Perils and promises of a multipolar world, by Hubert VĂ©drine

Hubert Védrine has been French Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1997 to 2002. He unravels the challenges of a multipolar world.

Perils and promises of a multipolar world, by Hubert VĂ©drine

There have been numerous upheavals on the international scene in the recent years (terrorist attacks, growing tensions with North Korea, and the conflicts in Ukraine, Libya and Syria). What lessons need to be learned from these upheavals? Are they evidence of the multi-polarisation of the world? Is there really a threat to the hegemony of the United States?

A distinction must be made between upheavals and events. There is not an upheaval every day. The events you are referring to are symptomatic of a semi-chaotic global context, a world without an international community and without global governance, a world that has not changed since the end of the Cold War. The international order only exists in analysts' imagination.

However, we cannot call this a multi-polar world, however much we would like this to be the case, notably in France. Although we are seeing  the emergence of a few elements of multi-polarity and incomplete multilateral frameworks, the American giant remains at the forefront. When Kissinger was speaking about multi-polarity, he perceived the United States as a superior form of power. In the particular context of the 1990s, I have raised the idea of an American "hyperpower", but this idea is no longer relevant.
After Kissinger and Brzezinski, there has been no global attempt to explain the world. There are poles of power, but some countries (North Korea, Singapore, Israel) exert an influence without however being significant "poles". 
As for France, I would describe it as a middle-ranking power with a worldwide influence.

Can the emergence of several poles of power create a more balanced world? Or will it lead towards a more fragmented world ? How can we ensure that cooperation prevails over confrontation?

Cooperation is a choice made by countries according to their geopolitical interests, not to promote a structure of the world. Therefore, there are as many reasons to choose cooperation as there are to choose confrontation. If the same type of balance of power existed as that established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, cooperation would override confrontation, and a more peaceful order could consequently emerge.

However, as things currently stand, such a balance of power remains wishful thinking: even if the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, Brazil and the European Union managed to achieve a balance of power, this would still leave nearly 150 countries in the world outside this balance. 
Besides, the current relationship between poles of power is more cooperative than antagonistic, but remains unstable.

Is the vitality of the emerging countries a guarantee of power on the international scene? Do you envisage China exercising as much power as the United States in the future? 

The emergence of the developing countries has enabled them to make their mark on the international scene, especially China, of course, which is likely to display hegemonic tendencies. But China does not exert anywhere near the same fascination or hold the same appeal as the United States. Besides, the nature of China's power appears worrisome to many countries, except for some leaders of the "former South".

Donald Trump is seeking to revitalise relations with Russia, but has run into resistance in the United States. What is your analysis of this subject? Is cooperation with Russia more effective than sanctions?

Resuming dialogue with Russia on a more realistic basis is the only good idea that Donald Trump has had, but the very heart of the American State apparatus (agencies, services, the Pentagon and the Republican Party) is firmly opposed to this notion of compromise, because it needs a fundamental antagonism with enemies. The argument that Russia interfered in American electoral campaigns does not hold: an American agency manager recognised that, since the war, the United States has intervened 82 times in foreign electoral campaigns, compared to 30 times for Russia. But that is the way it is: woe to the vanquished! Rebuilding a realistic and cautious relationship with Russia is a necessity. 

Where does the European Union fit into the world of today? Can it be described as a power and if so, what type? 

As such, the European Union is not a traditional power, but an organization, a commercial entity which plays quite a modest role through sanctions and commercial agreements. Europeans do not want to exercise power, due to their attachment to norms, to the law, to multilateralism, civil society and democratic values. However, there are positive evolutions, such as the emphasis on a "Europe that protects", the consolidation of the Schengen area, the protection of strategic investments, the reference by President Macron to a "European sovereignty". 

You have always denounced the tendency for Westerners to impose their value systems on the rest of the world. Do you think the West will reconsider its approach in the near future, in response to the upheavals it is facing?

I have always warned against this tendency for Westerners to behave as missionaries. Interference is not working anymore. For the West, which shares this proselytism with the Muslim world, it is difficult to call itself into question without feeling like it is renouncing its values because, since the emergence of the Christian West, its identity has been built on the concept of the need to propagate Western “enlightenment”. It is hard for us to admit that the world has changed and that we must now come to terms with entities that possess their own values and cultures. 

In the United States, this tendency developed at a very early stage, with the desire to propagate Wilsonian values. As for France, our imperialism stemmed from a great intellectual pretence: we consider that we are the birthplace of human rights, whereas we are only the birthplace of the declaration of human rights. The notion of human rights, although respectable because we should not renounce our beliefs, should not lead to political meddling. The aspiration to fundamental rights is universal, but it must stem from a natural dynamic that comes from within societies.

You are involved in corporate consulting activities. Is multi-polarity a relevant analytical framework for firms? How do you envisage firms adapting to a multi-polar world?

Firms have practical concerns. They are primarily interested in the reality of consumer markets: the level of purchasing power, the existence or emergence of a middle class, the degree of political stability, good governance and legal certainty are the main criteria that determine a firm’s choice to start operating in a country. 

However, firms are part of a geopolitical framework. Every country needs to ensure that they protect strategic firms which fall within the scope of national sovereignty, such as energy, technology, arms industry. France has lost considerable ground due to the industrial collapse that it has endured.