Peak line: after Afghanistan, elements for a Foreign Policy

Conference of Ambassadors, Paris © Presidency of the Republic

          Afghanistan can be a textbook case. It brings together many major contemporary international issues: regional crises in a nuclear zone, the legitimacy of interventions in failed states, humanitarian tragedies, the development of terrorism, the recomposition of the new world, the redefinition of inter-state political organizations and alliances, the major economic projects of the 21st century. 

Seen from this angle, the Afghan crisis can not only leave indifferent, but compels a renewed reflection on Foreign Policy. The end of “classic” military interventions, except in cases of self-defence under the UN Charter, may have been enacted in Kabul on 15 August, but new forms of intervention may emerge because isolationism is a lure in today’s world. 

“On new thinkers, let’s make ancient verses,” as André Chenier wrote in the 18th century, and Afghanistan can help us reformulate principles and guidelines for a foreign policy.

A regional crisis gone wrong

The Afghan regional crisis has undergone changes that have brought it to the dimensions of the world. Added to the problems of a developing country was the constant clash between the enemy brothers resulting from the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. India and Pakistan, in search of a “strategic depth” against the latter, have both been nuclear states since the late 1990s and this factor will continue to weigh heavily.

Afghanistan found itself on an East-West fracture line with the Soviet intervention of 1979. A certain vagueness still remains on the real intentions of the leaders of the USSR of the time who, besides taking pledges on a theater then still peripheral in the context of the opposition with Washington, have also been able to integrate a traditional policy of access to warm seas.

With September 11, the country burst onto the world stage by revealing that it had become, even if forced, the command post of a global terrorism using new and sophisticated means. From this came the idea of a “just war” – unlike Iraq -, a concept that President Obama will keep in mind despite the marked reservations, from the beginning of his first term, emanating from his Vice-President Biden.

The stakes are now also economic. The challenge is long-standing: to bring, in the fastest and least expensive way, the energy supply from production fields, particularly in Central Asia, to ports serving major Asian markets. This is one dimension of the One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI) within which Afghanistan occupies a key position. The Turkmenistan-Pakistan-Afghanistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project, which is not abandoned and is not unrealistic, can complement this. 

The United States did not intervene by adopting an East-West approach, which, if it has not completely disappeared, has carried out its mutation since the end of the Cold War. East-West is becoming a West-East, from California to China, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific zone. For Washington, the loss of an element of the «cordon sanitaire» around Iran, a country of the nuclear «threshold», even if the victory of the Taliban – if it continues in the long term – will not necessarily be a given for Tehran due to the installation of a competing religious power, guilty in the past of unspeakable atrocities on the Shiite Hazara community of Afghanistan and which remains a repellent at the origin of migratory flows likely to destabilize neighbouring countries.

The impossible abandonment and interventionism in question

Voices of weariness and spite rise in the public opinion of those fleeing Kabul through the service gate. For his part, President Biden said he would stick to a line he had already expressed about ten years ago under the Obama presidency. But politics is about timing and you have to be right on D-Day. 

Equipped to conduct its foreign policy with an unparalleled Dream Team – with the experience and skill of J. Kerry, A. Blinken and W. Burns and the energy of K. Harris’ revival -, a warning, it seems, by the leaders of the army and intelligence services, how was such autism possible? Regardless of the number of years, General de Gaulle may have given his explanation, that of the «shipwreck of the age». 

But this departure is not definitive because the region is a digest of major contemporary international problems. And everything that today touches on the Afghan crisis directly or indirectly raises the preliminary question of interventionism in general. We have become familiar with teleworking and tomorrow there will no doubt be tele-intervention, which has also begun to be experienced in certain theaters of operation: by allies, NGOs and international organizations interposed, by media soft power, by ideological propaganda or a religious discourse reinterpreted and diffused and thanks to new technologies, such as drones and satellites. Mullah Baradar did not return home in a “lead car” from Zurich but on a military plane from Doha.

Some States have decided without delay to maintain a visible presence. The question of the recognition of the new regime could be avoided by virtue of the unwritten doctrine, which was for example that of France when the Taliban took power in 1996, according to which we do not recognize governments but states. In a completely pragmatic and understandable way, in a region his country has frequented for a long time and where he has renewed ambitions, the British Prime Minister, with the formidable responsiveness that cannot be disputed, has already indicated a willingness to work with the new authorities.

Between the return to arrogant, bitterness-tinged isolationism and nostalgia for seemingly easy solutions resulting in the mere sound of boots in theaters of operation and its substitute, the “duty of humanitarian intervention” (NB: called «liberal interventionism» in the Anglo-Saxon world) often another form of the ambition of regime change, it will be necessary to take a narrow path, a ridge path. 

The «classical» interventionism – that is to say, based on military actions, a fortiori lasting – has just been undermined, apart from the cases of self-defence provided for by Article 51 of the UN Charter and extreme situations of defense of vital interests. This does not mean that it will disappear and the difference made by Obama between a justified operation, such as the one-time destruction of Al Qaeda’s home in Afghanistan or the elimination of bin Laden in Pakistan and a second war in Iraq in 2003 after that of 1991, may have some relevance. 

It was President Bush Jr who ultimately handed over part of the Middle East to Iran, a country with a real nuclear project that will have to continue to «contain». This is what President Macron expressed to the United States Congress when he declared that Iran would not have nuclear weapons «neither now, nor in ten years, never». In this regard, the ultimate hesitation of B. Obama – struck by a sort of «Colin Powell syndrome» – to undertake a new war in Syria the day after the use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013 – still imperfectly clarified -, probably prevented us from carrying out a fatal process, in addition to probably ensuring the eventual victory of Daesh in Damascus. It was the House of Commons, this “old Parliament”, as Dominique De Villepin could have said – who had spoken of the “old Europe” at the Security Council in 2003 – that first showed the way of reason.

The operation in Libya certainly brought down a dictator known to be dangerous, but he was able to control the tribal centrifugal forces that were agitating his country, and it finally helped to amplify the destabilization caused by the «Arab Spring» Not only in North Africa, but in the heart of the African continent of which Mr. Khadafi had the ambition to be the Leader.

A debate is in any case open which should encourage us to be cautious. Apart from the situations listed above (cf. Article 51, defense of vital interests), it will however be difficult to remain inert in the face of massive exterminations but it may be thought that a phase of greater restraint could now open up, in accordance with a cyclical rhythm. This is what happened in the United States after Vietnam, when the Gulf War in 1991, the intervention in the former Yugoslavia and the effects of the 9/11 in the Middle East and beyond corresponded to a period of hybris. 

In concrete terms, if we go back to the Afghan case, we will have to maintain a form of presence. The maintenance of Embassies – which will not imply a formal recognition of the new power but will mean the continuation of State-to-State relations – will reduce the feeling of total abandonment of the population;  these diplomatic missions will be irreplaceable observers and witnesses of current developments and will serve as a support point for humanitarian, educational and social actions. The strategy should be to build all kinds of ties around the country, not only because there is a humanitarian emergency that the so-called “civilized” world must respond to, but also, in the same spirit as during the Cold War when the thought inspired by H. Kissinger advocated to “tie up” the Soviet bear. It is now reduced to the size of the «Aladdin’s flask» but escapes the miasma of obscurantism and extremism.

Regenerating Multilateralism and Rethinking Alliances

The Kabul fiasco, whose scope and lasting effects are still only imperfectly appreciated, is above all a clear failure for NATO, but it is also the case for international cooperation in general, and the UN must be mentioned here, no doubt. “the worst of the systems but the best of which we could find”, to paraphrase what Churchill said about democracy.

It is easy to shout haro at the United Nations, their absence or their ineffectiveness. But the UN is us, the Member States, and the General Secretariat is only the offshoot of it. The end of the Cold War, along with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, enabled the permanent members of the Security Council to reach a consensus. The result was the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict, the independence of Namibia and the settlement of the Cambodian case, and J. Perez de Cuellar, the Secretary-General of the UN, held until then in the greatest indifference, was propelled on the world stage. 

If this alignment of the planets is not close to reproduce, the voice of the UN may be stronger and this is necessary. The real power of the Secretary-General seems a priori thin because it is based on only one article of the Charter – Article 99 – but this article allows it “to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that, in its opinion, could endanger the maintenance of international peace and security”. This means that the Secretary-General can raise almost any issue and it can have an impact depending on his moral authority and personality. We must therefore continue to defend and respect the United Nations. It is also in the interest of the middle powers that their influence is multiplied in this context. It is regrettable that, in the current situation in Afghanistan, the silence of the UN Secretary-General is deafening or at least that his words do not reach us. The Director-General of UNESCO, on the other hand, spoke about the commitment to education, in particular that of women and girls.

It will not be possible, in the foreseeable future, to “reform” the UN or even to expand the number of seats in the Security Council so that it is more representative of the state of the world. This process has been going on for several decades, but there are significant political roadblocks. France, for its part, has repeatedly declared itself in favour of the entry of India, Germany, Japan and an influential African country. But if we take the case of India, whose candidacy would be indisputable according to several criteria (cf. demographic and economic weight, participation in peacekeeping operations), such a choice would immediately give rise to a counterclaim by Pakistan, a country that is also considerable but with the disadvantage of having also become nuclear in the late 1990s. This is not possible, apart from the respective relations of the countries concerned with the major powers, while nuclear proliferation is a major concern.

The G7, originally an economic one, has also become a political forum for consultation, if not decision-making, to such an extent that it has sometimes been regarded as a kind of “substitute Security Council”. The British Prime Minister made no mistake, since he expressed the intention of holding a virtual meeting in the coming days. Moreover, the G7 should again become a G8, as soon as possible and unconditionally, because it is not Russia’s exclusion that will resolve the Crimea issue that has determined this exclusion. Since the G7/G8 is a largely economic body, it is also not normal that China, the world’s second economic power and soon perhaps the first, should not be invited, even if it prefers the G20 for the moment. How can we not talk about trade issues or global warming and the prospects of the circular economy?

 This is not the NATO trial that has already been called “brain-dead”. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the Organization has struggled to find a new vocation and, moreover, it has not changed in its mode of operation, making its members the auxiliaries little consulted seriously by a dominant power, what Afghanistan has confirmed. It is far from certain that this situation contributes to collective security. France’s return to the Integrated Military Organization was a mistake. France should withdraw again, which will not prevent the maintenance of military ties with its partners in an Alliance of which it will naturally remain a member.

Let us be clear, France is a North Atlantic State even if it is not that and it remains a faithful ally of the United States. There is no reason to question the ties that have been forged over a long history. On the contrary, it is in difficult times that solidarity must be most exercised, and this is the case. General de Gaulle, whose relations with Washington may have been delicate, was one of the very first to side with the United States in the great crises, whether it be that of the Berlin Wall or that of the missiles of Cuba in 1962. He even got along very well with Richard Nixon even before he became president because he understood that his future Asian policy was in line with that expressed in his speech at Phnom Penh. Tomorrow, we will once again be on the side of the United States in the Iranian case, to name but this one, and that is why we regretted Washington’s lone rider outside the framework set by the agreement with Tehran of July 14, 2015.

Europe, between East and West

The situation of Europe between East and West is not an overwhelming fatality but rather a goal to be achieved.  Europe must be European and, being a considerable economic unit and a centre of civilization, must exist between the great groups of tomorrow. This statement raises the question of the political construction of Europe and also what is the prerequisite for its independence, its security.

There will be no European defence in the foreseeable future and alternative solutions must be found. These solutions already exist. Germany, for historical reasons and also in view of its dominant economic position, does not wish to embark on this path and, Dare I say, it is even sometimes inclined to antagonize it, as it showed in an attempt to bring the BAE Systems and EADS groups together a few years ago, which was a considerable European project and probably at least equivalent to that of AIRBUS.  The current discussions between governments and industry on the Future Air Combat System (ASFS) by 2040 are progressing painfully. It is Germany’s legitimate right to privilege American protection and to have “hands-free” economic freedom in Europe. This is indeed the DNA, especially of the CDU, since Chancellor Adenauer. Will developments in Afghanistan cause some inflection?  In any event, what is simply being asked of potential successors of Ms. Merkel is to clarify their position so that we know where we stand.

The United Kingdom, sometimes vilified because of Brexit, at least had the courage of its opinions. From a European point of view, we cannot but regret this departure. How can we imagine a political whole in Europe without the United Kingdom? On the other hand, the British demand for a reform of Europe, as expressed in David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in 2013, was perfectly legitimate and it will be more difficult to reform Europe, for which it is a necessity as for any living organization, without the role that London often played. The French are generally unaware of this, but the United Kingdom has for several years been France’s largest trade surplus in the world. EDF Energy’s investment in the Hinckley Point nuclear power plant is the largest foreign investment in the United Kingdom since the Second World War. The Nissan (Renault) plant in Sunderland, in northern England, is the largest automotive plant in Europe. So punish London? The question does not even arise. Nor do the French know to what extent the United Kingdom is a close partner – that is to say the very first – in the field of defence and today more broadly in security. London has helped us with the logistics of transporting troops in Africa and we even have with the United Kingdom, as stated a few months ago by our Minister of Armed Forces, a cooperation in the field of military nuclear.

It is not a question of formalising and extending this de facto military duopoly to the whole of Europe, but it may be of a nature to reassure it and to encourage EU Member States to get closer to it in the form of industrial cooperation, for example. The EU will live its life in the rhythm of its reforms and progress and, in this respect, the Commission has the opportunity with Ursula von der Leyen to have at its head a great European and a very exceptional personality. We have chosen it and must support it fully.  In addition to the military pillars and the economic organization, it is probably necessary to think of an informal political structure whose functioning is less cumbersome than a large European Council. Not to mention a Management Board of some powers, it could be a kind of Board of Governance, superstructure outlining the major orientations. 

The old and the new East

Russia and China are not revisionist powers, held on the edge and sharing the same fate and interests. To say that would be disrespectful to these great civilizations. 

In a vision for 2030 yes 2050, Russia will be part of a vast European geo-strategic ensemble or Europe will not exist between China and the United States. The eastern border of Europe will be a Chinese border which will not mean an attitude of hostility towards Beijing. This new configuration will solve some current questions, which are ultimately quite secondary, about Turkey’s membership of Europe and even of the Southern shore of the Mediterranean or the Near and Middle East. Incidentally, this would be an opportunity for a country like Ukraine that nobody really wants in the EU right now. The European Union – or what it has become – will constitute a subset of it.

This vision is not a fantasy but a necessity and we are currently wasting a lot of time. Russia itself has missed historic turns since the end of the Soviet Union, such as a peace settlement with Japan which would have led to an end to the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands and would have facilitated the rapprochement of complementary economies: technology in exchange for energy resources. This moment was missed by B. Yeltsin, who was nevertheless tempted to embark on this path at the beginning of the so-called “transition” period, which does not end. Such a rapprochement with China is more difficult because the gap is now too wide in all respects between the two countries. Russia geographically also Asian actually always leans towards Europe. T. Pesquet must see well from his orbital station where the great Russian urban concentrations are. To get to Japan, one flies for hours over the East of Russia to the Pacific without perceiving the slightest light. And then the figures are there, which we should probably update: 50% of Russia’s trade was still with Europe a few years ago while 75% of the investments came from it. 

Our lack of understanding of the Russians is second only to that of the Russians about the development of their own country. Failing to realize that Mr. Gorbachev brought them freedom, privileged the peaceful settlement of disputes which allowed the reunification of Germany, worked unsuccessfully to reform the Soviet system and to preserve the Union, It is normal that they do not understand the scope of the savage privatisations under the Yeltsin presidency and that they are finally satisfied with the majority of their current leaders.

China is the New East, one of the leading figures of the New World. By its GDP, it has surpassed the Japanese economy for more than 10 years (NB: this remains a very remarkable result for Japan). It seems to want to divest itself of its traditional status as a Middle Empire and thus gives rise to criticism of a supposed imperialism, especially in the South China Sea. In a word, it can be worrying. But as for Russia – of which President Chirac said that there was only one policy to do with it – we must first try to understand and admit that China is now for a long time at the forefront of the world stage.

It is no more than necessary to personalize power in China or try to classify its mode of operation according to our historical and mental patterns. China has no small problems, as its officials often say. The main problem remains an annual population growth equivalent to the population of a France. This implies sustained economic growth and the constant search for external markets, even though the internal market is becoming increasingly important in the country’s economic development. It is this «machine» to produce, destructive of the environment, that can worry but that we cannot assimilate to an imperialism. The subject can only be touched here but what seems reassuring today in China is a great rationality without ideological presuppositions. The Chinese Communist Party, whose country has just celebrated its 100th anniversary in July, is an instrument at the service of a hyper-modern and in some respects hyper-capitalist China.

Going back to the original subject of the Afghan crisis, the major project of the “New Silk Roads” (cf. One Belt One Road) can be an opportunity and a stabilizing factor for the entire region. We are now concerned about the independence of the States of Central Asia, but have they aroused sufficient interest in us in recent years? We take offence to China’s penetration into Africa, into our “square meadow”, but have we believed in the development of the African continent and invested in it appropriately? 


International sanctions

Instead of a positive vision and an entrepreneurial spirit, we may be inclined to confine ourselves to negative attitudes for ourselves in the first place. So it is with the policies of punishment, which have become a sort of Pavlovian reflex of international life. Sanctions may aim to weaken an adversary in the event of significant tension or a lasting dispute; they also often conceal economic issues behind the affirmation of broad principles; they also seek to punish for what is considered a breach of the international order for lack of consensus on more radical measures.

In practice, they are increasingly deployed – because of the fragmentation of this order – outside the multilateral framework which, however, has made them agreed instruments of its possible action; we are then talking about non military coercive measures as enshrined in the UN Charter.

Major players in the international system – who could not be challenged head-on – are the target, such as Russia, China and Iran. They are increasingly being adopted in a regional framework (cf. EU sanctions against Belarus), proof of the weakening of a global security architecture and of an evolution towards a more multipolar world.

Whatever the modalities – sanctions taken or not taken in the framework of international legality -, they produce effects that can be perverse and have sometimes been denounced for their global character on the companies concerned, that is their injustice if not their efficiency. Examples exist of punishments inflicted on vulnerable populations which, paradoxically, result in strengthening the authoritarian powers in place.

Historically, it is not they who have shaken and a fortiori put an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa; the arms embargoes have led Pretoria to develop a powerful and flourishing national arms industry. Nor were they the instrument, from the 1991 Gulf War, for the overthrow of S. Hussein; on the contrary they enabled the dictator to consolidate his power – through the distribution of humanitarian aid to correct the appalling effects of sanctions on the most vulnerable elements  – and to continue for another ten years until the military intervention of 2003.

Today without there is little chance they will be talking of the safety of such measures that makes Russia or China, or even Belarus give up. On the latter issue, the need to sanction the Lukashenko regime was imposed in Brussels but Europe had difficulty defining « targeted »  sanctions which has now replaced the shocking expression of « smart sanctions » in total contradiction with a reality that makes weak, in many cases, expiatory victims of strategic confrontations. 

The Nord Stream 2 case reveals the complexity of the sanctions mechanisms and their multiple dimensions, whether they concern energy policy (cf. do we need additional quantities or Russian gas?), environmental protection (cf. the reservations of certain States, such as Denmark, on the route of the pipeline), the economy (cf. the Russian-German trade) or geo-strategy (cf. would the additional Russian gas increase the dependence on Moscow or would it on the contrary reflect an affirmation of the independence of Europe whose large companies have been regularly hit by the application of extra-territorial laws?). It is probably this complexity and this set to costs and benefits that led Washington to suspend (cf. “waiver”) some measures taken against companies concerned by the project in addition to the opportunity to facilitate the first tour in Europe to the EU and NATO of President Biden..

In the end, it is not a question of simply saying that we support or strongly oppose sanctions, because sanctions, in any case, have become a reality of international life. The scope of the dossier requires clarifications, the prerequisite being a clear knowledge of the existing mechanisms and mechanisms. Many questions arise: what is the legitimacy of national or regional sanctions under international law? What is the typology of sanctions? What are the effects, including for industrial groups belonging to countries that make frequent use of it in the context of an ever more bitter competition between States belonging, however, sometimes to the same political and military alliances.

Living with our DNA

The time is for Realpolitik which is not a revolution, but a more realistic policy is not exclusive of a foreign policy attached at the same time to the promotion of values. It’s all about dosage and circumstances. The France of René Cassin, Simone Weil and Josephine Baker cannot lack breath and ideal. It’s embedded in our DNA.

The «middle ground», in the French tradition of the seventeenth century, is not a smaller common denominator. It is a balance always to seek at a higher level by integrating new thinking and knowledge as well as modernity. It can be expressed in various forms, including the most traditional for reasons of intelligibility and communication between individuals, communities and nations. After all, as André Gide said, «classicism is a tamed romanticism». We need some on the ridge line.


Salon de l’Horloge, Conférence de la Paix, 1919 © Agence Rol (in Le Quai d’Orsay, Editions internationales du Patrimoine)

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