US Foreign Policy: Stumping at the UN podium

US Foreign Policy Stump

Obama UNGA 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Obama UNGA 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Like any adept politician, US President Barack Obama has his finger on the pulse of the public, and recently he's picking up a somewhat anemic response. It isn't only Americans who are betraying signs of lethargy in their attitude toward their new commander-in-chief. While Obama's domestic poll numbers have seriously tumbled, the leader of the free world's international approval is also taking a hit these days. So Obama, given an opportunity to do some damage control with the international community using his best vehicle - a carefully crafted oration - via the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, reached toward the campaign shelf for some leftover stump rhetoric. He described a discontent with the status quo "rooted in hope - the hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change," borrowing the catchwords of "hope" and "change" that defined his candidacy since day one. (Announcing his intention to run, he told the Illinois crowd, "In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope," and that "that is our unyielding faith - that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.") He spoke of choosing a path forward together or a stagnant separation apart, saying, "The choice is ours. We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look ahead, failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for." (Speaking on the issue of race during the campaign in Philadelphia he declared, "We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism.") He offered on Wednesday an alternate vision in which "together, we must build new coalitions that bridge old divides - coalitions of different faiths and creeds, of north and south, east, west, black, white and brown." (Echoing this common theme from throughout his campaign, in declaring victory in Chicago, he referred to "young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of red states and blue states: We are, and always will be, the United States of America.") He even used his favorite play on the country's name in his UN address when he called for giving "meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations," emphasizing united. Further drawing on the campaign playbook, the first African-American president spoke of a few hard truths to power, as his supporters like to call it, including his remarks that displeasure over American unilateralism "too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction" and that "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." CALLING OUT those UN members who single out Israel and apportion blame in the conflict without accepting responsibilities, he said that "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. "To break the old patterns," Obama continued, "to break the cycle of insecurity and despair, all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private." Yet he devoted more of his remarks to crowd pleasers, noting that on his first day in office he "prohibited - without exception or equivocation - the use of torture by the United States of America," a point which elicited applause, as did his reference to America's decision to join the UN's Human Rights Council. He hinted at previous American transgressions in the eyes of the world, stating that "democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside," and stressed that America did not see itself as superior to other nations: "We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and our work must begin now." While focusing on issues popular with the UN crowd, such as the environment and development, he chose to avoid emphasizing the most volatile topics, only briefly touched on Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. Though Obama didn't receive the standing ovation upon taking the podium that some had predicted, his speech was warmly received and interrupted by applause frequently in comparison to other leaders. The address succeeded, at least temporarily, in changing the dynamic in Obama's favor, as it did when he seized prime time broadcasting to speak to his own nation about health care earlier this month. If nothing else, the speech reminded those watching that the tone and posture of America was different, that George W. Bush was gone and that there was fresh blood in the White House. That's a message many abroad are still happy to hear. But other countries are also increasingly skeptical of what Obama can deliver with his new approach, and as old adversaries, and even many friends stake out positions not in line with or, in some cases, contrary to the US - from action to stabilize the global economy to troop levels in Afghanistan to the willingness to impose sanctions on Iran - even Obama acknowledges that good turns of phrase are not enough. "Speeches alone will not solve our problems," he said, "it will take persistent action." As Obama is finding out, it's not enough to represent change; he needs to be an agent of change - someone who can bring about a different outcome with North Korea, Iran, Russia, even the Israelis and the Palestinians.