For five years, for thirty years? Refoundation of the international order

        In the latest issue of the Journal Politique étrangère, Thierry de Montbrial, Founder and President of the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), questions the key moment in France’s foreign policy (see “A Course for the Next Thirty Years”) and he strives to chart medium and long-term prospects. 

Without him saying it clearly, he is also drawing up a roadmap for the next few years, on the eve of a new five-year presidential term in France. Reflection on the place of France in Europe, and of Europe in the world, should moreover be considered as the key issue in the presidential debate, from which everything flows and to which everything is linked, whether it is pandemics, climate, migration or security (…)


The President of Ifri takes the preliminary care to define the basic concepts, distinguishing in particular political geography from the geopolitics that inscribe international problems in an ideological order; it separates even more clearly geopolitics from international politics, which escapes territorial determinism. This raises the question of identity in our contemporary world, sometimes reduced by the fragmentation of States. Stability and internal coherence are conditions for the formulation of a consensual foreign policy and this question also naturally arises for France.

For the President of Ifri, France has never really recovered from the collapse of 1940, even if the Fourth Republic has bequeathed basic orientations such as transatlantic link, construction of Europe, permanent seat on the Security Council or commitment to nuclear weapons. The legacy of 1940 and the 1950s, with its fragmentations and relative economic decline, is the backdrop for reflection. 

Inspired by Marshal Foch, it is recalled that the two main principles of the strategy are freedom of action and concentration on its strengths. Autonomy and, a fortiori, independence are increasingly difficult objectives to achieve in a world of interdependencies. Relations with the United States and within NATO illustrate the first principle. It can be considered that the reintegration of the integrated military organization did not have for France the expected counterparts, just as the objective of a European strategic autonomy within the organization seems very uncertain. The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan also emphasized that a second status could be accompanied by a lack of cooperation between allies.

According to Thierry de Montbrial, only through the construction of Europe, “priority of priorities”, can we find some room for manoeuvre. But this development must be accompanied by a catching up of technological delays by aiming at sovereignty in this field, an economic adjustment of a structural character and a certain questioning of the ideological umbrella inherited from the end of the USSR and conditioning relations with it. The affirmation of Europe in the face of the United States and China and the development of common competences must at the same time respect cultural differences.

With Russia and despite the missed opportunities since 1991, it will be necessary to revive a Gaullian tradition based also on the concepts and logic of the CSCE and, if the President of Ifri does not say it in these terms, the result could be in the long term – even beyond the Urals – a Eurasian geo-political complex facing China, without necessarily opposing the latter in an aggressive posture.

On the seas and its surroundings, the priority will remain the Mediterranean in relation to which the Indo-Pacific area or a crisis around Taiwan will not represent the same essential interests. In this current context, Thierry de Montbrial clearly states that there is no question of us participating in a global anti-Chinese alliance. At the risk of being provocative, can we not say that the loss of the nuclear-powered submarine contract, no matter how brutal it was, and the exclusion of the new AUKUS organization, have preserved a possibility of acting outside of a block opposition just as it was, proportionately, during the Cold War?

In the South, it is clear that France will have to overcome historical traumas and burdens and normalization and development cooperation will be conditioned both by the recovery and growth of its economic dynamism and by the help of its so far distant European partners. It is clear that reference is made here to Algeria, a key country, and to the Sahel where France cannot act alone. The Gulf countries, which are themselves seeking greater autonomy from a single protector, are already a very important turning point in relation to Asia. 


The outlook for the next thirty years is a fortiori the one that will lead France in the next five years. Compared to five years ago, notes Thierry de Montbrial, the Sino-American conflict has hardened and Europe must consider that the priorities of the United States and Europe no longer entirely coincide. The continuation of European integration is therefore essential. The euro had saved the Community, which had become the European Union, and the break-up of the eurozone would mean the end of the eurozone.

The President of Ifri advocates pragmatism rather than abstract debates, be it reflection on shared sovereignty, strategic autonomy or the question of borders. It also takes the example of technological sovereignty, an indispensable complement to the single market and the single currency. It is this set that will allow Europe to exert its influence on the greatest powers. 

With respect to NATO – and this is a very topical issue – the Atlantic Alliance will retain its meaning for the major challenges – and in this regard “nuclear deterrence will retain its relevance”, he stresses – but it will be necessary to consider the conditions of application of Article 5 of the Charter and the delimitation of the scope of intervention, as the experience of Afghanistan prompts us to do, and also decision-making mechanisms that must be compatible with European developments.


This paraphrase, no doubt clumsy and somewhat reductive of Thierry de Montbrial’s thought, nevertheless aims to lead us to personal reflections. Foreign policy has become everyone’s business and, as the President of Ifri hopes, it should be the subject of more public debate, for example in Parliament, so that everyone feels concerned. 

The creation of the site “Perspectives Europe-Monde” was based on this observation (cf. the presentation of the site: “Les palpitations du monde”): 

The nations of Europe, organized together or united by geography, culture and history, will not fall back on themselves and such an attitude would be in vain. They will have to find their place in a world dominated by powerful groupings, where emerging countries are already making remarkable progress and where no one should be left on the sidelines, both for reasons of humanity and because destructive imbalances must be avoided”.

The international system, as it was, was characterized by the primacy of the State, respect for the rule of sovereignty, the opposition of the blocs in the northern hemisphere and peripheral conflicts, by the precedence due to the possession of military nuclear power.

After the dislocation of the East/West system and the emergence of the era of globalization/globalization, the main characteristics have evolved with the emergence of civil society (cf. NGOs, transnational groups; multiplicity of actors and “new challenges”). This phenomenon coincided, according to an apparent paradox, with the affirmation of the rights of individuals while the scale of the problems was global and required collective treatment.

The sovereignty/interference problem has been imposed with the questioning of the strict rule of respect for sovereignty, as defined in the UN Charter (cf. Article 2, paragraph 7. We then went from sovereignty-independence to sovereignty-responsibility, which gradually led to the formulation of the right of interference, a new notion that also refers to the notion of community in a world made up of sacred selfishness. If it may have been a wrong answer to a real question, this evolution in any case undermined the prerogatives of the UN Security Council, the sole holder of the exercise of legitimate and financial 

The end of the bipolar order was accompanied by the crisis of the political representation of States, embodied by the UN. The American hyper-power, to use a concept forged by Hubert Védrine, coincided indeed with a UN in crisis and a debate never concluded on the enlargement of its Security Council. This last question also raised questions about a possible way of representing Europe in the Council, for example in the form of a rotating permanent seat.

The revival of the strategic debate with the introduction of new armaments and the very possibility of a militarization of space as well as the increasingly worrying question of proliferation with the increase of so-called “threshold” states In addition to the characteristics of an international system undergoing profound transformation.


If the refoundation of the international system is not thought out and organized, it will in all cases be suffered. The questions that will arise will relate in particular to the possibility of reintegrating the UN in crisis management, of reactivating a G7/G8, or even a G20, as a prefiguration or substitute for an enlarged Security Council? 

UN system, security architecture, trade and financial organizations, will be on the agenda as well as the debate on “values” about the rule of law in the international order, the protection of human rights and the definition of democracy. In the age of multiparity, revealing and at the same time causing the upheavals of the system, the continuation of the European construction will be a sine qua non.  Its main justification, beyond its commercial power, will be to be a pole of civilization unique in the world.

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