President Obama’s seventh speech to the United Nations was well-received on Monday.
This is hardly surprising, as his policies have been a broad embrace of priorities and tactics that have long been championed by the majority of the world’s governments.
As stated by Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States and formerly Germany’s permanent representative to the United Nations:
The foreign policy of the Obama administration [on issues like renewed Cuba relations and the Iran nuclear deal] is — if I may say so — very European, and therefore we applaud it. We are really singing from the same song sheet… late in the day, in the fourth quarter, turned out to be a real leader on climate change. He brought China along, and that has served as a catalyst for other emerging economies.
Unfortunately, while popular in Europe and elsewhere, those policies are a triumph of image over reality. As admitted by supporters, even if Iran abides by the terms of the deal, it will have billions of dollars in freed funds to support terrorism, and its nuclear program will be legitimized.
Renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba have not changed the nature of the government, particularly its brutal mistreatment of dissidents. Questions remain about the extent and severity of global warming, its effects, and the efficacy and impact of proposed actions to address it.
Nonetheless, Obama was eager to congratulate himself for these “accomplishments” in front of the assembled governments.
The dire crises around the world, particularly in the Middle East, could not be glossed over. In characteristic fashion, the president blamed everyone but himself for these problems.
The president criticized tolerance of Assad and the use of chemical weapons, ignoring the fact that his lack of resolve directly contributed to these serious problems.
He blamed the chaos in Libya on “an international coalition under a U.N. mandate” that “we joined” and sagely acknowledged that “our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.”
Obama apparently does not remember his 2011 speech, in which he stated, “[A]t my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass a historic resolution that authorized a no-fly zone to stop the regime’s attacks from the air, and further authorized all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people.”
Obama also criticized countries trying to secure borders, including U.S. supporters of securing America’s borders, but offered no practical solutions for how countries can deal with huge numbers of migrants that strain their ability to deal with them.
On Russia, Obama channeled John Lennon and urged the assembled leaders to “[i]magine if, instead, Russia had engaged in true diplomacy, and worked with Ukraine and the international community to ensure its interests were protected. That would be better for Ukraine, but also better for Russia, and better for the world.”
Unfortunately, wishful thinking and reset buttons are no substitute for an honest assessment of Russia’s goals and interests, which have led it to invade Ukraine and intervene in Syria, and implementation of policies to dissuade such actions.
On Ukraine, Obama asserted, “We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.” But he proposed no real action to act on that statement.
On the positive side, Obama directly criticized internal repression and denial of human rights. He asserted:
[S]ome universal truths are self-evident. No person wants to be imprisoned for peaceful worship. No woman should ever be abused with impunity, or a girl barred from going to school. The freedom to peacefully petition those in power without fear of arbitrary laws—these are not ideas of one country or one culture. They are fundamental to human progress.
But when the opportunity to stand by these beliefs was there, Obama ignored it.
It was Obama who failed to link improved human rights observance a condition for the nuclear deal with Iran or renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba. Instead, he will take a long-term approach and address human rights “issues through diplomatic relations, and increased commerce, and people-to-people ties.”
Obama also asserted, “There is no room for accommodating an apocalyptic cult like ISIL, and the United States makes no apologies for using our military, as part of a broad coalition, to go after them. We do so with a determination to ensure that there will never be a safe haven for terrorists who carry out these crimes.”
But readers may recall Obama’s similar assertion last year in New York that “the terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed.” ISIS remains and controls much of Syria and Iraq.
Throughout the speech, Obama repeatedly praised and glorified collective international endeavors:
It is this international order that has underwritten unparalleled advances in human liberty and prosperity. It is this collective endeavor that’s brought about diplomatic cooperation between the world’s major powers, and buttressed a global economy that has lifted more than a billion people from poverty. It is these international principles that helped constrain bigger countries from imposing our will on smaller ones, and advanced the emergence of democracy and development and individual liberty on every continent.
That international order is more theory than reality and ignores the fact that these accomplishments (with the notable exception of international trade liberalization under the GATT and WTO) were achieved not through the actions of some ethereal “international order,” but through the policies, vision, moral clarity, and sacrifices in blood and treasure of free countries like the U.S.—too often in the face of opposition from the U.N. and the majority of its membership.
He also reiterated his common truism that “the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone.” Much as we might wish otherwise, the U.N. and other nations do not always share our interests and priorities. No nation has the same interests as another, and each will and must occasionally take actions to defend those interests even if other nations oppose them.
The speech is being characterized in the press as “confrontational” for criticizing Russia, China, and Iran. And Obama did state, “I lead the strongest military that the world has ever known, and I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary.”
But actions speak louder than words. Occasional criticism cannot substitute for habitual lack of resolve.
After almost seven years of foreign policy mismanagement, abdication of leadership, and deflection of responsibility, this disappointing speech is par for the course.