The Subtle, But Substantive Policy Shift in Obama’s UN Speech

Barack Obama’s Speech to the United Nations General Assembly is being widely praised as one of his best speeches to date in terms of delivery and style. But between the soaring rhetoric there was substance.

To understand the significance of the speech it’s helpful to understand a subtle tension that has existed at the United Nations among member states over how to best fight terrorism. This tension can best be described as the the need to confront and kill terrorists through bombing and drone strikes on the one hand, and on the other hand reducing the factors that make young men want to join ISIS or al Qaeda in the first place. (In UN Speak, disrupting these push factors is often referred to in short-hand as “countering violent extremism.”)

In debates about terrorism at the UN, the United States has historically emphasized the former, and most other countries in the world have typically emphasize the latter. What was so striking about Obama’s speech today was that even as American bombs are dropping on terrorist targets in Syria and Iraq, he chose to focus his remarks on the softer side of the global fight against terrorism. And, in fact, he did not even use the term the “global fight against terrorism.” Rather, he directly invoked the need to fight the attractiveness of “violent extremism” no fewer than four times.  This is the key passage.

 Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated fanatics, and the trends that fuel their recruitment. Moreover, this campaign against extremism goes beyond a narrow security challenge. For while we have methodically degraded core al Qaeda and supported a transition to a sovereign Afghan government, extremist ideology has shifted to other places – particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where a quarter of young people have no job; food and water could grow scarce; corruption is rampant; and sectarian conflicts have become increasingly hard to contain.  

Obama’s emphasis on fighting terrorist groups by fighting the “trends that fuel their recruitment”  has practical implications for diplomacy at the UN. For one, it means that the rest of the world–specifically the developing world that does not tend to want to focus on terrorism at the expense of development issues — may get behind a US-led strategy at the UN.

We will see this manifest later today,  President Obama is leading a Security Council meeting that is expected to adopt a legally binding, Chapter VII resolution, that obliges all UN Member states to take specific measures to prevent their citizens from flocking to Syria to take up arms. This is a crucial issue to the national security of the United States and many other member states. Intelligence agencies believe that between 12,000 to 15,000 foreigners have joined arms with ISIS and al Nusra in Syria. There is a deep and legitimate fear that these fighters will come home, battle hardened, and carry out attacks elsewhere in the world. The measure at the UN today could help staunch that flow.

But the measure is also accompanied by a section titled “countering violent extremism” that “Encourages Member States to engage relevant local communities and non-governmental actors in developing strategies to counter the violent extremist narrative that can incite terrorist acts, address the conditions conducive to the spread of violent extremism, which can be conducive to terrorism, including by empowering youth, families, women,  religious, cultural and education leaders, and all other concerned groups of civil society and adopt tailored approaches to countering recruitment to this kind of violent extremism and promoting social inclusion and cohesion;” 

This provision is why the resolution will pass unanimously. And it is why most of the rest of the world will want to line up behind the United States.

So, yes this was an impressive speech. But for those at the United Nations it was also a very public signal that the USA will not loose sight of the root causes of terrorism even as its takes its fight to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.


How the UN Fights Terrorism, a backgrounder: