France : Champion of a Multipolar World

May 14, 2003

France : Champion of a Multipolar World

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


Some observers consider the recent standoff between France and the United States to be a temporary event. They stress the fact that we have witnessed similar crises before, as in Suez in 1956 or in 1966, when de Gaulle left the military organization of NATO. Such an assessment, however, does not take into account the fundamentally different situation of today. There is a growing discrepancy between the French vision of its own place in the world and the real world as it has developed around it. If we have a closer look at the French foreign policy premises, we will see that it is characterized by three basic assumptions. These are:  

1.   France considers itself a pivotal great power.


2.      France can only play this pivotal role in a multipolar world.

3.      France considers a multipolar world the best guarantee of international relations that are based on a multilateral approach. France favors a strong role for international fora, especially for the Security Council of the UN, of which it is a permanent member. Such a role will not only strengthen international law, but also confirm France 's great power status.  

To what degree are these basic assumptions still valid? Let us first look at the French self-image of its position as a great power. It is clear that France 's international position is in relative decline. In the 1950s and 1960s, when France lost its colonial empire, it embraced Europe and found in the Europe of the Six a vehicle to reassert itself. However, its position as the undisputed leader of Europe was gradually undermined when Europe took in more members. The coming enlargement with ten new countries will dilute French influence even further, notwithstanding recent initiatives to counter this trend by a revitalization of the significantly weakened French-German axis and the establishment on April  29, 2003 of a European Security and Defense Union with Germany , Belgium and Luxembourg . France 's great power status seems to be ever more defined by two remnants of the past: its nuclear deterrent and its permanent seat on the Security Council.    

Second, there is the French preoccupation with multipolarity. Why? This preoccupation is based on the idea that only in a multipolar world can France play the independent international role that is à la hauteur of its ambitions. Also, here France has been confronted with an adverse development. After the demise of the Soviet Union , the US has emerged as the undisputed global leader: the world has become unipolar. In France there exists a certain nostalgia for the Cold War era. In this period the world was not ideal, because not multipolar, but its bipolarity offered (Gaullist) France a relative independence vis-à-vis both superpowers.

France is painfully conscious of the fact that it has a strongly reduced marge de manoeuvre in a world dominated by what the French call - with a mixture of repulsion and envy - the American ‘hyperpower' (l'hyperpuissance américaine). In his 1978 work (La lueur de l'espérance - réflexion du soir pour le matin), Jacques Chirac already clearly expresses his preference for a multipolar world.  He wrote:  

The French should not believe that their country is destined to become a small power without influence on the destiny of the world…  

After having stressed the French ‘mission' and its ‘grandeur', he continued:  

The world has nothing to gain from the American-Soviet dyarchy. When we oppose ourselves to it, we not only defend our independence and our interests, but also the freedom and the peace of the world. Among all states France is one of the best placed to take the lead of a resistance … that will not fail to attract sympathy and support.  

Twenty-five years later, one could almost read this text as a blueprint for the recent French stance in the Security Council, when it threatened to veto a second resolution on Iraq .     

Third, there is the fact that the French government seems to consider a multipolar world a necessary precondition for a multilateral approach. In the French vision, a unipolar international system, dominated by one hyperpower, will automatically lead to a unilateral approach of the hegemon. Both, however, are not necessarily connected. You can have a unipolar world in which the leading power has a multilateral approach, as was the case under the Clinton administration, and you can have a multipolar world dominated by a unilateral approach of the different state actors, as was the case in the pre-World War II period.  

We may conclude that the three above mentioned factors: the frustration about France 's relatively declining international status, its reduced playground in a unipolar system, together with the equation of unipolarity with unilateralism, has brought President Chirac to fundamentally review his foreign policy. No longer restricted by a cohabitation with the Socialists, he can - at last - do what he already long ago decided to do: to systematically oppose American power in order to create a second, countervailing power. In this strategy, he considers Germany and some smaller European states, including Russia , and possibly China , to be his natural allies.  

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 (