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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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The German project, put forward by the CDU [Christian Democratic Union] as much as the SPD [Social Democratic Party], even though it’s articulated more clearly by the SPD, is to forge a special partnership with Russia. It is not incompatible with a Europe-Russia partnership, provided that Germany accepts to share its approach with the others, and that we overcome disagreements between members that traditionally seek a partnership with Russia (UK, Germany, France, Italy), and Poland and the Baltic states, who feel threatened by Russia and are worried by Obama’s policy. I think that Obama is right in this matter. I find the German policy towards Russia normal, not worrying and compatible with a common EU policy, which remains to be forged.

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Q. A London conference on Afghanistan is about to convene. How do you feel about Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy announced late last year?

A. Obama rationally took the least bad decision within the constraints imposed on him which include the Bush legacy. He can't simply withdraw. Setting a start date for withdrawal is not bad, provided he does not rule out a long-term residual presence of strategic vigilance. He is right to drop the expression 'nation building,' a pretentious and fanciful notion. Other options: 1. More involvement of European and other states now on the ground [the London conference] that will force them to clarify their views and explain them to their citizens. 2. No direct involvement in Yemen. 3. Broad participation by other powers with no interest in a return of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. 4. Dispense with an assumption that we can choose ideal local leaders ourselves 5. Bring India into a policy of détente and trust with Pakistan.

Q: As a former foreign minister, what are the difference between the world you faced for five years starting in 1997 and today?

A: To me, historical moments are divided between World War II, the cold war, and, starting in ’92, the globalized world. There hasn’t been a radical change since then. In ’92, the West thought it had become the master of the world. Instead, we are faced with significant powers like China. We are still in the same trend, in which the West defends its values and interests in a globalized world. Relative leadership is very complex. To me, there is no difference in nature between the world whose emergence I witnessed [in those years] and today’s world -- except that the trend has accelerated and intensified. World leaders are now aware of the challenges. Will we face them separately or collectively? The questions remain the same. True, there have been important events like 9/11, a huge tragedy. But they didn’t change the frame.

Q: Europe’s Lisbon treaty, now agreed to, and creating a 'federal' Europe, is hard for many Americans to grasp. What does it mean for the EU to now have a president and foreign minister?