UNITED NATIONS — President Obama delivered an unapologetic defense of global integration at the United Nations Tuesday, arguing that the world is more peaceful and prosperous than it's ever been.
But he also said globalization needs a "course correction" to address challenges of global inequality, religious fundamentalism and human rights.
In rhetoric that tacitly evoked Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad — and perhaps even would-be U.S. President Donald Trump — Obama warned about what he called "a 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."
Given the world's challenges, he said, "it's no surprise that some argue that the future favors the strong man, a top-down model rather than strong democratic institutions. But I believe this thinking is wrong."
"History shows that strong men are then left with two paths: permanent crackdown, which sparks strife at home, or scapegoating enemies abroad, which can lead to war," he said.
Obama was late to his eighth and final address to the United Nations General Assembly, prompting the assembly to give the second speaking slot at the opening of the session — which has traditionally gone to the United States as host country — to the African nation of Chad. His 48-minute speech ignored the 15-minute time limit, and was met by enthusiastic applause by most delegations.
As he has in previous years, Obama reflected on the progress made on global issues during his presidency — the response to the 2008 financial crisis, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and human rights. But he mostly urged the delegates to move "forward and not backward," forming a global future based on open markets, accountable governments, human rights and international law.
Obama argued that governments of the world have too often ignored wealth inequality among and within nations. But he said the solution cannot be a simple rejection of global integration. "Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself," he said.
"We cannot unwind integration any more than we can stuff technology back in 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."
Obama also argued for the rights of women, gays, and religious and ethnic minorities across the world, and denounced religious fundamentalism. "The world is too small, we are too packed together, for us to be able to resort to those old ways of thinking," he said.
While acknowledging America's own mixed record on human rights and democracy, Obama also made an argument for American exceptionalism.
"I believe America has been a rare superpower in human history, inasmuch as we have acted beyond our narrow self-interests," he said. "I also know that we can't do this alone."
He urged delegates from the 193 member countries to work together to combat challenges as varied as North Korea's nuclear provocation and the Zika virus.
"Mosquitoes don't respect walls," he said, to chuckles across the General Assembly hall, who seemed to understand it as a reference Trump's Mexican border proposal.
Indeed, Obama's speech seemed directed as much at a domestic audience as an international one, as Obama defended giving up more decision-making authority to international institutions. "Sometimes I'm criticized in my own country for expressing a belief in international norms," he said. "Binding ourselves to international rules, over the long term, enhances our security."