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Obama's UN speech began with an extended Putin subtweet

Obama speaks at the UN.
Obama speaks at the UN.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Obama and Vladimir Putin will meet on Monday afternoon to discuss the many, many issues between the United States and Russia. So it's fitting that much of Obama's speech to the United Nations General Assembly that morning was a critique — sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, always unmistakable — of the Russian president.

Obama opened his speech as he opens most UN General Assembly speeches: praise for the mission of the UN and its values of global cooperation and a reminder that problems still exist. From that introduction, he transitioned pretty quickly into two paragraphs that sure read like an extended subtweet of Putin:

How should we respond to these trends? There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the UN charter are unachievable or out of date — a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own. Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that predate this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force.

On this basis, we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law. We see an erosion of the democratic principles and human rights that are fundamental to this institution’s mission; information is strictly controlled, the space for civil society restricted. We’re told that such retrenchment is required to beat back disorder; that it’s the only way to stamp out terrorism, or prevent foreign meddling. In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse.

When Obama talks about unnamed people who believe that "power is a zero-sum game, that might makes right, that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones, that the rights of individuals don't matter," it certainly seems to characterize Putin and his actions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as his increasing of tensions with the West.

Obama's line that "major powers assert[ing] themselves in ways that contravene international law" has got to be, at least in part, a reference to Putin's actions in Ukraine.

And the "we are told" lines sound like a sort of pre-rebuttal to Putin's UN speech later today, which will be his first since 2005 and is expected to call on the world to support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to, as Obama puts it, "beat back disorder ... because the alternative is surely worse."

Later on, Obama did criticize Putin explicitly, but it was striking to see him open the speech with these more implicit criticisms, which helped set the tone for the rest of the address.

As the speech went on, Obama emphasized, repeatedly, his belief that governments built by strongmen like Putin will inevitably collapse. "Histories show that regimes that fear their own people will eventually crumble," Obama said near the end of the speech. "But strong institutions, built on the consent of the governed, endure — long after any one individual is gone."

So Obama isn't just saying that Putin is outside the international community. He's saying that the Russian president is weak and, in the long run, doomed to fail. It's an aggressive message to send a leader famously obsessed with strength shortly before his UN speech — and hours before a major US-Russia summit.

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