At United Nations, Obama Makes Appeal for World's Cooperation

President Barack Obama is pleading for "a new era of engagement" on world problems, telling the United Nations the United States shouldn't pursue a go-it-alone stance. It is his first speech to world leaders at the U.N. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 24, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 23 -- President Obama challenged other nations to match his efforts to change the United States' relationship with the rest of the world on Wednesday, saying in an address to the United Nations that the task of solving global crises "cannot be solely America's endeavor."

Obama's speech came during a whirlwind week of international gatherings and diplomacy -- a climate-change summit and Middle East meetings on Tuesday; the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council on Wednesday and Thursday; and a Group of 20 meeting of world leaders to discuss the international economy on Friday.

The events unexpectedly coincided with a period of intense scrutiny in Washington of the critical choices facing the president in his Afghanistan policy -- and highlighted the constraints on Obama as he seeks a more cooperative relationship with the rest of the world.

From the moment he began speaking, Obama made clear his determination to repair the "skepticism and distrust" he said had built up under his predecessor, George W. Bush. He argued that Bush's tenure had fed a "reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for our collective inaction." The generally warm response Obama received, in contrast to the sometimes stony silence that greeted Bush at the United Nations, suggested that his presidency already is perceived differently.

Hailing what he called a new era in the United States' relationship with other nations, Obama ticked through the changes he said his administration has made. They include the banning of torture; the order to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the winding down of the war in Iraq; the renewed focus on dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the appointment of a special envoy for the Middle East with the goal of a two-state peace agreement; and the fresh investment in combating climate change.

In return, Obama said, the United States expects help from others in addressing these issues. "Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone," he said. "We have sought -- in word and deed -- a new era of engagement with the world. Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."

That summed up the challenge he faces. Can a different style, a more open hand and expressions of respect prompt the rest of the world to follow along as his administration tries to solve many of the same problems that confronted the Bush administration? And to what extent will Obama be willing to act, if not exactly unilaterally, then mostly alone, to advance U.S. interests?

Obama's speech, his first to the General Assembly, was an attempt to make good on his campaign pledge to forge a new compact with other nations, while recognizing that old problems -- of war, nuclear proliferation, economic distress and environmental crisis -- still command the nation's close attention.

Eight months into his administration, clear foreign policy success has been elusive. In his speech, the president conceded that attaining peace in the Middle East will be "difficult." He warned that Iran and North Korea must be held accountable for their actions. And he said that the world is doing irreversible damage to the climate.

The audience included several foreign leaders whom the administration is seeking to face down on the diplomatic front, among them Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has rebuffed other countries' calls to stop enriching uranium and has thumbed his nose at criticism of his human rights record, his hostility toward Israel and his support for groups that use terrorist tactics.

Ahmadinejad sat without obvious reaction as Obama chided Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying its actions -- and similar efforts by North Korea -- "threaten to take us down this dangerous slope" that makes the world less secure.

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi declared in a speech following Obama's that "Africans are proud that the son of Africa" has been elected to the presidency of the United States. He said he would be "happy and content if Obama can stay forever as president of America."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company