The commitment to the multilateral system is positive. Thus, the speech of President J. Biden to the last UN General Assembly focused on multilateralism and cooperation between nations, just a few days after the announcement of the creation of AUKUS, new political and military Alliance between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. If the way of dealing with a partner in the Atlantic Alliance in the circumstances has, at the very least, invalidated the presidential remarks, the question of multilateralism as a component of the international system deserves to be tackled.
The coexistence of alliances and international political organizations, in particular the United Nations, is not new; it is even one of the characteristics of the international system since 1945. To the extent that the United Nations is a reflection of the state of the world and is often subjected to it – “the United Nations is us”, as we can say “the State is us” – multilateralism has been called into question more or less sharply in recent decades, in a cyclical process. Paradoxically, the strongest attacks came from the Reagan Administration even though the Cold War block system was beginning being cracked; in the 1980s, at the end of the frantic arms race that the American President had engaged in with the “Star Wars” (cf. SDI or Strategic Defence Initiative).
The American Republican Administration did indeed come into conflict with the UN system. In 1987, the General Assembly condemned the bombing of Tripoli in Libya while the International Court of Justice, another main organ according to the Charter of the United Nations, made even about Iran-Contra Affair. The roll-back policy of the Soviet Union, described in Berlin in 1987 by Ronald Reagan as the «Empire of Evil», did not allow the minimum cooperation of the Security Council which would have prevented its almost total blockage. In this context, the United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, followed a year later by the United Kingdom, and reduced its contributions to international organizations while the general budget of the United Nations, excluding specialized agencies, was no more important than the New York fire department. But the reason was fundamentally political and it should be noted that the Obama Administration did the same in 2011 when Palestine was allowed to enter UNESCO.
The mood was more than gloomy in New York City, along the East River, in the late 1980s. More than the financial crisis that hit the World Organization, the most serious was the crisis of confidence that often came from its own ranks. Why the UN? asked both delegates and international officials who doubted their mission while the Security Council was totally paralyzed. No one paid the slightest attention to Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, yet a perfect expert on the mechanisms of the Organization, a fine scholar and man of goodwill.
This deleterious climate changed almost overnight as the dark clouds of the Cold War dissipated. But before that, the debates continued in New York at the UN General Assembly, at the rhythm of annual fall campaigns in particular, such as the spring Italian wars during the Renaissance. Some of the subjects dealt with in it were prominent to world opinion although the body was theoretically only deliberative.
Falkland and New Caledonia
Most of these issues were the responsibility of the Fourth Commission of the General Assembly, known as Commission of “Decolonization”. The question of South West Africa, under a South African mandate and annexed by Pretoria, which was to become independent in 1990 under the name of Namibia, was thus raised by the Assembly; the question of the Falkland Islands (Falkland Islands or Malvinas), a bone of contention between the United Kingdom and Argentina; or New Caledonia, which a group of States led mainly by Australia and New Zealand, also outraged by the continuation of French nuclear tests in the Pacific, wanted to be considered as a territory to be decolonized.
For Paris there was a link between the Falklands and New Caledonia. France had accomplished a transformation that had ended in the early 1960s with Algerian independence. It was no longer a colonial power and seemed instead endowed with a «sensitivity» that often made it perceive as close to the Third World. It was this position of balance found by a country in the North that listened to the South, by a country in the West that favoured détente, which made its originality in the Security Council. Under certain circumstances, France could irritate allies, even though it remained in solidarity when essential issues were at stake, but the affirmation of its independence and the expression of its vocation “to prevent people from going around in circles”. It conferred prestige on a large number of States on all continents.
The cause of Argentina with regard to the Falklands could not therefore leave indifferent to Paris. Moreover, the military dictatorship and its dark years had given way in Buenos Aires to the charismatic President Alfonsin who enjoyed the sympathy of the Socialists in power in France. Having lost in the military clash with the United Kingdom, Argentina tried year after year to regain diplomatic ground by having the General Assembly support its thesis on Argentine sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands. The voice of France, because of its pivotal position, was likely to bring with it many states. The then French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, although a committed European, was a passionate supporter of Argentina. The question was whether France, which traditionally abstained – and therefore did not vote like London to the point of espousing the whole of France’s arguments on the subject – would finally rally to Argentina when the latter eventually submitted a proposal to the vote. The suspense was renewed several years in a row, French diplomacy did not seem fixed on the subject and Claude Cheysson’s passionate speech did the rest.
But every year, at the end of apparent procrastination, President Mitterrand in sometimes direct consultations with Mrs Thatcher decided in favour of maintaining the abstention, which satisfied London and defeated Claude Cheysson. The reasons for the presidential decision were undoubtedly many, but one of them was certainly the awareness of increasing pressure on our country at the UN about the New Caledonian issue. The United Kingdom remained an essential partner for France; despite European litigation, the personal relationship between British and French leaders at the time was deemed strong; Finally, it was a question of anticipating a diplomatic situation in which France could in turn be exposed.
It was a beautiful lesson of realism and diplomacy based on interests beyond ideological sensitivities and I could measure in these circumstances the lucidity and anticipation of the President of the Republic. During the hard battles that we were forced to fight later in New York over our Pacific Territory, France prevailed over the coalition led by regional actors in the area, led mainly by Australia.
The resolutions presented by this country and a few other co-sponsors won fewer votes than the negative votes and abstentions combined. The Ambassador Claude de Kémoularia, who was not a career diplomat but an enthusiast of the United Nations where he had served the Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, engaged in this real fight with incomparable enthusiasm.
Under these circumstances, France had demonstrated that it remained a global power, thereby confirming its status as a permanent member of the Security Council, in the face of regional appetites that claimed to exclude her from the Pacific, of which she remained a full member despite her European hexagon. It had known, thanks to its great mastery of the mechanisms of the Organization and also because of a vast network of State relations that it had mobilized, to respond to an indictment in which all the elements did not deserve to be excluded but in which all the prosecutors were not qualified to conduct a decolonization trial.
One of C. Cheysson’s battle horses was the fight against apartheid. With his commitment to this cause, he had been invited to speak in New York before the special Committee against apartheid, then chaired by General Garba of Nigeria. Attaching great importance to this trip he had thus gathered some particularly concerned collaborators, of which I was a part alongside the Director of United Nations Department, to prepare it with care. The minister appeared flanked by his Cabinet adviser. He stood and read us theatrically a text that seemed to describe the apartheid system and legitimize it. Particularly satisfied with the effect he produced, he told us that it was an excerpt from «Main Kampf». And he was to make a big success in New York. It was good that France was resolutely committed to this shameful reality and this orientation transcended partisan differences. Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, in a rather unusual diplomatic initiative involving a head of government who was supposed to respect the presidential «reserved domain» in foreign policy, had proposed additional «voluntary» sanctions against South Africa. The latter was already hit by various embargoes, including the one on arms, which had led it to develop a national industry with a military vocation. Therefore, voluntary measures could appear to be ineffective in relation to the arsenal available to the Security Council. Nevertheless, the honour of States separately was also to not remain inert in the face of such attacks on human dignity.
It is motivated by this state of mind that France has taken the initiative in recent years at the UN to propose a limitation of the right of veto by the permanent members of the Security Council in the event of mass crimes. Regardless of the legal difficulties of such a reform (cf. predictable resistance of permanent members hostile in principle to a revision of the UN Charter on a fundamental point; difficulties in defining mass crimes), the approach was well-founded and proved popular with a large number of Member States. Making the UN General Assembly a powerful sounding board is a way of changing minds and advancing the law, even if the process is slow.
The Afghan file has become more complex over the years with the post-9/11 U.S. military intervention and with a western presence, including France. The Taliban became an important force that took power in 1996. For a long time diplomatic efforts were to bring the Afghan parties together as if our rationality was theirs. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for this crisis was for a long time the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. The latter being often Parisian, he kept us informed in real time of his action, as he undoubtedly did, I imagine, with other permanent members. His experience was considerable since he began his diplomatic career by accompanying the very young Foreign Minister Bouteflika to the 1955 Bandoeng Conference which saw the emergence of the Third World on the international scene.
With such hindsight, his analyses were incomparable, which did not spoil his sophisticated thinking and his freedom to think. L. Brahimi quickly grew weary of his vain attempts on the Afghan theatre stricto sensu. Bringing the Afghan parties together, according to the local formula called “Loya Jirgah”, was simply to make centuries-old, endemic conflicts more acceptable, not to treat them at the root in order to put an end to them. His conviction was that the heart of the matter was not in Afghanistan itself but rather in Pakistan. In the absence of interventions in Islamabad, a barely veiled reference to American politics, the conflict would continue. Pakistan sought to increase in Afghanistan what was called “strategic depth” in the face of India, with which tensions had been escalating on a recurring basis, since the partition of 1947, in armed conflict. Lakhdar Brahimi eventually relinquished his mandate, as he did on a more recent date, regarding the mission to Syria entrusted to him by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Animating Francophonia at the United Nations and supporting the French presence within the Organization were not just soft power and touched more essential interests than appeared in the first analysis. Francophonia had just regained a new dynamism thanks to the 1987 Quebec City Summit of Heads of State and Government, which had decided on concrete projects. One of them was to help French-speaking children attend school, and such a measure could not find a better place to apply than New York, where tuition fees were very high. An Aid Trust Fund was thus set up with a method of awarding grants according to criteria combining efficiency and justice.
We even fought a real battle at the UN to preserve our linguistic interests, that is to say, a part of our influence. France indeed took the initiative of a draft resolution on «the equality of the working languages of the Secretariat». These were not the six official languages of the Organization, whose use was guaranteed at statutory meetings of the deliberative bodies, but the use of a working language of by UN civil servants. The French and English languages were, in law, placed on the same level, but it was clear from the facts that French had significantly declined, particularly at the headquarter in New York, under the influence of the local linguistic environment, of the rise in power of the Spanish language (NB: was not the perfectly francophone Secretary General Peruvian?) and the financial crisis of the institution, which could be argued for savings achieved, for example, with the abolition of one of the two working languages.
The fight was Homeric and lasted several weeks because languages touch identity and generally arouse passions. We had to avoid giving the impression of a rear-guard battle limited to France’s « Pré carré » (square meadow). The main argument was based on the principles of diversity and equality on which the Organization was based, whereas the idea was affirmed that monolingualism translates impoverishment and is contrary to the original vocation of the United Nations. As far as the Hispanics were concerned, the language consisted in showing that French disappeared in the use made of it by UN civil servants, there would be no chance in the future that the Spanish language would be granted the slightest status. It was more difficult to find a budgetary argument because translations, interpretations and impression of documents obviously have a cost, but the financial crisis was largely linked to the tensions of the end of the Cold War and the context evolved. The campaign led by anonymous diplomats in New York was followed at the highest level of the state by President Mitterrand himself, further proof of the sensitive nature of the subject.
The francophone states that met at the level of their foreign ministers once a year, at a dinner on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, constituted a sort of lobby group of 48 members. For example, it had proved invaluable in the New Caledonian case where every vote had counted.
Political renaissance of the UN
A rather sudden reversal occurred in New York that propelled the United Nations and its Secretary-General onto the diplomatic stage. The weakening of the Soviet Union, which reduced the risk of blockage in the Security Council, was not the only factor. There was also the settlement of regional crises, which had been out of control for years and had their own dynamics. The best illustration of this was provided by the Iran-Iraq conflict, which dates back to the early 1980s and was concluded in 1988.
A very serious incident was paradoxically used to move in this direction. On Sunday, July 3, 1988, the day before Independence Day, an Iranian civil transport Airbus plane with 290 people on board was shot down by mistake by the US Navy over the Strait of Ormuz. The Security Council met in the following hours. The tragedy occurred when the protagonists of the Iran-Iraq conflict, engaged in a terrible conflict that had taken the form of trench wars of 14-18 in the marshes of Chatt-el-Arab, were bloodless.
But the Iranians took the opportunity to return to the Council table, which they had been boycotting for several years. The solemn return of the Iranians led by Foreign Minister Velayati was like an inverted image of the Italians leaving the League of Nations in Geneva. The Iranian Minister sat in the Council next to the French chargé d’affaires, Pierre Brochand, in the absence of the Ambassador. He listened to the latter with extreme attention. France’s message was that it was necessary to try to overcome this catastrophe to prevent others in the region and to calm the tensions. Georges Bush Senior, then Vice-President and presidential candidate – who, five months before the deadline, was 17 points lagging behind his democratic opponent Dukakis, came to the Council expressing feelings of compassion. The scheme suggested by France was carried out in all points and in August 1988, after final attacks on both sides, the belligerents accepted the ceasefire.
The settlement of this major case, which permanently disrupted international relations, and then in the months and years that followed other issues, including the South West Africa already mentioned and the question of Cambodia, radically changed the perception of the UN. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar passed without transition from the somewhat contemptuous shadow in which he was held in the spotlight of celebrity on the fronts of the international scene.
The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein at the beginning of August 1990, the Gulf War which began on 16 January 1991 following the ultimatum against Iraq, the long management of the post-conflict for more than a decade, made the United Nations in New York one of the most important places of global diplomacy. The crisis of languor of the Organization had indeed been erased.
It was clear from August 1990, when France held the presidency of the Security Council, that we were moving towards military intervention. France naturally stood shoulder to shoulder with its partners and allies in defending the trampled sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kuwait, a member state of the United Nations. At the same time, we felt in New York the reluctance of our country to engage in a conflict and Ambassador Pierre-Louis Blanc mentioned in his book Diplomatic Suitcase the «crab approach of our diplomatic action». Much has been written and will be written about the Gulf War, and it is not a question of replacing experts and historians but simply of remembering what one might feel at that time on the ground at the United Nations.
France was not alone in supporting Baghdad, including militarily, in order to counterbalance the revolutionary cradle resulting from the Khomeini revolution. Let us be blunt: he had been assigned to Iraq a sort of “watchdog” role vis-à-vis Shia theocratic Iran. But the invasion of Kuwait could only lead to heartbreaking revisions. Indeed, the risk of human and material destruction was considerable, especially in a country heavily indebted to us, because of the accumulation over the years and under several governments of arms sales and civil contracts.
Could we still avoid war? Would the sanctions or threats of sanctions that we adopted be sufficient and dissuasive? These serious questions were expressed in the speech delivered in New York in November 1990 by President Mitterrand. He said, much to the displeasure of some of our partners, that if Saddam Hussein “expressed an intention to withdraw from Kuwait, then anything would be possible.” This important opening was not seized by a head of state who had already burned all his ships and it was therefore necessary to simultaneously brandish the threat. This was the object of the impressive arsenal of sanctions, resolution after resolution of the Security Council.
One fact struck me then: these texts were very technical and required a perfect knowledge of the UN mechanisms that were not usually mastered by political decision-makers. However, the decisions in this crisis were taken at the highest level of the States. Was there not, under these circumstances, a risk that the technocrats of the periphery might influence the centre, which should be the only one empowered to decide in such a case? For me, this was a school case that could be repeated, for example, in a European context, yes, still on the subject of the discussions on the Iranian nuclear programme.
In the East, something new
A general and lasting lesson on the state of France’s diplomatic positions could be drawn from the Iraqi crisis. Throughout the major international crisis triggered by the invasion of Kuwait, it appeared that the traditional intransigence of the Soviet Union in the Security Council was weakening. In the end, the embarrassment of Moscow, a former partner of Baghdad but reluctant towards Iraqi «adventurism», was quite close to that of France.
With Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika, the ending USSR was engaged in a speed race to reduce its military spending and try to transform an inefficient economy. These objectives required a renewed dialogue with the United States. This is what the new President of the USSR tackled and the meetings of the 85’s and 86’s with President Reagan made some progress on the redundant nuclear arsenals of the two countries.
On 7 December 1988, as part of a major tour of the United States, Mikhail Gorbachev delivered a memorable speech to the UN General Assembly. If a certain skepticism could still prevail as to the true intentions and purposes of the new Soviet leader, it was swept away. Never had such a crowd been seen in this very large hall of the Assembly, whose steps were even occupied, rarely had such an outburst of enthusiasm been witnessed merely contained by the extreme attention to follow a historical discourse.
It contained a new substance, “revolutionary” even according to the term that Mikhail Gorbachev used to describe the transformations underway in his country. Significant reductions in military forces, particularly conventional armaments deployed in the GDR, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, were announced. This programmed disengagement, and this was one of the interpretations, was also a way of invalidating what was called the “Brezhnev doctrine” of limited sovereignty.
It was also the end of the leading role of the Communist Party and of Marxism-Leninism as the dominant ideology that was proclaimed and was already emerging. A person present thought that the speech was «du Teilhard de Chardin». If this were the case, the prospects were immense, on the scale of humanity as a whole. On December 9, a terrible earthquake that ravaged Armenia echoed this thunderstorm and forced Mikhail Gorbachev to interrupt his trip to the United States. The symbol was strong and also cruel in the image of the fragility and inconstance of international society: to the euphoria of a proposed peace can succeed misfortune, the dream of international cooperation can be dispelled by self-restraint and selfishness.
The status of Permanent Member
In the current context, the USSR favoured the defence of its national interests. It was no longer a question of exposing itself unnecessarily by resorting, for example, to the use of the veto on matters falling within an «internationalism» which was no longer a priority for it. Preserving a dialogue with the United States with a view of promoting arms control had become paramount for Moscow.
His sympathy for the French approach to the Iraqi problem was not sufficient for it to risk standing in the way of the coalition that the United States, under the impetus of George Bush Senior and his Secretary of State James Baker, were forming. From then on, France found itself somewhat isolated among the permanent members, while China had not yet fully «awakened» to use the word of Alain Peyrefitte. Could France exist alone? The answer was negative and lasting.
The legal means, the status of permanent member, the sympathy of a majority of nations, were not sufficient attributes for the solitary exercise of a middle power. The conclusion was renewed until a recent date. Did the highest authorities of the French State not publicly admit, during the crisis caused in August 2013 by the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, that the country could not undertake a major military operation in the Middle East alone? In addition, the projected campaign did not rely on international legality.
As we know, France ultimately participated in the coalition formed to liberate Kuwait. Several reasons must have determined this difficult choice, but seen from New York it appeared that it had also been a matter of consolidating a status of permanent member of the Security Council while voices were raised to demand the reform of the representative institutions of a world that had profoundly evolved since the adoption of the Charter of the UN in San Francisco in 1945. Did the French leaders not say in petto: «Just as the winners of the Second World War became permanent members, there will be those of the Gulf War whose status will be strengthened». If this calculation was made by President Mitterrand, it proved perfectly correct.
The New World Order
New York was indeed the privileged place where the considerable changes in the relations of forces in the world were reflected. It was after the Gulf War that President Bush Senior announced “the New World Order” and that the theses on the “end of history” were developed. In both cases, it was a matter of emphasizing the uncontrolled assertion of the United States. But could the new system function outside the balance of power? Were not new transnational actors – companies, NGOs, political movements, religious movements – going to be part of a new game that remained to be defined and mastered?
It is this period that no doubt ends today in the search for new balances between the powers or the major state groups: the United States as always, China obviously, Europe if it has enough lucidity and will.
This recomposed multipolarity is by no means synonymous with multilateral cooperation. Basically, there are several conceptions and practices of the latter. Multilateralism of expression allows modest states to exist, even at the time of the UN General Assembly, on the international scene and I still remember, for example, a speech in New York by President Arias of Costa Rica, Nobel Peace Prize winner. There is also the multilateralism of cooperation which is essential for developing States. Multilateralism of leverage is favourable to the middle powers. Finally, there is the multilateralism of domination, which is the prerogative of the very great powers. Their message can be summarized as follows: We are here among you because it is useful and good for our image, but if you do not serve us, we reduce our budget contribution or we leave.
It is remarkable that China does not or does not yet practice the multilateralism of domination. Is this a sign that it is aware of her fragilities? Is this due to an ideology that continues to favour the collective internally as well as externally? Is it the manifestation of a supreme ability to “invest” international organizations to better guide them, as the case of the WHO seems to be? In any event, can we dispense with multilateral institutions in the era of pandemics and global warming?