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Obama: Global Cooperation Needed on Key Challenges

September 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama urged leaders at the U.N. General Assembly to assume a bigger role in solving the world's toughest problems. Margaret Warner reports.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama made an appeal today for help in facing the world’s problems. He did so in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, saying the U.S. wants to work with others, not on its own. But he also insisted America’s critics show good faith.

Margaret Warner has our lead story report.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is my honor to address you for the first time as the…

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama came before the U.N. General Assembly this morning with a blunt call for greater cooperation and engagement at “a pivotal moment” for the 64-year-old organization.

BARACK OBAMA: No longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together. The time has come for the world to move in a new direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Obama acknowledged America has not always lived up to its ideals, but he said he’s made concrete moves in a new direction: from outlawing torture to re-engaging on Middle East peace and arms control. Now, he said, it is time for other nations to answer the call.

BARACK OBAMA: But make no mistake: This cannot solely be America’s endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone. We have sought, in word and deed, a new era of engagement with the world. And now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.

MARGARET WARNER: He laid out what he called four pillars essential to the future of the planet: nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; preservation of the planet; and a global economy that works for everyone.

Among the specifics, the president made a plea for help in advancing Middle East peace. Nations aligned with both Israel and the Palestinians must offer more than lip service, he said. They must be willing to say publicly what they often acknowledge in private.

Asking for help on several fronts

President Barack Obama
The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise and that treaties will be enforced.

BARACK OBAMA: The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians.

And nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over a constructive willingness to recognize Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security.

MARGARET WARNER: On the nuclear front, Mr. Obama called for support in restraining two nations with nuclear ambitions.

BARACK OBAMA: If the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards, if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people, if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East, then they must be held accountable. The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise and that treaties will be enforced.

MARGARET WARNER: The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, looked on in silence, hours ahead of his own address.

Also in the hall, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. He followed President Obama to the podium and delivered a rambling 96-minute address, charging that the U.S. and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council treat smaller nations as "second class, despised" countries. President Obama did not stay in the hall to hear it.

Afterwards, some of the delegates and visiting heads of state gave their reaction to what they heard from the U.S. president. Toto Eitel, the former German ambassador to the U.N.

Reactions to Obama's speech

TOTO EITEL: It's not that everybody else is perfect and it's just the U.S. who have to -- I don't know -- change or improve. No, no. We all have; there is no doubt.

MARGARET WARNER: But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had a different reaction, saying he saw two Obamas.

HUGO CHAVEZ: The Obama of his speech of today, and it was an excellent speech, and that is the Obama we applaud. But there's another reality.

MARGARET WARNER: And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had his own informal reaction.

Late in the day, President Obama met with Medvedev. Aides said the number-one topic was forging a common approach on dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Our task is to create such a system of incentives that would allow Iran to resolve its peaceful nuclear program, but at the same time prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. Sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases sanctions are inevitable.

MARGARET WARNER: Tomorrow, President Obama chairs a U.N. Security Council meeting to consider a broad resolution on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret talked with Judy Woodruff moments ago from the U.N.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thanks, Margaret, for that report. You were in the hall at the General Assembly when the president made that speech. What else can you tell us about the reaction there?

Anticipation for Obama

Margaret Warner
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Every seat in the hall was taken, many by heads of state, and it was standing room only.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, there was clearly great anticipation for President Obama's first speech to the General Assembly. Every seat in the hall was taken, many by heads of state, and it was standing room only.

And he was interrupted by applause, I would say, 9 or 10 times, the first time when he reminded them that on day one of his presidency he'd signed an executive order outlawing torture.

That said, the setting is still a rather restrained one. I mean, this is not like a political campaign rally, and no one would confuse the two kinds of events. Still, when he finished, there was sustained applause, not a standing ovation, but very vigorous and sustained applause.

Now, afterwards, we caught up with a few other people that were not in our taped piece. I actually saw President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who said to me, well, he was very encouraged, because President Obama indicated he wanted to reach out to the rest of the world, instead of dictate.

On the other hand, my producer ran into or managed to snag the Iranian foreign minister, asked what he thought of the speech, and the foreign minister replied with a smirk, "Did he say something?"

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, I gather the speaker who followed the president presented a very different side of the United Nations.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Judy, kind of the old side. This was Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader. And the hall, after President Obama spoke, everyone sort of got up, and they were all milling around, and talking, and greeting Hillary Clinton, and everyone on the floor.

So, finally, everyone settled down. And most people went back to their seats, because there was great anticipation for Gaddafi.

But then he stood up there and he began this long, rambling rant. He clearly didn't have a script. He would pause for long periods, looking for something in his notes. He talked about everything from his complaints about the U.N., you know, political system internally to suggestions that Israel was behind JFK's assassination, to his own personal sleep habits.

And after about 10 minutes, I was sitting up above with a lot of the press, you just saw people kind of quietly taking their earpiece off and putting it down, and then just finding a moment where they could just get up and walk out.

It really was the old, you know, rhetorical posturing. At least that's the way it appeared to many, many delegates in the hall just from talking to them afterwards.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So back on the president's speech, is there any evidence, Margaret, of specific support for the issues the president raised?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, let's take Iran and North Korea, because those are two that have been so central to his efforts. And, you know, it is still a work in progress.

Now, when he started his presidency, it's fair to say that neither China nor Russia were very enthused about any tougher U.N. measures against either North Korea or Iran to restrain their nuclear programs. Yet by the summer, in part because North Korea set off a lot of missiles and so on, but still, after a lot of negotiation, the U.S. managed to get a very tough Security Council resolution imposing tougher diplomatic and economic sanctions on North Korea.

Iran, however, which is topic number one for the president this week, on that I would say the jury is still out. The president brings it up in every private meeting. I'm told that with the Chinese president yesterday in their meeting, President Obama was very emphatic, very urgent in saying this is a central issue for American security. He didn't ask for something right then and there, but he was really trying to impress on President Hu, with whom he's developed a relationship, that this is important.

Now, just concluded was his meeting with President Medvedev of Russia. And I have to say that what they came out and said had to have been encouraging to the U.S. The president said, if Iran doesn't respond to the negotiating offer that the West and Russia and China have made, serious sanctions remain a possibility. And Medvedev said, and I quote, "Sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable."

And so I would say that still today and this evening there are meetings, trying to make sure they have a joint position going into these talks with Iran on October 1st.

Obama co-chairs Security Council

Margaret Warner
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
It's the first time an American president has ever chaired a Security Council meeting. But what they are -- the U.S. is pushing is a very broad nuclear disarmament nonproliferation resolution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting. Now, Margaret, you mentioned the president is going to be back tomorrow to preside over a Security Council meeting there. How big a deal is that?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it is seen as a big deal by American officials, Judy. First of all, it's the first time an American president has ever chaired a Security Council meeting. But what they are -- the U.S. is pushing is a very broad nuclear disarmament nonproliferation resolution.

And without going into a lot of details, I think the central message is, look, it's not just Iran and North Korea that are being asked to curb the growth of these dangerous weapons. The weapon states, like the U.S., like Russia, and others, also need to take steps and are taking steps to curb fissile material, reduce their stockpiles.

So that the overall message is this is not -- we are not singling out one or two countries -- which is, of course, how it's seen in other parts of the world -- but that the entire world needs to join in this effort to reduce the spread of these very dangerous weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Margaret Warner, we will talk to you tomorrow. Thanks, Margaret, reporting for us all week at the United Nations. Thanks.