European Affairs

Both authors share a trait: they are staunch believers in political realism in diplomacy. They are wary of the excesses of all kinds that distort too much of the conventional wisdom in the media, the voluntary sector of non-governmental organizations and do-gooders in the development community. So their book should be understood as a corrective to bad assumptions based on the status-quo and wishful thinking.

Expanding and updating this fresh perspective, Pascal Boniface, who heads the International Research and Strategy Institute in Paris, has produced a new map of the global mindset.

The book provides an opportunity for Védrine to look again at the word he coined for the United States – “hyperpower.” The term remains valid, according to the former minister, who says it is descriptive and not necessarily pejorative. The United States, he believes, “will remain the dominant world power – and indeed it should, in the best interest of us all’’ if the U.S. regains leadership of the sort that it has often demonstrated in the past.

Védrine and Boniface concur with the conventional wisdom in France that we have entered the era of a “multipolar world.” They say that the facts provide substantiating evidence for the reality of this new paradigm which French President Jacques Chirac cites so often. But that is only a starting point, they say, explaining that the important thing is to work out how these various economic and geographic poles and new regional alliances can be orchestrated to promote international stability. In their book, Boniface and Védrine grapple with this question of how to integrate these emerging forces into the multilateral system of the United Nations and into the Group of Eight, which they dub the world’s new “board of directors.”

Acknowledging America’s decline in global popularity since the Vietnam war, they maintain that “no power truly threatens their hold on world dominance, and that the energy and culture of integration that are so central to American society cultivate an unmatched and lasting appeal to the outside world.”

Although Védrine resists the idea of discussing “Europe” – a hollow concept in his view – the Atlas contends that “Europe needs to insist on taking its rightful place in the lead of world affairs: if the EU expands to 27 members or more,” they say, “it should aim to become the regulating body of international development.”But, the authors cannot answer to their own satisfaction the question of what position Europe really wants to obtain in this new global landscape. The authors’ conclusion echoes as a warning: “If Europeans do not decide to assert themselves as a cohesive center of power, they will never become an influential global entity or even as full partners in a new Euro-American alliance” and will doom themselves to remain nothing more than “a region within the West, under American leadership.”

If the French do try to engage, Védrine explains, they have to decide between what he calls “Westernism” and “Atlanticism.” As he explains (and has amplified elsewhere, see World Politics Review), Westernism is a concept that has coherence and appeal as a cooperative family of nations: it can lead to better [transatlantic ties], better relations with Eastern Europe and a better image of France in Eastern Europe (among Poles, for instance). In contrast, “Atlanticism” implies Europe “following” and a France from another era, with America as the boss. “They’re the leader, so we fall in behind Americans. We might agree, we might disagree, but we fall in behind them.” That’s the position, by the way, of many European countries – those of Eastern Europe, for instance – with regard to the United States.

The special value of this book’s analysis is the authors’ ability to scrutinize the world from the perspectives of each emerging power, region, cultural and religious bloc. Using an approach defined as “the world as seen from others’ viewpoint,” Boniface and Védrine offer 20 chapters on different countries that cogently demonstrate the maxim that what you think depends on where you sit. The results are largely familiar in cases such as the U.S., Europe, China or Russia. But the authors also offer astute analyses of less powerful (and less well understood) countries, such as Poland, Turkey, South Africa, South Korea and Mexico.

When it comes to Britain, they say that “London has no influence on Washington,” as demonstrated in the Iraq war. Russia, they say, questions American military credibility but still feels threatened by what it sees as a containment strategy advanced by NATO’s expansion, the role of the EU and the rapid emergence of China. As for the Chinese, they want the world to believe that their emergence is purely peaceful, but it remains an open question whether China is really capable of becoming a powerful world force while experiencing internal turmoil amid immense social and ecological tensions. Countries like South Korea, Turkey, Canada and Mexico are caught between their continuing dependence on the U.S. and their desires for autonomy and more diversified partnerships.

When it comes to the “Arab world” (a term debatable in their eyes for a meaningful category), the authors render unsparing judgments on many practices and policies pursued underneath hortatory rhetoric. Some Arab governments manipulate the Palestinian cause as a way of obscuring the lack of democracy and social progress in their own countries. Often, the radical “Islamicists” in these same countries attack the governments’ civil-rights shortcomings and high poverty rates in order to destabilize the region. What the authors find clear, however, is the fact that “the war in Iraq has given Arab publics greater reason to be frustrated and turn to radicalization.” The result, they conclude, is that “imposed democratization has been shown to be an over-reach that is both impossible and, in the process, an opening to other risks.” Partly as a result of this often clumsy, counter-productive American pressure, they say, “the Arab world is now in the grip of a triple failure of modernization, democracy and the challenge of deflating extremist Islamization." Tackling this last point in a wider context, the authors note that Islamists have never been able to take control of the system except in a few countries: Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan. Even so, they warn, “even if the terrorists cannot win, there is no policy that will make them suddenly disappear.”

Taken separately, many points in this book seem straightforward, perhaps even obvious. But taken together, they constitute a severe condemnation of Bush foreign policy for the world as a whole. The authors have no formula to recommend to the next incumbent of the White House about how to restore U.S. credibility, especially in countries such as France (and many in the Middle East) that have lost confidence in Washington, at least temporarily. It is a sign of the scale of the challenge.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 3 in the Fall of 2008.