“We have sought, in word and deed, a new engagement with the world,” President Obama said, in a single sentence making a bid to reset the American relationship with the nations of this planet. In two momentous days at the United Nations, Obama convincingly assumed that podium on the world stage for the first time as president and sent a message: after eight disastrous, incurious, belligerent years under the previous administration, the United States was going back into the leadership business.
The 44th president of the United States knows how to work the clock, and the crowd. In about 12 hours on Tuesday, the multitasker-in-chief made an address on the need to accelerate efforts against climate change; he huddled with Chinese President Hu Jintao amid the increasingly combative relationship with Beijing over tariffs and other trade issues; he played host to African leaders at a working lunch meant to foster discussion on job creation and improved agriculture in Africa; and that evening at the Sheraton Hotel, he delivered the keynote address opening the fifth session of the Clinton Global Initiative.
On Wednesday, Obama spoke before the General Assembly on Wednesday and made clear this nation’s intent to swing for the fences on matters of public policy with global impact.
When he articulated the importance of “four pillars” — “nonproliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people” — it signaled the arrival of a sea change in American geopolitics: a confidence in working with the international community rather than standing apart from it (the behavioral hallmark of the Bushies); an ability to think big-picture, after eight years of small-ball vision.
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“[I]t is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 — more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared,” he said. “The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among people, or they can tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What happens to the hope of a single child anywhere can enrich our world, or impoverish it.
“In this hall, we come from many places, but we share a common future. No longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together. I have carried this message from London to Ankara; from Port of Spain to Moscow; from Accra to Cairo; and it is what I will speak about today -- because the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.”
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For all the power of the president’s appearance in the world’s central forum this week, it’s hardly his first global rodeo. Before he was elected in November, Obama made triumphal campaign stops in Germany, France and Israel, shoring up his international bona fides with face time with world leaders.
And the outreach that Obama proclaimed this week actually began months ago: in January, a week into his presidency, with a one-on-one interview with Arab media; and in June, with another overture to foreign media, and with high-profile recognition of holidays important to the Muslim world.
But he’s no longer the phenom touring the continent, like he was last year. Now with nine months of experience as president, Obama came before the world body with that valuable commodity: a little gray hair on top of his head to match the gray matter inside it. You want gravitas? On Thursday, Obama chaired a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, a first for an American president in the 64-year history of the council.
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There was substance under the symbolism. Obama offered the broad strokes on dealing with various global hot-button issues, with his singular blend of loft and pragmatism.
On stewardship of the environment: ““There will be no peace unless we take responsibility for the preservation of our planet,” he said. “Our efforts to end conflicts will be eclipsed by wars over refugees and resources. Development will be devastated by drought and famine.”
On the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “We have set a clear and focused goal: to work with all members of this body to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies -- a network that has killed thousands of people of many faiths and nations, and that plotted to blow up this very building. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we and many nations here are helping these governments develop the capacity to take the lead in this effort, while working to advance opportunity and security for their people.
“In Iraq, we are responsibly ending a war. We have removed American combat brigades from Iraqi cities, and set a deadline of next August to remove all our combat brigades from Iraqi territory. And I have made clear that we will help Iraqis transition to full responsibility for their future, and keep our commitment to remove all American troops by the end of 2011.”
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On nuclear disarmament (a clear shot across the bows of Tehran and Pyongyang): “… [T]he Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty … says that all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear energy; that nations with nuclear weapons have a responsibility to move toward disarmament; and those without them have the responsibility to forsake them. The next 12 months could be pivotal in determining whether this compact will be strengthened or will slowly dissolve.
“America intends to keep our end of the bargain. We will pursue a new agreement with Russia to substantially reduce our strategic warheads and launchers. We will move forward with ratification of the Test Ban Treaty, and work with others to bring the treaty into force so that nuclear testing is permanently prohibited.”
And in a throwdown that could make history, Obama all but dared Israelis and Palestinians to more actively pursue the elusive two-state solution:
“The time has come — the time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. And the goal is clear: Two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.”
There are those within the contiguous territory of the United States who doubt the intention of Barack Obama to be a transformational president (many of them have done everything they can to keep that from happening). But President Obama’s appearance at the U.N. shows how another constituency — a vast array of world leaders, fellow residents of his planet if not his country — has every faith that the transformation of a nation and a relationship is well under way.
Image credits: Obama top: Pool. Obama with Anwar Iqbal of Dawn, June 2009: Still from Dawn. Obama at the U.N.: Samantha Appleton, The White House. Obama bottom: Pete Souza, The White House.