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.

Hubert Védrine.

Hubert Védrine is one of France’s foremost foreign affairs thinkers, articulating a “realist” view on what he calls a “West in disarray.” Mr. Védrine served as foreign minister of France from 1997 to 2002. Philip Gordon, the new US point man on Europe, translated Védrine’s latest book, “History Strikes Back,” shortly before joining the Obama administration.

The Monitor sat down with Védrine last week at his Paris office overlooking the Seine to discuss to “a post-American world,” the China threat, and whether Europe will cease to regard itself as a “great Switzerland,” as Vedrine puts it.

Q: The so called “Eurabia” question is a hot one in Europe – how to deal with new cultures and peoples, especially Muslims. The Swiss vote in November to ban minarets is one of many examples. Does this have repercussions for international relations?

A: My starting point is that “the West” was a conceptual revolution. The Europeans, then Americans, had total mastery over power, concepts, and values for several centuries. This is coming to an end, with huge consequences. Two issues arise as things change: One is how the West will react. Will it be defensive or violent? Or, will there be an intelligent management toward “relative leadership” – shared power and order.

The second question is globalization and its meaning. In my view, globalization is both extraordinary on an economic level -- but also extraordinarily violent on “identity” and the politics that flow from that. On this, I don’t share Thomas Friedman’s point of view.

Q: What are the main differences here between US and Europe?

A: American policy has gone through different moments and trends. Robert Kagan’s view in “The Return of History” is a caricature, but not entirely wrong. The US has retained a culture of power and force. They are not deluded idealists, whereas, since World War II, Europeans cultivated an illusion of becoming a great Switzerland. The Europeans have hope in a post-historic, post-traumatic, post-identity world -- a great international community. It would be possible if there were 6.5 billion Europeans on the planet! That’s why I think America’s attitude is in general more realistic, even though sometimes, the US uses force badly.

Q. You sound like Europe is in denial.

A: Partly. The European states have all pursued nationalistic, colonial policies and used force in the past. They now nurture the illusion that these policies are over for everyone. The fall of the [Berlin] wall gave way to absurd interpretations. The US thought it had won, history was over since there were no disagreements any longer. The European had a Kantian interpretation. Even now, the Europeans have a hard time getting back into the strategic debate. My view is a minority one here. When I was foreign minister, I told my socialist friends that we were not an international community yet, and power struggles still existed. They told me I was a cynic. I’m more comfortable with the American debate. I’m interested in what Kissinger, Scowcroft, Fukuyama, and what some neocons say. They are relevant, whereas the European thinking is sometimes irrelevant. With Americans, even when we disagree, we know what the discussion is about. European speeches, especially those of the commission, the parliament or other European institutions, sometimes make you wonder what world they are living in.

Q: Obviously, the rise of China concerns both Europe and the US, centrally.

A: China’s rise is unsettling. It was also foreseeable. Chinese energy, liberated by [Paramount leader] Deng Xiaoping and multiplied by the number of inhabitants, is very worrying. If there were 50 million Chinese people, we wouldn’t be discussing China’s rise. We should have anticipated that a long time ago. Jiang Zemin feared the West’s reaction to the point that he coined the expression ‘Pacific emergence.’ China is now in a position to say ‘No,’ which is evidence of the end of the West’s monopoly.

Also, let us not forget that the final compromise within the WTO [World Trade Organization] was blocked by India. This is a huge challenge for the West, and the different approaches taken by the West. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld approach is not that different from the colonial powers’ approach in the 19th century, which was working at the time but is not working now. The neocon approach of bringing democracy everywhere, relayed in France by [Foreign Minister Bernard] Kouchner under the concept of democratic intervention, doesn’t work, either. We can’t even manage to change a dictatorship like Burma.

Those who think that the West remains at the center of everything and is still able to prevail by force are wrong. Of course, in the end, our ideas still prevail, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his book, “The Post-American World.” Western ideas will become everyone’s ideas. These ideas, like the market economy, are now used against us by players like China. Likewise, our idea of democracy will gradually prevail everywhere, which does not mean the rest of the world will align with us. India’s attitude in the WTO is proof of that. They can now say ‘No’ to us. So, the West’s main concern is to manage the global evolution from global domination to relative leadership. To achieve that, we must be both very intelligent, and coordinate, especially Europe and the US.

Q. How do you appraise the different US and European approaches?

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.

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.

Q. Middle East problems seem always with us. Does Europe still have a say there?

A: The question of the Near East remains of paramount importance. In this respect, I completely disagree with the American and Israeli right. The Israeli/Palestinian question has huge repercussions on the Muslim world and constitutes a permanent argument for terrorists all over the world. That is why our strategic, vital interest requires us to solve the issue.

Secondly, I think that no one has a real influence on the question. The Europeans certainly don’t have a say, out of cowardice and lack of coordination. The Israelis don’t care. The solution lies within Israel. The Palestinian are a state they have been put in by Israel, a state of chaos. The debate lies, in Israel, between those who want a two-state solution, now a majority of 60 percent, and those who refuse it. The only country in the world that matters is the US. The US president will need to push for a solution, and cooperate with an Israeli leader who has the courage to implement it and is then rewarded by the public for that. The Europeans can play a complementary role. They are not in a position to play a major role.

Q. Is France in a paradigm shift away from traditional Arab solidarity?

A: Sarkozy represents the old, anti-Gaullist French right. This inheritance is combined with another element, which is to do the opposite of everything [former President Jacques] Chirac did. And, since Chirac himself had contradictory positions on many things, it is hard to get something coherent from such a stance. Sarkozy wanted to embody “la rupture” [change] and show that France is America’s friend. The problem is that he displayed his friendship not to the US but to George Bush, which is the cause of his fraught relationship with the Obama administration. The latter thinks that there are no urgent problems to be solved in Europe, and that France is not a priority. That’s the starting point of our relationship with the US. Sarkozy has managed to correct a few things mainly thanks to his intuition. He managed to make a few intelligent deals. As a whole, Sarkozy’s policy is not all bad, but quite disjointed and hard to interpret.

Q. France pushed for a “Mediterranean Union” to solidify French and north African interests. But not much has happened.

A: The idea was ill-conceived from the start. First, with the EU as it is now, it is impossible to set up a big project involving only some European states and leaving Germany and the Commission outside. So there was an error of conception from the outset. Secondly, you can’t build a union between countries that are deeply divided. Comparing the UPM with the EU is folly. The UPM was a nice idea with no possible results in effect. It couldn’t work. It’s development is thwarted by the Gaza attack. What is working, however, is cooperation between both sides of the Mediterranean: NGOs, companies, investors, forged ties. But from an institutional point of view, it can’t work.

Q. Turkey is a more important regional player. Sarkozy opposes Turkey’s accession to the EU, as has Merkel. Is Turkey lost to Europe?

A: It depends on your conception of Europe. In the political, very integrated view of Europe taken by the federalists since the '50s, Turkey has no place because it belongs to another world. Turkey is hugely important, very useful from a strategic point of view, but it doesn’t fit in the original European project. The people who conceived the European community couldn’t imagine for one second that Turkey would be part of it. The mention of Turkey’s ‘European destiny’ in a commercial agreement in 1963 was purely formal. It referred to the exchanges, but not membership.

But as Europe enlarged, as Europeans sought to be friends with everyone but with no clear-cut positions, we ended up accepting the Turkish application in 1999, at the Helsinki European council. Whether the decision was good or bad, it was taken. We can’t tell Turkey we gave it the wrong form and start from scratch! We should have told Turkey long ago that, while it was a key partner strategically and economically, it didn’t belong to Europe, just like Morocco. But since we began membership negotiations, we can’t put these negotiations into question by arguments that look artificial.

Sarkozy’s position finds an echo with the French and European right, as many people think that Turkey does not belong to Europe. But it is politically unmanageable and a minority view among European leaders.

Would we lose Turkey if the negotiations failed? I don’t think so. I can’t see Turkey forging an alliance with China against Europe just for spite. Turkey’s strategic interest is to maintain relations with everyone: the US, Europe (whether through membership or not), Central Asia, the Arab world.

It is a complex question. Advocates of Turkey’s integration contend that it would show a Europe reaching a hand to Muslim countries and proving the clash of civilizations wrong. But Turkey’s integration wouldn’t go down well among Arab states. After all, Turkey is the country that colonized them. Why Turkey and not Morocco? That’s why I don’t think it is a good argument. There is another argument put forward on the French left, especially former prime minister Michel Rocard. He says that although he believed in political Europe, it is now over. The EU is something else, strongly integrated from an economic point of view but weakly integrated from a political one. In this new configuration, there is no reason to deny Turkey’s membership. At any rate, we must go on with negotiations. Turkey has no interest in turning its back to Europe.

Q: Germany and Russia are improving ties, worrying some in the EU. Do you think, as many in Berlin do, it is German destiny to bring Russia into Europe?

A: I don’t think that Russia wants to enter Europe at all. Russia wants its power to be recognized anew and to use what is left of its nuisance power. They don’t want to be humiliated. They hated the period after the end of the Soviet Union, the Yeltsin years. They are pursuing a restoration of Russia’s dignity. They don’t want to enter a complex system in which decisions are voted by a majority. They want to reconstitute power. Whether they’ll succeed is another matter: they didn’t manage to create a modern economy, their demography is in freefall, they depend heavily on gas and oil.

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.

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?

A: Europe will never be the United States of Europe. The comparison is nice, exciting – and wrong. The US gathered people who were the same to start with. Europeans are different. Europe will remain a confederation of nation states. For years, the Europeans have been negotiating. There were the Rome treaties in 1957, the great Kohl-Mitterrand-Delors period, the Maastricht Treaty (in which I participated), the Amsterdam Treaty that yielded nothing, the Nice Treaty that yielded controversial results, then the Constitutional Treaty (which is not a constitution), and finally the Lisbon Treaty, which is a rehash of most elements of the Constitutional Treaty. But in reality, the changes are not huge. The European system remains structured by three entities: the European Council of heads of state and government, the Commission, which at one point thought it would become the European government, and the Parliament. From that point of view, the Lisbon Treaty is not a revolution.

The treaty brings some visible changes, some less visible. A very important one is the calculation of votes at the Council: an element of demography will greatly reinforce the weight of Germany, and marginally that of France, Italy, and Great Britain. That is the reason Germany was so keen on passing the treaty. The other big change, of course, is the creation of a president of the European Council and high representative, which is uniting the former functions of Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Again, this is not a huge change: the president of the council, Herman van Rompuy – who will do a good job – won’t be the “President of Europe.”

As to Catherine Ashton, in charge of foreign affairs -- she will only be in charge of the common part of the 27 members' foreign policies, which there is agreement. She will jointly manage what was managed before by Mr. Solana [the former high representative] and Ms. Ferrero-Waldner [commisioner for external relations]. But Ashton is not in charge of merging French and German foreign policies! That is why we shouldn’t expect too much, and why we shouldn’t be dismissive either. It is ridiculous to dismiss Mr. Van Rompuy’s lack of charisma, as if we had been expecting George Washington!

Ashton is not in a position to impose a common policy on Paris, Berlin and London. However, if Paris, Berlin, and London agree on a common position about Russia, China, Iran, the transatlantic alliance, etc., real change will happen. If the three big countries don’t agree, Ashton won’t be able to do much about that.

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