Here is President Obama’s speech at the UN. Too long and in places even rambling, but it makes a broad cogent case for intelligent realism.

On style, the speechwriters as ever strain for over-obvious rhetorical effect and drift into fatuous mixed metaphors. Look at these awful lines:

Today, we see the collapse of strongmen and fragile states breeding conflict, and driving innocent men, women and children across borders on an epic scale…

A collapse of strongmen breeds! And drives!

I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed…

Repression is a forge!

The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.

What? Strongmen suffer spontaneous combustion?

A politics and solidarity that depend on demonizing others, that draws (sic) on religious sectarianism or narrow tribalism or jingoism may at times look like strength in the moment, but over time its (sic) weakness will be exposed.  And history tells us that the dark forces unleashed by this type of politics surely makes all of us less secure.

Ugh. Grammar. A type of politics unleashes dark forces?

These efforts may appear to give Iran leverage in disputes with neighbors, but they fuel sectarian conflict that endangers the entire region…

Efforts give leverage but fuel conflict!

Plus there are tendentious assertions:

Indeed, I believe that in today’s world, the measure of strength is no longer defined by the control of territory…

Huh? What does ‘no longer’ mean here? In any case, it is clear that it is a measure of a state’s weakness when it can not control its territory and its borders. See eg different EU members grappling with refugees and ‘migrants’.

We can roll back the pollution that we put in our skies, and help economies lift people out of poverty without condemning our children to the ravages of an ever-warming climate.

Aaargh. Nonsense.

Once again President Obama tip-toes around the violent contradictions in today’s Islam:

Unless we work together to defeat the ideas that drive different communities in a country like Iraq into conflict, any order that our militaries can impose will be temporary.  Just as force alone cannot impose order internationally, I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed …  You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas.

Make your mind up man! If you can ‘defeat’ ideas, why can’t you imprison them? And which ‘ideas’ are causing different Islamic sects to massacre each other now as they have done for centuries? How exactly do you propose to ‘defeat’ them?

On the substance, we all remember President Obama asserting and reasserting that ‘Assad must go’. See eg here. Which is OK until Assad in fact stays. Now he offers a new thought: that Assad still must go, but nicely and not quite yet (and by implication if Russia and Iran help cut a deal to make that happen). Realism! Thus:

The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo … Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL.  But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.

Hmm. Is he proposing to work with the same Iran that spreads violence to the point of endangering an entire region? Seems so:

That path is now available to a nation like Iran, which, as of this moment, continues to deploy violent proxies to advance its interests.  These efforts may appear to give Iran leverage in disputes with neighbors, but they fuel sectarian conflict that endangers the entire region, and isolates Iran from the promise of trade and commerce … The Iranian people have a proud history, and are filled with extraordinary potential.  But chanting “Death to America” does not create jobs, or make Iran more secure.  If Iran chose a different path, that would be good for the security of the region, good for the Iranian people, and good for the world.

What? Who argues that Iran’s stupid chants of Death to America create jobs? Is that the only noteworthy thing to say about them?

On Ukraine/Crimea, President Obama deliberately uses the key a-word, but offers V Putin a different way forward:

Consider Russia’s annexation of Crimea and further aggression in eastern Ukraine.  America has few economic interests in Ukraine.  We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine.  But we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.  If that happens without consequence in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today.  That’s the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia.  It’s not a desire to return to a Cold War …

Imagine if, instead, Russia had engaged in true diplomacy, and worked with Ukraine and the international community to ensure its interests were protected.  That would be better for Ukraine, but also better for Russia, and better for the world — which is why we continue to press for this crisis to be resolved in a way that allows a sovereign and democratic Ukraine to determine its future and control its territory.  Not because we want to isolate Russia — we don’t — but because we want a strong Russia that’s invested in working with us to strengthen the international system as a whole.

I don’t like the language about what’s ‘better’ for other countries. Always sounds patronising. But the core position is pitched reasonably and firmly in a way that most UN members will quietly agree with.


President Obama always evinces a weary and oddly self-absorbed annoyance that the world is not behaving nicely as he proposes. This speech had plenty of that, but was rather more thematic than some of his other efforts. It ran to a huge 4750 words – it would have been notably more powerful and interesting at half that length.

The key messages in this speech were all about trying to find a new way to work with Moscow (and even Tehran) in Syria and other troublespots. Fine, but what will those other tricksy partners demand as the price for such cooperation? Does it suggest US strength or weakness, or even desperation? In particular, is there any chance of V Putin agreeing to the idea that Assad must Go to help Obama tick that box?

Hard to imagine. Let’s look at President Putin’s UN speech next.