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Address to the United Nations sets better tone, not substance

Yesterday, President Barack Obama made his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

It was the perfect opportunity for him to prove his campaign trail rhetoric of hope and change. Instead, it set the tone for a continuance of essentially Bush-style foreign policy.

True, there were notable differences. Obama was more likely to dot his speech with references to the ‘we’ of the world, urging diplomatic unity, rather than Bush’s ‘you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us’ stance. And Obama did detail early in the speech his commitment to ending torture as a U.S. policy, highlighting his closing of Guantanamo Bay and assuring the world the U.S. would engage terrorists through legal means.

However, much of the speech continued with the only real departure from Bush being politesse. Obama’s first topic of substance was nuclear proliferation and the prevention of more nations than the nine which already possess them from obtaining nuclear weapons.

While nuclear non-proliferation is a worthwhile goal, it sets up the United States and others already equipped with nuclear power in a favorable position. While the nations without nuclear weapons must abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and swear them off forever, those with weapons – most notably the United States and Russia – need only make ‘good-faith’ efforts to bring their numbers down.

Jonathon Schell, a former writer for ‘The Nation’ and a professor at Yale, pegs the current number of nuclear weapons held by the U.S. and Russia at about 2,500 each. This is more than enough to end life on Earth as we know it.

In an interview with The Real News Network in May, Schell put Obama’s highly-touted and dramatic declarations of peace and security into perspective. Though the plan may bring the arsenal on either side down to about 1,500 (still plenty), the end goal is short-term. According to Schell, ‘There’s a vast distance between the promise of a world free of nuclear weapons and the kinds of things that [Obama]’s committed himself to.’

Much of the problem continues to be with Obama’s meaningless rhetoric. It sounds nice enough but, as evidenced by his presidency so far, doesn’t amount to anything substantial. In the beginning of his speech to the General Assembly, Obama said the expectations of him are rooted ‘in hope – the hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change.’

Unfortunately, Obama simply has a more delicate way of phrasing threats Bush might have made on horseback, gun-slinging and drunk on whiskey. Says Obama, a world in which ‘United Nation’s demands are ignored will leave all people less safe’ and if Iran and North Korea fail to abide by these international standards, though he ‘respect[s] their rights as members of the community of nations,’ they ‘must be held accountable.’

Like Bush, Obama has little interest in addressing whatever grievances our enemies might hold and even less interest in condemning allies of ours which may also be in supreme violation of international law.

Imagine being the president of a fairly powerless state (Iran). Imagine a neighboring state (Israel) is nuclear-equipped but not a signatory of the NPT and enjoys the full backing of the world’s greatest superpower (the U.S.) which routinely makes threats toward you. I have no interest in arguing for Iran’s right to have a nuclear weapon, but when it’s written out like that it isn’t hard to see why Ahmadinejad might be paranoid.

Obama continued the speech in much the same way, addressing concerns of world peace, environmental stability and a strong global economy. Obama promised in the beginning of the speech that he would not apologize for defending U.S. interests and he managed to avoid that completely. He closed the speech by urging the nations of the world to move forward and find common ground, rather than ‘bicker about outdated grievances.’

In order for the world to truly move forward, however, Obama must make certain apologies. Doubtlessly he would be ripped apart by pundits for highlighting failures of the United States – failures of ‘good faith’ nuclear disarmament and our routine condemnation of states which violate U.N. resolutions while callously vetoing any condemnation that comes our own way.

The process of peace begins with admissions of grievances well-known to the international community, still virtually unspoken by U.S. politicians and media. If the United States wants to truly claim a position as the guiding light of the world, it must move beyond Obama’s flowery rhetoric and into the territory of actually making a difference.

Respond to Kyle by leaving a comment below or by emailing him at [email protected]

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