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Obama’s Curious UN Farewell Address

President Obama’s U.N. speech looked critically at the U.S. role in world and admitted capitalism’s shortcomings, a contrast with Obama’s previous bluster about “indispensable” and “exceptional” America

Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly's seventy-first session on Tuesday, September 20, 2016. (Photo: United Nations/Cia Pak)

The Barack Obama of 2008 reemerged at the United Nations on Tuesday, bookending his presidency with an uplifting address somewhat critical of American power and calling for an end to economic inequality at home and abroad.

The speech revealed the president that Obama might have been – and that many people had hoped for – if he had successfully confronted the American Deep State. But he waited until his farewell U.N. address, much like Dwight Eisenhower did with his Farewell Address in 1961 warning about the Military-Industrial Complex, to say what he really thought without having to suffer the full consequences inside the Beltway.

Obama didn’t mention the word “exceptional” once as he has in his past U.N. speeches, and he kept his distorted criticism of Russia and China to a minimum. (He briefly tried to say the U.S. was not behind the Ukraine coup.) Last year, bashing Beijing and Moscow was the main point of an address steeped in hypocrisy.

We saw an earlier glimpse of this outspoken Obama in his wide-ranging interview with the Atlantic magazine last April, in which he expressed his frustrations with obstacles put in his way by the Washington foreign policy elite. But at the U.N. he went full bore. He uncharacteristically criticized his own country before both allies and perceived enemies for the way the U.S. had at times used its power in the world.

“Power hasn’t been unipolar for most of history,” he said. “The end of the Cold War has allowed many to forget this. America’s adversaries and some of its allies believe all problems are caused by and can be solved by Washington. Too many in Washington believe that too.

“I do not think that America can — or should — impose our system of government on other countries,” he said. “As leaders of democratic governments make the case for democracy abroad, we better strive harder to set a better example at home.”

Challenging Capitalism

While asserting that the United States has been, on balance, a force for good, Obama recognized that there are legitimate complaints about how the recent era of “globalization” has affected many people around the world and he cited shortcomings of modern capitalism.

“Twenty-five years after the Cold War the world is less violent and more prosperous and yet there is uncertainty and strife,” he said.

A world in which “one percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable,” Obama said. Advanced communications have made vast numbers of people painfully aware of this, and legitimately resentful, he said.

“Expectations rise, then, faster than governments can deliver, and a pervasive sense of injustice undermines people’s faith in the system” he said, adding that this problem can’t be fixed by going back to planned economies but he acknowledged that the “excesses of capitalism” are not the answer either.

There is another path, he said. “It doesn’t require succumbing to soulless capitalism,” but instead “we must recognize that closing the inequality gap and bringing economic growth that is board-based” is what’s needed.

He called for rebuilding trade unions and “investing in our people and strengthening safety nets so people can take more risks.” This wasn’t charity, he said, but what was necessary to create a stable world economy with the requisite foundation of social justice.


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Obama offered a defense of the U.S., but he dispensed with the usual verbiage about “indispensable nation.” While the U.S. had made mistakes, he said, it had worked to create higher standards for the world banking system to rein in the “excesses of capitalism.” It is rare to hear a U.S. president mention the word “capitalism,” let alone in such a negative light.

“While open markets and capitalism have raised standards of living around the globe, globalization combined with rapid progress and technology has also weakened the position of workers and their ability to secure a decent wage,” he said.

“In advanced economies like my own, unions have been undermined, and many manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Often, those who benefit most from globalization have used their political power to further undermine the position of workers.”

He said “global capital is too often unaccountable — nearly $8 trillion stashed away in tax havens, a shadow banking system that grows beyond the reach of effective oversight. …”

“I understand that the gaps between rich and poor are not new … but technology now allows any person with a smart-phone to see how the most privileged among us live and the contrast between their own lives and others.”

Obama’s concern seemed to be how to avoid a world-wide revolt.

Surreal Tone

But the speech took on a surreal tone when contrasted with the reality of Obama’s eight years in office. Listening to the thoughtful elements of his address, some might have wondered why the President hadn’t acted in accord with these concerns throughout his two terms in office.

Instead, Obama was a president who bailed out the bankers and jailed the whistleblowers. While the Wall Street bankers whose reckless behavior crashed the world’s economy skated from accountability (along with Bush administration officials who rationalized torture), Obama used the Espionage Act more times than all his predecessors combined to prosecute people inside the government who tried to expose wrongdoing.

Obama was a president who upheld the neoliberal economic order; signed a bill that would allow the military to make arrests on U.S. soil; engaged in his own disastrous “regime change” in Libya; and supported the establishment of a Salafist principality in eastern Syria that would turn into the Islamic State.

He was a president of drone strikes against civilians; and coups in Ukraine and Honduras; a president who continued NATO’s march to Russia’s borders; oversaw vast illegal surveillance of American citizens and a president who backed a global trade deal, the TPP, that will complete the corporate coup d’état (though he bizarrely said at the U.N. that it would protect workers’ rights and the environment.)

If this address was any indication of what’s to come, Obama will become very successful — as an ex-president.

Joe Lauria

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached  and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.

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