Barack Obama Administration:
Address to the UN General Assembly
(September 24, 2014)
Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen: we come together at a crossroads between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope.
Around the globe, there are signposts of progress. The shadow of World War that existed at the founding of this institution has been lifted; the prospect of war between major powers reduced. The ranks of member states has more than tripled, and more people live under governments they elected. Hundreds of millions of human beings have been freed from the prison of poverty, with the proportion of those living in extreme poverty cut in half. And the world economy continues to strengthen after the worst financial crisis of our lives.
Today, whether you live in downtown New York or in my grandmother’s village more than two hundred miles from Nairobi, you can hold in your hand more information than the world’s greatest libraries. Together, we have learned how to cure disease, and harness the power of the wind and sun. The very existence of this institution is a unique achievement – the people of the world committing to resolve their differences peacefully, and solve their problems together. I often tell young people in the United States that this is the best time in human history to be born, for you are more likely than ever before to be literate, to be healthy, and to be free to pursue your dreams.
And yet there is a pervasive unease in our world – a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers, and made it difficult for any single nation to insulate itself from global forces. As we gather here, an outbreak of Ebola overwhelms public health systems in West Africa, and threatens to move rapidly across borders. Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition. The brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq forces us to look into the heart of darkness.
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.
Fellow delegates, 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. For America, the choice is clear. We choose hope over fear. We see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort. We reject fatalism or cynicism when it comes to human affairs; we choose to work for the world as it should be, as our children deserve it to be.
There is much that must be done to meet the tests of this moment. But today I’d like to focus on two defining questions at the root of many of our challenges– whether the nations here today will be able to renew the purpose of the UN’s founding; and whether we will come together to reject the cancer of violent extremism.
First, all of us – big nations and small – must meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms.
We are here because others realized that we gain more from cooperation than conquest. One hundred years ago, a World War claimed the lives of many millions, proving that with the terrible power of modern weaponry, the cause of empire leads to the graveyard. It would take another World War to roll back the forces of fascism and racial supremacy, and form this United Nations to ensure that no nation can subjugate its neighbors and claim their territory.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine challenge this post-war order. Here are the facts. After the people of Ukraine mobilized popular protests and calls for reform, their corrupt President fled. Against the will of the government in Kiev, Crimea was annexed. Russia poured arms into Eastern Ukraine, fueling violent separatists and a conflict that has killed thousands. When a civilian airliner was shot down from areas that these proxies controlled, they refused to allow access to the crash for days. When Ukraine started to reassert control over its territory, Russia gave up the pretense of merely supporting the separatists, and moved troops across the border.
This is a vision of the world in which might makes right – a world in which one nation’s borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed. America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might – that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future.
These are simple truths, but they must be defended. America and our allies will support the people of Ukraine as they develop their democracy and economy. We will reinforce our NATO allies, and uphold our commitment to collective defense. We will impose a cost on Russia for aggression, and counter falsehoods with the truth. We call upon others to join us on the right side of history – for while small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun, they will ultimately be turned back if enough voices support the freedom of nations and peoples to make their own decisions.
Moreover, a different path is available – the path of diplomacy and peace and the ideals this institution is designed to uphold. The recent cease-fire agreement in Ukraine offers an opening to achieve that objective. If Russia takes that path – a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people – then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges. That’s what the United States and Russia have been able to do in past years – from reducing our nuclear stockpiles to meet our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to cooperating to remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons. And that’s the kind of cooperation we are prepared to pursue again—if Russia changes course.
This speaks to a central question of our global age: whether we will solve our problems together, in a spirit of mutual interests and mutual respect, or whether we descend into destructive rivalries of the past. When nations find common ground, not simply based on power, but on principle, then we can make enormous progress. And I stand before you today committed to investing American strength in working with nations to address the problems we face in the 21st century.
As we speak, America is deploying our doctors and scientists – supported by our military – to help contain the outbreak of Ebola and pursue new treatments. But we need a broader effort to stop a disease that could kill hundreds of thousands, inflict horrific suffering, destabilize economies, and move rapidly across borders. It’s easy to see this as a distant problem – until it isn’t. That is why we will continue mobilizing other countries to join us in making concrete commitments to fight this outbreak, and enhance global health security for the long-term.
America is pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, as part of our commitment to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and pursue the peace and security of a world without them. This can only happen if Iran takes this historic opportunity. My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.
America is and will continue to be a Pacific power, promoting peace, stability, and the free flow of commerce among nations. But we will insist that all nations abide by the rules of the road, and resolve their territorial disputes peacefully, consistent with international law. That’s how the Asia-Pacific has grown. And that’s the only way to protect this progress going forward.
America is committed to a development agenda that eradicates extreme poverty by 2030. We will do our part – to help people feed themselves; power their economies; and care for their sick. If the world acts together, we can make sure that all of our children can enjoy lives of opportunity and dignity
America is pursuing ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions, and we have increased our investments in clean energy. We will do our part, and help developing nations to do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every major power. That’s how we can protect this planet for our children and grandchildren.
On issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule-book written for a different century. If we lift our eyes beyond our borders – if we think globally and act cooperatively – we can shape the course of this century as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age. But as we look to the future, one issue risks a cycle of conflict that could derail such progress: and that is the cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world.
Of course, terrorism is not new. Speaking before this Assembly, President Kennedy put it well: “Terror is not a new weapon,” he said. “Throughout history it has been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or example.” In the 20th century, terror was used by all manner of groups who failed to come to power through public support. But in this century, we have faced a more lethal and ideological brand of terrorists who have perverted one of the world’s great religions. With access to technology that allows small groups to do great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide the world into adherents and infidels – killing as many innocent civilians as possible; and employing the most brutal methods to intimidate people within their communities.
I have made it clear that America will not base our entire foreign policy on reacting to terrorism. Rather, we have waged a focused campaign against al Qaeda and its associated forces – taking out their leaders, and denying them the safe-havens they rely upon. At the same time, we have reaffirmed that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace. Muslims the world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice. And when it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them – there is only us, because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country.
So we reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations. Belief in permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists who cannot build or create anything, and therefore peddle only fanaticism and hate. And it is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along fault lines of tribe or sect; race or religion.
This is not simply a matter of words. Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated fanatics, and the trends that fuel their recruitment. Moreover, this campaign against extremism goes beyond a narrow security challenge. For while we have methodically degraded core al Qaeda and supported a transition to a sovereign Afghan government, extremist ideology has shifted to other places – particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where a quarter of young people have no job; food and water could grow scarce; corruption is rampant; and sectarian conflicts have become increasingly hard to contain.