The French diplomat Pierre Vimont

Q&A: Pierre Vimont on Geopolitics in the Post-Pandemic World

This is part two of our interview with veteran French diplomat Pierre Vimont, who is a Senior Fellow at the the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Vimont speaks with John Bell, Director of The Conciliators Guild, about what global geopolitics might look like as we enter a post-pandemic world.

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You’ve expressed to me some concern about where we’re going in a post-Covid-19 world. There’s an article by Francis Fukuyama in Foreign Affairs that’s predicting some pretty dire consequences: increased nationalism and maybe even fascism rising out of the socio-economic effects of what we’ve done in reaction to the pandemic. Before we go to the big issue of the USA and China, how are you seeing things at the geopolitical level?

I think the features of the Fukuyama forecast are quite true. At the same time, I come from a country where you’re facing totally contradictory attitudes towards the government and state. On the one hand people complain about the government doing too much. It’s the new rule of the state as we say everywhere—the state has recovered its status. Everybody is looking for governments to find a solution to what is going on. But people everywhere are complaining that that politicians are doing too much. With this pandemic, governments are overlooking public freedoms. At the same time they have not been efficient enough. That’s a strong criticism here in France. In other words people are combining distrust towards the government while trusting the state to find all the solutions to the problems we face today.

In the short term we’ve seen nationalistic trends increasing in the European Union. Every country has more or less closed its borders and has gone back into its naval-gazing, individual world. At the same time, those governments are saying they will not manage to get out of the current station if they don’t work together and don’t show solidarity. This is the kind of contradiction we’re facing today and that will need to be solved in the future. For most countries, at least the middle-sized ones, leaving aside the US and China, we won’t manage to come out of this crisis if we’re trying to do it alone.    

So, I’m not so sure about the idea that the multilateral order is crumbling and will disappear and that nationalism will take over. There is a struggle going on at the moment. But at the end of the day, beyond the complexity and contradictions, you have to go back to basics, which in this global, civilized and interconnected world is: you won’t make it alone unless you intend to disappear.

Competition is also about finding the right and proper balance between the need to be on one side and to go along with the globalization trend which will remain, while at the same time trying to repair some of the damage that’s been done and therefore to revise and review the global trends that have been there for the last 20 to 30 years. It’s about adapting the world order to a new reality, and not to drop it, or leave it aside. We still need it.

Is it correct to say that you see necessity of cooperation being a balancing dimension to the tug towards self-interest? 

Take for instance the multilateral order I was just talking about. I don’t think we can just get rid of the order that was built after 1945. Of course it has been largely inspired by western countries and therefore it needs to be adapted to a new reality. Western countries can’t just continue imposing their rule on everyone else. At the same you can’t get rid of multilateral cooperation entirely. It has to be there. It is required more than ever, it seems.

One thing I’ve noticed in my career because I’ve worked mostly in the Middle East, which is a highly conflicted region, is that along with highly emotional and inflamed minds comes the high risk of wrong decisions. Highly emotional states are good to help us get things done because they motivate us. But we don’t necessarily see clearly when we’re excited.

I’m wondering whether in this incredibly complex world we’re stepping into, with the interconnections you’re talking about and the need for cooperation, whether we don’t need to become a bit more aware of the need to keep the emotional levels down in order to see what needs to be done more clearly. Above all, maybe, is to not have one nation, for example, trigger high emotion in another out of spite or revenge. What do you think of that whole notion?

I have many illustrations about what you’re saying. Take for instance, being in the EU negotiating room at 3 o’clock in the morning after 12 hours of talks, where tension is growing and you have to interrupt the talks to allow everybody to go sleep and come back the next day with their minds at rest. Then when everybody returns the next morning, what seemed like an intractable problem that couldn’t be solved earlier suddenly becomes an easy issue to resolve. After a good night’s rest, you suddenly find an easy solution. I definitely agree with you.

At the same time this relates to what I was saying about time management: you need to be careful that you don’t lose sight of the ball if you allow for too much time for rest. It’s always a question of finding the right balance between keeping the pressure on, and allowing minds to rest.

There’s a lot of talk of increased Chinese-American tension. Do you view these as temporary? Or are we entering what so many people describe as a new ‘cold war’? What’s your view on that? And also what might the position of France, your country, be vis-à-vis that potential tension?

I personally think that tension is here to stay. Although I’m not sure the analogy of a cold war is exactly the proper or accurate one. The previous cold war was mostly about confrontation of ideology and military security. Here’s it’s much more complex. It’s certainly about economy and a question of hegemony. It’s about America feeling that it’s losing its competitive edge and its number one position in the world, not only in regard to security matters and economy, but in many regards—new technology, scientific innovation, space, and nuclear energy.

It’s not so much a competition about ideology, because, let’s be honest: I don’t think the political model of the Chinese regime attracts many countries around the world. I’m quite struck by how the attempt by China to project soft power during the pandemic petered out very quickly. It didn’t work. Whereas look at the very difficult moment America is facing with the racial tensions and extraordinary protests going on because of it—and how these demonstrations have spread around the world. It’s become a new trend that everyone is adopting. The good old days of American soft power is very much there. It may not be Hollywood or Starbucks anymore, but it’s certainly something that has to do with American democracy and the way that social protests can spread.

So, yes, this Chinese-American confrontation is here to stay for some time. It is a very complex rivalry whose features, and how to react to it, need to be better understood. But the main challenge for anyone who is not one of these two main global powers is how to position themselves in regard to that confrontation. These two global powers—the G2 as we sometimes call them—will ask every partner: “Are you with me or against me?” Many countries are not ready to go along.

Think about Russia, which will not be happy to find itself relegated to a new position outside of that G2. Think about the European Union, which is certainly not ready. Even though we are part of the trans-Atlantic partnership, are an ally of the Unite States, and harbour our own grudges against China, the American way is not the proper method in trying to deal with this Chinese issue.

Therefore the Europeans have to find their own way of dealing with that—and that is the French position. We certainly are an ally of the Americans and have our own concerns and issues related China. But we still think we need to talk to both because, for us, China is an important partner not just in regard to economic cooperation and trade but also on other important issues like the future of climate change and public health. There is also the question of what to do with the increasing public debts of poorer nations and some African countries. How do we alleviate some of their debt burden? All of this we need to discuss with China because China is an important carrier of that public debt. So, in many ways, we can’t just dismiss China as an unimportant partner.

But where we need to stand and act firmly is in trying to explain to these two global partners that we have our own way of looking at things and don’t want to take sides with one or the other.

This may be asking a lot, but do you think it’s at all possible that over the next 20 years the Americans and Chinese could learn to see each other at eye-level? Meaning that neither one tries to reign supreme over the other? Or are we as human beings still destined to have this eternal competition (which could be a constructive tension, competition doesn’t have to be world war), of one trying to constantly be on top of the game?

I’m not sure that will be easy. To some extent this is because competition is part of human life. You can see this if you look at the history of the two nations. It may not be totally obvious in the case of China, but if you look back at Chinese history and the “Empire of the Middle” as they call themselves, they’re to some extent exacting a kind of revenge for what history has done to them in the last two centuries.

China is regaining its natural and historical position that it deserves. And let’s be honest: what they’ve done in the last 20 years in terms of economic growth and getting rid of poverty is really impressive. Right now they’re making some important breakthroughs in new technology. That’s also a reminder of the kind of efficiency that China is able to promote and show around the world.

With regards to the United States, they have positioned themselves, in the last 60 or 70 years after the two world wars, as the most important power in the world financially and militarily. I have the feeling that they’re not ready to abdicate and disappear. Even having someone like Donald Trump who is criticized for being too nationalistic and wants to promote ‘America First,’ doesn’t mean America is no longer interested in the rest of the world. Look at the way they are still playing an important role in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere. It’s just that they are changing their priorities.

The idea that America is to some extent just giving up on its global power and world role and responsibilities seems to me a bit farfetched. They’re not giving up at all. And we’ll see more of that as we go along.

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Pierre Vimont is a Senior Fellow at The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a former French Ambassador to Washington and former Executive Secretary General of the European External Action Service.