The first 37 minutes of Obama's 38-minute speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday were, in many ways, standard Obama. He made the case for American leadership, condemned Russian violations of international law, called for global cooperation against extremism and authoritarianism, and laid out his plan to defeat ISIS.
But then Obama, who reportedly helped write the speech himself, spent his last minute making the case for American exceptionalism: that the United States is a beacon and example for how the world should be and a country so special that it has a duty and responsibility to lead the world toward its example.
What made this so unusual, and so compelling, was that he began with an acknowledgment that the US often fails to live up to those ideals, citing the August events in Ferguson, Missouri, which were noticed and followed around the world as a display of America's well-known problems with racial injustice.
"America is not the same as it was 100 years ago or 50 years ago or even a decade ago," Obama said. "Because we address our differences in the open space of democracy with respect for the rule of law, with a place for people of every race and every religion and with an unyielding belief in the ability of men and women to change their communities and their circumstances and their countries for the better."
Ferguson shows that America has real problems, Obama argued, problems not so fundamentally different from the "racial and ethnic tensions" driving violence in the Middle East. But the lesson Obama wants the world to draw from Ferguson is not about whether problems exist in America, but how the US goes about confronting and dealing with those problems.
It's remarkable that Obama invoked Ferguson not as a way to talk to about the American system, but as the concluding argument of a lengthy foreign policy speech to non-Americans arguing for a strong US leadership role in the world. This was about repositioning Ferguson, in many ways a disgraceful moment for the US, as an example of American greatness so significant that it was meant to justify ambitious, somewhat hawkish US foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East and Europe.
The process of free self-criticism and self-reflection, of constant and difficult self-improvement is, Obama argued, what makes America a model for the world to follow — and ultimately a big part of what justifies America's role in leading the response to problems in the Middle East, eastern Europe, and elsewhere in the world where US intervention is sometimes welcome and sometimes not.
"I believe that this promise can help the world because I have seen a longing for positive change, for peace, for freedom, and for opportunity and for the end to bigotry in the eyes of young people that I have met around the globe," he said.
Here are those four final paragraphs of Obama's speech:
I realize that America's critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals. That America has plenty of problems within its own borders. This is true. In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri, where a young man was killed and a community was divided. So, yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions, and like every country, we continue to wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes by greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.
But we welcome the scrutiny of the world. Because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems, to make our union more perfect, to bridge the divides that existed at the founding of this nation. America is not the same as it was 100 years ago or 50 years ago or even a decade ago. Because we fight for our ideals, and we are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short. Because we hold our leaders accountable and insist on a free press and independent judiciary. Because we address our differences in the open space of democracy with respect for the rule of law, with a place for people of every race and every religion and with an unyielding belief in the ability of men and women to change their communities and their circumstances and their countries for the better.
After nearly six years as president, I believe that this promise can help the world because I have seen a longing for positive change, for peace, for freedom and for opportunity and for the end to bigotry in the eyes of young people that I have met around the globe. They remind me that no matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or what god you pray to or who you love, there's something fundamental that we all share. Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of the UN and America's role in it, once asked, "Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places," she said, "close to home. So close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world, yet they are the world of the individual person. The neighborhood he lives in, the school or college he attends, the factory, farm or office where he works."
Around the world young people are moving forward hungry for a better world. Around the world and small places, they are overcoming hatred and bigotry and sectarianism, and they are learning to respect each other despite differences. The people of the world now look to us, here, to be as decent and as dignified and courageous as they are trying to be in their daily lives. And at this cross roads, I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done. We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom and we're prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come. I ask that you join us in this common mission for today's children and tomorrow's.