Obama At the UN: Just Another Fine-Tuning For the Global System

I’ve only briefly read the president’s address to the UN General Assembly (here’s a link to the transcript), and so I haven’t really thought it through or had a chance to read others’ reactions (other than a few comments on Twitter).

But what struck me most were three clear aspects of the speech’s construction: (1) a determination to sound “resolute” towards both IS and Russia; (2) a continuation of the administration’s “we’ll wreak holy hell but no U.S. ground troops or occupation” line in the sand with respect to the military operations in Syria and Iraq; and (3) a 30,000 foot perspective from which all the current wars and rumors of war are just part of a post-World War II global adjustment, certainly less difficult than the liquidation of the Cold War.

It’s this third theme that actually begins the speech:

Around the globe, there are signposts of progress. The shadow of World War that existed at the founding of this institution has been lifted; the prospect of war between major powers reduced. The ranks of member states has more than tripled, and more people live under governments they elected. Hundreds of millions of human beings have been freed from the prison of poverty, with the proportion of those living in extreme poverty cut in half. And the world economy continues to strengthen after the worst financial crisis of our lives.

Today, whether you live in downtown New York or in my grandmother’s village more than two hundred miles from Nairobi, you can hold in your hand more information than the world’s greatest libraries. Together, we have learned how to cure disease, and harness the power of the wind and sun. The very existence of this institution is a unique achievement – the people of the world committing to resolve their differences peacefully, and solve their problems together. I often tell young people in the United States that this is the best time in human history to be born, for you are more likely than ever before to be literate, to be healthy, and to be free to pursue your dreams.

Then he shifts into the “on the other hand” mode:

And yet there is a pervasive unease in our world – a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers, and made it difficult for any single nation to insulate itself from global forces. As we gather here, an outbreak of Ebola overwhelms public health systems in West Africa, and threatens to move rapidly across borders. Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition. The brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq forces us to look into the heart of darkness.

What’s the problem and the solution?

Each of these problems demands urgent attention. But they are also symptoms of a broader problem – the failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world. We have not invested adequately in the public health capacity of developing countries. Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so. And we have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe.

That’s the intro to what the bulk of the speech addresses. I don’t know about you, but this all sounds more like a description of a maintenance problem with a fundamentally sound international order, than any announcement of an existential threat. Yes, Obama’s “resolute” language about exterminating IS offers a contrast–again, he had to conjure up the cool assassin of bin Laden, not the Nobel Peace Prize recipient–but overall he doesn’t sound alarmed. I don’t know whether that’s because Obama’s “doctrine” is pretty much a continuation of Bill Clinton’s, focused on collective security above all–or because he and his advisers think a sort of panic is seizing the world and certainly its media voices. But keep it in mind when you hear, as you will, that Obama sounded just like a more articulate George Bush.

I have one other immediate thought: every time Obama does one of these public diplomacy appeals to young Muslims to reject the idea that the United States is at war with Islam, I wish he could just say: “You think I’m a Christian crusader? Just talk to any Republican!”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.