France : Champion of a Multipolar World

Some observers consider the recent standoff between France and the United States to be a temporary event.

The question is, however, if Chirac's obsession with multipolarity will not cause a lot of damage: first to the transatlantic relationship, second to the EU, which is deeply divided as a result of his approach, and finally to France itself. Chirac's view of  the virtues of a multipolar world might be a little bit too rosy. Maybe he has in mind the mutually balanced ‘concert of nations' of nineteenth century Europe . But that period was a short exception in  Europe 's long, bloody, multipolar history. As Pangloss in Voltaire's "Candide", who discovers that the real world is not ‘the best of all worlds', Chirac (or at least future French Presidents) might find out that a multipolar world is not ‘the best of all worlds', but an utterly dangerous place.  

The ‘unipolar moment', far from being a danger, could, on the contrary offer a unique window of opportunity to both Americans and Europeans to shape a world according to Western values. This presupposes that the US and Europe should work closely together, combining their hard and soft power (and in the partition of roles, Europeans should not concentrate exclusively on soft power, as Americans should not on hard power). Americans and Europeans have a similar interest in fighting international terrorism, in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They equally share an interest in reforming the Arab world from a politically, economically, and culturally stagnat region, governed by autocrats, into a modern, democratic and prosperous part of the world.  

In France, the danger of an American ‘neo-imperialism' has been invoked (see, for example, Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet, "L'école néo-impérialiste américaine", in Le Monde, September 19, 2002), in which references are made not to the post-World War II period in which the United States successfully re-ordered the world, but to the pre-World War I situation in which President Theodore Roosevelt conducted "gunboat diplomacy." The problem with the allied intervention in Iraq , however, could in the end prove not to be a U.S. ‘neo-imperialist' overcommitment, but a U.S. undercommitment. Niall Fergusson rightly calls the United States "a reluctant ruler of other peoples." And he adds: "The American approach has too often been to fire some shells, march in, hold elections and then get the hell out - until the next crisis. Haiti is one recent example, Kosovo another, Afghanistan may yet prove to be the next."  One could add now Iraq to this series. Instead of dreaming of a multipolar world, Europe - France included-has an interest in assisting the United States in the enormous task of building a prosperous and democratic Iraq . Because only a long-term commitment of the whole transatlantic community can guarantee a stable peace in the Middle East .  


Marcel H. van Herpen is Director of the Cicero Foundation, a pro-EU think tank (