President Obama’s United Nations General Assembly Speech

President Barrack Obama is critiqued and praised by some as an exemplar of liberalism in international relations, but much about his approach can be viewed as an expression of Constructivist thinking as well. This should not perhaps, be surprising since he demonstrates nuanced deliberation in his thinking and public communication. This is exemplified in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 28th, 2015.

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In this particular address, this president’s professorial bent was particularly notable, as he seemed to urge his audience, with a born teacher’s persistence, to grasp nuance in many issues of concern around the world. His approach appears to reflect aspects of constructivism, as well, a recent arrival to the portfolio of ‘isms’ available to international relations scholars. Although anything dealing with the real world must explain nearly unimaginable complexity and flux, any assessment of the real world must also be complex, needing to draw from multiple theories, all of which are, necessarily, simplifications.

Liberalism, in international relations, grows out of post-Renaissance, Enlightenment ideas, including those of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. 1 2 John Locke proposed the equality of men in the 1600s, based on his belief in their creation by one creator deity. 3 This departed dramatically from previous hierarchical assumptions. Locke asserted that a person’s contribution to the world conferred worth. 4 Immanuel Kant’s writings in the late 1700s asserted that peace was a paramount goal.

He proposed that all nations should ideally be republican, defined “freedom of the members of a society (as men)…, the dependence of all upon a single common legislation (as subjects); and by the law of their equality (as citizens)”. 5 and that this was “the original basis of every form of civil constitution.” Kant’s assertion that democracies are actually despotic may confuse modern readers, but he is defining a republic as “separation of the executive power (the administration) from the legislative.” 6 Kant then defines despotism as “the autonomous execution by the state of laws…it has itself decreed”. 7

Democracies, he felt, were ultimately despotic because the wishes of the many would over-rule the wishes of the few, and everyone would want to be the leader.8 The ideal of universal republicanism, Kant asserted, was most amenable to perpetual peace because citizens would be more averse to authorizing war, and its associated costs/horrors, than a single monarch not accountable to the people or responsible for the expense of conflict. 9

Republics, autonomous and free from crippling debt, could co-exist peacefully, Kant asserted. They could respect each other’s sovereignty, avoid taking over, exchanging, or selling each other, and avoid creating paralyzing debt situations. They could even cooperate as a “federation of free states.” 10 This notion of cooperation seems key to today’s institutions that aim to prevent wholesale war (e.g., the UN).

In President Obama’s speech, many such ideas resonating with liberalism are echoed. For example, when the President praises the UN for seven decades of “forging alliances,” “supporting… strong democracies accountable to their people”, “by building an international system that imposes a cost on those who choose conflict over cooperation” and supporting “the dignity and equal worth of all people,” Obama echoes much of Kant’s thinking. 11

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Kant’s republics are accountable to their citizens, a concept to which Obama also alludes. Kant’s republican citizens are equal as citizens, paralleling Obama’s reference to “dignity and equal worth.” 12 13 This reflects the contemporary summary statement of Michael Doyle that Liberalism values the “freedom of the individual”: consisting of negative freedoms (from oppression), positive freedoms (access to education/health care), and freedom to vote. 14

Obama goes on to praise the “international rules and norms,” for example, those created by the United Nations. Obama credits the “diplomatic cooperation” that permitted progress away from varied human miseries (poverty and disease, for example) and prevented “bigger countries from imposing our will on smaller ones.” 15 This evokes Kant’s idea of sovereignty (the right of one country to not be taken over by another). In the context of this speech, Obama references “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and further aggression in eastern Ukraine.” 16 This is a mild summary of dramatic actions and reactions, heavily covered by US media, involving an apparent about-face on an EU agreement, protests, governmental overthrow, and military incursion.

What Obama says next appears to express Liberal orientation. Obama notes that “America has few economic interests in Ukraine.” 17 This acknowledges significant and relevant interests other than the sheer maintenance of power. In denying that any US has economic interests in Ukraine, Obama is both reminding his audience that exercising power is not the only reason for concern about another country and reassuring the Ukrainians that the USA has no particular self-interest in interfering. This recognition of motivators other than power is characteristic of liberal theory. For example, considering businesses as international actors worthy of consideration and deserving of operating without what Doyle calls “state interference” characterizes LIberalism. 18

As further evidence of the current President’s leaning away from Realism and towards political Liberalism, Obama explicitly makes negative reference to a set of ideas that seem to closely follow political Realism, while not specifically describing them as such. He warns that some members of the UN, most likely Russia, agitate for regression to an earlier belief system holding that “power is a zero-sum game; that might make right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, the order must be imposed by force.” 19

This simplified re-statement of political Realist assumptions highlights and emphasizes the difference between these ideas, which Obama implies are archaic, and his ideas, which seem to reflect Liberal ideals. Obama appears to accuse Russia of adhering to or regressing towards a Realist approach in international relations, placing them in conflict with more Liberal tendencies of modern democracies and countries aspiring to emulate more long-established democracies.

Again, in discussing the Syrian situation, Obama takes a Liberal approach. He explicitly references “international order” and the USA’s valuing of this. 20 (This is not the same as the international balance of power, valued by Realists.) It seems to mirror what Kant implies in imagining a future “federation of free states.” 21

Obama, in describing the Syrian regime’s abuses against their own population, asserts, “When a dictator slaughters… his own people, that is not just… one nation’s internal affairs – it… affects us all. Likewise, when a terrorist group beheads captives, slaughters the innocent, and enslaves women, that’s not a single nation’s national security problem — that is an assault on all humanity. 22 “ This extends US interests to preserving human dignity and freedom globally, even absent any power relationship. This connects to Locke’s Liberal promotion of intervention to prevent another person from being harmed or oppressed. By extension, by this theory, a state might be permitted or encouraged to take action to prevent another state from oppressing its neighbors or any other state. 23

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Obama additionally addresses our evolving relations with Cuba from what seems to be a Liberal perspective. Obama specifically refers to increasing “people-to-people ties” with people in Cuba as one legitimate way, right up there alongside diplomacy, to encourage the Cuban government to accord their population more human rights and resolve US-Cuba differences. 24 This appears to invoke what Joseph Nye calls social Liberalism. 25

As Nye explains it, social Liberalism reflects a conviction that if people can know one another, they will fear less and care more about one another. Nye does acknowledge the counter-argument that the elites in finance, and other fields, in pre-War Europe probably often knew one another socially and professionally, but nonetheless enthusiastically shot, bombed, and gassed one another in war-time. However, as Nye points out, the hope of the liberal view is that familiarity can breed respect rather than contempt, and that calm stability, in trade, for example, can promote further and broader stability and engender lasting peace. 26

A different approach to analyzing international relations pronouncements such as Obama’s, as well as understanding and predicting events and behaviors, is known as Constructivism. This theory seems to reflect increasing acknowledgment in other social sciences that the way humans think about, or socially constructed, the world, shapes the way that the world is perceived, and therefore, the basis for action and decision-making. Additionally, rather than assuming that all entities acting in the world are necessarily nation-states, with some sort of fixed identity, constructivism suggests that people’s ideas about themselves, their discourse, can be just as important as a country name. Ted Hopf notes that self-interest still motivates most actors (a Realist hold-over) but characterizes Constructivism as questioning who the self actually is. 27

Traditionally, IR analysis has equated the self with a nation-state with, for example, fixed geographic boundaries and perhaps a common language or ethnicity: Hopf’s “single eternal meaning.” 28 By contrast, Constructivism permits recognition of a self – the actor in ‘international’ interactions – based on ideology, history, culture, or other attributes.

In discussing ISIL, Obama sounds very Constructivist, acknowledging ISIL’s status as an actor on the global stage equivalent to a nation. 29 This is because, among other attributes, ISIL evolved from another non-state group (Al-Qaeda), is religious/ideological, is explicitly transnational, and adopts a millennium-old world view and map from the Caliphate era. ISIL is an actor based entirely on its adherents’ construction of their shared world view, a very Constructivist situation. As such, ISIL challenges analysis that imputes motivations based on, for example, loyalty to institutions associated with nation-states, such as the military, or banks, or the United Nations, or interest in building industrial capacity or Western-style educational systems.30

For this reason, Obama’s reference to a military coalition to combat ISIL’s ideology seems less Constructivist than an ideological offense might be more effective. Obama does not pursue this line very far in this particular speech. He merely encourages Muslims to reject the warped view of Islam that supports terrorism. 31 To some degree, this is practical. After all, ISIL’s adherents outwardly resemble their neighbors, wherever they are. Their allegiances, however, and their resulting choices, are not necessarily to their nominal country of citizenship. Obama is perhaps hoping that Muslims are best situated to monitor and influence their fellow believers.

Obama’s description of Syrians’ suffering and terrorist horrors reflects a Constructivist expectation that there are, or should be, global norms of behavior, for states, or non-state. This may reflect what Finnemore and Sikkink, both active in Constructivist discourse, characterize as the third, or internationalization stage of norm development. At this point, according to these authors, conformity to emerging motives of altruism and empathy acquires the attraction of reputation and esteem and is enforced by habit and institutionalization, globally. 32

Constructivism, as a theory, continues to ripen in complexity, benefitting from input from intellectual movements such as feminism and disciplines such as economics. Their observations are relevant to Obama’s speech. As noted above, Obama asks Muslims to reject a “poisonous ideology”. 33

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However, a Construcitivist might ask, “What is a Muslim? As Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate economist of social justice and identity, points out, “Western public policy” insists that because Islam teaches peace, therefore a ‘“true Muslim” must be a tolerant individual (so come off it and be peaceful)”’. 34 This is a complex area where religion and ideology, ethnicity and nationalism, all may overlap and not allow for easy categorization. However, a Constructivist approach at least allows for the sort of nuanced discussion that these other branches of social sciences are articulating.

Obama’s speech is subtle and complex, like the person himself, and like most aspects of the real world. It does not, as a result, allow for simplistic slotting into one singular theoretical framework. However, Liberalism is clearly an important part of Obama’s international relations ‘DNA’. Additionally, Obama’s implicit acknowledgment of the role that an identity that is socially constructed – namely that of Muslim (whether peaceful mainstream Muslim, or terrorist, or whatever other possibilities might be available to a believing follower of Islam), seems Constructivist. Both approaches are helpful in understanding the subtle message of an Obama speech, and in illuminating the immense complexity of world affairs. Both, therefore, seem useful.

Bibliography

Doyle, Michael W. “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Scott P. Handler, 75-79. CQ Press, 1983.

Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Scott P. Handler, 108‐116. CQ Press, 1998.

Hopf, Ted. “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Scott P. Handler, 102-106. CQ Press, 1998.

Kant, Immanuel. “Perpetual Peace.” In International Politics Classic and Contempory Readings, edited by Scott P. Handler, 71-74. CQ Press, 1798.

Locke, John. “Of the State of Nature, Of the State Of War, and Of the Ends of Political Society and Government.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Scott P. Handler, 65-70. CQ Press, 1690.

Nye, Joseph. “Liberalism Reviewed.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Scott P. Handler, 83. CQ Press, 2007.

Obama, Barrack. “Remarks by President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly Speech.The White House. 2015. Web.

Sen, Amartya. “The Violence of Illusion.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Scott P. Handler, 129-147. CQ Press, 2007.

Footnotes

  1. Locke, John. (1690) “Of the State of Nature, Of the State Of War, and Of the Ends of Political Society and Government.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Scott P. Handler, 65-70. (CQ Press, 2012), 65.
  2. Kant, Immanuel. (1798) “Perpetual Peace.” In International Politics Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Scott P. Handler, ( CQ Press, 2012), 71.
  3. Locke, 65.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Kant, 71.
  6. Kant, 72.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Kant, 71.
  10. Kant, 72.
  11. Obama, Barrack. “Remarks by President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly Speech.” The White House. 2015. Web.
  12. Kant, 71.
  13. Obama, 8.
  14. Doyle, Michael W., 1983. “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Scott P. Handler. (CQ Press, 2012), 75.
  15. Obama, 8.
  16. Obama, 10.
  17. Obama, 10.
  18. Doyle, 76.
  19. Obama, 8.
  20. (Ibid).
  21. (Kant, 71).
  22. (Obama, 11-12).
  23. (Locke, 66).
  24. Obama, 11.
  25. Nye, Joseph. (2007) “Liberalism Reviewed.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Scott P. Handler, (CQ Press, 2012), 83.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Hopf, Ted. (1998) “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Scott P. Handler, (CQ Press, 2012), 102.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Obama, 12.
  30. The impact of this sort of “apocalyptic cult” has been outsized; consider that Osama Bin Laden came from one of the world’s poorest countries – Yemen.
  31. Obama, 12.
  32. Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. (1998) “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed.Scott P. Handler. (CQ Press, 2012), 112.
  33. Obama, 12.
  34. Sen, Amartya. (2007) “The Violence of Illusion.” In International Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Scott P. Handler. (CQ Press, 2012), 133.
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