At the U.N., Obama Presents a United Diplomatic Front as Israelis and Palestinians Fight On

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Monika Graff / UPI / Landov

President Barack Obama addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN on Sep. 21, 2011 in New York.

With the country’s attention momentarily on foreign policy, it’s worth making one observation: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have kept near-total peace in the public eye over the last two and a half years. That is no small feat judging from all the tales of administration dysfunction that have surfaced in recent weeks.

Take Obama’s speech at the U.N. on Wednesday. Everyone may have been watching for his comments on Palestinian and Israeli affairs. But the most interesting part came after he dispensed with the usual American haranguing about freedom and human rights, and laid out a more pragmatic vision for the future of U.S. diplomacy that was pretty much indistinguishable from Clinton’s.

Obama spent the first half of his speech on the Arab world. He declared that the purpose of the U.N. was to stand with those who seek greater political and economic freedom and pointed to the unity the UN had shown over Libya as an example of what the body can accomplish when it comes together. “This is how the international community is supposed to work,” he said, “Nations standing together for the sake of peace and security and individuals claiming their rights.”

That sentiment undercut his protestation against the Palestinian attempt to seek statehood at the U.N. this week. Peace between Palestinians and Israelis cannot be achieved through the United Nations, Obama said. “There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades: peace is hard work,” he said. “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations. If it were that easy it would’ve been accomplished by now.”

There was nothing particularly surprising in either position: the first half of Obama’s speech was a standard recitation of the U.S. belief the founding documents of the U.N. support the advancement of American values around the world. And generally they do; we dominated their creation, after all. The second half, by contrast, was hardly about the U.N. at all. Instead it was largely about a vision for U.S. diplomacy in the future—specifically, Hillary Clinton’s vision.

Tapping his “peace is hard” theme, Obama laid out all the things he believed the U.S. could achieve outside the U.N. “Even as we confront these challenges of conflict and revolutions we must also recognize, we must also remind ourselves that true peace is not just absence of war.” The first item on his list, was his own favorite, blocking nuclear proliferation, and he called for more states to protect their nuclear materials from terrorists and smugglers.

Then he dove into three areas that Clinton has championed. First he touted the importance of development aid, praising the emerging economies’ success in raising hundreds of millions out of poverty. “Freedom from want is a basic human right,” he said. He touted the use of new media by democratic movements around the world, a particular favorite of Clinton’s. He called for strengthening public health worldwide, especially for mothers and children, another Clinton focus, and for standing up for gays and lesbians everywhere.

And he spent a fair amount of time on each, laying out what the U.S. is doing, and where it wants to build on those efforts. Of course, in theory there’s nothing too shocking about a President and Secretary of State seeing eye-to-eye on a diplomatic vision for America’s future. But with stories of White House strife and dysfunction dominating Washington these days, it’s interesting just how little public conflict there has been between the once-bitter rivals.