By Michael O'Brien - 09/23/09 05:26 PM EDT
President Barack Obama on Wednesday called on the United Nations General Assembly to embrace a “new era of engagement.”
In his first address to the group, Obama spoke for nearly an hour before an audience of world leaders that included both allies and adversaries. He spoke after Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and was followed by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi, a former sponsor of terrorism who was once the subject of a U.S. missile attack.
“We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.”
Obama met Japan’s new prime minister an hour before the speech and was scheduled to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev later Wednesday afternoon.
Obama met with China’s president and leaders from Israel and the Palestinian authority on Tuesday, and also gave a speech defending U.S. actions on climate change.
The president will be in Pittsburgh, the site of the G-20 meeting of foreign leaders, on Thursday and Friday. The focus of that meeting is expected to be the world economy.
Obama has put on an energetic display this week, and a good part of his speech was dedicated to a theme that emerged in his presidential campaign — that his government represents a break from the Bush administration in terms of its role on global partnerships.
“I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust,” Obama told the assembly. “A part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies and a belief on, on certain critical issues, America had acted unilaterally without regard for the interests of others.”
Obama pointed to changes in U.S. policy since he took office on issues of torture, Guantánamo Bay, Iraq, nuclear weapons, climate change, and Middle East peace, arguing that Americans have made concrete steps toward re-engaging the international community. He emphasized that he had been in office for only nine months.
While Obama remains popular with international audiences, there is some frustration that more has not changed. European officials pointed the finger at the U.S. this week on climate change, saying it may be to blame if a global deal is not reached in Copenhagen.
Obama also has been unable to win all of the cooperation he hoped to receive. The U.S. has struggled to win the support it seeks in Afghanistan, and has had friction with other partners on a range of economic and foreign policy issues.
Obama laid out four “pillars” of his international agenda that could come to define his foreign policy going forward.
The pillars — halting nuclear proliferation, emphasizing peacekeeping and conflict prevention, addressing climate change and retooling the global economy — fit within the broader framework of the speech. He pushed developed companies to engage more with other parts of the world, and called on developing nations to live up to other obligations.
Among the new initiatives the president announced as part of those pillars would be a restart of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with no preconditions, and an international conference next year hosted by the U.S. on stemming the proliferation of unsecured nuclear weapons.
Among the recipients of more pointed jabs by Obama in the speech were China and India and global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO).
The president emphasized that “any effort to curb carbon emissions must include the fast-growing carbon emitters who can do more to reduce their air pollution,” a reference to China and India, both of which have been reluctant to assume new climate regulations as they continue to develop their economies.
Obama also spoke of reorganizing international institutions to more fairly incorporate the views of poorer countries, long a complaint about international economic institutions like the IMF and WTO.