There may be no better way to track the evolution of Barack Obama’s presidency than his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly, and no better way to assess where his foreign policy stands today than to watch Obama speak in New York Wednesday morning.
Both the man and the message have matured since he first took to the U.N. podium. In that first address, on Sept. 23, 2009, the still-new president described himself as “humbled” to be there and his message was of “a discontent with a status quo” in the world. As he had done in his campaign domestically, he urged other world leaders that day to join him in a global vision he said was “rooted in hope, the hope that real change is possible.” He spoke of ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and talked of “extremists” rather than “terrorists.” Russia was a partner, Guantanamo Bay would soon be emptied, and negotiators would find a way to close the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Overhanging all else was the need to pull the world back from the economic abyss.
That was the start. And, today, 28,000 words and five U.N. addresses later, “hope and change” has taken a step back; realpolitik has stepped forward. There was no more talk of partnerships with Russia. Instead, there was tough talk for the Kremlin of the type not heard in more than a decade. In a rhetorical throwback to the days of the Cold War, the president coldly called Russia a “bully” for its actions in Ukraine as television cameras zeroed in on the stony-faced Russian delegation to see if they would storm out of the hall. The words could have been said by any Cold War president from Truman to Reagan.
Obama used all six speeches to pledge the destruction of terrorists. But the tone had changed as well as the sense that events were moving in the right direction with the terrorists on the run. “The tide of war is receding,” he proclaimed in 2011. Osama bin Laden, he exulted, “will never endanger the peace of the world again.” Now, he said then, the world has “the chance to move decisively in the direction of peace.” Pointing to the overthrow of tyrants in Egypt and Libya, he added, “Something’s happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way that they will be. The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open. Dictators are on notice.” Talking of Libya, he said, “From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi, today, Libya is free.”
A year later, on Sept. 25, 2012, the tone had changed considerably, the optimism dimmed. Obama began his address with a somber tribute to U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens who had been killed only 14 days earlier by a mob in Benghazi. “This violence and intolerance,” he declared, “has no place among our United Nations.” But he ended the address with hope and the boast that “the war in Iraq is over; American troops have come home.”
That hope carried over into the 2013 address. A “decade of war” had ended, he stated. “For the United States, these new circumstances have also meant shifting away from a perpetual war footing.” At his most optimistic, the president declared that “the world is more stable than it was five years ago,” with al-Qaida “splintered into regional networks and militias, which doesn’t give them the capacity at this point to carry out attacks like 9/11.” Obama even warned his fellow leaders that there was pressure on the United States to “disengage” from the Middle East, “creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”
How much has changed in the 365 days since that speech was clear from the start Wednesday, as a somber president warned that the world stands “at a crossroads between war and peace, between disorder and integration.” Where a year ago he saw a world “more stable,” this year he found “a pervasive unease in our world.” Moments later, he warned the world that it risks being “pulled back by an undertow of instability.”
This was a president more grimly aware of the difficulties of combating terrorism than had been the new president who spoke in 2009. Yes, he had pledged himself to the battle back then; but now he had the scars and perspective that comes only from time on the battlefield. That showed up even rhetorically as he used the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” more than he had in all his prior speeches combined. Gone was the talk of moving beyond war and closing terrorist detention facilities in Cuba. In its place was talk of degrading and destroying the Islamic terrorists entrenched in Iraq and Syria. Most telling, there was the strongest single sentence in all the six speeches: “There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
If his remarks on Russia could have been uttered by President Harry Truman, this declaration could have been said by President George W. Bush. That it was said by President Barack Obama marks the continuing evolution of a presidency.