Obama weighs in on development, democracy, and climate

Former U.S. President Barak Obama addresses the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by: GovernmentZA / CC BY-ND

BRUSSELS — Former United States President Barack Obama issued a lengthy defense of multilateralism Tuesday, arguing that despite the current “backlash” against globalization, the best answer to technological shifts, migration, climate change, and pandemic diseases is more international cooperation.

Delivering the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa, Obama spoke for 83 minutes about “a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world.”

In one vision, the time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 has been only a “detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history — where might makes right, and ... nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict.”

Obama sketched a competing vision for “an inclusive capitalism, both within nations and between nations” in a world based on “equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy.” The latter generates more prosperous societies, he argued, but is not assured to win out over today’s “strongman politics.”

The Obama Foundation held a meeting with 200 young African entrepreneurs and activists ahead of the lecture, which marked 100 years since the birth of Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before becoming the first postapartheid president of South Africa. He died in December 2013.

Speaking outdoors to a crowd of thousands, Obama took on issues from “objective truth” and facts, to climate and migration.

Here’s what he had to say on:

The Sustainable Development Goals

“We have to get past the charity mindset. We’ve got to bring more resources to the forgotten pockets of the world through investment and entrepreneurship, because there is talent everywhere in the world if given an opportunity.”

The limits of the postwar system

“The previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away.”

“We have to start by admitting that whatever laws may have existed on the books, whatever wonderful pronouncements existed in constitutions, whatever nice words were spoken during these last several decades at international conferences or in the halls of the United Nations, the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away. They were never fully dislodged.”

Fair trade

“When it comes to the international system of commerce and trade, it’s legitimate for poorer countries to continue to seek access to wealthier markets. And by the way, wealthier markets, that’s not the big problem that you’re having — that a small African country is sending you tea and flowers. That’s not your biggest economic challenge.”

Women and girls

“Women and girls around the world continue to be blocked from positions of power and authority. They continue to be prevented from getting a basic education. They are disproportionately victimized by violence and abuse. They’re still paid less than men for doing the same work. That’s still happening.”

Immigration debates in the ‘global north’

“We can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life.”

“It’s not wrong to insist that national borders matter; whether you’re a citizen or not is going to matter to a government; that laws need to be followed; that in the public realm, newcomers should make an effort to adapt to the language and customs of their new home. Those are legitimate things and we have to be able to engage people who do feel as if things are not orderly.”

“But that can’t be an excuse for immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity, or religion. There’s got to be some consistency. And we can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child.”

Paris Agreement on climate change

“I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is.”

“I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords because, for example, they might say, ‘well, it’s not going to work, you can’t get everybody to cooperate,’ or they might say, ‘it’s more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there’s more pollution.’ At least I can have a debate with them about that and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries — that you can leapfrog old technologies.

“I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is. I don’t know where to start talking to you about this. If you start saying it’s an elaborate hoax, I don’t know what to — where do we start?”

Grassroots leadership

“So for those of us who are interested in strengthening democracy, it’s time for us to stop paying all of our attention to the world’s capitals and the centers of power and to start focusing more on the grassroots, because that’s where democratic legitimacy comes from. Not from the top down, not from abstract theories, not just from experts, but from the bottom up. Knowing the lives of those who are struggling …”

“Democracy means being in touch and in tune with life as it’s lived in our communities, and that’s what we should expect from our leaders, and it depends upon cultivating leaders at the grassroots who can help bring about change and implement it on the ground and can tell leaders in fancy buildings, ‘this isn’t working down here.’”

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.