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WATCH: Obama sounds optimistic note in final U.N. speech

President Barack Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 20.

NEW YORK — President Barack Obama delivered his final speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, sounding a high note but also words of caution.

He pointed out that the amount of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 40 percent to under 10 percent. Cracking the genetic code has led to promising medical advancements. And the Internet has improved communications, making the younger generation more tolerant than those of the past. A person born today, he said, is more likely to be healthy with access to opportunity.

But a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, while the world is more prosperous, society is filled with uncertainty and strife. When people lose confidence in institutions, it makes it harder to govern, he said.

The world can either move forward with integration or retreat into divisions. “We must go forward and not backward,” he said. But “the existing path to globalization requires a course correction.”

President Obama said countries need to make the global economy work better for all people, not just the people at the top. A “pervasive sense of injustice” is causing unrest, he said.

It’s difficult to spend on foreign assistance, but “we need to invest in emerging economies that become markets for our goods. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

He touted the Paris climate change agreement, which will to help poorer countries “leapfrog” unclean energy methods.

He also encouraged models of government that are inclusive and accountable to ordinary people, while recognizing the U.S. shouldn’t impose its form of democracy on others. “Yes, in America, there is too much money in politics, too much entrenched partisanship,” Mr. Obama said, but he added that governments that dehumanize other groups won’t make progress.

“We must reject any forms of fundamentalism, or racism, or a belief in ethnic superiority” and respect all humans. “We all have to do better as leaders in tamping down, rather than encouraging, a notion of identity that leads us to diminish others.”

President Obama spoke in favor of supporting international institutions and against the thinking that all problems are either caused by or can be solved by Washington.

America has been a “rare superpower” in history that acts above narrow self-interest, securing allies and protecting the vulnerable, he said. “I also know that we can’t do this alone” and the best results come from banding together on issues such as non-proliferation, educating all girls and helping refugees find a safe home. On the last issue, he said, “We have to follow through even when the politics are hard.”

Human beings are too often motivated by greed and power, he continued, and big countries have historically pushed smaller ones around. Tribes and nation states find it convenient to define themselves by what they hate and not ideas that bind them together.

“All of us can be coworkers with God,” he said.

Reporting in New York was supported in part by the U.N. Foundation’s Global Issues Press Fellowship program.

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