Choosing a Better History: President Obama at the United Nations

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

By Matthieu Watson Santerre

President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday 19 September. It was his last major speech at the UN.

The General Assembly is a forum for heads of state and heads of government to outline their visions of the world. A forum to share their priorities with the community of nations. It can become a place to criticise or to congratulate. To defend or to attack. The General Assembly is a forum to the globe. No other institution has the power to bring national representatives together on an equal footing to discuss the state of the world.

President Obama’s speech, in brief, was an advocacy for a progressive, liberal world order. With his characteristic eloquence, the President exhorted states not to let peace, prosperity, and progress fail for lack of support. Collapse into fear, anger, and division is a dangerous path. The temptation to erect barriers is real. The impulse to succumb to despair is present. Yet, in the long-run, only engagement with the outside world will prevent conflict. Countries, no matter their size and influence, must be bound to international rules and norms. They must adhere to them.

The President urged all to speak out more forcefully for democracy. More, not less democracy, will ensure universal freedom and dignity, he argued. Progress has been swift. More people live in peace. More are getting an education. More are connected to the outside world. Fewer live in poverty. Yet, progress is not self-fulfilling. It must continually be fought for and striven at. The short-comings of a globalised economy, and the disruptions and inequalities it creates must be addressed. Its universal benefits cannot be ignored.

The President’s vision of the current international situation revolved around four points:

· A tackling of global inequality.

· A rigorous defense of democracy, civil society, and the rule of law in the face of authoritarianism.

· A rejection of any forms of fundamentalism, or racism, or a belief in ethnic superiority that makes traditional identities irreconcilable with modernity.

· A sustained commitment to international cooperation rooted in the rights and responsibilities of nations.

In short, the President’s speech was an appeal to a better, more progressive world. A rebuke of creeping division and isolation.

“Time and again, human beings have believed that they finally arrived at a period of enlightenment only to repeat, then, cycles of conflict and suffering. Perhaps that’s our fate. We have to remember that the choices of individual human beings led to repeated world war. But we also have to remember that the choices of individual human beings created a United Nations, so that a war like that would never happen again. Each of us as leaders, each nation can choose to reject those who appeal to our worst impulses and embrace those who appeal to our best. For we have shown that we can choose a better history.”

A better history is worth upholding.


Matthieu Watson Santerre holds an MSc in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. He has worked for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and published several e-books, including In Through A Coloured Lens with Pat Watson. He also blogs atjulycrisis1914.com.

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