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Up Front

Why Obama’s U.N. Speech is a Major Turning Point

Thomas Wright

President Obama’s speech at the United Nations today was his best on foreign policy in his second term and stands in sharp contrast to his disappointing West Point speech in May. The headlines will undoubtedly be taken by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) but the speech is actually very revealing as to Obama’s worldview and how much things have changed in the past year.

Obama’s “Zen Master” approach to U.S. foreign policy

In his second term, Obama has been developing the idea that the world is not as bad as it appears in the press and the United States is relatively safe and secure. At West Point, he said, “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…the odds of direct threat against us by any nation are low.” When Tom Friedman asked him if he felt present at the disintegration of the international order, just as Dean Acheson felt present at the creation, Obama replied, “I think you can’t generalize across the globe because there are a bunch of places where good news keeps coming.” As recently as August, at a fundraiser in California, Obama was reported as saying, “The world’s always been messy … we’re just noticing now in part because of social media…If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.”

These statements and others like them led Daniel Drezner to speculate whether Obama was a part of the “Zen Master” school of U.S. foreign policy. Zen Masters, Drezner wrote, “think that the long arc of history is bending in their direction — that the fundamental strengths of the United States and its key allies are more robust than any potential rivals on the global stage. The worst thing to do, therefore, is to overreact in the short run to things that will balance out in the long run. They don’t believe in getting riled up too much, and that, in the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should.”

Challenges to the U.S.-led order

Using this philosophy, Obama dismissed Russia as a regional power and argued that ultimately Putin’s actions would be self-defeating. The United States should punish Russia through sanctions but not overreact in Ukraine. The Middle East was starting to “buckle” but the United States shouldn’t be expected to “keep a lid” on the problems there. U.S. military power could not be the “primary instrument” to shape the new equilibrium that would come out of the chaos. This argument that the United States could stand aloof from disorder was pretty polarizing. Some loved it, especially those of a realist inclination. Others, myself included, were concerned because the challenges to the U.S.-led order appeared much stronger than the president allowed for. What if Russia won in Ukraine or threatened the Baltics? What if the turmoil in the Middle East led to the fall of Jordan? What if China ran the table in the South China Sea? What appeared to be purely hypothetical or marginal to some appeared imminent and consequential to others.

Giving history a push

Today marked a turning point. It was encapsulated in his remark that “the central question of our global age: whether we will solve our problems together, in a spirit of mutual interests and mutual respect, or whether we descend into destructive rivalries of the past.” Quite right. But, in previous speeches he seemed to believe the answer to this question would likely be the former so he didn’t need to do that much except facilitate this outcome in a Zen-like way. Today, he seemed worried that the answer is turning out to be the latter, hence the urgency and more forward leaning posture. Not only did he make the case for action against ISIS and for a leadership role in the Middle East, his condemnation of Russia was clear and unconditional.

Of course, Obama’s worldview has always allowed for this shift. Influenced by Niebuhr, he believes that malevolent forces exist in the world, including within ourselves. He believes that the United States must act on occasion to stop them. But, for the past few years he has not agreed that we are at such a moment in history. He has not agreed that the international order is facing fundamental challenges that require extraordinary action. Throughout the course of the past year, which has been full of destabilizing developments, he has resisted the notion that we are at a tipping point. Until now. Today, he told a world audience that he too is worried the international order is falling apart. Today, he sees the chasm ahead. Today, he agrees that without an American push, history may be headed in a tragic direction.