President Obama warned against “retreat into a world sharply divided and ultimately in conflict along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion” in his final address to the United Nations General Assembly today.
It was a speech that didn’t just focus on other nations, as he noted how “in Europe and the United States, you see people wrestle with concerns about immigration and changing demographics and suggesting that somehow people who look different are corrupting the character of our countries.”
Democracies, he told the UNGA, are not “without faults.”
“Yes, in America, there is too much money in politics, too much entrenched partisanship, too little participation by citizens, in part because a patchwork of laws that makes it harder to vote,” Obama said. “… As leaders of democratic governments make the case for democracy abroad, we better strive harder to set a better example at home.”
He noted that “a traditional society may value unity and cohesion more than a diverse country like my own,” but “that does not mean that ordinary people in Asia or Africa or the Middle East somehow prefer arbitrary rule that denies them a voice.”
“We must reject any forms of fundamentalism or racism or a belief in ethnic superiority that makes our traditional identities irreconcilable with modernity. Instead, we need to embrace the tolerance that results from respect of all human beings,” Obama continued.
“It’s a truism that global integration has led to a collision of cultures. Trade, migration, the internet, all these things can challenge and unsettle our most cherished identities. We see liberal societies express opposition when women choose to cover themselves. We see protests responding to Western newspaper cartoons, the caricature of the prophet Mohammed. In a world that left the age of empire behind, we see Russia attempting to recover lost glory through force.”
French President Francois Hollande spoke at the podium after Obama’s dig at the country’s burkini bans.
The U.S. president said he doesn’t believe “progress is possible if our desire to preserve our identities gives way to an impulse to dehumanize or dominate another group.”
“If our religion leads us to persecute those of another faith, if we jail or beat people who are gay, if our traditions lead us to prevent girls from going to school, if we discriminate on the basis of race or tribe or ethnicity, then the fragile bonds of civilization will fray,” he said. “The world is too small. We are too packed together for us to be able to resort to those old ways of thinking.”
Obama said that in Syria “there’s no ultimate military victory to be won” and “we’re gonna have to pursue the hard work of diplomacy,” while Hollande declared “enough is enough.”
“The Syrian tragedy will be seen by history as a disgrace for the international community if we do not end it quickly,” Hollande said. “Thousands of children have died in bombings, whole populations are starving, humanitarian convoys are being attacked, chemical weapons are being used.”
Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are scheduled to meet Wednesday, and the president got in a dig at Israeli settlements from the UN podium.
“Surely, Israelis and Palestinians will be better off if Palestinians reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel, but Israel recognizes that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land,” Obama said.
Secretary of State John Kerry met Monday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss “regional challenges and constructive ideas for the way forward to support our shared goal of a two-state solution,” according to a readout of the meeting from the State Department. “Secretary Kerry stressed the United States’ commitment to this issue and his concern over trends on the ground, including the recent surge in violence and settlement activity. They agreed on the importance of continuing to work with key partners to advance the prospects for peace while opposing all efforts that would undermine that goal.”
Directly after his settlement remark, Obama stressed that “we all have to do better as leaders in tamping down rather than encouraging a notion of identity that leads us to diminish others.”
The president praised America as “a rare superpower in human history, insofar as it has been willing to think beyond narrow self-interest.”
“We have secured allies. We’ve acted to protect the vulnerable. We supported human rights and welcomed scrutiny of our own actions. We bound our power to international laws and institutions. When we’ve made mistakes, we’ve tried to acknowledge them. We have worked to roll back poverty and hunger and disease beyond our borders, not just within our borders. I’m proud of that,” he said, adding later, “sometimes I’m criticized in my own country for professing a belief in international norms and multilateral institutions.”
“But I am convinced that in the long run, giving up some freedom of action, not giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests, but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term enhances our security.”
Obama said that throughout his presidency, he’s “learned that our identities do not have to be defined by putting someone else down, but can be enhanced by lifting somebody else up.”
“They don’t have to be defined in opposition to other, but rather by a belief in liberty and equality and justice, fairness. And embrace of these principles as universal doesn’t weaken my particular pride, my particular love for America. It strengthens it,” he continued.
“My belief that these ideals apply everywhere doesn’t lessen my commitment to help those who look like me or pray as I do or pledge allegiance to my flag, but my faith in those principles does force me to expand my moral imagination and to recognize that I can best serve my own people — I can best look after my own daughters by making sure that my actions seek what is right for all people and all children and your daughters and your sons.”
Obama added: “This is what I believe, that all of us can be co-workers with God.”