The Corner

Obama at the U.N., for the U.N.

Obama’s speech today had something for everybody. To his credit, he is moving away from the ridiculous “ISIL is not Islamic” talk, speaking much more honestly about how the problem is Muslim extremism, even if he still won’t use that exact phrase. He also implicitly admitted that the Russian reset was a failure and offered a more robust rebuke of Russia than I had expected.

But by trying to do too much he ended up undercutting himself. For instance, he felt the need to open with the observation that this is the best time in human history to be born. I largely agree with that, but is that really the best way to open a call to arms to attack an evil threat? Things are great! Now let’s roll!

While he had some solid admonishments for the Muslim world and some welcome admissions that ISIL is “evil” and only understands the language of force, he also had to provide a typically professorial caveat: “There is nothing new about wars within religions. Christianity endured centuries of vicious sectarian conflict. Today, it is violence within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human misery.”

Again, that’s true. There is nothing new to wars within religions. But declaring “Hey this is nothing new,” is not the greatest way to phrase a call to arms. Moreover, Christianity’s internal wars happened long ago. To borrow a favorite locution of the president’s, that was 14th-century behavior. Not only does this equivocation undermine the urgency of his appeal, it philosophically muddies his own unvanquishable Whiggishness.

I understand why he had to say it, though. Whatever Obama may or may not believe about American exceptionalism, it seems indisputable to me that he comes from a school of thought that takes “Who is America to judge?” as a powerful argument. This is why – other than domestic political considerations — he just had to name-drop “Ferguson” into his speech. I could almost hear the nodding at MSNBC when he said that.

A similar orientation helps explain why he made his central rallying cry, in effect, “Let’s do this for the U.N.!”

“Fellow delegates,” he proclaimed, “we come together as United Nations with a choice to make. We can renew the international system that has enabled so much progress, or allow ourselves to be pulled back by an undertow of instability. We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability.”

And later,

“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.”


First, all of us – big nations and small – must meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms.

Let us stipulate that when speaking at the UN one must speak the bloodless language of the U.N. But “Let’s do it for international norms!” is a rallying cry that resonates with very few people outside of Davos, Turtle Bay and the closest Starbucks to the State Department. It certainly resonates with almost no one who will actually fill any boots on the ground.

Obama seems to believe that the audience in the U.N. represents the interests of the U.N. Obviously that’s true to a certain extent. But the more important underlying reality is that the people in that audience represent actual nations with specific national interests. It may be true that there are countries that will make sacrifices to their national interest for the good of the UN, but I’m not sure who they are or whether they are nations we have much use for in a coalition to stop ISIL or anything else. Moreover, the system of international stability that we all have benefied from isn’t primarily a byproduct of the United Nations, it is a byproduct of American power (indeed, absent the U.S., the U.N. would be even more of a feckless eyesore). The U.N. hasn’t kept the sea lanes open, the U.N. hasn’t kept the peace internationally. America and her allies have. Sure, U.N. peacekeepers have done some good here and there (and been ineffectual just as often), but those peacekeepers have usually been deployed in accordance with the self-interests of the nations who voted to send them.  By speaking to the U.N. as if it is physical manifestation of the always ethereal “international community” he may be saying what he has to gather more allies for an American effort, but no one should be confused about the underlying reality of the situation.


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