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Obama’s U.N. speech was very different from everyone else’s

- October 2, 2015
Heatmap based on 2015 U.N. General Assembly Speeches. Graph by Mathison Clore and Erik Voeten

Most commentary about Monday’s U.N. General Assembly speeches, including on these pages, has emphasized the differences between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Much less noticed is that Obama’s U.N. speech was also very different from those of all the other world leaders.

The heatmap above shows the similarities in word choices between the U.S. and a sampling of Monday’s other speeches (as well as Cuba, Ukraine, and Israel who had their turn later in the week).  Green cells indicate that two speeches were similar in the words they used and how often they used these words. Red cells reflect very different word choices, either in word choice or quantity.

[Obama calls for renewed commitment to U.N. peacekeeping missions]

The U.S. is the only country for which the cells with all the others are red. The graph below is another way to visualize this. It is based on a multi-dimensional scaling, which  plots the distances between countries from the heatmap onto a two-dimensional space. Again, there is one obvious conclusion: the words Obama used in his speech were just really different from those used by other world leaders.

Multi-Dimensional Scaling of U.N. speeches, graph by Mathison Clore and Erik Voeten.

Multi-Dimensional Scaling of U.N. speeches, graph by Mathison Clore and Erik Voeten.

How should one interpret this? The U.S. is also very far removed from other states in terms of its U.N. voting behavior. This has remained true in the Obama years. Sometimes differences in emphasis indeed reflect different world views. I wrote earlier this week about Putin and Obama’s speeches. Putin emphasized “states” while Obama emphasized “people.” This reflected their fundamentally different world views about the role of the U.N., international law, and international order. To Obama, international order is about the advancement of liberal principles: human rights, democracy, capitalism. To Putin, the purpose of the U.N. and international law is to maintain stability, cement sovereignty, and preserve the role of great powers.

Still, similar word choices do not necessarily imply agreement. For example the Ukraine and Russia used many similar words in their speeches but they weren’t exactly being friendly to each other. Word frequencies may also reflect the salience of an issue or an audience.

Economic development is an example. The U.S. used the word development only three times whereas China used it 26 times. Russia used the word economic 12 times, the U.S. only once. In a U.N. session where the emphasis is on the sustainable development goals, this may be a missed opportunity for the U.S. to signal to developing countries that it has their interests in mind.

Another example is the U.S’s focus on Iran. The U.S. mentioned Iran 26 times in its speech (about just as much as Iran mentioned itself). Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned Iran 70 times.  The next country with the highest mentions of Iran was Qatar, with 4. The reason that Israel and the U.S. still appear so far apart is that the Israeli speech singularly focused on Iran. the predicament of being a great power is that the U.S. had many other issues to address (the U.S. speech was also longer than the other speeches).

There are many possible audiences for a high profile speech like this: the U.S. domestic public as well as a wide variety of foreign publics and leaders. By choosing to focus on Iran, Syria, and Russia, and by choosing certain words rather than others, the U.S. signaled what it prioritizes. The graphs here show that these priorities are very different from those of everyone else.

Mathison Clore is a junior at Georgetown University.