Obama Spells Out Foreign Policy Goals At U.N.

Guests

Michele Kelemen, diplomatic correspondent, NPR
Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Jazeera
Steve Clemons, director, New America Foundation's American Strategy Program

In his address to the 65th U.N. General Assembly, President Obama laid out his foreign policy goals, from Middle East peace to improving the global economy. But how are his goals being received around the world?

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in New York City this week for the United Nations General Assembly.

President Obama addressed that body twice in the last 24 hours. Last night he spoke to the Millennium Development Goal Summit, where he announced a new approach on foreign aid.

President BARACK OBAMA Put simply, the United States is changing the way we do business.

CONAN: What he called the U.S. Global Development Policy will focus on countries that encourage entrepreneurs, expand trade and welcome investment to, he said, create conditions where assistance is no longer needed.

President OBAMA: We're making it clear that we will partner with countries that are willing to take the lead because the days when your development was dictated by foreign capitals must come to an end.

CONAN: This morning, the president addressed the Middle East, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, the global recession, human rights and women's rights, and much of his speech centered on the importance of democracy.

President OBAMA: As I said last year, each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its own people, yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty, that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies and open governments.

CONAN: Are these priorities the right priorities? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Here to help us understand what the president said, how it's being received, and assessment of the president, of the world leader, is Michele Kelemen, NPR's diplomacy correspondent. She joins us from the United Nations. Michele, always good to have you on the program.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It's nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Any surprises at what the president had to say today?

KELEMEN: You know, most of his speech focused a lot on the Middle East. You know, he just got the Israelis and Palestinians talking again, and he made this strong appeal to countries in the room to support this process.

He said that, you know, the Arab states that say they support the Palestinians should do more to show that and should stop, his quote was, trying to tear down Israel.

And he called on Israel to extend this moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank as a way to keep these talks going.

CONAN: There are a lot of people, he said, who are cynical about this, saying this is only, well, the various parties bitterly divided and unable to follow through on these developments. But he said, well, just consider the alternative.

KELEMEN: That's right.

President OBAMA: But I ask you to consider the alternative. If an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state. Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbors who are committed to co-existence. The hard realities of demography will take hold. More blood will be shed. This holy land will remain a symbol of our differences instead of our common humanity.

CONAN: So Michele Kelemen, he called for persistence, to stay at these talks until completion. But he also noted there's going to be a lot of tests.

KELEMEN: He did. I mean, the initial one is this settlement moratorium, which negotiators are trying to finesse. But also he just, he had this line in there that he got most of that he actually got some applause for, where he said if you help us do this, that, you know, next year instead of coming back with the same old tired speeches, maybe we can have a peace deal that would lead to the state of Palestine, a new U.N. member state.

CONAN: And he also spoke about the importance that both sides recognize their dependence on the other. No Israeli state can be truly secure without an independent Palestinian state; no independent Palestinian state can be secure without a secure Israel.

And as you mentioned earlier, he spoke to those in the room - the General Assembly many times voted vigorously on behalf of Palestinian rights. He spoke to those in the room about that as well.

President OBAMA: Those who speak on behalf of Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially and in so doing help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state.

Those who long to see an independent Palestine must also stop trying to tear down Israel. After thousands of years, Jews and Arabs are not strangers in a strange land. After sixty years in the community of nations, Israel's existence must not be a subject for debate.

CONAN: And Michele, he then later went on and says that President Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, is a much more courageous man than someone who fires rockets at Israeli civilians.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration is really trying to put Abbas in a position where he can make the compromises needed for this peace deal. One of the things that they seem to have realized, one of the many failures of the past, is that there wasn't enough Arab buy-in and Arab diplomatic cover for then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to say yes to an agreement.

So the idea here is to get the Muslim and Arab states behind Abbas, to support him, and to stop supporting Hamas.

CONAN: And how was that part of the speech received there in the room?

KELEMEN: You know, it was very hard. There wasn't a whole lot of reaction in the room. The only applause line was really when he talked about the creation of a Palestinian state.

The speakers that came later, the Turkish president, the emir of Qatar, both started talking again about their concerns that Israel has blockaded Gaza, which is run by Hamas, and there needs to be lift of that blockade. The Turks brought up this Israeli attack on the flotilla earlier this year. So you didn't see a whole lot of changing rhetoric, at least so far in the room.

CONAN: The other big issue that I think people were listening very carefully to was on the question of Iran, and this was again in part of the speech that the president referred to what he called challenges to our common security.

President OBAMA: Now, let me be clear once more: The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it.

But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program.

CONAN: And the president noted, of course, the Security Council had passed tougher sanctions on Iran earlier this year and that, well, he offered again, as we just heard - but I didn't hear any nuance any different from what he'd said in the past.

KELEMEN: No, you know, there seems to be some frustration on the part of the U.S., the Europeans and others who are working on this diplomacy, that they've asked for this meeting with the Iranians.

The Iranians say they're open to it, but there's no date yet for talks. And the other problem is that, you know, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is here, but the Iranian negotiator, nuclear negotiator, is not. So it's been difficult to figure out who to talk to.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with this, you know, the grouping that works on this diplomacy, the EU Three Plus Three or P5 Plus One, however they call it, and basically they came out saying what President Obama said today, is we're open for these negotiations and we want to have serious negotiations.

One diplomat told me privately they're trying to raise the game, that once they do get these talks going, they really want to talk about the broad issues on the nuclear issue and, you know, not just repeat the same old conversations they've had in the past.

CONAN: The one thing that has seemingly changed was a decision yesterday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to not go ahead with the delivery of an advanced anti-aircraft rocket system to Iran.

KELEMEN: You know, it was interesting. I was told that didn't even come up in the meeting yesterday that included Russia and China and others. But this is something that the Americans had been hoping for for a long time.

The Russians had, you know, long delayed it anyway. So it was clearly welcome news for the U.S. and for the others who are trying to put pressure on Iran.

CONAN: So after running through a number of issues, including, well, statements that would sound pretty familiar on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president moved on to a section on human rights and especially support of democracy and free markets.

President OBAMA: Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short-term stability or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom.

We see leaders abolishing term limits. We see crackdowns on civil society. We see corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance. We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely.

CONAN: And those partly in reaction to the economic crisis that so many countries face now, but the president emphasizing again, as he did last year in his first speech to the United Nations, the importance of capitalism and democracy.

KELEMEN: Yeah, you know, it's interesting. He came here with this message about development, in part because, I mean, the beginning of this meeting was all about the Millennium Development Goals and to help fight hunger and poverty.

And he didn't come announcing lots of new money. He talked about we need to fix the way we do this. And he also talked about how despite the economic problems that we're facing, this aid, development aid, is critical. It's critical for national security interests and for the global economy.

You know, a lot of people have been talking about how it's developing countries that have been actually growing while the other, while the developed world face recession. So it's sort of, you know, it would benefit the U.S. as well if these countries can develop.

CONAN: We want to hear your thoughts on the president's priorities, as we've been talking about them. Are they the right priorities? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Jason, Jason with us from Charleston.

JASON (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me on. I have some questions about one of the president's statements regarding the independence of foreign economies, of economies on foreign capital. And I question whether that's even attainable, considering that every thriving economy that I know of has a huge dependence on capital investment.

CONAN: Michele, the president did talk about that, especially, I think, in his speech last night.

KELEMEN: I mean, as I understood it, he's trying to he was talking about using all the tools at the American that the Americans have -diplomacy, trade policy, investment policy - instead of just aid, breaking this cycle of dependence.

So I'm not sure if that answers your question.

CONAN: To focus all of those things on individual countries that he believes are ready to break out of that cycle where they need foreign assistance.

KELEMEN: And this has been a big push of his and the previous administration, the Bush administration, is to aid countries that are well-governed.

JASON: So the president I'm sorry.

CONAN: No, go ahead.

JASON: So the president's statement of foreign capital was referring only to government aid and not private capital investment?

CONAN: I believe he talked about private capital investment too, that this aid would go to countries that welcome private capital investment. So Jason, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

We're in New York City, talking about President Obama and the foreign policy priorities he detailed in his speech this morning at the U.N. General Assembly.

Do you feel the president's priorities are the right policy priorities? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also find us on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan. This week, we're in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly.

In a speech before world leaders this morning, President Obama asked for support of the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks. On Wednesday, he outlined new foreign aid policy for developing countries.

Today, we're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Michele Kelemen about what the president said and what it means. We also want to hear what you think, too, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's bring another couple of other voices into the conversation. Joining us from the United Nations is Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera. Prior to that, he was their United Nations correspondent. Nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA (Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Jazeera): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And also with us from Beijing, Steve Clemons. He's the director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, and Steve, I know it's the middle of the night there, appreciate you taking the time.

Mr. STEVE CLEMONS (Director, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation): Hi. Always good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Okay, Abderrahim Foukara, did you hear anything new in the president's remarks, particularly on the Middle East?

Mr. FOUKARA: Well, I mean, it was obvious that he was very aware that he was being closely watched in the Middle East. And his speech sounded to a lot of Arabs and Muslims, and I'm sure it sounded to a lot of Israelis, like it was an extension of his yes-we-can campaign.

I mean, he's talking about the cynics, and the cynics, it has to be said, have good reason to be cynical this time around, as well. I mean, they've seen this before. They've heard it before. And in the end, it didn't come to much.

But the difference is that now he's talking about a Palestinian state when the General Assembly reconvenes next year. The timeframe is much, much shorter than we've heard from previous U.S. administrations.

The only thing is that whether he truly believes that or he does not. I think that there's a sense within the Obama administration that unless the conversation goes on in the Middle East then the worst could happen not just between the Israelis and the Palestinians in terms of violence but also serious complications between the Israelis and the Iranians.

And then the whole region, as we know, is combustible. So at least I think he's trying to tell both Arabs and Israelis that we must at least keep the conversation going.

CONAN: We will see where that goes with the moratorium on the construction in the West Bank and see if that torpedoes the talks, which are fragile at this point.

There was very little mention of Iraq and Afghanistan, almost emphasizing again that the United States, and its allies to some degree, are making these decisions on their own.

Mr. FOUKARA: I mean, he has so many different issues to address not just with Arabs and Muslims but also with his own public opinion obviously here in the United States, Americans being on the verge of the midterm election.

Obviously, for him, Iraq is a success story despite all the reservations about that judgment in the Middle East. We've all been hearing the noises that are coming out of Washington about the divisions within the Obama administration and the strategy he sees for Afghanistan.

So he is - I think one of the main things that he's holding onto at this particular point in time, in October, just a few weeks before the election, is this issue of the Middle East.

He can, at least, herald it as something that could offer a way out not just for the United States in the region but also as a way out, as a hope for both Israelis and Palestinians.

And obviously, that has repercussions both here in the United States and for his standing in the Middle East because as we know, initially people were very enthusiastic about President Barack Obama, but his standing in the Muslim world has gradually been degraded.

CONAN: Steve Clemons, let me turn to you there. There was almost no mention directly of China, the emerging superpower, as people like to describe it, yet the president said we will promote new tools of communication so people are empowered to connect with one another, and in repressive societies, do this with security. We will support a free and open Internet.

That certainly might have caught some ears in Beijing, where you are.

Mr. CLEMONS: I think it probably did. I think everything is watched very carefully over here for the nuances, and of course, here in the Pacific, we have, you know, quite a bit of a brouhaha escalating between the Chinese and Japanese, which most people look at as a test of not only Japan and China but really of the United States because Japan is seen as a proxy of American interests here.

You know, David Sanger wrote the Pool Report this evening, monitoring President Obama at the U.N., and he made an interesting comment that Wen Jiabao, the premier, when he spoke at their joint meeting, his arms were quite stiff, his face looked pretty sober, that he worked hard not to make any news. But there clearly wasn't a lot of affection in the meeting between Wen Jiabao and President Obama.

So I think you've got to look between the lines rather than at the lines when it comes to the issues going on with China because things have gone rather badly in U.S.-China relations compared to where they were a year ago.

CONAN: And may go a bit worse tomorrow. Michele Kelemen, the United States is suspected to attend a meeting of ASE, on the Asian-Southeastern countries, where the issue of the South China Sea, many countries in the area claim the South China Sea, but China claims just about all of it, and there's apparently going to be a statement issued about freedom of navigation in this area, which is certain to cause some ripples in Beijing.

KELEMEN: Yeah, well, we'll have to that will be the test for tomorrow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Steve?

Mr. CLEMONS: I think that's absolutely right. I think that what you are seeing in Asia right now is a fundamental shift, and we need to get our head around how we're going to deal with it. Because during you know, there was a joke that a friend of mine in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to make. And I ask him: What is China's grand strategy? And he says, well, our strategy is how to keep you Americans distracting in small, Middle Eastern countries.

And during the Bush administration and substantially, you know, even as we saw in this U.N. speech from President Obama, there had been a sense in Asia that America was sort of absent, was distracted by other things.

And I think President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Gates have worked hard to reestablish a deep presence in the region and have made many trips here and really been ratcheting that up at the same time that the world sees China rising.

It's sort of the Google of countries today, whereas the United States looks more like the General Motors of nations, if you will. And it's that promise of what China is becoming that is really changing the way global gravity, global power is working.

And I, you know, China is not a status-quo country wanting status-quo circumstances. It's expecting to get more respect and more latitude over what it sees as its core interest.

And we really need to get our own strategy in place, and right now it's just being here, but it's not necessarily evident what our long-term strategy is in the region.

CONAN: Let's go to a caller. This is Jeffrey(ph), Jeffrey with us from Des Moines.

JEFFREY (Caller): Yeah, great show. I'm hopeful for the work on Israel-Palestine. I guess my concern, his speech today sounds a lot like President Bush. Republicans and Democrats don't sound much different when they go to the United Nations.

I can't help but think of the members of the General Assembly as they look at a U.S. president. I mean, the U.N. was set up to prevent war, and you have a president of a country that spends as much money on military and war than all of the members of the General Assembly and Security Council combined, the same amount.

And so I guess my own feeling as a U.S. citizen is I sort of wait for the day where the United States comes to the General Assembly as a normal nation, not one that is always trying to project power and intervene in other countries, et cetera, and war and nation-building is more absent from our foreign policy and, you know, we're sort of nation-building by rebuilding Detroit and Cleveland and cities here rather than sort of having this empire of bases and things all over the world.

So I guess that's just my general feeling. I thank you for letting me share that.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Jeffrey. And Michele Kelemen, you've certainly covered a lot of speeches by both those presidents. I was struck by President Obama's talk about nuclear nonproliferation and his emphasis on that point and the new agreement with Russia, reassuring the members of the United Nations that the United States understood it had obligations under the nonproliferation treaty as well.

KELEMEN: Well, that's been one of the themes that he's done, you know, last year and this year, trying to sort of reset relations with the United Nations, in a way.

And they did have this big nuclear nonproliferation conference here earlier this year. He has made this a priority. He's worked with the Russians to try to show that the U.S. is doing its part to cut back on nuclear weapons, and it's also one way to turn the tables on Iran.

And he said today that Iran's the only NPT signer that can't prove that its program is peaceful.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Chuck(ph), and Chuck is with us from Iowa. Is that right?

CHUCK (Caller): No, it's Indiana.

CONAN: Indiana. I'm having trouble reading the screen today. Go ahead.

CHUCK: Yeah. Okay. I would just like to say for political reasons, and I have to give some of the blame to the media. In this country, we seem to be negative to every prospect of trying to do something. It seems to me that Obama is trying very hard to cause some agreement to take place after all these years of very disenchanted situations in the Middle East.

We have to remember, if you want to look at the positive side, that it was Jimmy Carter who was able to get a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt with some very lasting peace, and none of that has ever been challenged or broken. So I think we ought to work together, whether Republicans or Democrats, to support the president when he's trying to achieve a situation that the world is really involved. And if we don't achieve peace over there, then we're always going to have problems, and we're always going to be thinking about the next war or the next military.

So I would just encourage the media and everybody to be more positive and to see if we can take the things that really mean something and not turn them around and use them against somebody who is really trying to work hard for peace. And that's my comment.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. And let's turn to Abderrahim Foukara, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Jazeera International. You mentioned that, well, it's clear this president has focused on the Middle East much earlier in his administration than the previous two American presidents and has brought about a resumption of talks. But there is a fatigue, it seems to me, amongst people in the Middle East and a skepticism, if not cynicism, about whether anything is actually going to become of this.

Mr. FOUKARA: The problem that President Barack Obama faces in the Middle East is that he is damned if he does and damned if he does not. When he first assumed office, he raised hope so much in the region, that he could do so much for Israelis and Palestinians. And then the going really got tough. And then, as I said earlier, his standing, at least in the Arab world - and I have no reason to believe that it's not the same in Israel, as well - started to degrade.

Now, the point that you raise is that he is probably the very first president in a long, long time that hasn't decided to make the Middle East a top priority for his administration right from day one. And I think a lot of people in the region give him credit for that, but his problem - the problem that he's facing now is, as I said, is the amount of help that he actually initially raised.

The other problem that he has with Arabs and Israelis, is that every time he tries to open one door with one side, he seems to close a door with the other side. The issue, for example, of the Jewish character of the Israeli state, this is something that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been adamant that the Palestinians accept if they want progress.

And this is clearly, to all intents and purposes, something that President Barack Obama has adopted as official U.S. policy, except that for the Arab side, regardless of what President Abbas says, the other side of the people - whether they are Palestinian or Arabs at large -this is the main reservation they have with that. If you acknowledge the Jewish character of the Israeli state, what implication will that have, first of all, for hundreds of thousands of Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, who live inside of Israel; and then what will the implications be for millions of Palestinian refuges and the issue of right of return? He is obviously trying extremely hard to circle - to square a circle. Good luck to him.

CONAN: That's what he meant when he mentioned the hard realities of demographies. So in any case, we're talking about the president's speech to the United Nations, earlier today, and how it's being received. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Steve Clemons, let me turn to you again in Beijing. The appreciation of Barack Obama as world leader, how much does his standing in issues like the Middle East, like Iraq and Afghanistan, affect his perception in places like Beijing?

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, I think it's much more connected than many analysts normally give credit to. I think they - that China has a sort of nuanced approach. They like President Obama, to some degree, more than they like President Bush, but they haven't seen the signs that they would like to see of a confident, stable structure that - they sense - at least the line they're feeding various people over here, is that the White House is inconsistent. And that when it comes to other episodes around the world, the president isn't exactly winning.

Now, in cases like the nuclear security summit at the - that really did start at the U.N. General Assembly meeting last year. That is considered to be a solid move.

In climate change, China and the United States engaged each other, came out of the process through, you know, some tough arm wrestling and largely seemed happy with it. But when they - you know, I have had Chinese officials here talk both about Benjamin Netanyahu and the fact that they see - the fact that President Obama essentially lost the battle with a leader of a client state, in their view - that's something that China doesn't often do. And they see Afghanistan as, again, another constraint on America's power and America's ability to move around the world.

And so they see a sort of handicapped giant nation that it wants to see in a healthier way, but they don't think that the president yet has these issues resolved. So there's a doubt about American power, and I think it's one of the reasons why China is emerging more rapidly and quickly. It has - I wrote a piece once, called it sort of Beijing's fragile swagger, because even though there's a growing confidence in China, there's also a confession that comes along about how weak China feels and what a house of cards they feel they have being, you know, 100th in per capita income in the world and not being ready to be the kind of leader of the United States. So there's a real lament about the way they see the United States and President Obama.

CONAN: Steve Clemons, go get some sleep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CLEMONS: Thanks.

CONAN: Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, with us, very late in the night in Beijing or early in the morning. And Abderrahim Foukara, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. FOUKARA: Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: He is the Washington bureau chief and head of United States for the Arab language network, al Jazeera, with us from the U.N. And we have to thank Michele Kelemen for her time today, and we will look forward to her continuing coverage as the president stays in New York through today and part of tomorrow as well?

KELEMEN: That's right.

CONAN: We'll look forward to what happens at the ASEAN meeting which could be very interesting. Michele Kelemen, NPR's diplomacy correspondent. Stay with us. We're going to talk with NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich. If you'd like to make some suggestions as to what Robert should follow up next, if you've been wondering about something that really needs investigating, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.