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In U.N. Speech, Obama Calls For Diplomacy, U.S. Engagement


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We begin with a day at the United Nations, as world leaders gathered in New York. President Obama gave his annual speech to the General Assembly. He spent about 40 minutes giving a detailed defense of America's role in the world. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the president insisted that the U.S. will remain a key player in international events, despite criticism at home and overseas.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama's been denounced by Russia and other countries for acting as though America is special and unique. These critiques argue that the U.S. have overreached in Syria and other conflicts across the Mid-East and North Africa. Today at the U.N. Obama stood in front of those world leaders - critics and allies alike. He acknowledged the difference of opinion and doubled down.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe America is exceptional. In part, because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interests, but for the interests of all.

SHAPIRO: He said the notion of American imperialism is simply propaganda, disproven by the facts. In fact, Obama argued the real threat is not that the U.S. will overreach...

OBAMA: The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

SHAPIRO: So here's the crunch where Obama finds himself. At home, Americans are skeptical of U.S. involvement in international projects. Overseas, foreign leaders are skeptical of what they see as American meddling. That leaves Obama a lonely man, arguing that the U.S. must continue to play an active role around the world. He said the alternative is to let any dictator kill thousands of civilians at will with no consequences.

OBAMA: If that's the world that people want to live in, they should say so and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves.

SHAPIRO: With that broad philosophy, the president took on specific global crises in the speech to the U.N. First, the civil war in Syria. He said now that Bashar al-Assad has agreed to give up chemical weapons, the U.N. Security Council must pass a resolution holding him to that commitment.

OBAMA: If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.

SHAPIRO: Beyond chemical weapons, Obama said the international community must work together to find a political end to Syria's civil war. He specifically criticized Russia for blocking the U.N. Security Council from intervening.

OBAMA: Let's remember this is not a zero sum endeavor. We're no longer in a Cold War. There's no great game to be won.

SHAPIRO: Obama also talked about diplomatic opportunities in the world today. He said a peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis remains a top U.S. priority. That's a subject he often brings up at this annual U.N. speech. But this year, it comes as the parties have actually agreed to talks.

OBAMA: So the time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace. Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks.

SHAPIRO: The other top diplomatic priority he named is Iran's nuclear program. Obama talked about positive signs coming from Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rouhani.

OBAMA: But to succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.

SHAPIRO: He said Secretary of State John Kerry will work on reaching an agreement with Iran's government, but he didn't sound too confident of success.

OBAMA: The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.

SHAPIRO: It summed up the feel of Obama's speech as a whole, expressing hope that the international community can work together to solve tough problems and resignation that conflict and gridlock may be the more likely outcome. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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