Thursday February 27, 2020


Analyzing the UN Speeches of President Obama and Foreign Minister Wang Yi

September 27, 2013

The United Nation’s 68th General Assembly convened in New York this week, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in attendance. U.S. President Obama also appeared to deliver remarks outlining his foreign policy vision for the next three years. Wang Yi delivered his own speech, clarifying how China’s new leaders view the UN. Analyzing both of these speeches, it becomes clear that China and the U.S. have different visions for the purpose and function of the UN. This has made it increasingly difficult for measures to pass the UN Security Council where both countries are permanent members.

The UN Charter lays out the UN’s four major purposes: to maintain international peace and security, to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems, and to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends. While all members of the UN agree on these general purposes, China and the U.S. have different ways of interpreting these goals, and place different priorities on each.

The largest disagreement involves the way the U.S. and China interpret the second purpose for the UN. What does it mean to “develop friendly relations among nations” while also respecting “the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”? For China, the former clause usually takes precedent. In the international community China champions peace above all else, although China reserves the right to use force to defend its “core interests” (generally, sovereignty issues).

Further, China interprets “equal rights and self-determination” on a national scale, rather than an individual one. That is, nations must be treated equally and allowed to settle their own internal affairs—which effectively prohibits intervention from the international community. When Wang Yi summarized the UN Charter in his speech before the General Assembly, the first principle he named was “respecting national sovereignty and opposing interference in internal affairs.” Accordingly, China has been reluctant to use the UN to “punish” other countries, even with sanctions, since it views the UN’s primary purpose as a defender of national sovereignty.

The U.S., meanwhile, interprets “equal rights and self-determination” on an individual level, believing these are universal rights held by people. No government, then, can abrogated those rights, and those that do should be held responsible. This interpretation is the root of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, which holds that if a national government engages in atrocities against its own citizens, the international community must intervene.  While Obama does not specifically reference “responsibility to protect” in his speech, he does argue that “to maintain international peace and security” it is sometimes necessary for the UN to be involved in conflicts. When diplomacy fails, “the multilateral use of military force may be required to prevent the very worst from occurring.” This is in direct contradiction to China’s interpretation, which opposes both conflict in any form and interference in other countries.

Obama asks the international community to do some soul-searching: “[S]hould we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda or Srebrenica?”  For China, the answer would most likely be “yes.” China’s brief flirtation with the “responsibility to protect” came in 2011, when China abstained from the UN Security Council Resolution approving a “no-fly zone” designed to prevent civilian causalities in Libya. When that mission turned into a push for regime change, China felt it had been cheated. China generally views “responsibility to protect” as a Western (and chiefly American) excuse for pursuing regime change; the Libya campaign seemingly validated this opinion. Since then, China has returned to its customary emphasis on non-interference.


Wang Yi’s speech expressed China’s “great concern” for the humanitarian situation in Syria. However, China’s way of reacting to the crisis was limited to calling for “faster progress in a political resolution” as well as sending material and financial aid to Syrian refugee camps. Wang’s speech showed no inclination on the part of China’s leaders to get involved militarily in the ongoing civil war, although China is willing to send both money and experts to assist in the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Obama framed the Syria question as “the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, or embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war”. Obama is inclined to choose the latter, while China seems resigned to protesting the former from afar.

However, China would likely object to this black-and-white interpretation of the Syria crisis. Like other countries, China disagrees with Obama’s assessment of American exceptionalism. Obama believes that American involvement in the world make the world “better”; he positions America as a defender “of the interests of all”. China, meanwhile, believes American actions are fundamentally driven by self-interest. Thus while Obama calls on the rest of the world should join the U.S., and share the “burden” of “preventing mass atrocities”, China responds that the U.S. should change its thinking and rid itself of the tendency to intervene in other country’s affairs. Where Obama sees the U.S. as filling a “leadership vacuum”, China hopes for a UN that is not dominated by US hegemony.

According to Wang Yi’s speech, China see the UN as a body built on the principle of “promoting equality and opposing power politics”. Not only does China itself want to play a bigger role within the UN, but China hopes to increase the voices of all developing countries in global governance. China calls this “promoting democracy in international relations”, but it is also a subtle way of lessening the influence the U.S. and Europe exert on the UN agenda. Granting more power to developing countries might help push the UN closer to China’s vision, rather than America’s.

Wang Yi devoted most of his speech to promoting the ideas of “peace and development”, with a focus on economic issues, climate change, and sustainable development. Wang spent only a few paragraphs talking about “hotspot issues” like Syria, Iran, and Palestine—a hint that, to China, these do not represent the UN’s most important mission. This is a fundamental difference from Obama, who spent nearly his entire speech pressing for increased UN action on the Syria crisis and in nonproliferation efforts in Iran. As China seeks a larger role in the UN, there will be a struggle for influence that could determine the future of the UN.


For more information on U.S. and Chinese participation in the 68th UN General Assembly, please see the following news sources:

CCTVWang Yi urges new model relationship with US”

China Daily“Foreign Minister Wang makes the rounds at UN”“FM Wang Yi in America: China, the US and the UN”

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China“Wang Yi: Sustainable Development Should Focus on Eliminating Poverty and Promoting Development”

Voice of America“US, Chinese Foreign Ministers Meet Ahead of UNGA”

Washington Post“Obama opens door to better relations with Iran”

For Chinese language analysis on the 68th UN General Assembly, please see the following sources:


New York Times “奥巴马联合国大会讲话陈述美国中东政策”

People’s Daily“奥巴马在联合国大会讲话为其中东政策着力辩护”


Xinhua “ 奥巴马在联大阐述美国中东政策”


For the original texts of President Obama and Foreign Minister Wang’s speeches to the UN, see the following sources:

“Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly”

“China at a New Starting Point: Statement by H.E. Mr. Wang Yi”

Compiled and edited by Shannon Tiezzi