Arabs resent U.S. policies that propped up hated authoritarian regimes for decades in the Middle East and the "double standards" they embody. Yet many remain enamored of the American way of life, with its top universities, science, technology, rule of law, Hollywood cinema and music.
"These are the same things that appealed to me when I came [to New York City] as a student in the 1960s," said ElBaradei, a legal scholar who confesses a weakness for Ella Fitzgerald and authored the new book The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times.
ElBaradei won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since his return to Cairo in 2009, he has emerged as a staunch proponent of peace and democracy. ElBaradei played a crucial role in the ouster of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
His talk, "The Challenge of Security in Our World," received a prolonged standing ovation from the near capacity audience. Poverty and inequity are major sources of instability in the world, he argued, and dialogue and mutual understanding offer the only way out.
"The Middle East is proof that building up huge military arsenals is no path to security," he said. But investing in economic development and building bridges across cultures are.
Half the world's population, 3 billion people, live on less than $2 a day, and the "obscene inequality between nations" is widening. ElBaradei characterized poverty as "a weapon of mass destruction" because of its chronic association with poor governance. This leads to corruption, repression, anger, grievances and other maladies feeding the extremism that destabilizes nations and makes the world less secure.
The United States would make more headway against Iran's nuclear ambition if it engaged the fundamentalist Islamic state and tried to understand its motivations.
"Too often dialogue is perceived as a sign of weakness or a reward for good behavior, rather than a way to reconcile differences," he said. "Negotiation would be tedious and compromises would be required on both sides, but there is no alternative."
ElBaradei insisted the two nations "put all their grievances on the table and cut a deal." Then he warned that the bomb strikes Israel is contemplating would turn the Middle East into "a ball of fire," without doing much to thwart Iran's entry into the nine-nation club of nuclear powers.
"Attacking Iran would be a disaster," ElBaradei said. "Oil supplies would be disrupted, oil prices would rise, and, ironically, the end result would be Iran embarking on a crash course to develop nuclear weapons with the full support of its people."