Obama Makes the Case for Democracy (And Against Putinism)

This is President Obama’s last UN General Assembly speech before he becomes a lame duck. Accordingly, this speech is the last time that President Obama can make pledges against which the international community can hold him responsible.

In previous years his speech has been filled with pledges of American leadership on important global issues. Some have been achieved: testing a “diplomatic path” with Iran (2013). Some have not: An independent Palestinian state within a year (2010)

This year is remarkable for the fact that is is the last time that Obama can credibly make these pledges before the international community, and have to be answerable to these pledges when he comes to the UN for his final speech one year from now. But, with the exception of pledging to help strengthen UN Peacekeeeping, this speech did not contain much in the way of concrete proposals for US leadership on discrete global challenges.

Instead, Obama used his 45 minute speech to demonstrate American leadership on important ideas. And in so doing, he bluntly wielded American soft power–and did so as a direct counterpoint to Vladimir Putin.

The references to Putin started out veiled at first:

“we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law.  We see an erosion of the democratic principles and human rights that are fundamental to this institution’s mission; information is strictly controlled, the space for civil society restricted.”

Then turned more direct.

“Consider Russia’s annexation of Crimea and further aggression in eastern Ukraine.  America has few economic interests in Ukraine.  We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine.  But we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.  If that happens without consequence in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today.”

Then turned into a critique of Putinism

 “Democracy — inclusive democracy — makes countries stronger.  When opposition parties can seek power peacefully through the ballot, a country draws upon new ideas.  When a free media can inform the public, corruption and abuse are exposed and can be rooted out.  When civil society thrives, communities can solve problems that governments cannot necessarily solve alone. “

And finally, Obama used his rhetorical skills to present his worldview a counter-point to Putinism.

“And I believe that what is true for America is true for virtually all mature democracies.  And that is no accident.  We can be proud of our nations without defining ourselves in opposition to some other group.  We can be patriotic without demonizing someone else.  We can cherish our own identities — our religion, our ethnicity, our traditions — without putting others down.  Our systems are premised on the notion that absolute power will corrupt, but that people — ordinary people  — are fundamentally good; that they value family and friendship, faith and the dignity of hard work; and that with appropriate checks and balances, governments can reflect this goodness…

The people of our United Nations are not as different as they are told.  They can be made to fear; they can be taught to hate — but they can also respond to hope.  History is littered with the failure of false prophets and fallen empires who believed that might always makes right, and that will continue to be the case.  You can count on that.  But we are called upon to offer a different type of leadership — leadership strong enough to recognize that nations share common interests and people share a common humanity, and, yes, there are certain ideas and principles that are universal.”

The real-world diplomatic consequences of this speech will be interesting to see unfold. They will be tested soon.

In the coming days and weeks, international diplomacy on Syria will be kickstarted, partly because Putin is forwarding a new proposal to counter ISIS, and partly because UNGA provides a focal point for diplomacy to proceed. In his remarks opening the General Assembly, Ban Ki Moon bluntly called on five countries in particular — the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey — to come together and support a single plan of action on Syria.

The USA and Russia have vigorously differing views on how to move forward on Syria, largely over disagreements on the future status of Bashar al Assad. (Even beyond Russia, the USA’s view that Assad’s ouster is a prerequisite for peace is not universally shared.) A key question in the coming flurry of diplomacy on Syria is whether or not the USA and Russia can agree on a compromise in which Assad is out of the picture, but his government remains. 

This is but one of many disagreements between the USA and Russia at the United Nations–this week and beyond. And with a rhetorical flourish to which we have become accustomed, Obama seemed to be betting that the USA’s soft power can still be a potent force to attract friends and allies to its side.