Every year around the end of September, world leaders arrive in New York, NY to attend the United Nations General Assembly week and speak before the assembly on issues which affect their nation. This year over 140 leaders have arrived, and while many address the general assembly, only a handful received major media attention, especially if they spoke about the Middle East.
This is because as in years past the Middle East continues to be a volatile region filled with instability and violence. Over the course the summer the world was given a new chapter in the decades old book of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the emergence of ISIS on the world stage as they increase their territorial expansion with a tyrannical fist and a blood soaked blade. With these topics stealing the show at the podium of the general assembly, special focus must be paid to the speeches of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Each of these world leaders gave speeches motivated by what I like to call Thucydides “Big Three”: Fear, Honor, Interest.
Having been introduced to this concept in my Political Theory class I immediately began to wonder about how a quote from an ancient Greek about why people fight could apply to today’s complex world. I was a bit stumped on this until yesterday when I read a few articles recapping the week’s affairs at the UN. Interestingly, another topic presented in my class, Thucydides Melian Dialogue appears in President Obama’s speech. The President, while addressing the topic of Russian infringement of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, said that Russia believes, “might makes right” while the U.S holds “that right makes might—that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones.” When he tells Russia that “because I can” isn’t a real justification for the use of force, he is unintentionally (or intentionally, maybe President Obama is a fan of ancient Greek texts) paying homage to the line the Athenians used to justify their use of power against the Melians. They said “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” which is a long version of “might makes right”. Clearly Obama would have been a Melian if he lived in ancient Greece, but I digress.
Along with Russia, ISIS took up most of Obama’s address, as he called on nations of the world to join a coalition to destroy “the network of death” which is ISIS. From an American perspective, fear leaps off the page when trying to determine what motivates American policy on ISIS. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the American population has been very cognizant of Islamic extremists and the danger they pose to American citizens and soil. The people are afraid of terrorist attacks, but I believe that Obama is afraid of all out war. I contend that in Obama’s eyes America’s best interest is to curb the tide of religious fanaticism in the Middle East and prevent the complete collapse of the region, which would force America’s hand toward greater measures of intervention. If ISIS is not stopped then Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon stand to fall and the Western world would be forced to face a major hostile power which would threaten Europe and America with war. If Obama can convince the world to stamp out ISIS while it is still possible, he can prevent the outbreak of a future World War.
On a different yet related note, starkly opposite messages were presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu held ISIS as a theme through his speech, as he constantly reminded the crowd of the dangers of Islamic extremism, in an attempt to connect Iran (and their nuclear program) with ISIS and Hamas. Fear drives Israel to convince the world that “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree” as Netanyahu said. This this would swing international opinion in Israel’s favor, a front which with they have had trouble in the past. Israel fears that Hamas will re-arm and re-start the cycle of violence in order to use negative media coverage of Israel to gain supporters around the world. As Israel’s thinking goes, if people associate Hamas with ISIS, during the next round of fighting Hamas will be the side which receives criticism in the UN and the media, thus deterring future violence. While there were strands of fear and honor in President Abbas’ speech, his main impetus was interest. He told the world yet again that the Palestinians wanted to gain statehood through unilateral UN action. In order to increase world sympathy for his people and draw up support for nationhood, Abbas said 2014 was “a year of a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people.” by Israel.
It is in his best interest to paint a very bad picture of Israel, which would subsequently increase international support for Palestinian statehood. Ultimately both sides will leave New York and return to a land they each call home, hopefully just one step closer to reconciliation.
With rhetoric and ideology echoing through the halls of the general assembly, we can only hope that the proper steps will be taken by all countries toward the goal of peace. No matter the motivations of the speakers and the nations they represented, everyone had their say, and in the end that is what General Assembly week is all about. I wonder how Thucydides would view our world, maybe in some odd way it’s not much different than his. The countries might have new names and the weapons might be different, but why we fight hasn’t changed a bit.