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Obama's U.N. Exhortations

I spent a decent chunk of my morning navigating the U.N.'s press credential system and, after filling out the same computerized form for the fourth or fifth time in the past three days (which I fear sheds some light on U.N. peacekeeping operations), and later seeing a Japanese reporter rush out of a bathroom stall with his pants at his knees, for reasons unclear, I made it inside to hear Barack Obama speak.

It was an elegant speech, as always, if not a terribly profound or historic-seeming one. Obama offered an idealistic but largely familiar survey of American priorities--making peace, halting climate change, nonproliferation, and rescuing the global economy. On the first point, he was firmer about Israeli settlements than I had expected, given some recent indications that the White House is giving up on that approach. ("[W]e continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement," Obama said, after calling on Palestinians to "end incitement against Israel.") On nonproliferation, he spent precious little time on a subject likely to dominate the U.N. later this year: sanctions against Iran.

The highlight, I think, was the way Obama leveraged the Bush legacy into an argument for cooperative global action:

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. We have sought – in word and deed – a new era of engagement with the world. Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.

The speech brimmed with exhortations like these, broad (and vague) calls for the international community to act in harmonious concert. Unfortunately, it's not clear that the global community overwhelmingly supports Obama's vision on issues from nonproliferation to climate change to Middle East peace, and thus far few foreign capitals have risen to meet Obama's repeated exhortations: "All of us must decide whether we are serious about peace, or whether we only lend it lip-service"; "We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now"; and so on. Getting these things done, however, will require more than such pleas. It will take hard work with sleeves rolled up, and probably more than a little unseemly horse-trading behind closed doors.

Obama realizes this, of course, which may be why his address contained a slightly defensive note. Twice he assured his audience that he is not starry-eyed about the prospects for global peace and cooperation. "I am not naïve. I know this will be difficult," he said of Middle East peace negotiations. The founders of the UN, he explained, "had an idealism that was anything but naïve – it was rooted in the hard-earned lessons of war, and the wisdom that nations could advance their interests by acting together instead of splitting apart."

Obama also knows that his own identity is one of the best tools in the American foreign policy quiver. "As an African-American, I will never forget that I would not be here today without the steady pursuit of a more perfect union in my country. That guides my belief that no matter how dark the day may seem, transformative change can be forged by those who choose the side of justice," he said. Looking back at the last speech George W. Bush delivered to this same body in 2008, one finds many parallels--as was also the case with Obama's speech in Cairo. But it is the force of Obama's identity and personal experience which offers some hope that his words might have more resonance. In the months to come, we'll find out.