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Obama Delivers Final Address To U.N. General Assembly


World leaders are gathered at the United Nations this week faced with the continuing war in Syria and overwhelmed by the refugee crisis. Those were among the issues President Obama addressed in his final remarks to the world body. Though he didn't mention U.S. politics, the current campaign debate over America's role in the world was clearly on his mind. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Reflecting on his time in office, President Obama touted the moments when the world came together under his watch to fight Ebola in West Africa and negotiate a climate change deal, and he pushed back at the notion that the world's problems are America's to fix.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've noticed as president that at times both America's adversaries and some of our allies believe that all problems were either caused by Washington or could be solved by Washington. And perhaps too many in Washington believe that as well.

KELEMEN: Obama also used this speech to rail against political strongmen and isolationism, saying, quote, "a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself." That was a clear dig at Donald Trump, though Obama never mentioned the Republican candidate's name in his address to the world body. He was explicit when it came time to criticize China and Russia for, in his words, trying to recover lost glory through force.


OBAMA: If Russia continues to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, it may be popular at home. It may fuel nationalist fervor for a time, but over time, it is also going to diminish its stature and make its borders less secure. In the South China Sea, a peaceful resolution of disputes offered by law will mean far greater stability than the militarization of a few rocks and reefs.

KELEMEN: The U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who opened today's session, also didn't hold back. His tenure ends later this year, so this was his swan song too. He lashed out at member states that have been fueling the war in Syria where Ban says many groups have killed too many innocents.


BAN KI-MOON: None more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees.

KELEMEN: And using unusually sharp language, he said powerful patrons have blood on their hands, too. Today the U.N. suspended aid deliveries after a convoy in Aleppo came under attack. The U.S. says it is Russia's responsibility to rein in the Syrian military and stop such atrocities. Secretary of State John Kerry has been holding talks here in New York to see if a cease-fire deal he worked out with the Russians is still viable.

The U.N. is also trying to grapple with a refugee crisis driven in large part by the war in Syria. President Obama says the U.S. and other rich nations need to do more to help despite tough politics surrounding this.


OBAMA: Because in the eyes of innocent men and women and children who through no fault of their own have had to flee everything that they know, everything that they love, we have to have the empathy to see ourselves. We have to imagine what it would be like for our family, for our children if the unspeakable happened to us.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration is planning to increase the number of refugees it admits this coming year to 110,000. That includes not just Syrians but refugees from all over the globe. The president also brought together CEOs of major companies to invest in online education, job programs and financial services for refugees to help ease the burden of countries surrounding Syria that have taken in millions of people. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.