What attracts global attention at UNGA’s annual plenary sessions is the first week of general debate since it serves as a top forum for leaders to address the world. Tuesday, September 24 was the first day of general debate for 74th UNGA. As leaders waited for their turn to take the rostrum, expectations regarding a Rouhani-Trump meeting were dashed. Moreover, all attention soon turned to a looming impeachment inquiry against President Trump and the judgement of the UK Supreme Court regarding PM Johnson’s suspension of parliament. Everything else took a back seat.
In the end, September 24 proved to be sad day for democracy for two reasons:
Firstly, President Trump’s remarks lacked depth and were not inspiring to say the least (1). He started off by highlighting US military power in language that sounded like a threat. He said:
“… The United States, after having spent over two and a half trillion dollars since my election to completely rebuild our great military, is also, by far, the world’s most powerful nation. Hopefully, it will never have to use this power.”
During his 37-minute speech he used the word “democracy” only four times in disconnected paragraphs. Obviously, promoting democracy was not part of his agenda. The contradictions of his foreign policy and his confidence in his deal-making capacity were reflected in his remarks. He targeted China on international fair trade but ended up saying his administration was counting on President Xi as a great leader. Xi Jinping was elected president of China by the National People’s Congress on March 14, 2013.
As I listened to President Trump, I couldn’t help remembering Mr. Obama’s last address to the UNGA on September 20, 2016 (2). His remarks had depth like all his other major foreign policy speeches. Understandably, he mentioned America’s achievements as well as those of his administration, the latter in a short paragraph. He said that for most of human history, power has not been unipolar and that the end of the Cold War may have led both America’s adversaries and some of her allies to believe that all problems were either caused by Washington or could be solved by Washington. He added that perhaps too many in Washington believed that as well. He said that America has secured allies; acted to protect the vulnerable; supported human rights and welcomed scrutiny of her own actions; bound her power to international laws and institutions. He was candid enough to say that America cannot do this alone and that the way to meet the challenges of the century was to build more international capacity.
He used the word “democracy” nine times in an excellent analysis of the challenges facing democracy. He said:
“And perhaps those of us who have been promoting democracy feel somewhat discouraged since the end of the Cold War, because we’ve learned that liberal democracy will not just wash across the globe in a single wave. It turns out building accountable institutions is hard work — the work of generations. The gains are often fragile. Sometimes we take one step forward and then two steps back. In countries held together by borders drawn by colonial powers, with ethnic enclaves and tribal divisions, politics and elections can sometimes appear to be a zero-sum game. And so, given the difficulty in forging true democracy in the face of these pressures, it’s no surprise that some argue the future favors the strongman, a top-down model, rather than strong, democratic institutions.
“But I believe this thinking is wrong. I believe the road of true democracy remains the better path…
“So those of us who believe in democracy, we need to speak out forcefully, because both the facts and history, I believe, are on our side. That doesn’t mean democracies are without flaws. It does mean that the cure for what ails our democracies is greater engagement by our citizens — not less.”
The difference between remarks of the two Presidents is worrisome.
The second reason why September 24 proved to be sad day for Western democracy was PM Johnson’s and President Trump’s reaction to the judgement of the UK Supreme Court. Mr. Johnson’s approach to Brexit is for the people of the UK to judge. However, his response to the judgement of the Supreme Court has implications beyond the UK, a country greatly respected for its contribution to the evolution of parliamentary democracy.
Every single time PM Johnson mentioned the Supreme Court, he said he respect the Court but strongly disagrees with its judgement regarding his shutting down of parliament. The following is from the White House transcript of remarks by President Trump and PM Johnson before their bilateral meeting on Tuesday:
“Q Mr. President, what was your reaction when you heard these UK supreme court decision? What was your reaction to it?
“PRESIDENT TRUMP: I had no reaction. I just asked Boris. And, you know, to him, it’s another day in the office. He’s a professional. It’s just another day in the office.
“PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON: Yeah, well, it’s — tomorrow is another day in Parliament. That’s what he means. (Laughter.)
“PRESIDENT TRUMP: You know, we had — we had, Boris, the first couple of months, we had been — I think we were 0 for 7 with the Supreme Court. And since then, we won the wall, we won asylum, we won some of the biggest ones. We’ve had a great streak going.
“But we — we started off, we were 0 for 7. And then as you will report — in fact, the first time we won, you were, like, shocked that we won. And since then, we’ve almost run the table. We’ve won a lot of decisions. So I’m sure that’s going to happen to you.
“PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON: Well, we’re not counting our chickens. And we’re full of respect, as I say, to the justices of our — (laughter) — supreme court. But we’re going to — we’re going to push on. We’re going to respect what the court had to say, but we’re going to get on and deliver Brexit. That’s the — I think that’s what the British people want to see.
“PRESIDENT TRUMP: In other words, he’s been very nice to the court, please. Okay? He has —
“Q Mr. President —
“PRESIDENT TRUMP: He has total respect for the court.
These were disparaging and therefore most unfortunate remarks. Surely this was no occasion to lecture the world on the independence of the judiciary and respect for constitutional institutions but the words of the two leaders and their body language (4) must have delighted world’s autocrats who are inclined to subject the judiciary to executive power and regard judges as members of their administration.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.