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Obama delivers maiden U.N. address

From NBC's Athena Jones
NEW YORK, N.Y. -- In his first address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama returned to his familiar theme of changing the world from the bottom up -- as he laid out his vision for a more peaceful world, re-committed the United States to help achieve the United Nations' goals, and encouraged members to re-double their efforts to strengthen the organization.

The president, who was interrupted repeatedly by applause, twice quoted Franklin Roosevelt in calling on world leaders to set aside old divisions and work together to solve the world's problems. While he said he bore a responsibility to act in America's interests and would "never apologize for defending those interests," he argued it was in the interests of all nations to spur a recovery from the global economic crisis, combat terrorism and global warming, eradicate extreme poverty, and work toward a world without nuclear weapons.

Video:  In his first speech to the U.N. President Barack Obama differentiates his international strategy from President Bush's approach while Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi stretches his 15 minutes to over an hour.

"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," he said. "We have sought -- in word and deed -- a new era of engagement with the world and now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."

The president said the United States was ready to begin a new chapter of international cooperation. He spoke about steps his administration had taken to change direction from the previous eight years of American policy -- from banning torture and ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, to joining the U.N. Human Rights Council and paying its U.N. bills.

"This institution will be what we make of it," he said near the end of his nearly 40-minute address. "The United Nations can be an institution that is disconnected from what matters in the lives of our citizens, or it can be an indispensable factor in advancing the interests of the people we serve."

Obama's maiden address before this world body came at a time when the United States faces serious challenges around the globe, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ongoing efforts to dismantle al Qaeda. The U.S. also is trying to reach a consensus with other major powers on how to deal with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and is pushing hard to restart peace negotiations in the Middle East.

On nuclear disarmament
Nuclear proliferation threatened to lead to arms races in every region, Obama said in making his argument for disarmament and for strengthening the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. He said the next 12 months would be key in determining the future of the treaty and that the United States would work to ratify the Test Ban Treaty and get other countries on board. The president plans to host a summit next April to reaffirm each country's responsibility to secure nuclear material so that it cannot fall into the hands of extremists.

And he had a warning for Iran and North Korea, saying their actions threatened to take the world down a dangerous slope, but that the future must not belong to fear.

"If the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards; if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people; if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East -- then they must be held accountable," he said. "The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that Treaties will be enforced."

On Middle East peace
The audience broke into applause several times as Obama addressed the issue of Middle East peace  and restated the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution that ends the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

"The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians," he said. "Nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks over a constructive willingness to recognize Israel's legitimacy, and its right to exist in peace and security."

Libya's Moammar Khaddafy -- who was scheduled to speak after the president -- and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran were both present for Obama's speech. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend, according to the pool report.

In a return to the main themes of his presidential campaign -- themes that continue to appear in speeches since he took office -- Obama invoked "hope" and "change." Early in his remarks, he said the expectations that accompany his presidency around the world are rooted in "the hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change." Later, he said "real change can only come through the people we represent" and "the people of the world want change." He added, "They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history."

In closing, Obama made a rare mention of his race, saying his own experience as an African American demonstrated the possibility of change in nations and in attitudes.

"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. "And 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. And I pledge that America will always stand with those who stand up for their dignity and their rights."