‘A Nation Ringed by Walls Would Only Imprison Itself’

In his final U.N. address, President Obama pleads with world leaders to keep global borders, markets, and minds open.

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 20, 2016  -- U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on Sept. 20, 2016. The 71st session of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday opened its annual high-level General Debate at the UN headquarters in New York, with a focus on pushing for the world's sustainable development. (Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images)
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 20, 2016 -- U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on Sept. 20, 2016. The 71st session of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday opened its annual high-level General Debate at the UN headquarters in New York, with a focus on pushing for the world's sustainable development. (Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images)

President Barack Obama used the pulpit of his last speech before the United Nations to make an impassioned plea for an open world order, even as walls rise against refugees, protectionism makes a comeback, and the West faces the prospect of a simmering cold war with Russia and other authoritarian states.

The address represented a rallying cry for beleaguered democratic, pro-trade governments to promote the values of human rights and free markets. Obama also explicitly rejected the politics of isolationism, demagoguery, and nationalism that have gained political traction from the American heartland to Moscow.

“There appears to be a growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism right now, and I want everybody to understand — I am not neutral in that contest. I believe in a liberal political order,” Obama said. “So those of us who believe in democracy, we need to speak out forcefully.”

The U.S. president took aim at plenty of targets during his speech but trained a sharp burst of rhetorical fire on a country that has, in the course of his own administration, become Washington’s international nemesis and, at best, awkward diplomatic dance partner — Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He specifically rebuked Russia for intimidating its neighbors and using military might to shape the future of its growing sphere of influence.

Obama argued that Russia’s military interventions — from Syria, where it is shoring up President Bashar al-Assad’s government, to Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels seized control of Crimea and continue to challenge a Western-backed government in Kiev — are unsustainable over the long haul.

“In a world that left the age of empire behind, we see Russia attempting to recover lost glory through force,” Obama told the U.N. gathering as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other top Russian diplomats listened from the floor. “If Russia continues to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, it may be popular at home, it may fuel nationalist fervor for a time, but over time it is also going to diminish its stature and make its borders less secure.”

Obama also took a swipe at China, which has erected an archipelago of military installations on disputed islands in the South China Sea. He said a “peaceful resolution” of China’s territorial dispute “will mean far greater stability than … militarization” in the region. Obama also challenged China to ensure that its troublesome client, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, pays a price for his recent test of a nuclear explosive, a flagrant violation of multiple Security Council resolutions that China has supported. “When North Korea tests a bomb, that endangers all of us. And any country that breaks this basic bargain must face consequences,” he said.

Hours after Obama’s speech, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Turkey’s democratically elected, though increasingly authoritarian, leader — delivered his first address to the international community since a failed coup attempt in July. Erdogan implored world leaders to crack down on Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric accused of orchestrating the coup from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. “If you do not fight against [Gulen’s organization] now, it may be too late,” he said.

Obama’s speech also served up a blunt rejection of growing calls for sealing national borders, including Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposal for a “beautiful wall” along the U.S. southern border to keep out foreigners from Mexico and elsewhere.

“Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” Obama said. “So the answer cannot be a simple rejection of global integration. Instead, we must work together to make sure the benefits of such integration are … squarely addressed.”

That included a now familiar endorsement of free trade, which Obama hailed as a necessary component for a more prosperous and peaceful world. He described “trade wars,” protectionism, and tariff hikes as “failed models of the past” and reiterated his pitch for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries awaiting ratification by signatories.

But even in Washington’s political climate, Obama’s free trade message has become increasingly isolated. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has disowned the trade pact, despite her vocal support for it as Obama’s secretary of state; so has progressive firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who challenged her for the nomination. Trump calls the trade pact, which would link together about 40 percent of the global economy, one of the “worst deals” ever forged.

Yet Obama sounded an uncharacteristically populist note in his speech, highlighting the need for the world’s wealthiest to strike a fairer bargain with the world’s workers. “A world in which 1 percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable,” the U.S. president told the gathering of foreign leaders. “A society that asks less of oligarchs than ordinary citizens will rot from within.”

Although part of Obama’s speech centered on his forward-looking policy goals, he also sought to burnish his presidential legacy on the world stage.

He noted that the meltdown of the global financial system, which nearly collapsed during the final years of George W. Bush’s administration, was stabilized under his watch. He cited landmark diplomatic agreements with Cuba, resulting in restored relations, and Iran, where sanctions relief was traded for the restriction of Tehran’s nuclear program. He also pointed to Washington’s role in supporting peace talks that ended Latin America’s longest civil war in Colombia.

Obama traversed a range of pressing issues he still hopes to tackle before he steps down in January, singling out the need to secure commitments from governments to make binding the Paris climate pact, an accord to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we don’t act boldly, the bill that could come due will be mass migrations and cities submerged and nations displaced and food supplies decimated and conflicts born of despair,” he warned.

But Obama struck a fatalistic note over the prospects of restoring peace in the Middle East, where leaders have demonized rival sects, persecuted political opponents, and tolerated the perversion of Islam. “[Such forces] are now at work helping to fuel both Syria’s tragic civil war and the mindless, medieval menace of ISIL,” he said, referring to the Islamic State.

“If we are honest, we understand that no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to coexist for long,” Obama said.

In the meantime, Obama said the United States and its coalition partners will continue to undertake a “united and relentless” military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. Beyond that, Washington will limit its action to pressing for an elusive diplomatic settlement to the conflict while working to deliver assistance to those in need. The recent breakdown in the Syrian cease-fire, however, has raised doubts over the viability of such a plan.

Photo credit: WANG YING/Xinhua via Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy@columlynch

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