President Obama delivered the following prepared remarks to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Sept. 21.
Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen: I would like to talk to you about a subject that is at the heart of the United Nations – the pursuit of peace in an imperfect world.
War and conflict have been with us since the beginning of civilization. But in the first part of the 20th century, the advance of modern weaponry led to death on a staggering scale. It was this killing that compelled the founders of this body to build an institution that was focused not just on ending one war, but on averting others; a union of sovereign states that would seek to prevent conflict, while also addressing its causes.
No American did more to pursue this objective than President Franklin Roosevelt. He knew that a victory in war was not enough. As he said at one of the very first meetings on the founding of the United Nations, “We have got to make, not merely a peace, but a peace that will last.”
The men and women who built this institution understood that peace is more than the absence of war. A lasting peace – for nations and individuals – depends upon a sense of justice and opportunity; of dignity and freedom. It depends upon struggle and sacrifice; on compromise, and a sense of common humanity.
One delegate to the San Francisco Conference that led to the creation of United Nations put it well – “Many people,” she said, “have talked as if all we had to do to get peace was…to say loudly and frequently that we loved peace and hated war. Now we have learned that no matter how much we love peace and hate war, we cannot avoid having war brought upon us if there are convulsions in other parts of the world.”
The fact is, peace is hard, but our people demand it. Over nearly seven decades, even as the United Nations helped avert a third World War, we still live in a world scarred by conflict and plagued by poverty. Even as we proclaim our love for peace and hatred of war, there are convulsions in our world that endanger us all.
I took office at a time of two wars for the United States. Moreover, the violent extremists who drew us into war in the first place – Osama bin Laden, and his al Qaeda organization – remained at large. Today, we have set a new direction.
At the end of this year, America’s military operation in Iraq will be over. We will have a normal relationship with a sovereign nation that is a member of the community of nations. That equal partnership will be strengthened by our support for Iraq – for its government and Security Forces; for its people and their aspirations.
As we end the war in Iraq, the United States and our coalition partners have begun a transition in Afghanistan. Between now and 2014, an increasingly capable Afghan government and Security Forces will step forward to take responsibility for the future of their country. As they do, we are drawing down our own forces, while building an enduring partnership with the Afghan people.
So let there be no doubt: the tide of war is receding. When I took office, roughly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will continue to decline. This is critical to the sovereignty of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the strength of the United States as we build our nation at home.
Moreover, we are poised to end these wars from a position of strength. Ten years ago, there was an open wound of twisted steel and broken hearts in this city. Today, as a new tower rising at Ground Zero symbolizes New York’s renewal, al Qaeda is under more pressure than ever before. Its leadership has been degraded. And Osama bin Laden, a man who murdered thousands of people from dozens of countries, will never endanger the peace of the world again.
Yes, this has been a difficult decade. But today, we stand at a crossroads of history with the chance to move decisively in the direction of peace. To do so, we must return to the wisdom of those who created this institution. The UN’s Founding Charter calls upon us, “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.” And Article 1 of this General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ Those bedrock beliefs – in the responsibility of states, and the rights of men and women – must be our guide.
In that effort, we have reason to hope. This year has been a time of transformation. More nations have stepped forward to maintain international peace and security. And more individuals are claiming their universal right to live in freedom and dignity.
One year ago, when we met here in New York, the prospect of a successful referendum in South Sudan was in doubt. But the international community overcame old divisions to support the agreement that had been negotiated to give South Sudan self-determination. And last summer, as a new flag went up in Juba, former soldiers laid down their arms; men and women wept with joy; and children finally knew the promise of looking to a future that they will shape.