anything you could really sink your teeth into in Obama’s rhetoric. His words were light, idealistic, and when you really get down to it, mostly fluff — and repetitive fluff at that. Many politicians make important points nestled in amongst truisms and patriotic odes, but President Obama’s points are all old news at this point.

Enforcing International Norms and Ukraine

Obama first gave background on events in Ukraine, discussing the political corruption that set off protests and Russian involvement through disguised militant support of separatists. Then, very much the broken record, he launched into how the United States doesn’t believe in “might makes right,” but “stands for something different. We believe that right makes might — that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future.”

As just as this sentiment is, it does not align with the reality of the world. Not to be overly cynical, but nations will, by necessity, always look out for their own interests first, helping often only when it benefits them in some way or only when providing aid does not directly harm them. America has often itself been called a bully and an interventionist. It is in the best interest of the U.S. and European nations with dependence on Russian gas markets to place sanctions against Russia and to encourage other nations do so as well, but the cost is far greater to countries depending on trade with Russia to satisfy energy needs. By placing sanctions against Russia as opposed to supporting Ukraine with armed forces, Obama has taken criticism as a weak opposition to the bullying of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his turn. His speech is ultimately a justification of his choices and a public repetition of western desire for Russia and Russian allied troops to stay in-line with the current ceasefire agreement.

His speech is riddle with “choices” like the one above, and “questions,” such as “the central question of our global age: whether we will solve our problems together, in a spirit of mutual interests and mutual respect, or whether we descend into destructive rivalries of the past.” America can hardly fail to answer questions correctly and make the right choice if he’s the one posing and answering each in turn over the course of his talk.

Repetition Without Content: A Sign of Caution

The real issue here is that much of Obama’s rhetoric lately on most topics follows the same pattern of repetition without real content. This is perhaps because Obama has become the president of caution. This is not a criticism, and in fact, it may be what America needs in its foreign policy right now, leaving the past in the past for the moment. But with events across the world seeming to spiral into crisis after crisis, his is a frustrating policy to listen to because it is, by nature, so passive. His main points seem to be that America is committed to x, y, and z, but that it will only contribute so much, and that other nations must step forward as well.

Then it is merely a matter of waiting to see if others will cooperate and change in accordance with common goals. This is his policy with Russia over Ukraine — sanctions will be put in place by America, but others must contribute by placing sanctions of their own, and then all eyes are on Russia to see how Putin will react. It is his policy with Iran, on nuclear weapons, and his policy on ISIL and terrorism. “The United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death,” he said. “In this effort, we do not act alone. Nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands.” Yet another opportunity to remind Americans that the U.S. isn’t going to jump into another war with hundreds of thousands of American casualties, as well as remind other countries that the U.S. isn’t acting as judge and jury as American reputation has come to suggest so often, but is “support[ing] Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities” this time around.

Of course, a big part of the plan hinges on the ability of local forces to take to the fight, and government that is sustainable to take shape. Once again, effort outlined partnered with a hefty dose of cautious waiting. This is inherently frustrating because it makes Americans — and Republican critics — feel powerless and passive, but it doesn’t necessarily make it the wrong move. It does make Obama’s speeches rather difficult to get through, though.

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