‘Dictators, Democrats, Diplomats: Lend Me Your Earpieces’

Barack Obama has made a strong commitment to the United Nations. But will his speech on Thursday live up to those of past presidents?

On Thursday, BarackObama will take to the U.N. General Assembly podium to deliver his secondaddress to the world’s leaders, making him the 12thU.S. presidentto use that platform as a means to set out America’s role in the world. U.S.presidential statements, while usually filled with tedious platitudes and loftyproposals that never materialize, occasionally rise above the mundane. From JohnF. Kennedy’s Cold War spats with the Soviets to George W. Bush’schallenge to Saddam Hussein, speeches have helped give a broaderperspective on U.S. foreign-policy goals while illustrating the periodic backand forth of Washington’s political pendulum.

In Thursday’s speech, Obama isexpected to underscore America’s break with the policies of his predecessor,highlighting his decisions to end combat operations in Iraq and reopen theMiddle East peace process. How will Obama measure up against his predecessors? Here’s a list of the most momentousAmerican presidential U.N. speeches.

April 1945. Franklin Delano Roosevelt playeda central role in creating the United Nations to manage the post-World War IIpeace. He even confided to members of his inner circle that he would considerresigning from the presidency at the end of the war to serve as U.N. secretarygeneral. But he never lived long enough to see the new internationalorganization established. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, 13 days beforehis scheduled address to the new international body, leaving the privilege tohis successor, Harry S. Truman. He was working on a draft speech thatwould compare the U.N.’s founding to the creation of the United States,according to Stephen Schlesinger in his book Act of Creation.

October 1946. Harry S. Truman sharedRoosevelt’s enthusiasm for the new international security organization, declaring that the first gathering of worldleaders in a General Assembly session — held on October 23, 1946, at AssemblyHall in Flushing Meadow, Queens — “symbolizes the abandonment by the UnitedStates of a policy of isolation.” Truman embraced the U.N. General Assembly,which then included 51 member states, as the “world’s supreme deliberativebody,” noting “the overwhelming majority of the American people, regardless of party,support the United Nations.” His speech was highly ambitious, yet humble,stripped of the emphasis on American exceptionalism that characterizes so manycontemporary U.S. presidential speeches to the U.N. General Assembly. “Thepeople of the United States are deeply proud and grateful that the UnitedNations has chosen our country for its headquarters,” he said. “All membernations, large and small, are represented here equally.” Still, Truman used thespeech effectively to project American democratic values on the world stage,outlining what Roosevelt famously called the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedomof religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

December 1953. The mood of optimism that infusedTruman’s maiden address was soon to be replaced by a deep sense of dread overthe end of America’s nuclear monopoly and the deepening of the Cold Warrivalry. Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivereda blunt account of the dangers posed by the possibility of war between the “twoatomic collosi” — the United States and the Soviet Union. “The dread secretand fearful engines of atomic might are not ours alone,” the president said.”The Secret is also known by the Soviet Union.”

Eisenhowerproposed his “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which called for the establishmentof an international agency that would stockpile nuclear fuel and convert it topeaceful uses for all nations. Four years later, the Vienna-based InternationalAtomic Energy Agency began its work monitoring the world’s nuclear powers.U.S.-led efforts to constrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons — whichculminated in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — helped reverse theirspread, although recently the establishment and growth of nuclear programs inIndia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan has challenged the internationalprotections system. As Eisenhower warned back then, “Let no one think that theexpenditure of vast sums for weapons and systems of defense can guaranteeabsolute safety…. The awful arithmetic of the atomic bomb doesn’t permit anysuch easy solution.”

September 1961. John F. Kennedy‘s speechreflected the deep anxiety of the period, marked by heightened U.S.-Sovietnuclear tensions. That assembly was facing its own crisis: The U.N.’s Swedishsecretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, had just been killed in a planecrash over Congo. “We meet in an hour of grief and challenge. Dag Hammarskjoldis dead,” Kennedy said. “But the United Nations lives.” Kennedy used his speechto kill off a proposal by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to replaceHammarskjold with a troika of three leaders selected by the West, the communistbloc, and the non-aligned states. “Whatever advantages such a plan may hold outto my own country, as one of the great powers, we reject it,” Kennedy said.”For we far prefer world law.”

Despite thegloomy climate, Kennedy’s ringing, lyrical speech showed that the United Statescould achieve its goals. The Soviets halted their efforts to force U.S.,British, and French troops from West Berlin, as East Germany began to erect theBerlin Wall. And Kennedy won support for an initiative to negotiate a limitednuclear test ban treaty. “The events of the next ten months may well decide thefate of man for the next ten thousand years,” Kennedy said. “And we in thishall shall be remembered either as part of the generation that turned thisplanet into a flaming funeral pyre or the generation that met its vow to savesucceeding generations from the scourge of war.”

1983 – 1985. RonaldReagan‘s address to the United Nations, in September, 26, 1983, came as theCold War had largely paralyzed the organization. The growth of the U.N.’smembership from newly decolonized nations, many of them aligned with the SovietUnion, made it harder and harder for the United States to accomplish its goals.In his address, Reagan exhorted the U.N. toremember its founding principles: “Whatever challenges the world was bound toface, the founders intended this body to stand for certain values, even if theycould not be enforced, and to condemn violence, even if it could not bestopped…. This body was to speak with the voice of moral authority. That was tobe its greatest power. What has happened to the dreams of the U.N.’s founders?”

Reaganportrayed America’s struggle with the Soviet Union in highly moral terms, aglobal competition between liberty and totalitarianism, and presented theexercise of American military power from Central America to the Middle East aspart of a defense of freedom. “We cannot count on the instinct for survival toprotect us against war,” Reagan said. “The United States, today as in the past,is a champion of freedom and self-determination for all people.”

Reagan’srelationship with then secretary-general Javier Pérez De Cuéllar was cordial,but the Peruvian diplomat deeply resented Reagan’s refusal to stand up tohostile U.S. Congress members, who had frozen funding for theorganization. “Will it be said that one legacy of the Reagan Administrationwill be the destruction of that which Roosevelt started?” Perez de Cuellar onceasked Reagan during a visit to Washington. Reagan never responded. But he wasalso able to show a touch of humility on occasion at the United Nations. “Wereadily acknowledge that the United States is far from perfect,” Reagan toldthe U.N. General Assembly in 1985.

October 1990. The fall of the Berlin Wall and thecollapse of the Soviet Union opened the United Nations to a new era ofcooperation and activism, culminating in the 1990 U.N. agreement — acceded toby the Russians — to authorize a U.S.-led military coalition to defend Kuwaitfrom Iraqi invasion. In a landmark speech before the General Assembly that sameyear, George H.W. Bush, a former U.S. envoy to the United Nations,declared, “This is a new and different world. Not since 1945 have we seen thereal possibility of using the United Nations as it was designed: as a centerfor international collective security.”

The speechmarked a return to the optimism of Truman, as the divisions of the past seemedto be put to rest. But the end of the Cold War also set the stage for anexplosion in peacekeeping, including demanding operations in Bosnia,Cambodia, and Somalia that would challenge the U.N.’s ability to maintain suchan ambitious global role.

September 1993. Bill Clinton, the firstpresident born after the U.N.’s founding, shared his predecessor’s appreciationof the organization as a vehicle for pursuing U.S. foreign-policy objectives,particularly peacekeeping. “U.N. peacekeeping holds the promise to resolve manyof this era’s conflicts,” Clinton told the General Assembly. “Thereason we have supported such missions is not, as some critics in the UnitedStates have charged, to subcontract American foreign policy, but to strengthenour security, protect our interests, and to share among nations the cost andeffort of pursuing peace.” Clinton echoed Reagan’s portrayal of America as theleader of free world. “The United States intends to remain engaged and tolead,” he said. “We cannot solve every problem, but we must and will serve as afulcrum for change and a pivot for peace.”

Clinton’selection coincided with a major expansion of U.N. peacekeeping ranks, whichgrew from about 10,000 in 1987 to about 80,000 in 1993. Clinton feared that theU.N. was overextended, and, even before the debacle in Somalia, which led tothe death of 18 U.S. Rangers, he was calling for caution. “The United Nationssimply cannot become engaged in every one of the world’s conflicts,” Clintonsaid. “If the American people are to say ‘yes’ to U.N. peacekeeping, the UnitedNations must know when to say ‘no.'”  Itwas that sense of caution that led the United States to block proposals by NewZealand and Nigeria to beef up a small peacekeeping mission in Rwanda as thecountry faced genocide — something Clinton would later cite as one of hisgreatest regrets.

Clinton’sSeptember 1998 speech, which came in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal,was remembered less for its content than for the rousing applause he receivedfrom the gathered heads of state, who saw him as the victim of a right-wingwitch hunt. As the president approached the podium, CNN broadcast images of himbeing questioned about whether he had asked Vernon Jordan to find MonicaLewinsky a job. One job that was under consideration was a post at the U.S.mission to the United Nations.

September 2002. Like his father, George W. Bushalso delivered his most important speech to the U.N. General Assembly as heprepared for war against Saddam Hussein. But the younger Bush failed torally the same kind of international coalition. Bushpresented a detailed case — based largely on erroneous claims of Iraq’sweapons capability and its links to al Qaeda — for acting against the Iraqigovernment. “We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass destructioneven when inspectors were in his country. Are we to assume he has stopped?”Bush asked. “Saddam Hussein’s regime is a grave and gathering danger. Will theUnited Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?”Bush presented the U.N. membership with a stark ultimatum: Either join in confronting Iraq or the United States would do it on its own. “We willwork with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions. But thepurposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Councilresolution will be enforced, the just demands of peace and security will bemet, or action will be unavoidable and a regime that has lost its legitimacywill also lose its power.”

September 2009. In his first address tothe U.N. General Assembly, President Barack Obama last year sought tomark a dramatic break from the Bush administration, highlighting his commitmentto prohibit torture, and conduct the war on terror under the rule of law. Healso affirmed his desire to repair the diplomatic divisions wrought by theU.S.-led war against Iraq, and to reach out to America’s enemies. “We havesought in word and deed a new era of engagement,” Obama told the gathering offoreign dignitaries at the General Assembly. “I took office at a time when manyaround the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust.” LikeReagan, Obama highlighted the special leadership role that American plays onthe world stage, noting that “America will live its values, and we will lead byexample.” Like Clinton, he mixed praise for the U.N. life-saving work aroundthe world with skepticism about its political masters’ ability to workcooperatively.

Hepledged to pay America’s U.N. bills on time and to support a series of initiatives on nuclear disarmament, human rights, and a range of other issues.But he also challenged the rest of the world to work with the United States.”This body has often become a forum for sowing discord instead of forgingcommon ground,” he said. “Those who used to chastise America for acting alonein the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’sproblems.”

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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