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George H. W. Bush, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 23, 1991

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this primary source after covering Reagan’s presidency to discuss U.S. post–Cold War foreign policy. This decision point can be used with the U.S. Foreign Policy in Somalia and Rwanda Decision Point.


In 1991, the United States stood as an uncontested global leader. The Soviet Union, long an equal power to the United States, was slowly collapsing, and its leaders had begun initiating economic and political reforms to create greater freedom for their citizens. The U.S. government had proven it could coordinate the world to oppose threats to the liberal world order when it led a coalition of 35 nations to defeat Iraq in early 1991 after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait. President George H. W. Bush gave the following speech to the U.N. General Assembly to reflect on this new, post–Cold War world.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who gave this speech?
  2. Why was this speech given?

Vocabulary Text
My speech today will not sound like any you’ve heard from a President of the United States. I’m not going to dwell on the superpower competition that defined international politics for half a century. Instead, I will discuss the challenges of building peace and prosperity in a world leavened by the Cold War’s end, the resumption of history.
Communism held history captive for years. It suspended ancient disputes, and it suppressed ethnic rivalries, nationalist aspirations, and old prejudices. As it has dissolved, suspended hatreds have sprung to life. People who for years have been denied their pasts have begun searching for their own identities, often through peaceful and constructive means, occasionally through factionalism and bloodshed.
teem(v): to be full of This revival of history ushers in a new era, teeming with opportunities and perils. And let’s begin by discussing the opportunities.
First, history’s renewal enables people to pursue their natural instincts for enterprise. Communism froze that progress until its failures became too much for even its defenders to bear. And now citizens throughout the world have chosen enterprise over envy, personal responsibility over the enticements of the state, prosperity over the poverty of central planning. . . .
By the same token, the world has learned that free markets provide levels of prosperity, growth, and happiness that centrally planned economies can never offer. Even the most charitable estimates indicate that in recent years the free world’s economies have grown at twice the rate of the former Communist world.
Growth does more than fill shelves. It permits every person to gain, not at the expense of others but to the benefit of others. Prosperity encourages people to live as neighbors, not as predators. Economic growth can aid international relations in exactly the same way.. . .
. . . Free and open trade, including unfettered access to markets and credit, offer developing countries means of self-sufficiency and economic dignity. . . . History shows all too clearly that protectionism can destroy wealth within countries and poison relations between them. . . .
I cannot stress this enough: Economic progress will play a vital role in the new world. It supplies the soil in which democracy grows best. People everywhere seek government of and by the people. And they want to enjoy their inalienable rights to freedom and property and person.
coup(n): an illegal seizure overthrow of government to seize power

Mikhail Gorbachev: a leader in the Soviet Union who initiated reforms to liberalize the country

Boris Yeltsin: the first president of the Russian Federation; he continued to liberalize Russia as the Soviet Union disintegrated
Challenges to democracy have failed. Just last month coup plotters in the Soviet Union tried to derail the forces of liberty and reform, but Soviet citizens refused to follow. Most of the nations in this chamber stood with the forces of reform, led by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and against the coup plotters.
The challenge facing the Soviet peoples now—that of building political systems based upon individual liberty, minority rights, democracy, and free markets—mirrors every nation’s responsibility for encouraging peaceful, democratic reform. But it also testifies to the extraordinary power of the democratic ideal.
As democracy flourishes, so does the opportunity for a third historical breakthrough: international cooperation. A year ago, the Soviet Union joined the United States and a host of other nations in defending a tiny country against aggression and opposing Saddam Hussein. For the very first time on a matter of major importance, superpower competition was replaced with international cooperation. The United Nations, in one of its finest moments, constructed a measured, principled, deliberate, and courageous response to Saddam Hussein. It stood up to an outlaw who invaded Kuwait, who threatened many states within the region, who sought to set a menacing precedent for the post-cold war world. The coalition effort established a model for the collective settlement of disputes. Members set the goal, the liberation of Kuwait, and devised a courageous, unified means of achieving that goal.
And now, for the first time, we have a real chance to fulfill the U.N. Charter’s ambition of working “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and nations large and small to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” Those are the words from the charter. We will not revive these ideals if we fail to acknowledge the challenge that the renewal of history presents. . . .
inalienable(adj): not capable of being removed or taken away

coercion(n): persuading someone to do something through intimidation
As we work to meet the challenge posed by the resumption of history, we also must defend the charter’s emphasis on inalienable human rights. Government has failed if citizens cannot speak their minds, if they can’t form political parties freely and elect governments with out coercion, if they can’t practice their religion freely, if they can’t raise their families in peace, if they can’t enjoy a just return from their labor, if they can’t live fruitful lives and, at the end of their days, look upon their achievements and their society’s progress with pride.
Politicians who talk about “democracy” and “freedom” but provide neither eventually will feel the sting of public disapproval and the power of people’s yearning to live free.
Some nations still deny their basic rights to the people. And too many voices cry out for freedom. For example, the people of Cuba suffer oppression at the hands of a dictator who hasn’t gotten the word, the lone hold-out in an otherwise democratic hemisphere, a man who hasn’t adapted to a world that has no use for totalitarian tyranny. Elsewhere, despots ignore the heartening fact that the rest of the world has embarked upon a new age of liberty.
The renewal of history also imposes an obligation to remain vigilant about new threats and old. We must expand our efforts to control nuclear proliferation. We must work to prevent the spread of chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. It is for this reason that I put forward my Middle East arms initiative, a comprehensive approach to stop and, where possible, reverse the accumulation of arms in that part of the world most prone to violence.
demagogue(n): political leader who gains popularity by exploiting the ignorance and prejudice of people We must remember that self-interest will tug nations in different directions and that struggles over perceived interests will flare sometimes into violence. We can never say with confidence where the next conflict may arise. And we cannot promise eternal peace, not while demagogues peddle false promises to people hungry with hope, not while terrorists use our citizens as pawns and drug dealers destroy our peoples. We, as a result, we must band together to overwhelm affronts to basic human dignity.. . .
international lending and aid institutions: U.N.-affiliated institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that support economic development in U.N. member states The United Nations can encourage free-market development through its international lending and aid institutions. However, the United Nations should not dictate the particular forms of government that nations should adopt. But it can and should encourage the values upon which this organization was founded. Together, we should insist that nations seeking our acceptance meet standards of human decency. . . .
Pax Americana: a term for the relative international peace from the end of WWII to the modern day that has generally been overseen by the United States

Pax Universal is: Latin phrase meaning peace overseen by the world
Finally, you may wonder about America’s role in the new world that I have described. Let me assure you, the United States has no intention of striving for a Pax Americana. However, we will remain engaged. We will not retreat and pull back into isolationism. We will offer friendship and leadership. And in short, we seek a Pax Universal is built upon shared responsibilities and aspirations.

Comprehension Questions

  1. In his words, what is the focus of President George H. W. Bush’s speech?
  2. What does President George H. W. Bush mean by the phrase “revival of history”?
  3. What benefits of the free market or enterprise does President George H. W. Bush discuss in this passage?
  4. How does President George H. W. Bush connect economic prosperity to Founding principles?
  5. What conflict does President George H. W. Bush refer to here?
  6. What was the ambition of the U.N. Charter?
  7. According to George H. W. Bush, what are some inalienable human rights?
  8. Who is President George H. W. Bush referring to? Why is he singled out in this speech?
  9. What specific challenges face the world post–Cold War, according to President George H. W. Bush?
  10. What should the U.N. do to encourage free market development? What should it not do?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. President George H. W. Bush argues that three new developments are poised to take root as the Cold War was ending. What were these developments and how does Bush explain the relationship among them?
  2. To what extent will the role of the United States change in the world order President George H. W. Bush describes?

Address to the United Nations General Assembly