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Obama At U.N.: Reject Tribalism Home And Abroad

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.
Richard Drew
President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.

President Obama used his final address to the United Nations General Assembly to make a spirited argument for international cooperation, while also delivering a stern warning about the countervailing forces of nationalism and tribal identity that have been gaining momentum in both the U.S. and Europe.

Obama's message seemed tailored as much for American voters looking towards the November election as for the international leaders who assembled in New York City.

"We all face a choice," Obama said. "We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion."

The president conceded that many people have grown frustrated with economic inequality and governments they see as unresponsive--attitudes that have helped fuel the rise of GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump in this country as well as the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

"As these real problems have been neglected, alternative visions of the world have pressed forward," Obama said. He urged voters to reject what he called "crude populism — sometimes from the far left, but more often from the far right — which seeks to restore what they believe was a better, simpler age free of outside contamination."

The president cautioned that a retreat behind high barriers against trade and immigration would ultimately be self-defeating.

"Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself," he said.

Instead, Obama pushed for what he called a "course correction," so national governments are more responsive to their people and the benefits of globalization are more broadly shared.

"A world in which one percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable," he said.

The president credited global economic integration with lifting billions of people out of poverty over the last quarter-century.

"We cannot unwind integration any more than we can stuff technology back into a box," Obama said. "If we start resorting to trade wars, market distorting subsidies, beggar thy neighbor policies, an over-reliance on natural resources instead of innovation — these approaches will make us poorer, collectively, and they are more like to lead to conflict."

This is the eighth time Obama has addressed the General Assembly and he catalogued some of the foreign policy achievements of his time in office including the Iran nuclear deal, the United States' diplomatic opening to Cuba, and a global climate agreement. But the speech was less a celebration of the past than a cautionary tale about the future, as he sees it, if people around the world choose tribalism and strong-man leaders.

"Time and again, human beings have believed that they finally arrived at a period of enlightenment only to repeat, then, cycles of conflict and suffering," Obama said. "Each nation can choose to reject those who appeal to our worst impulses and embrace those who appeal to our best."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.