U.S. President Barack Obama put the Bush era decisively behind him yesterday (Sept 23) in a speech to the United Nations in which he rejected unilateralism in favour of countries working together to tackle problems ranging from the Middle East to Iran and North Korea.
In his first address to the UN general assembly, Mr. Obama said he would need the support of other countries in tackling what he described as the world’s most intractable problems. “Make no mistake: this cannot solely be America’s endeavour. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone,” he said.
In contrast with former U.S. President, George Bush’s speeches at the UN that were usually heard in sullen silence, Mr. Obama was greeted with two minutes of applause at the end of his 41-minute speech, as well as bursts of appreciation throughout.
But, in contrast with Mr. Obama’s soaring rhetoric, the UN continues to be bedevilled by divisions and walkouts.
Among the 100-plus world leaders attending were the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, attending for the first time, and the Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez. European leaders included Gordon Brown, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi.
Highlighting the problems of Mr. Obama’s call for unity, Mr. Ahmadinejad was expected to speak against a backdrop of a threatened walkout because of his reiteration last Friday that there was no Holocaust. The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Carter, was among leaders who said his country would leave its seat empty.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, sitting in the fifth row, was among the few leaders not to applaud Mr. Obama. Col. Qaddafi’s speech, which came immediately after Mr. Obama’s, was also the subject of a threatened walkout mainly because of U.S. anger over the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. White House aides made sure Mr. Obama and Col. Qaddafi did not meet and all the members of the U.S. delegation, other than a notetaker and an African specialist, left the chamber when the Libyan leader began a speech that lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes.
Mr. Obama, in the most sweeping foreign policy speech he has delivered since becoming president, set out four priorities: nuclear non-proliferation, Middle East peace, climate change and addressing poverty among developing nations.
There were bursts of applause when he mentioned all these, and when he promised to close the Guantanamo detention centre and push to end the Sudan conflict.
At the heart of his speech, he promised to work with the UN in a way that Mr. Bush had not: “The choice is ours. We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st ... Or, we can be a generation that chooses to see the shoreline beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common interests of human beings, and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations.” Mr. Obama spoke for 41 minutes, whereas Mr. Bush, who disliked both the UN and speaking at the general assembly, spoke last year for 21 minutes.
The Bush administration regarded the UN as irrelevant in confronting the major foreign policy challenges facing the U.S.
Mr. Obama, despite the sentiments expressed yesterday, has so far failed to translate his popularity round the world into concrete achievements. He is struggling to persuade Iran to engage in direct negotiations on its nuclear programme or to secure the support of Russia and China to back new UN security council sanctions against Tehran.
His efforts on Middle East peace failed to make any headway in talks with the Israeli leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in New York on Tuesday. But he committed himself yesterday to push for the resumption of peace talks. “I am not naive. I know this will be difficult. But all of us must decide whether we are serious about peace, or whether we only lend it lip-service,” he said.
Mr. Obama left the chamber after delivering his speech and did not wait to hear Col. Qaddafi. His speech ranged from the role of dictators in Roman times to a call for reform of the UN to make it more equal.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the UN building to demonstrate against the release of Megrahi, who was greeted in Tripoli earlier this year after being released from a Scottish jail on compassionate grounds.