Perspectives

Leaders Clash over Democracy at UN General Assembly

The leaders of the United States, Russia, China, and Iran engaged in an impromptu debate this week in their remarks at the UN General Assembly. President Obama asserted the benefits and universality of democratic principles, but the others pushed back with an emphasis on sovereignty, stability, and noninterference. 

The leaders of the United States, Russia, China, and Iran engaged in an impromptu debate this week in their remarks at the UN General Assembly. President Obama asserted the benefits and universality of democratic principles, but the others pushed back with an emphasis on sovereignty, stability, and noninterference. 

Barack Obama

  • “Just as force alone cannot impose order internationally, I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow. You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas. You can try to control access to information, but you cannot turn a lie into truth. It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raise the expectations of people around the globe; it’s technology, social media, and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed.”
  • “I recognize that democracy is going to take different forms in different parts of the world. The very idea of a people governing themselves depends upon government giving expression to their unique culture, their unique history, their unique experiences. But some universal truths are self-evident. No person wants to be imprisoned for peaceful worship. No woman should ever be abused with impunity, or a girl barred from going to school. The freedom to peacefully petition those in power without fear of arbitrary laws. These are not ideas of one country or one culture. They are fundamental to human progress. They are a cornerstone of this institution.”
  • “Democracy—inclusive democracy—makes countries stronger. When opposition parties can seek power peacefully through the ballot, a country draws upon new ideas. When a free media can inform the public, corruption and abuse are exposed and can be rooted out. When civil society thrives, communities can solve problems that governments cannot necessarily solve alone. When immigrants are welcomed, countries are more productive and more vibrant. When girls can go to school, and get a job, and pursue unlimited opportunity, that’s when a country realizes its full potential.”

Vladimir Putin

  • “We all know that after the end of the Cold War, a single center of domination emerged in the world. And then those who found themselves at the top of that pyramid were tempted to think that if we are so strong and exceptional then we know better than anyone what to do and why at all should we reckon with the UN, which instead of automatically authorizing and legitimizing necessary decisions often creates obstacles or, in other words, ‘stands in the way.’”
  • “We are all different. And we should respect that. No one has to conform to a single development model that someone has once and for all recognized as the only right one.”
  • “Naturally, any assistance to sovereign States can and must be offered rather than imposed, exclusively and solely in accordance with the UN Charter.”

Xi Jinping

  • “The principle of sovereignty not only means that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries are inviolable and their internal affairs are not subject to interference. It also means that all countries’ right to independently choose social systems and development paths should be upheld.”
  • “The movement toward a multipolar world and the rise of emerging markets and developing countries have become an irresistible trend of history.”
  • “We should renew our commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, build a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation, and create a community of shared future for mankind.”
  • “No country can maintain absolute security with its own effort, and no country can achieve stability out of other countries’ instability.”
  • “Each civilization represents the unique vision and contributions of its people, and no civilization is superior to others. Different civilizations should have dialogue and exchanges instead of trying to exclude and replace each other.”
  • “China will never pursue hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence.”
  • “We are ready to share our development experience and opportunities with other countries, and we welcome other countries to board China’s express train of development.”

Hassan Rouhani

  • “The key point regarding the success of dialogue is the fact that any actor in the international system who pursues maximalist demands and does not allow space for the other side cannot speak of peace, stability, and development. As in commerce and economic activity, where the interests of both parties should be taken into account, in politics and international relations as well multilateralism and win-win solutions should be the basis of engagement.”
  • “We want to suggest a new and constructive way to recreate the international order. An order based on mutual respect, nonintervention in the internal affairs of others, as well as on sustained cooperation and coexistence between the members of the United Nations.”


Emphasis added.