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Obama Delivers His Last Address To U.N. General Assembly


Now, whoever is the next president will probably be spending a good bit of time in September thinking about a big annual speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. President Obama has just given that speech this morning probably for the last time as president of the United States, unless something happens and he has to go to the U.N. and give another big speech. Among other things, the president told world leaders there today to reject authoritarianism and to embrace open societies.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are all stakeholders in this international system, and it calls upon all of us to invest in the success of institutions to which we belong.

GREENE: I'm joined now by Michele Kelemen, NPR's diplomatic correspondent who's in New York. Michele, good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So we had been talking about this speech. We were setting it up as the president defending his foreign policy legacy. Is that what - is that what he was trying to pull off here?

KELEMEN: It was. I mean, it was a very reflective speech and a bit academic, to be honest. He made a very lengthy defense of liberalism, free markets and democracy. He put countries like Russia and China on notice, making digs at them for China's actions in the South China Sea, for instance, and for Russia's actions in Ukraine. You know, on the Ukraine issue, for instance, Russia likes to blame the U.S. for sparking regime change there.

Obama said Ukrainians chose to get rid of their last leader because they saw how others in the neighborhood were doing well in the Baltic States and Poland, and Ukraine's leadership was corrupt and up for sale. He also talked about how when the world does come together, they can tackle real problems. He cited, you know, how the U.S. led efforts to fight Ebola in West Africa and push for a climate change agreement that could come into effect later this year.

GREENE: So this sounds like a little more analytical, philosophical, less going through, point by point, of things that he feels like he's accomplished.

KELEMEN: That's right. You know, it was these different clashing world views. And he talked about how democracy and free markets are really the way to go, to push ahead on that. And then he did talk about the one open-ended problem that everyone's trying to tackle here, and that is the refugee crisis around the globe and the war in Syria.

GREENE: Well, let let's hear a little bit about what he said about the war in Syria and the region. I mean, he suggested that there's not really a military solution in Syria because the problems like extremism are so much deeper there. Here's a bit of the president.


OBAMA: Until basic questions are answered about how communities coexist, the embers of extremism will continue to burn, countless human beings will suffer, most of all in that region, but extremism will continue to be exported overseas. And the world is too small for us to simply be able to build a wall and prevent it from affecting our own societies.

KELEMEN: And there was a - an obvious reference to Donald Trump, the Republican candidate who often talks about building a wall. You know, President Obama also talked about the need, despite the politics, to be open to refugees, and that's something that he's pursuing at a summit later today where he's calling on countries to help share the burden of this overwhelming refugee crisis caused in part - in large part by the war in Syria.

GREENE: And, Michele, we just have a few seconds left, but it seems like so often there's big news happening when the U.N. General Assembly gets together and we have, you know, the United Nations having to suspend aid shipments to Syria because of the collapse of that cease-fire agreement and not just President Obama but the secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, it sounds like, had very strong words about that.

KELEMEN: He did. You know, Ban Ki-moon's tenure ends at the end of this year, and he was not holding back today. He said that powerful patrons have been feeding the war machine in Syria and have blood on their hands. And he was pointing to governments in the room that were represented at this U.N. General Assembly, and he called the attack on the aid convoy sickening and savage.

GREENE: OK. Speaking this morning to my colleague, NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen who covered what is likely President Obama's last speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.