On September 24, 2014, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly with prepared remarks. In doing so, he made history as the first United States President invited to chair the UN Security Council Summit twice. The speech was a forthright discussion of the world’s conflicts and challenges and an appeal to UN members to stand together.
In describing technological advances that have been seen around the world, President Obama acknowledged his roots, drawing a connection between his grandmother’s home in Kenya and the location of the General Assembly in Manhattan. President Obama indicated that there are two issues on which the UN must focus: whether the member nations “will be able to renew the purpose of the UN’s founding; and whether we will come together to reject the cancer of violent extremism.” In addressing these points, President Obama pointedly stated that Russia’s treatment of Ukraine and its people was untenable and should not continue. Alluding to Russia’s penchant of being less than forthright with information coming out of that region, President Obama stated “we will counter falsehoods with the truth” in describing recent events that have occurred in the region. President Obama confirmed that the United States will stand with the people of Ukraine as they work toward democracy and a stable economy.
President Obama delineated the issues on which he hopes all member countries will act cooperatively to address; the Ebola outbreak that may seem to be “a distant problem — until it is not;” Iran’s nuclear program, including a message to Iran’s leaders not to let the opportunity pass to meet their energy needs while assuring the world that their program is peaceful; eradicating extreme poverty worldwide by 2030; and climate change, specifically clean energy and a reduction in carbon emissions.
The bulk of President Obama’s speech focused on the “cancer of violent extremism.” Instead of merely reacting to terrorism, President Obama declared that the United States will wage “a focused campaign” against those who will do us harm. He explained that America “is not and never will be at war with Islam,” but rather with radical Muslim extremists who falsely wage a war in the name of a religion that teaches peace.
President Obama indicated there are four areas in which the international community must stand together, the first: degrading and destroying ISIL. To that end, while he does not intend to send American troops to the region, the United States will continue to work in partnership with over 40 countries and will focus efforts on targeted airstrikes and training Iraqis and Syrians to wage effective battles in their homelands. Further, President Obama issued a stern warning that “those who have joined ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can,” evoking thoughts of the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Second, the world community must focus not just on eradicating the physical threat, but rejecting “the ideology of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL” and Boko Haram. Because many young people are learning hate from terrorists who have taken to the Internet and social media to disseminate their propaganda, President Obama stated that is incumbent on those who work for peace to also occupy those spaces. Indeed, President Obama stated that the UN Security Council’s resolution must be followed by concrete steps so that countries can be held accountable next year if they fall short of their commitments.
Third, UN members “must address the cycle of conflict — especially sectarian conflict — that creates the conditions that terrorists prey upon.” While the focus today may be violence in Muslim communities, all religions have, at one time or another, experienced the intra-religion strife that is currently causing significant destruction and death in the Middle East, specifically Syria and Iraq.
Fourth, “the countries of the Arab and Muslim world must focus on the extraordinary potential of their people — especially the youth.” President Obama directly addressed Muslim young people around the world, particularly in countries torn apart by conflict and strife. He acknowledged that change has to come from within, not an “external power,” but that America will stand with those who provide an option to terrorism and hate. In making this pledge, President Obama renewed America’s commitment to the coexistence of both Israeli and Palestinian states.
In addressing the seeming hypocrisy of requesting UN member nations work toward solutions of international problems while ignoring social ills at home, President Obama pointedly mentioned the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of unarmed citizen Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. In doing so, President Obama acknowledged that the United States is still grappling with “racial and ethnic tensions.” President Obama stated that Americans will continue to “hold our leaders accountable, and insist on a free press and independent judiciary” in working toward the goal of a more perfect union. Referencing a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, President Obama stated that “universal human rights” must begin in the smallest places that cannot be seen on a map: in schools, in places of employment, and in our neighborhoods. What remains to be seen is if member countries will ever translate such philosophy into reality, from Ferguson, Missouri to Raqqa, Syria.