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A Matter of Values
President Biden's speech at the United Nations this week is a reason for optimism
Some weeks it can be challenging to find reasons for optimism, especially as the cancerous threats to our democracy accumulate, the reality that America has only one governing party becomes more obvious and the prospects for repair seem increasingly improbable. But this was not one of those weeks.
Yes, the inept and cowardly House Speaker Kevin McCarthy continued to lurch toward a government shutdown and a nonsensical impeachment. Yes, the criminal defendant facing 91 felony charges is still the overwhelming favorite for the Republican nomination. Yes, Rep. Jim Jordan continued to hypocritically exploit his power to attack the Department of Justice and Attorney General Merrick Garland. (This led to Garland’s memorable retort: “I am not the president’s lawyer. I will add: I am not Congress’ prosecutor. The Justice Department works for the American people. Our job is to follow the facts and the law.”)
But I want to dwell on the speech given by President Joe Biden at the United Nations General Assembly this week and his compelling expression of the values that drive him and which define the nature of his decision making. His words, his message, reminded me that in the marketplace of ideas and in a body politic where voters still do make choices on the basis of values and policies—not just questions of age or demagogic appeal—the coming months may offer genuine uplift. This is especially true as the choice between two starkly different presidential nominees—including one felonious defendant who’s running to save his skin—becomes more vivid.
Yes, we will be bombarded by pundits’ takes on how old Biden is, how he stumbles in speaking and how his physical movements have become more rigid. All true! But listen to what he says and be reminded of the fluidity of his ambition, the graceful nature of his idealism, his energetic recognition of America’s role in the world, and his vigorous embrace of progressive values and the optimistic mission to make lives better. This is what he said to the leaders assembled at the UN, both those representing democratic nations and those who don’t.
As president of the United States, I understand the duty my country has to lead in this critical moment; to work with countries in every region linking them in common cause; to join together with partners who share a common vision of the future of the world, where our children do not go hungry and everyone has access quality healthcare, where workers are empowered and our environment is protected, where entrepreneurs and innovators everywhere can access opportunity everywhere, where conflicts are resolved peacefully and countries can chart their own course.
The United States seeks a more secure, more prosperous, more equitable world for all people because we know our future is bound to yours. Let me repeat that again: We know our future is bound to yours.
This is no grinding, grueling America First talk, no thinly veiled aggression wrapped up in fake, flag-waving patriotism, no litany of violent invectives meant to fuel hostility and target the vulnerable, no effort to flaunt American (or his own) superiority on the world stage. This was a chance to share human values and advocate for expanding alliances.
“Cooperation, partnership,” he asserted, “these are the keys to progress on the challenges that affect us all and the baseline for responsible global leadership.”
And he offered receipts for this vision and commitment to working together, “undeniable progress” even though “it isn’t always perfect.” Among them: lifting more than a billion people out of extreme poverty, expanding educational opportunity for millions of children, saving tens of millions of lives that could have been lost to diseases such as measles, malaria and tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDs relief efforts that have saved more than 25 million lives in more than 55 countries.
“It’s a profound testament to what we can achieve when we act together, when we take on tough challenges,” he said, “and an admonition for us to urgently accelerate our progress so that no one is left behind, because too many people are being left behind.”
He chose a softer touch on the Ukraine war this year including his comments in the late stages of his speech. Last year, Ukraine was the beginning of his speech, declaring that Russia “shamelessly violated the core tenets of the UN charter” by attempting to “erase a sovereign state from the map” and engaging in “atrocity and war crimes.”
But Biden’s values and intentions were clearly stated this week. “We have to stand up to this naked aggression today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow,” he said, noting the “brave people of Ukraine” and emphasizing the big picture to underscore the need for continued funding.
It’s not only an investment in Ukraine’s future, but in the future of every country that seeks a world governed by basic rules that apply equally to all nations and uphold the rights of every nation, no matter how big or how small: sovereignty, territorial integrity. They are the fixed foundations of this noble body, and universal human rights is its North Star. We cannot sacrifice either.
Biden also called out abuses in such places as Xinjiang, Tehran and Darfur to stress the change he believes in: equal rights and equal participation for women and girls, overcoming systemic discrimination confronting Indigenous groups and people with disabilities, stopping the prosecution and violent targeting of LGBTQI+ people.
“These rights are part of our shared humanity,” he underscored. “When they’re absent—when they are absent anywhere—their loss is felt everywhere. They are essential to the advancement of human progress that brings us together.”
He also talked about the necessity of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and his decision to treat the climate crisis “as an existential threat from the moment we took office, not only for us but for all of humanity.”
He concluded by exhorting “my fellow leaders” to be courageous “to preserve the planet, to protect human dignity, to provide opportunity for people everywhere.” And he delivered a warning: “At this inflection point in history, we’re going to be judged by whether or not we live up to the promises we have made to ourselves, to each other, to the most vulnerable, and to all those who will inherit the world we create.”
It’s easy to be cynical about Biden’s high-minded articulation at the UN, especially at a time when that body’s relevance and structure is legitimately questioned. The day after Biden spoke, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky reasonably doubted how Russia can still be a voting member—and particularly one armed with veto power. (“In cases of mass atrocities against human rights, veto power should be voluntarily suspended,” he insisted.)
But when we think back on the angry, abusive talk of Biden’s predecessor at the UN and the possibility of such a demagogue and autocrat bent on retribution occupying the White House again one day, Biden’s speech is particularly inspiring. He should never stop asserting the values that promise a more progressive and hopeful future, one that is inclusive and dedicated to making the lives of people better.
When he does, it reminds me that the bad actors fueled by cruelty, violence and the amoral desire for power by any means necessary need not crowd our public sphere or crowd out our better instincts. When he does, it renews my optimism.
One other note: The announcement yesterday that Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch was stepping down could also be reason for optimism. But it remains to be seen whether his 52-year-old eldest son, Lachlan Murdoch, announced as the sole chairman of News Corp., will focus on pleasing dear old dad by upping the lies and conflict to feed the bottom line.
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