President Barack Obama warned world leaders Tuesday of deep and dangerous divisions between those who support more global integration and those who want to retreat into isolationism. He also gave a grim assessment of terrorism, the refugee crisis and bloody wars in the Middle East.
“This is the paradox that defines our world today,” Obama said in his final speech as president to the United Nations General Assembly. “A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before. And yet our societies are filled with uncertainty and unease and strife.”
It was a rather dark and pessimistic view of the world – in stark contrast to his soaring, ambitious vision when he first took office, highlighted by his audacious address in Cairo pledging to bridge the divide between Islam and the West and culminating in the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
Nearly eight years of hurtling from one crisis to the next – and failures as well as successes on the global stage – will do that to a president.
As Obama spoke to the U.N., a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war had been blown up as a humanitarian aid convoy was bombed, the Islamic State was still in control of parts of the Middle East and sowing terrorism in the West, and law enforcement agencies in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota were trying to unravel what appear to be the latest homegrown terror attacks.
Obama spent part of his speech defending his foreign policy record and touting accomplishments on combating climate change, fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and limiting nuclear weapons, including the deal with Iran. “I believe we have been a force for good,” he said.
But he hasn’t delivered on key issues from his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 2009: fully withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, or closing the Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison.
The arc of history may indeed bend toward justice, as Obama likes to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. But he has learned that even a president with his gifts can’t bend the world to his will, leading to this admission he wouldn’t have made eight years ago.
“Time and again, human beings have believed they finally arrived at a period of enlightenment only to repeat cycles of conflict and suffering,” he said. “Perhaps that’s our fate.”