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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

The World’s a Stage: Presidential Addresses to the United Nations General Assembly

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y.

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y. September 23, 2009. Official White House photo by Samantha Appleton. PD.

Today, President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Like previous presidential speeches to the United Nations, President Obama’s speech focused on one of the most important contemporary international issues – the democratic transitions in the Middle East, as well as the violence and turmoil in the region. Obama paid tribute to Ambassador Chris Stevens, and addressed the “crude and disgusting video” that sparked the recent uprisings throughout the region. More broadly, he used the platform to highlight development around the world as well as democratic progress, noting the competitive, fair and credible elections in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, as well as the peaceful transitions of power in Malawi, Senegal and Somalia. Yet, he also reminded the audience that democracy takes hard work and called for honestly addressing “the tensions between the West and an Arab World moving to democracy.” The President called for greater international engagement in Syria and once again drew a red line on Iran’s nuclear program, saying the United States would not allow the country to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Overall, the speech was intended just as much for a domestic audience as it was for an international one. The president reminded people that the “war in Iraq is over, and our troops have come home,” that the transition in Afghanistan has begun, and that “Al Qaeda has been weakened and Osama bin Laden is no more.” President Obama derided the politics of division – a reference no doubt to domestic politics (what’s “on the news and that consumes our political debates”), and a more explicit reference to those seeking to incite violence by pitting “East against West; South against North; Muslim against Christian, Hindu, and Jew.” He also emphasized American values, such as support for democracy, freedom, and international law. Yet, his speech was a re-articulation of the Democratic Party’s position on America’s role in the world – that the United States should lead by example and work in concert with allies.

Mr. Obama’s speech is very much historically in line with presidential speeches to the UN General Assembly, though I would argue it is not likely to be remembered as one of the most consequential, unlike his 2009 address. Presidential addresses to the Generally Assembly usually highlight foreign policy goals and accomplishments, emphasize American values and define what the United States considers the greatest threats to itself and the international community at the time. We culled through our archives and found some of the most consequential presidential speeches to the UN General Assembly. Key factors that distinguish some speeches from others are the moment in history in which the address is delivered and the leader's response to that historical context.