Addressing The United Nations for the last time as president, Barack Obama warned on Tuesday of a world at a crossroads between an integrated, liberalized future and one dangerously divided along “age-old lines” of race and tribe.
The speech– described by White House officials as a capstone of his foreign policy– left few major powers unscathed. He criticized France for its targeting of traditional Muslim dress, Russia for its quest to “recover lost glory through force,” China for denying democracy to its people and Israel for its continued “occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands.”
But Obama spent little time on any one single conflict, instead speaking in general terms of the dangers facing an international system he has long advocated as the guarantor of world peace. There are “deep fault lines in the existing international order,” exposed by the turbulent forces of globalization, he warned.
The outgoing president described an international contest between authoritarianism and liberalism aggravated by historic inequality, laid bare to the masses through technological advancements in communication. That competition has seen a rise in strongmen, he argued, without naming names. “True democracy remains the better path,” he said.
“As people lose trust in institutions, governing becomes more difficult and tensions between nations are more quick to surface,” Obama said, citing corruption and income inequality as two problems shared the world round. “Across vast swaths of the middle east, basic security, basic order has broken down.”
He characterized three major forces battling progress: Religious fundamentalism, aggressive nationalism and crude popularism, ostensibly in reference not only to forces abroad but also at home.
“The world is too small for us to simply be able to build a wall,” Obama said. “Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself.”
In a single line on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, Obama said the Jewish state would be better off if it did not “permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.”
He also said that Palestinians would be better off if they were to “reject incitement.” First Lady Michelle Obama, US Secretary of State John Kerry and US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power were present for the speech.
Obama touted the nuclear deal reached among world powers and Iran last year as one of his crowning foreign policy achievements: “When Iran agrees to accept constraints on its nuclear program, that enhances global security”– and Iran’s opportunities to engage with the world, he said.
“We resolved the Iran nuclear issue with diplomacy,” he said.
His closing message was something of an alarm to liberal democrats: That 25 years on since the end of the Cold War, “freedom is in retreat” around the globe and fear of a shrinking world is endangering historically democratic societies.
But the speech appeared as much geared toward a conflicted world as it did to his own country, torn by a presidential election defined by the very issues central to his UN message.
He told the UN assembly hall that his belief in liberal democratic ideals is shaped by America’s unique story– and in it, his own personal journey to the presidency. But in recent weeks, he has characterized the November election is a referendum on American democracy itself.
Toward the end of his address, Obama noted that decisions of men pushed the globe into “repeated world war.” As he has often done in the past, Obama included an optimistic addendum: That the decisions of men also led to the founding of the United Nations.