Obama delivered his final United Nations speech, challenging people to contemplate the successes of the previous eight years. Listing the accomplishments for which he hopes to be remembered, namely responding to the recession, the Iranian nuclear deal, and addressing climate change, Obama discussed the world he wants us to see. While referring to his successes over the course of the speech, he also illuminated the ways he believed the world must change in order to bring peace and prosperity. Subtle and not so subtle digs at Trump peppered the speech in order to contrast Obama’s inclusive vision against a walled world that rejects progress and compassion. Yet, while providing admirable aspirations for a world slipping into chaos, Obama failed to provide a vision of U.S. leadership that would address the oncoming challenges.
Obama delivered the most convincing part of his speech first when he offered a passionate defense of the global economy and trade. He argued that economic integration reduced extreme poverty in the world from 40% to 10%, and in the process increased food security for billions of people. Anyone defending a retreat from the global economy would have to justify the inevitable increases in poverty that would result from smaller or closed markets.
Next came the declaration that economic inequality is among the most salient reasons for diminishing faith in institutions. “Economies are most successful when we close the gap between the rich and the poor, and growth is broadly based.”
Margaret Thatcher famously asked the question of inequality, should the poor remain poor as long as the rich are less rich? While Obama did not address the question directly, he did give a reason as to why reducing the gap between the rich and the poor is so necessary: we need to make sure the rich are less rich so that people envy less. In a somewhat bizarre example, he described a scenario where people see the lives of the wealthy through their smartphones. He then hypothesized that seeing wealth through a smartphone leads people to contrast that wealth with their day to day lives, causing discontent in government and societal systems. But if the income of the poor is increasing, if the poor are better off than before as Obama previously claimed, should fighting inequality be stressed as the rallying cry of the population? Just as the laborers in the vineyard were admonished, Christians are called to reduce their focus on the wages of others (Matthew 20:1-16), as long as we continue to care for the needs of our brothers.
Obama’s solution to inequality is that people should invest in social safety nets, education, and protect unions to reduce wealth disparity. Yet he fails to advocate for freedom, freedom from government interference and undue burdens, that allows work to turn into upward mobility.
The president cites the creation of 15 million jobs and the spreading out of income growth in the U.S. as signs that his way of doing things works. He reaffirmed his call to strengthen social safety nets. The U.S. population is wary of these assessments; people are concerned about the status quo, with many seeing wages remain stagnant and continually low workplace participation rates. Additionally, the ballooning debt from social programs means that people may suffer real hardships if these programs are not altered to fit with the money coming in. Because of the very programs that Obama claims are “working,” the U.S. will eventually have to ration its ability to lead in an unstable world due to serious budget constraints.
Turning to the international organizations tasked to prevent and minimize conflicts, Obama criticized those who downplay international law, though many of his critiques were weakened by his own willingness to turn a blind eye from ongoing violations. In defending his Syria policy, he argued that peace could only come through a political settlement. He was silent as to whether the international law breaker known to commit atrocities against his own people, Bashar al-Assad, would be left to decide the fate of rebels and civilian opponents, or whether peace would bring any resolution to the ongoing refugee issues.
He called out China for the “militarization of a few rocks” in the South China Sea, suggesting countries solve their issues via a system of peaceful dispute resolution, but failed to declare that the world would not accept these man made islands as land that would allow China to control the waters. Without an escalating scale of actions to back up international law, violations will continue unabated, and international law will continue to be ignored.
Obama got in a solid dig at Russia, arguing that even though Russia’s interference in the affairs of its neighbors may have the support of the Russian people, those actions will decrease Russia’s international prestige over time. Russia will become less secure in the long run. Yet mere months ago China and Russia signed a Joint Declaration on international law, signaling that Russia’s action did not reduce prestige among some non-Western powers. If the U.S. fails to provide leadership and stand against states continually violating international law, countries like Russia and China will become more emboldened to mold the meanings of those laws and norms in the ways they see fit.
Finally, turning to the questions regarding forms of governments, Obama rightly expresses his support for representative governments that support human rights. Whether as a response to the strong man tactics of Putin, the aspirations of Trump, or the experiences of the previous eight years, Obama did something in this speech that he failed to do in his 2009 United Nations speech: he declared that he was “not neutral” in the contest between authoritarianism and liberalism. He sees a benefit in the liberal democracy and argues that the future cannot belong to the strong man. Seeing the benefit in a “liberal political order,” he argued that all states should strive for free elections, representative government, and “respect for human rights and civil society, and independent judiciaries and the rule of law.”
Giving lip service to the founding of the U.S. and the idea that people have “God-given rights,” Obama failed to declare that those rights are universal. However, he moves further towards a critique against repressive governments than he was willing to do in the past, explaining that the “spirit is universal” for people to desire liberty. Perhaps a U.S. president’s unequivocal declaration of the universality of the rights Americans rightfully claim are God-given should be a starting block for how the U.S. will support reforms in other states?
Obama asks us to think about the last eight years, and the major question any observer should contemplate is whether Obama’s “lead from behind” and “don’t do stupid stuff” strategies made the world a better a place. In a week where the U.S. witnessed multiple terrorist attacks and the swift collapse of the fragile Syrian ceasefire, the U.S. people and the world as a whole may not see Obama’s much touted successes and instead see a world that is less stable and more divided than it was eight years ago. Even in a speech where he envisions a world as it could be, Obama fails to set out a version of U.S. leadership to address the very challenges that he so eloquently lays out.
Megan Reiss is a PhD candidate in public policy at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, where she is finishing a dissertation on presidential decision making and international security policy. She previously received a Master of Laws (LLM) with a focus on international armed conflict law.
Photo Credit: President Obama addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventieth session on September 28, 2015. UN Photo by Cia Pak, via Flickr.