Early in his presidency, the Nobel Committee awarded President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. At that point, in his presidency, he had dealt with few foreign policy issues. The president said he viewed the award less as recognition of his own accomplishments and more as “a call to action.”
He focused on that theme today in his address to the U.N. General Assembly. In his opening statement, President Obama said he wanted to talk about something at the core of the United Nations’ mission: “the pursuit of peace in an imperfect world.”
His speech may have come short of a call to action, but he encouraged global leaders to recognize that the world is “at a crossroads of history” in which progress is fragile and reversible.
The president stated that 2011 has been “a remarkable year.” He pointed to South Sudan’s newly gained independence, ending decades of bloody civil war. And Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have each taken steps toward democracy and freedom.
“Osama bin Laden is gone, and the idea that change could only come through violence has been buried with him,” President Obama said, striking a note of optimism.
He called on the United Nations and member states to do their part to support this reversible progress. “The measure of our success must be whether people can live in sustained freedom, dignity, and security,” the president stated.
Perhaps the biggest test of President Obama’s global leadership, as it has for many American presidents, is finding a pathway to peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians, which has eluded the two sides for generations.
“Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted. And that is the path to a Palestinian state,” the president said.
The president called on both sides to recognize each other’s aspirations: the Palestinians want a homeland, and the Israelis want security. “And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in each other’s shoes,” he said. “That’s what we should be encouraging.”
Still, the Palestinians are frustrated with the slow pace of progress and want to the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an independent state. They have threatened to call for a United Nations vote. But President Obama, in his speech today, emphasized that there are no short cuts.
“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now,” he said.
The United States too is at the doorstep of peace,” the president said, noting that the nation was embroiled in two wars when he took office. “Today, we have set a new direction.”
Obama stated that military operations in Iraq would conclude at the end of this year, and a transition is underway in Afghanistan. By 2014, Obama said, he expects “an increasingly capable” Afghanistan leadership to take control of their country’s future.
“So let there be no doubt: The tide of war is receding,” he stated. “Moreover, we are poised to end these wars from a position of strength.”