NEW YORK – In an apparent attempt to justify the retreat of the United States from international leadership, President Obama praised the United Nations Monday, arguing that global governance has helped spread democracy.
It was his last address to the world body.
“There are those who argue the ideals in the U.N. charter are out of date,” Obama said, rejecting arguments that “strong states must impose their will” or that “might makes right” and “order must be imposed by forced.”
“We can not look backwards,” he insisted, emphasizing that global integration is an agenda that transcends the narrowly defined interests of nation states.
“If we cannot all work together, we will suffer the consequences,” he said. “The United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone, regardless how strong our military is.”
He used Iraq to illustrate that U.S. military power is not sufficient to produce cohesion in a divided population.
“Unless we work with other nations under the mantle of international law, we will not succeed,” he insisted.
He said tyranny around the world cannot succeed when technology opens the world to peoples in oppressed nations.
“It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that produced democracy, it is technology,” he said.
“I believe we must go forward in belief of our ideals. We must give expression to our hopes, not our fears.”
Obama argued that the change in U.S. policy toward Iran and Cuba represented a fundamental shift toward working with previously sanctioned nations. The objective, he said, is to bring former enemies into a new world order characterized by respect for the principals of the United Nations charter.
“The United States will always do our part, but through international cooperation, as we did joining with other nations in Libya to depose a tyrant,” he said. “In Libya, we continue to support efforts to form a unity government, but we must do more as the United Nations to build nations before they collapse.”
He rejected the idea of U.S. unilateral action, insisting “we must work together.”
Obama condemned Assad in Syria for not respecting human rights.
“We will not be outlasted by extremists,” he insisted, referring both to Assad and to ISIS in Syria. “But after so much carnage, there cannot be a return to the pre-conflict status quo. This started with Assad reacting to peaceful protests by brutal repression of his own population. Compromise will be required to stamp out ISIL (ISIS) and end repression in chaos. But peace will not come to Syria until the Syrian people learn to live together peacefully.”
Obama criticized Islamic terrorists as those who “distort the religion.” He also rejected those who equate Islam with terrorism.
He pledged the United States will accept more refugees from Syria, citing Pope Francis’s reminder that the world is at its best when it takes care of the least of those among us.
He urged the United Nations to galvanize collective action, pass new international trade agreements, fight climate change by harnessing clean energy and work together to eradicate extreme poverty worldwide.
“Finally, my belief in moving forward rather than backwards relies upon us supporting the fundamental principals of democracy and respect for the universal values this General Assembly is supposed to defend. I realize democracy will take different forms in different parts of the world, in respect for the differences in culture.
“No person wants to be imprisoned for expressing their belief in God,” he said, reciting basic freedoms, including the right of assembly and the petition for the redress of government.
“History shows that governments that repress dissent do so out of fear, not power,” he said. “Strong institutions, based on the consent of the governed, endure long after their founders are gone.
“I understand democracy is frustrating and that democracy in the United States can sometimes even be dysfunctional. But it is democracy that has allowed the United States to be the most powerful country in the world,” he said.
“I believe the fact you can walk the streets of this city right now and you can pass churches, synagogues and mosques is our greatest strength, that here you can see people from all parts of the world,” he said. “We can be patriotic without demonizing someone else. We can be proud of our traditions without putting someone else down.”
Echoing Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis, Obama concluded by arguing that human beings are basically morally good, capable of resolving differences in an interconnected world.
“Think of the Americans who lowered the flag in 1961, the year I was born, and returned this year to raise the flag again,” he said. “Think of the Iranian shopkeeper who said because of the nuclear deal, I will be able to offer more goods at lower prices. The people of the United Nations can be taught to hate, but they can also respond to hope.”
He ended his speech urging nations to work together to solve global problems.
“We are called upon to offer a different type of leadership, one that understands nations share a common interest and that there are universal rights,” he said.