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'World Must Move in a New Direction,' Obama Tells UN

Haider Rizvi

US President Barack Obama urges world leaders to move in a new direction saying they "must embrace a new era of engagement" in his first speech to the annual UN General Assembly. (AFP/Emmanuel Dunand)

UNITED NATIONS - Is the United States willing to give up its role as the world's most powerful cop? The message delivered by U.S. President Barack Obama to the U.N. General Assembly suggests that it's quite likely.

"Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside," Obama told world leaders at the 192-member Assembly's 64th session, which commenced here at the world body's headquarters in New York Tuesday.

"Each society must search for its path, and no path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people, and in the past," he said, amid loud applause from the audience comprising more than 100 heads of state and government.

Addressing the General Assembly, Obama made it clear that he would tread a different path regarding his country's role in world affairs and that his administration was ready to embrace multilateralism in order to address crucial issues facing the world.

"The time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must move in a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now," he said, acknowledging the fact that in the past the U.S. has "acted unilaterally".

That anti-U.S. sentiment has also served as "an excuse for our collective inaction", he added.

"This body has often become a forum for playing politics and exploiting grievances rather than solving problems," Obama said. "After all, it is easy to walk up to this podium and to point fingers and stoke divisions."

In his speech, Obama, who is a former professor of U.S. constitutional law, criticised the world body's General Assembly for devoting more time during the annual debate to "bickering" rather than being pro-active to solve crucial issues at hand.

"Nothing is easier than blaming others for our troubles," he said. "Anyone can do that... In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate other nation."

In Obama's view, the traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in "an interconnected world, nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone cold war."

Though pleased with the fact that the new U.S. leader is willing to act differently, many leaders from the developing countries who spoke before the General Assembly offered different views on crucial issues facing the world and called for specific actions.

"Developed countries should open their markets to developing countries and reduce or exempt tariffs. They should honour their commitments on debt relief and official development assistance," said Hu Jin Tao, president of China.

Like Obama, Hu also emphasised the need for multilateralism in order to address the issues of global concern, but in a different way.

"We should be more tolerant to one another and live together in harmony," he said. "Mutual learning and tolerance among different civilisations is an inexhaustible source of strength for social progress. All countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor are equal."

On Monday, both Obama and Hu made strong commitments on fighting global warming and have indicated that they would also work closely with regard to discussions on the U.N. agenda on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, which are due to start Thursday.

For his part, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva expressed similar views on mutual cooperation and multilateralism, but expressed concerns about the pace at which the developing world is able to assume its due share in solving global issues.

"Poor and developing countries must increase their share of control in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank," he said. "Otherwise there can be no real change and the peril of new and greater [financial] crises will be inevitable."

Lula also reiterated the developing countries' demand for U.N. reforms and raised questions about its undemocratic structure in maintaining global peace and security, because five of the fifteen members have more say in decision-making than the rest.

"Sixty-five years later, the world can no longer be run by the same rules and values that prevailed at the Bretton Woods Conference," he told delegates. "Likewise, the U.N. and its Security Council can no longer be run under the same structures imposed after the Second World War."

Lula's call for reforms of the world's leading financial institutions was fully supported by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "We need to reform the IMF and the World Bank," said Sarkozy. "Voting rights need to be more equitably distributed between countries."

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who spoke at the Assembly on behalf of the 27-member European Union, held similar views on this issue and said that the E.U. was determined to promote global financial stability and sustainable world recovery.

In his speech, Obama identified four major issues that need the utmost attention of the world community. Obama's list included issues related to nuclear disarmament, peace and security, climate change and global economy.

The U.S. president assured full cooperation of his country with the U.N. in its attempts to address these issues.

"The United States stands ready to begin a new chapter of international cooperation - one that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all nations," he told delegates. "With confidence in our cause, and with a commitment to our values, we call on all nations to join us in building the future that our people deserve."

Obama was silent about the issue of U.N. reforms.

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