In his first speech to the United Nations, President Barack Obama issues a blunt message on Wednesday: America alone cannot fix the world’s problems. The president calls for a new era of cooperation to solve the globe’s most pressing issues.

Office of the Press Secretary
September 23, 2009
Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery
“Responsibility for our Common Future”
Address to the United Nations General Assembly

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentleman: it is my
honor to address you for the first time as the forty-fourth President of the United
States. I come before you humbled by the responsibility that the American people
have placed upon me; mindful of the enormous challenges of our moment in history;
and determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at
home and abroad.
I have been in office for just nine months, though some days it seems a lot longer. I
am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world.
These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted – I believe – in a
discontent with a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our
differences, and outpaced by our problems. But they are also rooted in hope – the
hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in
bringing about such change.
I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with
skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation
about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief
that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the
interests of others. This has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often
has served as an excuse for our collective inaction.
Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people,
and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief
that in the year 2009 – more than at any point in human history – the interests of
nations and peoples are shared.
The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among
people, or tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or
forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What
happens to the hope of a single child – anywhere – can enrich our world, or
impoverish it.
In this hall, we come from many places, but we share a common future. No longer do
we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we
must do together. I have carried this message from London to Ankara; from Port of
Spain to Moscow; from Accra to Cairo; and it’s what I will speak about today. Because
the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new
era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must
begin now.
We know the future will be forged by deeds and not simply words. Speeches alone will
not solve our problems – it will take persistent action. So for those who question the
character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions that we
have taken in just nine months.
On my first day in office, I prohibited – without exception or equivocation – the use of
torture by the United States of America. I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay
closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism
within the rule of law. Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we
will lead by example.
We have set a clear and focused goal: to work with all members of this body to
disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies – a network that has
killed thousands of people of many faiths and nations, and that plotted to blow up this
very building. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we – and many nations here – are helping
those governments develop the capacity to take the lead in this effort, while working
to advance opportunity and security for their people.
In Iraq, we are responsibly ending a war. We have removed American combat
brigades from Iraqi cities, and set a deadline of next August to remove all of our
combat brigades from Iraqi territory. And I have made clear that we will help Iraqis
transition to full responsibility for their future, and keep our commitment to remove all
American troops by the end of 2011.
I have outlined a comprehensive agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear
weapons. In Moscow, the United States and Russia announced that we would pursue
substantial reductions in our strategic warheads and launchers. At the Conference on
Disarmament, we agreed on a work plan to negotiate an end to the production of
fissile materials for nuclear weapons. And this week, my Secretary of State will
become the first senior American representative to the annual Members Conference of
the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Upon taking office, I appointed a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and America
has worked steadily and aggressively to advance the cause of two states – Israel and
Palestine – in which peace and security take root, and the rights of both Israelis and
Palestinians are respected.
To confront climate change, we have invested 80 billion dollars in clean energy. We
have substantially increased our fuel-efficiency standards. We have provided new
incentives for conservation, launched an energy partnership across the Americas, and
moved from a bystander to a leader in international climate negotiations.
To overcome an economic crisis that touches every corner of the world, we worked
with the G-20 nations to forge a coordinated international response of over two trillion
dollars in stimulus to bring the global economy back from the brink. We mobilized
resources that helped prevent the crisis from spreading further to developing
countries. And we joined with others to launch a $20 billion global food security
initiative that will lend a hand to those who need it most, and help them build their
own capacity.
We have also re-engaged the United Nations. We have paid our bills. We have joined
the Human Rights Council. We have signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons
with Disabilities. We have fully embraced the Millennium Development Goals. And we
address our priorities here, in this institution – for instance, through the Security
Council meeting that I will chair tomorrow on nuclear non-proliferation and
disarmament, and through the issues that I will discuss today.
This is what we have done. But this is just a beginning. Some of our actions have
yielded progress. Some have laid the groundwork for progress in the future. But make
no mistake: this cannot be solely 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. Now is the time for all of us to take our share of
responsibility for a global response to global challenges.
If we are honest with ourselves, we need to admit that we are not living up to that
responsibility. Consider the course that we are on if we fail to confront the status quo.
Extremists sowing terror in pockets of the world. Protracted conflicts that grind on and
on. Genocide and mass atrocities. More and more nations with nuclear weapons.
Melting ice caps and ravaged populations. Persistent poverty and pandemic disease. I
say this not to sow fear, but to state a fact: the magnitude of our challenges has yet
to be met by the measure of our action.
This body was founded on the belief that the nations of the world could solve their
problems together. Franklin Roosevelt, who died before he could see his vision for this
institution become a reality, put it this way – and I quote: “The structure of world
peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one Nation…. It cannot be a
peace of large nations – or of small nations. It must be a peace which rests on the
cooperative effort of the whole world.”
The cooperative effort of the whole world. Those words ring even more true today,
when it is not simply peace – but our very health and prosperity that we hold in
common. Yet I also know that this body is made up of sovereign states. And sadly,
but not surprisingly, this body has often become a forum for sowing discord instead of
forging common ground; a venue for playing politics and exploiting grievances rather
than solving problems. After all, it is easy to walk up to this podium and to point
fingers and stoke division. Nothing is easier than blaming others for our troubles, and
absolving ourselves of responsibility for our choices and our actions. Anyone can do
Responsibility and leadership in the 21st century demand more. In an era when our
destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero sum game. No one nation can or should
try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of
people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The
traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an
interconnected world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long
gone Cold War.
The time has come to realize that the old habits and arguments are irrelevant to the
challenges faced by our people. They lead nations to act in opposition to the very
goals that they claim to pursue, and to vote – often in this body – against the
interests of their own people. They build up walls between us and the future that our
people seek, and the time has come for those walls to come down. Together, we must
build new coalitions that bridge old divides – coalitions of different faiths and creeds;
of north and south, east and west; black, white, and brown.
The choice is ours. We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the
arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look
ahead, and failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against
instead of what we were for. Or, we can be a generation that chooses to see the
shoreline beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common
interests of human beings, and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the
name given to this institution: the United Nations.
That is the future America wants – a future of peace and prosperity that we can only
reach if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities
as well. That is the bargain that makes this work. That must be the guiding principle
of international cooperation.
Today, I put forward four pillars that are fundamental to the future that we want for
our children: non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and
security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances
opportunity for all people.
First, we must stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and seek the goal of a world
without them.
This institution was founded at the dawn of the atomic age, in part because man’s
capacity to kill had to be contained. For decades, we averted disaster, even under the
shadow of a super-power stand-off. But today, the threat of proliferation is growing in
scope and complexity. If we fail to act, we will invite nuclear arms races in every
region, and the prospect of wars and acts of terror on a scale that we can hardly
A fragile consensus stands in the way of this frightening outcome – the basic bargain
that shapes the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. It says that all nations have the right
to peaceful nuclear energy; that nations with nuclear weapons have the responsibility
to move toward disarmament; and those without them have the responsibility to
forsake them. The next twelve months could be pivotal in determining whether this
compact will be strengthened or will slowly dissolve.
America will keep our end of the bargain. We will pursue a new agreement with Russia
to substantially reduce our strategic warheads and launchers. We will move forward
with ratification of the Test Ban Treaty, and work with others to bring the Treaty into
force so that nuclear testing is permanently prohibited. We will complete a Nuclear
Posture Review that opens the door to deeper cuts, and reduces the role of nuclear
weapons. And we will call upon countries to begin negotiations in January on a treaty
to end the production of fissile material for weapons.
I will also host a Summit next April that reaffirms each nation’s responsibility to
secure nuclear material on its territory, and to help those who can’t – because we
must never allow a single nuclear device to fall into the hands of a violent extremist.
And we will work to strengthen the institutions and initiatives that combat nuclear
smuggling and theft.
All of this must support efforts to strengthen the NPT. Those nations that refuse to live
up to their obligations must face consequences. This is not about singling out
individual nations – it is about standing up for the rights of all nations that do live up
to their responsibilities. Because a world in which IAEA inspections are avoided and
the United Nation’s demands are ignored will leave all people less safe, and all nations
less secure.
In their actions to date, the governments of North Korea and Iran threaten to take us
down this dangerous slope. We respect their rights as members of the community of
nations. I am committed to diplomacy that opens a path to greater prosperity and a
more secure peace for both nations if they live up to their obligations.
But 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. We must
insist that the future not belong to fear.
That brings me to the second pillar for our future: the pursuit of peace.
The United Nations was born of the belief that the people of the world can live their
lives, raise their families, and resolve their differences peacefully. And yet we know
that in too many parts of the world, this ideal remains an abstraction. We can either
accept that outcome as inevitable, and tolerate constant and crippling conflict. Or we
can recognize that the yearning for peace is universal, and reassert our resolve to end
conflicts around the world.
That effort must begin with an unshakeable determination that the murder of innocent
men, women and children will never be tolerated. On this, there can be no dispute.
The violent extremists who promote conflict by distorting faith have discredited and
isolated themselves. They offer nothing but hatred and destruction. In confronting
them, America will forge lasting partnerships to target terrorists, share intelligence,
coordinate law enforcement, and protect our people. We will permit no safe-haven for
al Qaeda to launch attacks from Afghanistan or any other nation. We will stand by our
friends on the front lines, as we and many nations will do in pledging support for the
Pakistani people tomorrow. And we will pursue positive engagement that builds
bridges among faiths, and new partnerships for opportunity.
But our efforts to promote peace cannot be limited to defeating violent extremists. For
the most powerful weapon in our arsenal is the hope of human beings – the belief that
the future belongs to those who build, not destroy; the confidence that conflicts can
end, and a new day begin.
That is why we will strengthen our support for effective peacekeeping, while
energizing our efforts to prevent conflicts before they take hold. We will pursue a
lasting peace in Sudan through support for the people of Darfur, and the
implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, so that we secure the peace
that the Sudanese people deserve. And in countries ravaged by violence – from Haiti
to Congo to East Timor – we will work with the UN and other partners to support an
enduring peace.
I will also continue to seek a just and lasting peace between Israel, Palestine, and the
Arab world. Yesterday, I had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu
and President Abbas. We have made some progress. Palestinians have strengthened
their efforts on security. Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the
Palestinians. As a result of these efforts by both sides, the economy in the West Bank
has begun to grow. But more progress is needed. We continue to call on Palestinians
to end incitement against Israel, and we continue to emphasize that America does not
accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.
The time has come to re-launch negotiations – without preconditions – that address
the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders, refugees
and Jerusalem. The goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security –
a Jewish State of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent
Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in
1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people. As we pursue this goal, we
will also pursue peace between Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and a broader
peace between Israel and its many neighbors. In pursuit of that goal, we will develop
regional initiatives with multilateral participation, alongside bilateral
I am not naïve. I know this will be difficult. But all of us must decide whether we are
serious about peace, or whether we only lend it lip-service. To break the old patterns
– to break the cycle of insecurity and despair – all of us must say publicly what we
would acknowledge in private. 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 over a
constructive willingness to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, and its right to exist in peace
and security.
We must remember that the greatest price of this conflict is not paid by us. It is paid
by the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life
in the night. It is paid by the Palestinian boy in Gaza who has no clean water and no
country to call his own. These are God’s children. And after all of the politics and all of
the posturing, this is about the right of every human being to live with dignity and
security. That is a lesson embedded in the three great faiths that call one small slice
of Earth the Holy Land. And that is why – even though there will be setbacks, and
false starts, and tough days – I will not waiver in my pursuit of peace.
Third, we must recognize that in the 21st century, there will be no peace unless we
make take responsibility for the preservation of our planet.
The danger posed by climate change cannot be denied, and our responsibility to meet
it must not be deferred. If we continue down our current course, every member of this
Assembly will see irreversible changes within their borders. Our efforts to end conflicts
will be eclipsed by wars over refugees and resources. Development will be devastated
by drought and famine. Land that human beings have lived on for millennia will
disappear. Future generations will look back and wonder why we refused to act – why
we failed to pass on intact the environment that was our inheritance.
That is why the days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over. We will
move forward with investments to transform our energy economy, while providing
incentives to make clean energy the profitable kind of energy. We will press ahead
with deep cuts in emissions to reach the goals that we set for 2020, and eventually
2050. We will continue to promote renewable energy and efficiency – and share new
technologies – with countries around the world. And we will seize every opportunity
for progress to address this threat in a cooperative effort with the whole world.
Those wealthy nations that did so much to damage the environment in the 20th
century must accept our obligation to lead. But responsibility does not end there.
While we must acknowledge the need for differentiated responses, any effort to curb
carbon emissions must include the fast-growing carbon emitters who can do more to
reduce their air pollution without inhibiting growth. And any effort that fails to help the
poorest nations both adapt to the problems that climate change has already wrought
– and travel a path of clean development – will not work.
It is hard to change something as fundamental as how we use energy. It’s even
harder to do so in the midst of a global recession. Certainly, it will be tempting to sit
back and wait for others to move first. But we cannot make this journey unless we all
move forward together. As we head into Copenhagen, let us resolve to focus on what
each of us can do for the sake of our common future.
This leads me to the final pillar that must fortify our future: a global economy that
advances opportunity for all people.
The world is still recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great
Depression. In America, we see the engine of growth beginning to churn, yet many
still struggle to find a job or pay their bills. Across the globe, we find promising signs,
yet little certainty about what lies ahead. And far too many people in far too many
places live through the daily crises that challenge our common humanity – the despair
of an empty stomach; the thirst brought on by dwindling water; the injustice of a child
dying from a treatable disease, or a mother losing her life as she gives birth.
In Pittsburgh, we will work with the world’s largest economies to chart a course for
growth that is balanced and sustained. That means vigilance to ensure that we do not
let up until our people are back to work. That means taking steps to rekindle demand,
so that a global recovery can be sustained. And that means setting new rules of the
road and strengthening regulation for all financial centers, so that we put an end to
the greed, excess and abuse that led us into disaster, and prevent a crisis like this
from ever happening again.
At a time of such interdependence, we have a moral and pragmatic interest in broader
questions of development. And so we will continue our historic effort to help people
feed themselves. We have set aside $63 billion to carry forward the fight against
HIV/AIDS; to end deaths from tuberculosis and malaria; to eradicate polio; and to
strengthen public health systems. We are joining with other countries to contribute
H1N1 vaccines to the World Health Organization. We will integrate more economies
into a system of global trade. We will support the Millennium Development Goals, and
approach next year’s Summit with a global plan to make them a reality. And we will
set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.
Now is the time for all of us to do our part. Growth will not be sustained or shared
unless all nations embrace their responsibility. Wealthy nations must open their
markets to more goods and extend a hand to those with less, while reforming
international institutions to give more nations a greater voice. Developing nations
must root out the corruption that is an obstacle to progress – for opportunity cannot
thrive where individuals are oppressed and business have to pay bribes. That’s why
we will support honest police and independent judges; civil society and a vibrant
private sector. Our goal is simple: a global economy in which growth is sustained, and
opportunity is available to all.
The changes that I have spoken about today will not be easy to make. And they will
not be realized simply by leaders like us coming together in forums like this. For as in
any assembly of members, real change can only come through the people we
represent. That is why we must do the hard work to lay the groundwork for progress
in our own capitals. That is where we will build the consensus to end conflicts and to
harness technology for peaceful purposes; to change the way we use energy, and to
promote growth that can be sustained and shared.
I believe that the people of the world want this future for their children. And that is
why we must champion those principles which ensure that governments reflect the
will of the people. These principles cannot be afterthoughts – democracy and human
rights are essential to achieving each of the goals that I have discussed today.
Because governments of the people and by the people are more likely to act in the
broader interests of their own people, rather than the narrow interest of those in
The test of our leadership will not be the degree to which we feed the fears and old
hatreds of our people. True leadership will not be measured by the ability to muzzle
dissent, or to intimidate and harass political opponents at home. The people of the
world want change. They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of
This Assembly’s Charter commits each of us, and I quote – “to reaffirm faith in
fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal
rights of men and women.” Among those rights is the freedom to speak your mind
and worship as you please; the promise of equality of the races, and the opportunity
for women and girls to pursue their own potential; the ability of citizens to have a say
in how you are governed, and to have confidence in the administration of justice. For
just as no nation should be forced to accept the tyranny of another nation, no
individual should be forced to accept the tyranny of their own government.
As an African-American, I will never forget that I would not be here today without the
steady pursuit of a more perfect union in my country. That guides my belief that no
matter how dark the day may seem, transformative change can be forged by those
who choose the side of justice. And I pledge that America will always stand with those
who stand up for their dignity and their rights – for the student who seeks to learn;
the voter who demands to be heard; the innocent who longs to be free; and the
oppressed who yearns to be equal.
Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must
search for its own path, and no path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted
in the culture of its people, and – in the past – America has too often been selective in
its promotion of democracy. But that does not weaken our commitment, it only
reinforces it. There are basic principles that are universal; there are certain truths
which are self evident – and the United States of America will never waiver in our
efforts to stand up for the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny.
Sixty-five years ago, a weary Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the American people in his
fourth and final inaugural address. After years of war, he sought to sum up the
lessons that could be drawn from the terrible suffering and enormous sacrifice that
had taken place. “We have learned,” he said, “to be citizens of the world, members of
the human community.”
The United Nations was built by men and women like Roosevelt from every corner of
the world – from Africa and Asia; form Europe to the Americas. These architects of
international cooperation had an idealism that was anything but naïve – it was rooted
in the hard-earned lessons of war, and the wisdom that nations could advance their
interests by acting together instead of splitting apart.
Now it falls to us – for this institution will be what we make of it. The United Nations
does extraordinary good around the world in feeding the hungry, caring for the sick,
and mending places that have been broken. But it also struggles to enforce its will,
and to live up to the ideals of its founding.
I believe that those imperfections are not a reason to walk away from this institution –
they are a calling to redouble our efforts. The United Nations can either be a place
where we bicker about outdated grievances, or forge common ground; a place where
we focus on what drives us apart, or what brings us together; a place where we
indulge tyranny, or a source of moral authority. In short, the United Nations can be an
institution that is disconnected from what matters in the lives of our citizens, or it can
be indispensable in advancing the interests of the people we serve.
We have reached a pivotal moment. The United States stands ready to begin a new
chapter of international cooperation – one that recognizes the rights and
responsibilities of all nations. With confidence in our cause, and with a commitment to
our values, we call on all nations to join us in building the future that our people
deserve. Thank you.

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