Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

Print Print Email Email Share Share Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close

loading...

The Realist Idealist: Obama’s UN Speech

by Stewart M. Patrick
September 24, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013 (Mike Segar/ Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013 (Mike Segar/ Courtesy Reuters).

President Barack Obama stuck to the anticipated script in his UN General Assembly address, focusing on diplomatic openings in the Middle East. He outlined U.S. hopes to:

  • disarm Syria of its chemical weapons and end that country’s civil war;
  •  resolve the longstanding nuclear impasse with Iran and;
  • advance final status talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

He conceded that each was a high-stakes wager. But he committed his administration to go for the trifecta, despite considerable odds.

The President used this high-profile occasion to offer his most detailed comments to date on the recent exchange of peace feelers between the United States and Iran. While reminding the world that Iran was in violation of non-proliferation agreements and had brought ostracism on itself by its aggressive designs and export of terrorism, Obama’s line was in other important respects conciliatory. He acknowledged the “deep roots” of mutual mistrust, obliquely referencing the U.S. role in overthrowing the Mossadegh government during the 1950s, and allowed that this “difficult history” would not be “overcome overnight.”

More positively, he described his exchange of letters with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iran’s repeated assurances that it will never develop a nuclear weapon, as “the basis for a meaningful agreement.” He announced that he had directed Secretary of State John Kerry “to pursue this effort with the Iranian government,” in close cooperation with European allies, as well as Russia and China.

As noteworthy as Obama’s subject matter was his pragmatic tone and his recognition of the inherent limits of U.S. power. To be sure, the president’s ultimate vision for world order remains liberal and internationalist. “These are extraordinary times, with extraordinary opportunities,” he declared. And he outlined a hopeful future in which all countries governed democratically, traded peacefully, and settled their disputes pacifically.

But by his fifth year on the job, Obama is no starry-eyed idealist. Indeed, his comments betrayed the weariness of a statesman acutely aware that although forces and events may be nudged incrementally in a positive direction, there is no making the world anew. “The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries,” he observed. The lessons of Iraq had guided his own administration’s policies towards Egypt, he suggested.

The U.S. government had avoided choosing sides between the Morsi government and its political opponents, and between the succeeding military government and the Muslim Brotherhood, because it recognized that the fundamental decisions about that country’s future would be made by Egyptians themselves. What the United States would continue to insist on, he said, was movement toward an inclusive, democratic government “that legitimately reflects the will of the Egyptian people.”

The president also spoke wistfully of the inevitable criticism lobbed America’s way. Given its immense power, the United States was alternately criticized in the Middle East either for adopting a “hands off” policy or for throwing its weight around. Such critiques bore bitter fruit at home and abroad, he noted—making U.S. citizens wonder why they should bother with the troubles of far-off lands, and letting demagogues in the Middle East blame the United States for their own failings as leaders. The United States has no desire to be an empire, Obama declared, but nor could it afford retreat and detachment, as some Americans counsel. Borrowing a line from his own domestic critics (and one sure to annoy Vladimir Putin), the president declared  that indeed, “America is exceptional,” in part because it had repeatedly shown a willingness “to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”

It was often difficult, Obama acknowledged, to translate universal ideals into practical foreign policy. To preserve its “core interests,” the United States would sometimes need to engage unsavory regimes—like the military junta ruling Egypt—that “do not meet the highest international expectations,” particularly when it comes to human rights. So doing, the United States would inevitably “be accused of hypocrisy or inconsistency.” But such is the nature of international politics.

“We live in a world of imperfect choices,” the president declared, in the line that summarizes his speech more than any other.

As a case in point, Obama’s audience could look no further than his diplomatic overtures to an Iranian regime that continues to abuse the rights of its citizens and crush dissent. In a phrase guaranteed to disappoint neo-conservative critics at home, the president assured the Iranians, “We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access to peaceful nuclear energy.” The implicit message in Obama’s mollifying tone: Sometimes, you need to cut deals with tyrants.

The tensions between prudence and idealism are starkest when it comes to responding to crimes against humanity. “How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, or embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war?” he asked.

The international system continues to be organized on the principle of national sovereignty, the president noted, and independent nations will often disagree on the need for action. The world cannot “remedy every evil,” he said, but neither should it accept “the cold logic of mass graves.”

How to square this circle—how to narrow the gap between the world as it is and the world as we would have it be—is the essence of twenty-first century statecraft. It will demand leaders with soft hearts and hard heads, rather than the reverse.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Paulo Augusto Lacaz

    Dear Colleague Mr. Stewart M. Patrick,

    Good Afternoon!

    Extraordinary political positioning of the Great World Statesman who is your President, Mr. Barack Obama.

    Very nice your article! Excellent!

     “It will demand leaders with soft hearts and hard heads, rather than the reverse” ; considering:

    Love on Principle, Order as Basis and Progress for Goal.

    Sincerely

    Paulo Augusto Lacaz

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    Excellent piece.
    ___________________

    ” How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas? ”

    Well President Obama, you have already chosen to put the children listed below in graves, yourself personally, with your Drone Strikes, a strategy which you yourself chose to go with – as you put it… because

    “We live in a world of imperfect choices”

    Necessary Imperfect Choices you say? Try rationalize that to yourself when you read the names of the young children below known to have been shredded by Hellfire missiles from Predator and Reaper Drones in Pakistan over the course of your two terms, on your personal orders Mr President and answer this question… how much safer is America now that the men whom these kids were beside are now dead? Every one of these children are of equal worth to your two daughters.

    Drone strikes in Pakistan have NOT made the USA any safer. They have created a deep pool of hatred and vengeance, of fathers without sons and sons without fathers. So many of those droned were not even known by name to the CIA before they were destroyed.

    • Osama Haqqani
    Child, 13, Reported civilian, Died 21/08/2012
    • Waheed Ullah
    Child, 12, Reported civilian, Died 31/10/2011
    • Atif
    Child, 12, Reported civilian, Died 22/04/2011
    • Naeem Ullah
    Child, 10, Reported civilian, Died 18/10/2010
    • Naila
    Child, 10, Reported civilian, Died 24/02/2010
    • Ayeesha
    Child, 3, Reported civilian, Died 08/01/2010
    • Wajid Noor
    Child, 9, Reported civilian, Died 03/01/2010
    • Syed Wali Shah
    Child, 7, Reported civilian, Died 21/08/2009
    • Noor Syed
    Child, 8, Reported civilian, Died 14/02/2009
    • Azaz-ur-Rehman
    Child, 14, Reported civilian, Died 23/01/2009
    • Khalilullah
    Child, 9, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Najibullah
    Child, 13, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Baacha Rahman
    Child, 13, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Shaukat
    Child, 14, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Hizbullah
    Child, 10, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Kitab Gul
    Child, 12, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Talha
    Child, 8, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Naimatullah
    Child, 14, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Shehzad Gul
    Child, 11, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Wilayat Khan
    Child, 11, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Qari Almzeb
    Child, 14, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Saifullah
    Child, 9, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Khalid
    Child, 12, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Noor Mohammad
    Child, 8, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Ilyas
    Child, 13, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Sohail
    Child, 7, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Asadullah
    Child, 9, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Shoaib
    Child, 8, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Ismail
    Child, 12, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Jamshed Khan
    Child, 14, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Alam Nabi
    Child, 11, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Rahmatullah
    Child, 14, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Jannatullah
    Child, 13, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Luqman
    Child, 12, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Mohammad Salim
    Child, 11, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Bakht Muneer
    Child, 14, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Numair
    Child, 14, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Darvesh
    Child, 13, Reported civilian, Died 30/10/2006
    • Noor Aziz
    Child, 8, Reported civilian, Died 01/12/2005

    http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/namingthedead/the-dead/?sorted-by=newest-to-oldest&gender=child&location=any&reported_status=any&lang=en

  • Posted by Tanveer Aslam

    I cant disagree with Mr Philip Bolster being from the country under discussion and being in the area for sometime where drones laden with missiles move like free birds.
    But
    I have viewed Obama’s speech from a different angle
    first he is not same Obama as he started
    He used calculated words and displayed US interests loud & clear. He is prudent and Bolster would agree in an imperfect world morality rules are only tools for fools. Drones i think he understands are spoiling US name but something is called softening up before draw-down could start from Afghanistan next yr

  • Posted by Oscar Estefanell

    Good morning from Spain,
    The fact is, why the president has to be idealist in his realist view of world politics? We should encourage this profound message that President Obama is showing while being open to negotiations with the Iranian regime. I would say this is his practical approach in the will to conduct diplomatically a possible solution to the Iranian unfullfillment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But which is the very essence of the international community? The universal acceptation of conventional treaties or just the acquiescence of all forms of government rather than the liberal democracy exceptional and missionary expansion in all the world? This moment, when a president makes a choice for dialogue -instead of idealist preconceptions of the “most sane” political organization abroad- is the very interesting one in the eyes of every reader of any blog and every review of world politics.
    Here I join a helpful article shortly made by Henry Kissinger himself. A voice very useful to listen especially when the Iranian-US relations are distrustful since 1979, when Cold War logique was then so real.

    http://www.henryakissinger.com/articles/wp111812.html

  • Posted by BEYONKA

    COME ON OBAMA, KEEP THE PEACE, MAKE CHANGES, IM TIRED OF THE WORLD BRAIN WASHING US AND OUR CHILDREN. THERE IS ENOUGH BLOOD SPREAD. ALL THESE SECRETS NEED TO STOP AND BE DONE WITH. YOU CANT EXPECT FOR US TO FIGHT WITH YOU BEHIND LIES. THE GOVERNMENT HAS ALL THESE LIES GOING ON, IT JUST NEED TO STOP. INNOCENT PEOPLE SHOULD NOT HAVE TO DIE BECAUSE SOMEONE OF POWER IS TRYING TO COVER THEIR TRACKS. I LIVE FOR GOD AND JESUS AND WILL DIE FOR ONLY THEM AND MY FAMILY.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required

Pingbacks