President Barack Obama delivered his first speech to the United Nations yesterday, speaking at the opening session of the General Assembly in New York.
He began by listing the policies of the U.S. government he has pursued in nine short months that are different from his predecessor's policies. These include prohibiting the use of torture, ordering the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, responsibly ending the war in Iraq, as well as advocating new efforts on nuclear weapons, Middle East peace, climate change, and the economic crisis. Obama made a special point of the U.S. having re-engaged the United Nations, but he also stressed that the problems we face require the "cooperative effort of the whole world." He continued with an important point: "Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone."
He then detailed four "pillars that I believe are fundamental to the future."
First pillar: "We must stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and seek the goal of a world without them." Citing the "fragile consensus" of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he pledged that "America intends to keep our end of the bargain," and called for a summit next April before the treaty review conference in May. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will become the first senior U.S. representative to attend the conference on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; next April the U.S. will host a summit on non-proliferation.
This morning, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, only the fifth head-of-state summit in U.N. history. In his speech, he again spoke of his commitment to a world without nuclear weapons and introduced a resolution that the Council passed unanimously. It includes a series of items designed to strengthen the non-proliferation treaty, and calls for ratification of the test ban treaty, along with efforts to prevent nuclear energy technology from ending up producing nuclear weapons.
Second pillar: The pursuit of peace, beginning with "an unshakeable determination that the murder of innocent men, women and children will never be tolerated." He pledged continued support for peacekeeping efforts in areas such as Darfur, but devoted special attention to Israel-Palestine peace. Strongly emphasizing the goal of "two states living side by side in peace and security," he went on to note the responsibility this places on both sides. On the one hand, "The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians." On the other hand, "nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over constructive willingness to recognize Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security." Both statements were met with applause.
Third pillar: We must "take responsibility for the preservation of our planet." Noting the conference on climate change the day before, he cautioned that "If we continue down our current course, every member of this Assembly will see irreversible changes within their borders." He committed the U.S. to moving toward transforming our energy economy, and warned that "any effort that fails to help the poorest nations both adapt to the problems that climate change have already wrought and help them travel a path of clean development simply will not work."
Fourth pillar: Finally, the world must have "a global economy that advances opportunity for all people." He noted the G20 Summit, which begins tomorrow in Pittsburgh, and the importance of ensuring that while the world is still recovering from crisis, we must "put an end to the greed and the excess and the abuse that led us into this disaster." Most importantly, Obama said, "far too many people in far too many places live through the daily crises that challenge our humanity." On behalf of the U.S., he pledged to "support the Millennium Development Goals, and approach next year's summit with a global plan to make them a reality. And we will set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time."
To conclude, the president noted the problems of the U.N., but that "those imperfections are not a reason to walk away from this institution -- they are a calling to redouble our efforts ... We have reached a pivotal moment. The United States stands ready to begin a new chapter of international cooperation -- one that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all nations."
I was watching the president's comments while he was chairing the Security Council; afterward, I heard the cable commentators say these were "just words" and not yet accomplishments. Fair enough, but words really do matter, and we haven't heard any words like these from a U.S. president for a long time. As the domestic policy battles in Congress this week painfully reveal, accomplishments are much more difficult in a highly partisan environment where political leaders seem more interested in scoring points, keeping their biggest contributors happy, and beating the other side in the next election than in really solving problems. Nonetheless, words matter, and the ones we heard yesterday and today from the president were indeed hopeful words.
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