White House

Obama asserts U.S. leadership, tells UN to follow us

United States President Barack Obama speaks during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
United States President Barack Obama speaks during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) AP

President Barack Obama urged the world’s nations Wednesday to follow the lead of the United States in combating a variety of crises around the globe, from the threat of terrorist groups in the Middle East to the Ebola epidemic killing thousands in West Africa.

“We can renew the international system that has enabled so much progress, or allow ourselves to be pulled back by an undertow of instability,” Obama said in his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly. “We call upon others to join us on the right side of history.”

In a nearly 40-minute speech, Obama acknowledged that despite advancements and opportunities, the world remains at a crossroads.

“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,” Obama said.

But Obama said the actions of other nations in some specific areas could go far in promoting a renewed sense of stability and peace: fighting the Islamic State terrorist group, which has taken over wide swaths of Syria and Iraq; rejecting the ideology of groups such as al Qaida; and pushing countries in the Arab and Muslim worlds to focus on the potential of their people, especially children.

Obama had been criticized for months for not having a strategy as one global problem after another erupted. In recent weeks, he has taken a stronger role in foreign issues, earning praise from even some of his critics.

He used his speech Wednesday to recap some of those actions and to reassert the leadership of the United States – and his administration – in the world. He said the United States brought together a coalition against the Islamic State, imposed sanctions on Russia after its intervention in Ukraine and pushed Iran to curb portions of its nuclear program. He added that the U.S. also is leading an effort to combat the outbreak of Ebola, combating climate change and working to eradicate extreme poverty.

“At this crossroads, I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done,” Obama said. “We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come. Join us in this common mission, for today’s children and tomorrow’s.”

Obama acknowledged that the United States has had its share of problems, noting the violence this summer in Ferguson, Mo., after an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white police office.

“Like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear,” he said.

Barry Pavel, vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, said Obama’s visit to the United Nations this week offered him a time to trumpet some of his recent actions. “It’s a time for marking the work he has done,” he said.

Obama arrived Tuesday in New York for two days of meetings and speeches centered around the U.N. General Assembly meeting. He met Wednesday with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to reaffirm a “strategic relationship that is important to both countries” as Iraq looks to bring feuding factions together and fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Later Wednesday, he led a special Security Council meeting to focus on so-called foreign fighters who travel abroad to join terrorist organizations. Several world leaders stressed the need to work together to fight the terrorists.

At the United States’ request, the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution designed to place additional requirements on governments to halt the recruiting, equipping, financing and traveling of the same type of terrorists who in recent weeks beheaded two American journalists, a British aid worker and, most recently, a French tourist. Nations will be be required to pass new laws and regulations, though administration officials and experts say enforcing the resolution will be difficult.

“Promises on paper cannot keep us safe,” Obama said. “Lofty rhetoric and good intentions will not stop a single terrorist attack. The words spoken here today must be matched and translated into action, into deeds – concrete action, within nations and between them, not just in the days ahead, but for years to come.”

The National Counterterrorism Center estimates that 15,000 fighters from about 80 countries have attempted to join the Islamic State, the al Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front or other groups in the Middle East, including 2,000 Europeans and about 100 Americans.

Wednesday’s speech came two days after the U.S. and five Arab partners launched a bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. Obama used much of the address to discuss “the cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world.”

He urged others to join the more than 40 nations fighting the Islamic State, which he dubbed a “network of death,” while stressing anew that the U.S. is not at war with Islam itself.

William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center, said the speech marked an important turning point in American foreign policy – and Obama’s presidency.

“Before the entire world, the president of the United States has committed his country to a complex and challenging task that will take years,” he said. “Whatever the obstacles and costs, there can be no turning back.”