For Obama, a swan song on global stage

2016-09-20 16:26
President Barack Obama at the UN headquarters in New York. (AP)

President Barack Obama at the UN headquarters in New York. (AP)

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New York - Standing before the United Nations for the last time as president, Barack Obama will reassure foreign leaders that the world is better equipped to tackle its challenges than at almost any point in history despite a cascade of harrowing crises that seem devoid of viable solutions.

Obama's speech is always a focal point of the annual UN General Assembly, but his address on Tuesday marks his swan song on the international stage. Obama stepped into his role eight years ago with sky-high expectations and has struggled to deliver when it comes to solving global problems partially beyond America's control.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the president was cognisant of the fact that bright spots such as economic growth and climate change co-operation are offset by the "great deal of unease" in the world, including Syria's civil war and concerns about Russia's aggression toward Ukraine.

"The way the president will approach this is trying to apply what we have done that's worked in the last eight years as a template for how we deal with other crises," Rhodes said.

He cited diplomatic achievements on Iran and global warming and outreach to former U.S adversaries Cuba and Myanmar as illustrative of the approach Obama hoped would continue after he leaves office.

Yet it will be hard for world leaders to look beyond the pressing problems that are shadowing this year's UN confab.

Syria ceasefire

Just as Obama and fellow heads of state were gathering on Monday, Syria's military declared the week-old ceasefire over following numerous breaches and airstrikes hitting an aid convoy to a distressed part of Syria, which the US blamed on Syria or Russia. The setbacks were fresh indicators that even the most hard-fought diplomatic gambles have failed to lessen the violence in Syria for any lasting stretch of time.

And hanging over the UN gathering was a weekend bombing a short subway ride away that New York's mayor has declared an act of terror. Security in Manhattan, already high in light of the UN summit, was further tightened.

Despite these concerns, the White House has cast Obama's address as one of his final opportunities to define how his leadership has made the planet safer and more prosperous. Obama's aides have focused on how the US has a fraction of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than it had when Obama took office and how nations are finally poised to act in concert to reduce greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

Obama's other major priority at the UN this year is to force more aggressive action to mitigate the worst refugee crisis since World War II, stemming in large part from the Syria war. In addition to his speech, Obama on Tuesday planned to host a summit on refugees.

The idea is for nations to show up with concrete commitments to accept and support more refugees, and Obama's UN ambassador, Samantha Power, said the US told several nations that their initial offers were insufficient.

As part of Obama's push, more than 50 US companies were pledging to spend, raise or contribute more than $650m to support refugees' resettlement, education and employment, the White House said. The list includes prominent companies including Western Union, Twitter, Microsoft, Ikea and Google.

The Obama administration has emphasized that a half-dozen other countries including Germany and Jordan are co-hosting the refugee summit, but it's largely been a US-driven endeavour.


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