By Michael Saul and David Saltonstall
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS In a blunt message to the world, President Obama declared Wednesday that his administration's "new era of engagement" in foreign affairs deserved a new commitment from other nations to help solve the globe's problems.
"Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone," Obama said in his first ever speech before the United Nation's General Assembly.
The stern speech continued a theme set by Obama on Monday that underscored the message that the go-it-alone unilateralism of his predecessor, George W. Bush, is now over, and a new spirit of cooperation is now Obama's guiding principle.
In return, he added, other nations must now step up and lend a hand in combatting everything from poverty and disease to global warming and terrorism.
"Make no mistake: This cannot be solely America's endeavor," Obama told the packed General Assembly hall, which included Secretary of State Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama. In essence, Obama's message was that in exchange for America's renewed commitment, he expects something in return.
"We have sought in word and deed a new era of engagement with the world," Obama said, echoing the cooperative theme he promised as a candidate and has since used as a pillar of his foreign policy.
"Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."
He said if the world is honest with itself, it has fallen woefully short.
"Consider the course that we are on if we fail to confront the status quo," Obama said.
"Extremists sowing terror in pockets of the world. Protracted conflicts that grind on and on. Genocide, mass atrocities. More nations with nuclear weapons. Melting ice caps and ravaged populations. Persistent poverty and pandemic disease."
The president added, "I say this not to sow fear, but to state a fact: the magnitude of our challenges has yet to be met by the measure of our action."
As he called for the world to work together, Obama made clear that his own citizens would always come first.
"Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests," he said.
"But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009—more than at any point in human history—the interests of nations and peoples are shared," Obama added.
His speech was the kickoff of a day in which he was due to hold critical meetings with the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
It is also Dictator Day at the U.N.—Libya's self-proclaimed 'king of kings' Moammar Khadafy was to take the stage after Obama.
Later, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was on deck, raising expectations that he would deliver one of his usual rants against Israel.
The delegations from Israel and Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a crime, were already organizing a walkout if Ahmadinejad goes off on one of his anti-Semitic screeds.
But Obama was clearly the top of the bill, and he wasted little time challenging leaders to create a fairer, more just world—even using his own life as an example.
"As an African-American, I will never forget that I would not be here today without the steady pursuit of a more perfect union in my country," he said.
"That guides my belief that no matter how dark the day may seem, transformative change can be forged by those who choose the side of justice."
His words came a day after Obama made it clear that he had already set a different course than Bush on Middle East peace and global warming.
Obama participated directly in peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even in the absence of a pre-arranged deal—something Bush and his advisors always saw as beneath the presidency.
Obama also committed America to an active role in combatting global warming, the science of which Bush spent eight years disputing. "We have reached a pivotal moment," Obama concluded.