President Obama’s September 2009 speech at the United Nations General Assembly implicitly rejected both the idea that the United States has done anything exceptional for political freedom, and the idea that political freedom is an appropriate priority for US foreign policy. The speech instead emphasized shared “interests” and “collective action”; indeed, the words interests and collective appeared again and again.
In explaining why “many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust,” the President opined, “Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard to the interests of others. And this has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction.” He went on, “Now, like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009—more than at any point in human history—the interests of nations and people are shared. … We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.”
What is the “interest” to which President Obama referred that the world supposedly has in common? Might it have anything to do with the universal longing to be free? No—he pointed to peace and prosperity instead, asserting “it is not simply peace, but our very health and prosperity that we hold in common.”
At this point in the speech, it became clear that what is sometimes referred to as the “freedom agenda” of American foreign policy stood in the way of this common interest: “No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world, nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.”
Obama urged a shedding of “old habits” and “old arguments” that were “irrelevant to the challenges faced by our people,” and again implied that the new approach would emphasize shared interests of peace and prosperity (instead of human rights and individual rights): “That is the future America wants—a future of peace and prosperity that we can only reach if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities as well. That is the bargain that makes this work. That must be the guiding principle of international cooperation.” So it is a “bargain” with other nations, even brutal ones, that “works” and it is the “rights” of nations, not of human beings, that must be our “guiding principle.”
In the next part of the speech, Obama attempted to steer his UN audience toward common work on what he called the “four pillars” of global society: nonproliferation and disarmament, peace and security, the preservation of the planet, and a global economy that advances opportunity. Again, peace and prosperity mattered most. Obama never gave the impression that certain human rights are so fundamental that they are worth sacrificing and even fighting for.
Having promised American commitment to “global interests” and his “four pillars,” Obama managed to find one remaining opportunity for “American leadership” and it had to do with rectifying our environmental sins: “And that is why the days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over. … And those wealthy nations that did so much damage to the environment in the twentieth century must accept our obligation to lead.” Wealthy nations, he added, must “extend a hand” to those with less while opening their markets to more goods.
The president went on to say of North Korea and Iran that, even though they threatened to take us down “a dangerous slope of proliferation… we respect their rights as members of the community of nations.”
For all his emphasis on interests and all his de-emphasis on democratic principles and human rights, Obama did not, in this speech or any other, define American interests. Beneath his emphasis on interests lies his determination to focus only on those interests we can find in common with other regimes, including fanatical, repressive ones. Thus, although he embraces the pragmatic deal-making of détente, the deal itself is more important to Obama’s one-world ambitions than the interests the deal serves. If we have to overlook some of our own interests for the sake of a deal, so be it.
Finally, at the very end of the UN speech, Obama paid lip service to democracy and human rights. But, a close reading reveals that democracy and human rights were now subordinate to other goals. After stating that “real change can only come through the people we represent,” Obama explained: “That’s where we will build consensus to end conflicts and to harness technology for peaceful purposes, to change the way we use energy, and to promote growth that can be sustained and shared. I believe that the people of the world want this future for their children. And that is why we must champion those principles which ensure that governments reflect the will of their people. These principles cannot be afterthoughts—democracy and human rights are essential to achieving each of the goals that I’ve discussed today.” (italics mine)
The problem is that in this speech, as in countless others, democracy and human rights are afterthoughts. They do not rank nearly as high as the admonition to tone down our American selves, to apologize for our sins, to negotiate at all costs, and to embrace multilateralism. They take second place to the pursuit of a global consensus regarding environmental and economic progress, and to world peace and disarmament. They take second place to Obama’s own efforts and to the administration’s own unique priorities. Tellingly, he suggested, “For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.” So much for the character and cause of the nation itself!
This article was originally published at Providence Magazine on September 20, 2016. Read the full article here.