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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.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly, December 8, 1953.

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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.

On December 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower raised the issue of the dangers posed by war between the Soviet Union and the United States – “two atomic colossi are doomed malevolently to eye each other indefinitely across a trembling world.” He also proposed his "Atoms for Peace" initiative, which called for the establishment of an international agency that would stockpile nuclear fuel and convert it for all nations for peaceful use of energy.

President John F. Kennedy’s speech on September 25, 1961 revealed the deep tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States at the time. The overall mood of the General Assembly was overshadowed by the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, who had recently been killed in a plane crash. Kennedy used his speech to derail a proposal by Nikita Krushchev to fill the position of UN Secretary General with their leaders – one each selected by the West, the Communist bloc and by the non-aligned states. Kennedy told the General Assembly:

However difficult it may be to fill Mr. Hammarskjold's place, it can better be filled by one man rather than by three. Even the three horses of the Troika did not have three drivers, all going in different directions. They had only one--and so must the United Nations executive. To install a triumvirate, or any panel, or any rotating authority, in the United Nations administrative offices would replace order with anarchy, action with paralysis, confidence with confusion.

The Secretary General, in a very real sense, is the servant of the General Assembly. Diminish his authority and you diminish the authority of the only body where all nations, regardless of power, are equal and sovereign. Until all the powerful are just, the weak will be secure only in the strength of this Assembly.

Whatever advantages such a plan may hold out to my own country, as one of the great powers, we reject it. For we far prefer world law.

Kennedy also called for a step-by-step approach to achieve UN goals of general and complete disarmament, beginning with a treaty to end nuclear testing. The limited nuclear test ban would be followed by ending the production of fissionable materials; prohibiting the transfer of nuclear weapons to other states; keeping nuclear weapons out of outer space; destroying existing nuclear weapons; and halting the unlimited testing and production of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. For all intents and purposes, the speech outlined what became the basis for the Non-Proliferation Treaty and regime.

While President Reagan’s addresses revealed the tensions at the height of the Cold War, by October 1, 1990, President George H.W. Bush delivered a landmark speech, declaring:

This is a new and different world. Not since 1945 have we seen the real possibility of using the United Nations as it was designed: as a center for international collective security.

Bush also used the platform to highlight the importance of free elections and action against Iraq. Bush emphasized the need for a stronger United Nations in the post-Cold War era, whose role would be challenged in the coming decades.

The end of the Cold War marked a turning point for the role of United Nations in the world. In his address to the General Assembly in September 1993, President Bill Clinton argued:

U.N. peacekeeping holds the promise to resolve many of this era's conflicts. The reason we have supported such missions is not, as some critics in the United States have charged, to subcontract American foreign policy, but to strengthen our security, protect our interests, and to share among nations the cost and effort of pursuing peace.

But, he also noted the limits of the UN’s peacekeeping ability:

The United Nations simply cannot become engaged in every one of the world's conflicts. If the American people are to say ‘yes' to U.N. peacekeeping, the United Nations must know when to say 'no.'

President Clinton placed renewed emphasis on human rights. The speech also established the limits of American engagement in the world and what has become the Democratic Party’s position to lead by example:   

The United States intends to remain engaged and to lead. We cannot solve every problem, but we must and will serve as a fulcrum for change and a pivot for peace.

Just as his father had used his UN address to prepare the national and world for war against Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush used his September 12, 2002 speech to present a detailed case against Hussein. As we now know, the case against Hussein was built on false claims regarding Iraq’s nuclear weapons capability and the country’s links to Al Qaeda.

We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass destruction even when inspectors were in his country. Are we to assume he has stopped? Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger.

Unlike his father who sought to build an international coalition for action against Iraq, Bush 43 presented an ultimatum:

Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?...

We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions. But the purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council resolution will be enforced, the just demands of peace and security will be met, or action will be unavoidable and a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power.  

George W. Bush’s address also demonstrated an important change in American national security strategy, which henceforth would be based on a more expansive definition of preemption – defined as the anticipatory use of force in the face of an imminent attack – to include preventive war even without evidence of an imminent attack.

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