Obama’s Stirring U.N. Speech: John Avlon
President Obama can be, if anything, overrated as an orator. Some of his heavily hyped speeches—such as his Charlotte convention address—fall flat or fall short.
That was not the case with his U.N. address Tuesday.
Certainly, the stakes were high—two weeks after the murder of the first American ambassador since 1979, his killers still at large, and the hope of the Arab Spring given to shadows and fog.
Against this backdrop, while world leaders met yesterday at the General Assembly, the president seemed in campaign mode—making time for the ladies of The View but not for Prime Minister Netanyahu or Egypt’s newly elected leader Mohammad Morsi. Moreover, his administration’s statements in the wake of ambassador Chris Stevens’s death have been confused and at times contradictory.
But President Obama’s fourth speech to the United Nation’s General Assembly rose to the occasion and to the heights to which he is capable. It was a vision and values speech grounded in the tumultuous facts on the world stage today, using the legacy of the slain Stevens as a narrative frame for the American spirit and the spirit of freedom that extends beyond borders.
Today we must reaffirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers. Today we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our united nations.
American internationalism—engagement and even intervention—was robustly defended in almost Bush-ian Freedom Agenda tones, albeit with a hat-tip toward Lincoln:
“We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values; they are universal values. And even as there will be huge challenges to come with the transition to democracy, I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people, and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.”
So far so good, but what we didn’t know from advance copies of the speech, was whether the president would confidently defend the right of free speech in the wake of the video-incited riots. Thankfully, he did, offering something of a civics lesson to Muslim world.
“We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them. I know there are some who ask why don’t we just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws. Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.
Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views—even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.
We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities. We do so because, given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
And crucially, the president rooted this argument in front of the international community in the realities of new technology:
“In 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.
The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.
There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.
In this modern world, with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world. We empower the worst of us if that’s how we respond.”
The president presented the current conflict in the world as one that transcends cultures, pitting an extremist few against the peaceful majority whose voices are often drowned out by demagogues and their followers. And he challenged Arab leaders not to tolerate or try to use these divisive voices for their own purposes.
I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders in all countries to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism.
It is time to marginalize those who, even when not directly resorting to violence, use hatred of America or the West or Israel as the central organizing principle of politics, for that only gives cover and sometimes makes an excuse for those who do resort to violence. That brand of politics, one that pits East against West and South against North, Muslims against Christians and Hindu and Jews, can’t deliver on the promise of freedom.
To the youth, it offers only false hope. Burning an American flag does nothing to provide a child an education. Smashing apart a restaurant does not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an embassy won’t create a single job. That brand of politics only makes it harder to achieve what we must do together, educating our children and creating the opportunities that they deserve, protecting human rights and extending democracy’s promise.
And he presented the promise of the Arab spring in contrast to the recent violence, presenting a vision of the future—that vision thing that some president’s have derided, but which is an essential component of leadership.
In less than two years, we have seen largely peaceful protests bring more change to Muslim-majority countries than a decade of violence. And extremists understand this, because they have nothing to offer to improve the lives of people, violence is their only way to stay relevant. They don’t build. They only destroy.
It is time to leave the call of violence and the politics of division behind. On so many issues, we face a choice between the promise of the future or the prisons of the past, and we cannot afford to get it wrong. We must seize this moment, and America stands ready to work with all who are willing to embrace a better future.
The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt. It must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted, “Muslims, Christians, we are one.”
The future must not belong to those who bully women. It must be shaped by girls who go to school and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons.
The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources. It must be won by the students and entrepreneurs, the workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the women and men that America stands with. There’s is the vision we will support.
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.
President Obama devoted the last third of his speech to challenges in the hot spots around the world, again stating his determination that Bashar al-Assad in Syria must go and that Iran must not be allowed to achieve nuclear weapons, because containment of a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran is not an option. These sections of the speech will be appropriately parsed because they address the policy substance of the address. Specific timelines are as yet unannounced, but the principles behind the positions are clear.
Words are cheap where President Obama is concerned. His eloquence can require a healthy discount to make distinct the difference between words and actions. But this speech in front of a world audience aimed higher than the typical tenor of a campaign. It laid out a durable vision in a statement of American values that can translate around the world.
Listen finally to the closing paragraphs to get a sense of why—at least in these early hours—I feel this could be a speech that will endure as part of the president’s legacy.
“What gives me the most hope is not the actions of us, not the actions of leaders. It is the people that I’ve seen. The American troops who've risked their lives and sacrificed their limbs for strangers half a world away. The students in Jakarta or Seoul who are eager to use their knowledge to benefit mankind. The faces in a square in Prague or a parliament in Ghana who see democracy giving voice to their aspirations. The young people in the favelas of Rio and the schools of Mumbai whose eyes shine with promise.
These men, women, and children of every race and every faith remind me that for every angry mob that gets shown on television, there are billions around the world who share similar hopes and dreams. They tell us that there is a common heartbeat to humanity.
So much attention in our world turns to what divides us. That’s what we see on the news, that’s what consumes our political debates.
But when you strip all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes with faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people and not the other way around.
The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations for our own people and for people all across the world. That was our founding purpose. That is what our history shows. That is what Chris Stevens worked for throughout his life. And I promise you this: long after the killers are brought to justice, Chris Stevens’ legacy will live on in the lives that he touched.
No doubt, partisan critics will still carp, but this was the speech that President Obama needed to give—and the world needed to hear—now.