Major Powers Air Conflicting Views on Democracy at UN

Representatives of Russia, China, and the United States all called for peace and cooperation at the UN General Assembly last week, but their rhetoric revealed key differences on democracy and human rights.

Representatives of Russia, China, and the United States all called for peace and cooperation at the UN General Assembly last week, but their rhetoric revealed key differences on democracy and human rights.

Russia: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Lavrov articulated his government’s vision of a world in which states refrain from criticizing one another for human rights violations, and accept deviations from democratic norms as a sign of “cultural diversity.” It is in this self-serving context that he expressed opposition to interference in fellow states’ internal affairs, though Moscow’s own meddling in countries from Ukraine to the United States would seem to clash with the general principle.

The Russian foreign minister also restated his president’s call for a global coalition against terrorism, and urged other powers to refrain from fomenting “extremism” abroad. In Russia, “extremism” is defined to include everything from terrorism to simple dissent, and is often attributed to foreign instigation. In effect, Lavrov is asking for all states to support one another against any threats to their rule, much as Moscow has done in Syria. But again, many other states would argue that Russia itself is not living up to this standard.

  • “There is no place for hegemonism in the future, if we want it to be fair and for people to be able to choose their own path of development. This requires learning to respect partners, as well as the cultural and civilizational diversity of today’s world.… The decency and legitimacy of any member of the international community should be measured by their respect for the principles of sovereign equality of states and non-interference in the internal affairs of others.”
  • “No less than universal joint efforts are needed to form a broad counter-terrorism front, as President Vladimir Putin proposed at this podium one year ago. The tragedies of Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria are indicative of the need to stop opportunistic attempts to use extremists in order to further one’s geopolitical aims.” 

China: Premier Li Keqiang

Li presented the Chinese government’s view that human rights, at least the ones that matter, are delivered by economic growth alone. According to this approach, Beijing’s system of political repression is justified by the material improvements it has provided through macroeconomic expansion. Left unstated, of course, is the fact that China’s authoritarian development methods have fueled deep resentment among oppressed minority populations and ordinary Chinese whose individual rights are trampled—and that the economy is now slowing in large part because fears of popular unrest have stalled vital reforms.

Li also insisted that China was interested only in peaceful cooperation, despite its policy of aggressive territorial expansion in the South China Sea and its habit of bullying smaller neighbors in pursuit of its own political or economic interests.

  • “The lack of development is often at the root of many problems facing the world. Be it poverty or the refugee crisis, war, conflicts or terrorism, they all could be attributed to insufficient development and none can be addressed properly without development. Only development can guarantee people’s fundamental rights. Only development can root out the cause for global challenges. And only development can advance human civilization and progress.”
  • “China is a dedicated follower of the path of peaceful development. China regards all countries as equals whatever their size, and China pursues friendship and cooperation with all countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. China’s neighborhood policy is one of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness. China has worked through dialogue, negotiation and friendly consultation to address differences and questions with other countries, including disputes concerning territory and maritime rights and interests. China’s approach is to expand common ground and shelve differences, and China has never relented its efforts for regional peace and stability.”

United States: President Barack Obama

Obama affirmed the U.S. position that the human desire for basic political rights and civil liberties is universal, not limited to a particular culture, and that only democratic governance can produce development and prosperity over the long term.

While Obama admitted that he and his predecessors had not always adhered to the country’s ideals, support for democracy abroad has long been a core element of U.S. foreign policy. With his final term drawing to a close, his speech often seemed like an effort to convince not just his foreign peers, but also his own successors, to carry on this vital work.

  • “I recognize not every country in this hall is going to follow the same model of governance. I do not think that America can—or should—impose our system of government on other countries. But there appears to be growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism right now. And I want everybody to understand, I am not neutral in that contest. I believe in a liberal political order—an order built not just through elections and representative government, but also through respect for human rights and civil society, and independent judiciaries and the rule of law.”
  • “I believe that in the 21st century, economies can only grow to a certain point until they need to open up—because entrepreneurs need to access information in order to invent; young people need a global education in order to thrive; independent media needs to check the abuses of power. Without this evolution, ultimately expectations of people will not be met; suppression and stagnation will set in. And history shows that strongmen are then left with two paths—permanent crackdown, which sparks strife at home, or scapegoating enemies abroad, which can lead to war.” 
  • “I recognize a traditional society may value unity and cohesion more than a diverse country like my own…. But that does not mean that ordinary people in Asia, or Africa, or the Middle East somehow prefer arbitrary rule that denies them a voice in the decisions that can shape their lives. I believe that spirit is universal. And if any of you doubt the universality of that desire, listen to the voices of young people everywhere who call out for freedom, and dignity, and the opportunity to control their own lives.”