In This Review
France in an Age of Globalization

France in an Age of Globalization

By Hubert Vedrine and Dominique Moisi

Brookings Institution, 2001, 190 pp.

In June 2000, France's foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, published Les cartes de la France a l'heure de la mondialisation to address questions about French diplomacy. His interviewer was Dominique Moisi, editor of Politique etrangere and deputy director of the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales -- France's equivalents of Foreign Affairs and the Council on Foreign Relations, respectively. The statements of Vedrine, who had also been the secretary-general of the French presidency under Francois Mitterrand, are interesting for two reasons: first, they project light on some very controversial policies; and second, they reveal a style of intelligent foreign policy analysis and lucid detachment that is rare among heads of state and academics today. This is one of the reasons why the reader is often reminded of Henry Kissinger. Moisi's questions are probing, and he never hesitates to indicate the disagreements between himself and Vedrine. Thanks to Moisi's polite provocations, the foreign minister's cool discourse often heats up.

The American edition, admirably translated by Philip Gordon, goes even further than the French version. It includes a fresh discussion of events since last year, such as the European Union (EU) summit in Nice last December; Vedrine defends rather convincingly France's conduct at the summit, which came under wide criticism. The American version also contains a spirited (if oblique) reply to Tony Judt's vinegary review of the French edition in The New York Review of Books last April.

The book does not offer a detailed analysis of French diplomacy per se. Rather, it assesses France's situation and objectives in a world in which the state's importance as a global actor has diminished. Two concerns dominate the book: the continuity of French foreign policy and the United States' weight in world affairs. Following the principles drawn up more than 40 years ago by Charles de Gaulle, France continues to insist on the role of a major international actor. Indeed, both the left and the right agree on this ambition, which has made political cooperation between President Jacques Chirac, a neo-Gaullist, and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a socialist, quite easy in foreign affairs. This continuity also still irritates those "Anglo-Saxon" commentators who believe that France's defeat in 1940 should have cured it of its ambition to retain a global role. Indeed, "Anglo-Saxon" continuity in dismissive irritation is as tenacious as French continuity in obstinate and distinctive ambition.

On the subject of the United States, Vedrine is in fact much more subtle than many other French commentators. He rightly points out that globalization operates in a framework favorable to Americans, thanks to the size of the U.S. economy, the use of English, American free-market principles, America's "mastery of global images," and its "technological and cultural creativity." But he explicitly dismisses the view that globalization is "the completion of an American plan." Although the United States' "soft power" complements its "hard power," he argues, its ability to compel others is sharply limited by two constraints: "the natural indifference of a people who, sheltered by their geography and their power, feel self-sufficient," and a political system "torn between isolationism and hegemony."

Vedrine is more critical of other aspects of U.S. policy such as missile defense, which he views as an irrational American obsession that will provoke a new arms race. He also takes aim at America's cultural preponderance in globalization, including its desire to treat cultural goods as if they were ordinary products or services. "The United States is on its way to becoming a global Microsoft when it comes to the mass culture business," he warns. Nevertheless, he eloquently praises Bill Clinton, and he insists on distinguishing anti-Americanism, which he rejects, from the desire of France and Europe to preserve their distinctiveness -- "allied but not aligned."


Vedrine's vision of globalization is original and far from effusive. Globalization may not be good for democracy, he believes, because it is not necessarily adopted democratically. (Colonial expansion, he repeatedly points out, was the first form of globalization.) Its embryonic international civil society is made up not of elected representatives but of active minority interests of the most powerful countries. But even though globalization is not an unmitigated blessing for the poor and the weak, neither is it necessarily a boon for France. Its defining features -- market neoliberalism, mistrust of big government, and excessive individualism -- correspond to neither French tradition nor French culture. With an identity built on its central state, he points out, "France must make an exceptional effort to adapt."

Yet while France adapts, Vedrine continues, it also must act as a "civilizer" that counters the dark side of globalization's free-market ideology and the new threats of the post-Cold War world: weapons of mass destruction, organized crime syndicates, and terrorism. Hence he makes a plea for more rules and regulations -- which can come only from states, not from international civil society -- and greater solidarity and economic fairness among nations. (Here, too, his socialist discourse is remarkably Gaullist.)

Globalization also needs to be contained in the one crucial domain of culture, Vedrine argues. No French speaker will find surprising his defense of the French language, the "genetic code" of his country. He does not mean this as an insult to other languages. Rather, he sees language as the cement of French unity, a role similar to the one played by the U.S. Constitution for Americans. Furthermore, Vedrine's plea for cultural diversity and a robust French cultural policy is one that Americans should have the imagination to accept. Would they react any differently if, say, the Chinese language dominated the Internet, world business, politics, and culture?

Unfortunately, Vedrine does not say enough about French policy in Africa -- perhaps because he is in a difficult position to do so. He cannot -- and does not wish to -- endorse past practices that were shockingly undemocratic and corrupt, including those under Mitterrand. Nor does Vedrine want to condemn these policies publicly, since he had served as Mitterrand's aide and remains Chirac's foreign minister. But he is more explicit and persuasive on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Calling for a real EU policy, he asks the Israelis to understand that they need to accept a "genuinely viable Palestinian state" and the Palestinians to understand the deep Israeli need for security; he also praises Clinton's active intermediary role as "essential and extraordinary."


On globalization and the Franco-American relationship, in short, Vedrine is quintessentially French. On Europe, however, Vedrine takes a more pragmatic course. He defends EU enlargement as necessary and rightly argues (contrary to critics such as Judt) that Mitterrand did not try in 1991 to keep eastern Europe out of the EU, in a permanent limbo, with his "confederation" proposal. But Vedrine erroneously blames Czechoslovakia's president, Vaclav Havel, for this fiasco, rather than the proposal's faulty formulation, which included Russia but excluded the United States.

Vedrine is also right that a 27-member EU will be a very different entity from today's 15-member organization. It will need far less byzantine institutions and much greater diversity in the links among the members. Vedrine is quite explicit on the latter subject, preferring "variable geometry" (different participants for different functions) over the idea of a "core" surrounded by less-integrated countries. But he has very little to say about what kind of institutional design would fit his kind of Europe, and he provides no encouragement to the "Federalists," who now include German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and German Chancellor Gerhard Schršder. Although he acknowledges the meaninglessness of monetary sovereignty for EU members (especially the non-Germans), he defends their right to conduct their own foreign policies. As he sees it, a single monetary policy will coexist with a common (but not single) foreign policy that "orchestrates" the diverse views of its members -- whose viewpoints about European-American relations are too divergent to come down to a single approach.

Vedrine's rather lukewarm stance on European integration may result from his conviction that the EU has done little to enhance France's power since the early 1990s, even with German unification aside. On Germany, his discussion is also devoid of illusions. He sees the Franco-German partnership as less harmonious than before, but he acknowledges that cooperation between the two remains necessary, if no longer sufficient, for integration's progress. Vedrine also does not fret over Germany's potential domination of Europe in the way that so many foreign experts (Judt included) would expect. Vedrine's silence on this topic is not proof of his anxiety. When he writes that Germany's rediscovery of its national interests is perfectly normal, he is simply following his own view of the state as the primary actor.

In defense and foreign policy, Vedrine takes a similar tack. Europe's role, he believes, will be to organize the convergence of state policies, and each foreign minister will have to merge national interests with the growing "European interest" that results from such convergence. Vedrine acknowledges that a larger Europe will not be France writ large, but he shows sufficient confidence in French strength to believe that this mix of national self-assertion and cooperation is satisfying. He endorses the planned EU rapid reaction force but does not touch on the controversial issues of the extent of its autonomy and its relationship to NATO.

Vedrine's pragmatic approach to European integration raises three questions. First, how effective will the future EU be if it maintains its intergovernmental institutions in diplomacy and defense while the Council of Ministers remains the predominant legislative organ, even when the supranational European Commission plays a major role in areas such as economic and social policy? Will the French and the British -- the most reluctant "Federalists" -- be forced to choose between a federal Europe and the mixed approach that Vedrine espouses? The United States once had to move from a confederation to a federation. Although parallels between European and American integration are perilous, considerations of integration's effectiveness may be compelling in both cases. Second, can one call for a multipolar world and yet, as Vedrine does, relegate Europe to a diplomatically limited role with "too many voices and not enough policy" (as Moisi puts it)? After all, France plus the kind of Europe that Vedrine describes do not constitute a powerful enough "pole."

Finally, there is the question of inspiration. The EU has been built on a mix of material interests and visionary faith. That faith has helped its members overcome crises and periods of stagnation. A Europe based on pure reason is certainly conceivable, but it needs a vision that transcends dry computations of interests. In fact, the definition of interests varies depending on the passions and emotions of the players. Vedrine's passion is France; as long as there is no need to choose between France and Europe, his cool approach to Europe makes sense. But a greater ambition or enthusiasm for Europe -- which Vedrine seems to shy away from -- might help make such a choice unnecessary. It could also build a European "public space" that could soften the EU's reputation as a distant, technocratic bureaucracy.

To his credit, Vedrine wisely rejects "an attitude of gloomy nostalgia" and the bloated rhetoric of France's "universal message." Instead, he believes, Europe needs to go beyond the "Scandinavian" concept of merely being a "morally exemplary" space; it must seek to be "a power in its own right." But this call presupposes truly collective ambitions as well as the common institutions that would enable the EU to pursue them. In short, it goes beyond the Europe of delicate balances and compromises that Vedrine seems to favor. But how seriously does he take this contradiction?


Vedrine makes clear he is a subtle practitioner of realpolitik in the tradition of Richelieu, Talleyrand, and de Gaulle. This is a brilliant lineage, but is classical realpolitik -- even when acutely aware of the needs of developing countries and the legacies of colonialism -- capable of coping with the formidable threats of globalization? Vedrine leaves that question unanswered.

Vedrine administers a series of cold showers to Moisi's pleas for "a true international morality," and he is superb at puncturing excessive hopes and illusions. He is rightly cautious about indiscriminate enthusiasm for military intervention in civil wars and the difficulty of achieving democracy from the outside. He also acknowledges that not everyone wants Western democracy, and he stresses the difference between evangelization for human rights and the necessary search for peace. Many violations of human rights result from the weakness of some democratizing states, he argues, and democracy is the product not of a conversion but of a process. Vedrine is correct to denounce economic sanctions that hurt innocent people but not their evil governments. Bringing criminal leaders before international tribunals, he says, does not resolve problems, end dictatorships, or heal countries. Threats of punishment do not necessarily deter aggression, and diplomacy must deal with both good and bad regimes. To him, the reform of international law may be less essential than the fight against "the unfathomable injustices of globalization."

In fairness, Vedrine does make some concessions to liberals. He defends NATO's intervention in Kosovo and condemns Russian methods in Chechyna; he also supported EU pressure on Vienna after Jorg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined the Austrian government. He comes down in support of the International Criminal Court (ICC). But his general caution -- that the infusion of "Western" ethics into foreign policy will be perceived by non-Western peoples as parochial or arrogant -- goes a bit far. Non-Western peoples often share these values, and many people in the West do not share liberal values. Furthermore, a sensible emphasis on processes -- linking democracy with development, for instance -- requires a clear and strong vision of the direction for this process. An interest-based foreign policy alone cannot provide such a vision. Instead, such a vision should be considered part of the national interest. Acting on strong moral convictions ought to be part of an ethic of responsibility.

Sovereignty may indeed represent "dignity, national identity, and protection against" the worrisome encroachments of globalization, but it also protects scoundrels more often than Vedrine suggests. He also goes too far in downplaying the ICC's significance, giving credit for its existence to a voluntary delegation of power by states -- but nothing more. Defending French security, autonomy, interests, and values may indeed be the "classical" and "most basic" expectation of French foreign policy, but Vedrine's impatience with those who think that "France's special role consists of intervening abroad in the interests of others" is more than a little excessive.

A classic republican patriot determined to keep France a global power, Vedrine faces a world in which his country is overwhelmed by the American "hyperpower" and globalization. Given this, his realism has many virtues: it guards against the temptation of French hubris, and it wisely appeals to the French to understand that French unilateralism would be as ineffective as American unilateralism is dangerous. His defense of state sovereignty is sufficiently enlightened to accept the necessity of pooling sovereignty for such cases as European integration or international justice.

Like American diplomacy, however, French foreign policy has often shown a big gap between a tough, realistic approach, aimed at preserving French power and influence, and an idealistic and universalist rhetoric. Sometimes these two sides have converged, such as in de Gaulle's Algeria policy after 1962. Sometimes, the gap has been shocking, as in the Balkans before 1995 or with central Africa in general. Vedrine is a good example of this tension between realism and idealism, although he leans more toward the former. But to be at ease in the new century, France needs the appeals of genuine idealism -- call it "idealpolitik" -- as much as national ambition. Even from a realpolitik perspective, idealism matters. An important state such as France needs it to bolster its "soft power." It requires the glue of coalitions with necessary partners to increase its influence, and it needs to rely on such purveyors of idealism as the media and the nongovernmental organizations that Vedrine so sharply criticizes. Idealpolitik is good in itself -- and good for realpolitik.

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  • Stanley Hoffmann is Buttenwieser University Professor at Harvard University and reviews books on western Europe for Foreign Affairs.
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