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Interview: former French diplomat Hubert Védrine on China and a West 'in disarray'

Former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, author of 'History Strikes Back,' offers a realist view on a central challenge for Europe and the United States: the rise of China.

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A. The US is not accepting the idea of relative leadership. Managing change will first require coordination. Then it will require Europeans to get back into strategic analysis. Let us suppose for a moment that these ideal conditions are fulfilled. In that situation, there are cases in which the US has a greater interest in taking sides with an emerging country than with Europe. At Copenhagen, there was an agreement between the US and China to hold things back. It was a one-off, defensive agreement. In the build-up to Copenhagen, [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy tried a deal with Brazil on climate change in order to pressure Obama. But it didn’t work. Obama’s margin of maneuver is too small in the US Senate.

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Actually, the multipolar world is a multipolar scuffle, pitting everyone against everyone. That is why it is very difficult for the West to agree on its main interests and present a common position vis-à-vis China. Nor are the Europeans able to do that, which allows China to play one against another very easily. The Europeans should say, all together, that they want a strategic partnership with China, and that they will greet the Dalai Lama once a year. We weren’t able to do that but that’s what we should do -- vis-à-vis the US as well. But the future is not written yet. It depends on us, partly. China will try to go as far as possible, without making serious commitments. China now sees its emergence as a legitimate revenge on history. Conversely, our interest is to integrate China as much as we can.

Q: China was comfortable with the Bush team. The war on terror worked for Beijing. Now China worries that Obama will sell missiles to Taiwan and stress transparency in Chinese banking, Internet, and its institutions. How difficult will this be?

A: China’s going to be a problem for the next 30 years! Besides, the Chinese question is more complex than the Soviet one. The Soviet question was basically a dilemma between rollback and containment. We need China, whereas we didn’t need the Soviet Union. But China is a threat that you can’t contain through nuclear deterrence only.

It is true that China was more comfortable with Bush. So were many countries: the Iranian regime, Chinese and Russian nationalists, the Likud in Israel, the Poles. With China, we must combine partnership, cooperation, deterrence, and power struggle. Achieving that requires cooperation and coordination between Europe, the US, Japan, India, etc. That is, not to create a conflict with China -- but to reinforce elements in China in favor of cooperation with us.

Q: During US elections, Obama read Zakaria’s book, which you wrote the introduction to in the French edition. McCain was reading Kagan. Are we in a post-American world?

A: The content of Zakaria is somewhat different than the title. Zakaria talks of a post-monopolistic world, but he thinks the US will retain its lead. I coined the word ‘hyperpower’ in 1998. In French, there is no pejorative dimension to the word; it is purely descriptive. I still think that the US remains the greatest power of all time, even though China may outgrow the US in statistical terms one day.