A pragmatist's view of global geopolitics.

AuthorClemenceau, Francois
PositionVERBATIM - Hubert Vedrine - Interview

European Affairs: Nowadays you appear inclined to analyze the world in terms that seem to rehabilitate the role of nation states while giving scant weight to the importance of some bigger groupings that seem to be emerging in our era such as the concept of "international community." What is your thinking?

Hubert Vedrine: To understand how things will change tomorrow in every sphere the environment, energy, strategy, demography--it is better to tackle issues without over-optimistic assumptions. In the 1990s there was a lot of faith in notions such as the "international community." That arose from "the end of history," which we were all talking about and which meant that our [Western liberal democratic] values would catch on all over the world. It was a time of great optimism, comparable to post-World War I when the League of Nations was created even though the law of the jungle still prevailed. Or like 1945 when the United Nations was created, even though the key member states were deeply divided (as we saw during the cold war). Or even like the moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union when President George H.W. Bush talked about a new "international order" under the enlightened leadership of the United States, a vision that has turned out to produce very different, very disappointing results, as we've seen in the last few years. The optimism in the 1990s benefited from a climate of strong international economic growth and the ascendancy of American power incarnated by President Bill Clinton, who, by putting a smiling face on America, made it seem like the U.S. was no longer a hegemonic power. That era is gone and there has been a drastic change in the last few years as developments showed that no "international community" exists yet. So people need to rid themselves of such empty rhetoric, including "Europe as a superpower," "the Mediterranean" and other such hollow concepts--words that no one knows what they mean. Interestingly enough, it is the ex-communist countries that have quickly adopted this new perspective in which such labels are recognized as devoid of any meaning.

What actually happened in the early 1990s was not the "end of history" but instead a redistribution of the cards--specifically, the end of a Western monopoly on global power that dated back to the 16th century. In its place, some new countries and some old countries emerged or reemerged as powers in the contemporary world. This has raised the current challenge of our time: how to reorder relations between the old established powers and these new powers?

You coined the term "hyperpower" for the United States in the 1990s. Do think it is still valid?

It is. But you should remember that it wasn't meant in a negative way. In French, the word "hyper" is not associated with some kind of pathological excess the way it is in English. Once I used the word, it caught on in ways that go far beyond what I was saying. I simply meant that the U.S. was by far the biggest world power anyone had ever seen. The Roman Empire and the Chinese Empire were territorially limited so they didn't really mind what happened in the rest of the world. In contrast, the United States is literally a "global" power--a first. That means it has strong influence in every sphere of international life. I like to compare it to a bicycle wheel with the U.S. as the hub with "spokes" into every country and sector of activity in the world. For every capital, the first preoccupation is that country's relationship with Washington. So the word "hyper-power" is not outdated. But, of course, it never meant "invulnerability" (as September 11th showed) or "omnipotence" or "infallibility" (think about the U.S. error regarding Iraq). But it is also true...

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