Bertrand Badie, emeritus professor at Sciences Po Paris and author of many acclaimed books, refutes the old-fashioned view of international relations. In an era of profound change, he argues we are seeing the growth of global governance. Interview by Hichem Ben Yaïche and Nicolas Bouchet.
You recently published the thought-provoking Rethinking International Relations. Can we rethink these relations, when everything seems to be going so wrong?
One of the difficulties lies in the human tendency to consider that everything is the same as before. It is a classic reflex to go from the known to the unknown, and to think that what we are facing is similar to what we have known before. Yet several fundamental breaks have been consistently overlooked. None of them has been seriously explored, hence the flaw in current foreign policies.
The first rupture is decolonisation. It has not been sufficiently taken into account even though it has profoundly modified the international system. The arrival of new states and therefore new and specific histories, societies and economies has upset an international order which, until a few decades ago, was only regional and which has suddenly become global.
We used to think that international relations took place in Europe. The United States itself became an international power when it intervened in Europe after the First World War. It is already a major break to find oneself projected into a world now made up of emerging powers from Africa, Asia and South America. Different histories are emerging, as well as a trivialisation of the ‘tectonics of societies’, i.e. societies that meet, exchange or tear each other apart on a large scale and in diversity.
The second great rupture that has not really been taken into account is that of globalisation. This entirely new order is leading us for the first time in history to a single world where everyone is ‘on the same boat’. With the possible exception of the Palestinians and a few other pariah peoples, all the peoples of the world now belong to the same international system of which they are official members.
This changes everything: a Central African whose country has a GDP per capita of about $600 per year and a Luxembourger whose GDP per capita is $110,000 per year are now side by side. These enormous differences mean that social issues have become major issues in international relations, even surpassing the importance of traditional military issues. Similarly, globalisation has created something we do not know how to analyse: a growing interdependence between economies, societies, cultures and means of communication. The old concept of sovereignty must therefore be questioned.
There is a new situation since the conflict in Ukraine erupted. Do you think we are entering a newCold War ?
The mistake is to think that we are entering a new Cold War. Today’s world is not at all like the Cold War. Our top leaders, whether it is Putin or most of the Western leaders, tend to treat the present issues, including Ukraine, as if we were still in that context, which is wrong.
The Cold War was bloc against bloc. Now, there is still a Western bloc but there is no longer a Soviet bloc. Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria do not constitute a bloc. On the other hand, the Cold War was based on the confrontation of ideologies. Today, ideologies no longer structure international conflict.
Last but not least, the two blocs had no interdependence, but the world today is characterised by a formidable economic, social, cultural and, in this case, energy interdependence. Hence the importance of this systemic dimension of the present Ukrainian conflict, which contrasts totally with the confrontation between two independent actors. To speak of a Cold War is to engage in an analysis and an action that are totally distinct from what the reality and complexity of the current world provide us with.
I would even add a third rupture, the one precisely linked to depolarisation. From 1945, we were in a world that was hyper-polarised around the Soviet pole and the Western pole. We are now in a world that has suddenly become apolar. We are now in a situation of remarkable fluidity in international relations which completely changes the deal.
How can we redesign the world to avoid such conflict?
This is the big question that all internationalists ask themselves. How can states, peoples, societies and cultures that are all different from one another live together? Today’s regulatory principles are no longer those of yesterday. The classic principle of sovereignty led to international regulation by compromise between independent nation states.
However, the issues that dominate today are no longer national or international in the etymological sense of the term, but global. We need to completely change the deal! We will not fight the coronavirus or global warming by compromising between national interests but by looking at the global situation and dealing with it globally. We do not know how to do this, or we do it only sparingly.
It is true that global regulation operates in certain areas, such as aviation, telecommunications or the Internet, which comply with global rules. However, the major security issues are still a long way off, especially those relating to human security, as shown by the treatment of health issues.
The second principle of regulation over the centuries, is the classic power relationship. The first word that came to the lips of internationalists was “balance of power”. Today, however, we are discovering that power is no longer as effective as it once was. The United States, undoubtedly the world’s leading military power with between 35 and 40% of global military spending, has been defeated in virtually every war it has fought in recent times, from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq to Somalia.
Similarly, Vladimir Putin was effectively defeated in the first weeks of his war against Ukraine on the military field, and France is being defeated in the Sahel. We must hasten to draw the consequences of this new phenomenon: power no longer leads the world. Its destructive capacity remains intact, but it no longer has the regulatory capacity through which the balance of power was supposed to be the solution and even the panacea. Try to find a solution to today’s problems through the concert of powers and you will quickly be disappointed! We must either invent a substitute for the concept of power or reincarnate and reconstruct it.
You have just mentioned Africa. What will happen to it? Is a new order emerging in Africa too?
For more than 60 years, Africa has been a perfect example of the failure of power. This is the great lesson, which has been somewhat overlooked, and from which we must learn all the consequences. First of all, power was defeated by decolonisation. The weakest, i.e. the colonised peoples, defeated the strongest, i.e. the colonial powers, which were well versed in the art of war but were defeated in Algeria, Madagascar, Kenya and Cameroon. Similarly, all the post-colonial wars that have subsequently occurred in Africa, and there are unfortunately many of them, are not the result of classic power rivalry, but of new factors.
African wars are very rarely inter-state wars, i.e. they are not born of a dispute between states. There have been a few, for example between Mali and Burkina Faso or the Sand War between Algeria and Morocco. But most of the time they are wars of social decomposition, a new phenomenon that we do not know how to face. At the root of the Sahelian or Congolese conflict is not power rivalry but the failure and decomposition of societies and social and political institutions that have plunged these countries into a logic where impotence is the law much more than power. This shows how urgent it is not to fight the enemy, which has been the history of Europe for centuries, but to establish a real governance that removes the risk of belligerent disorder. This is something that decolonisation has not succeeded in establishing.
Do we have the time to do all that? You are talking about gigantic issues that require time and above all a lot of resources.
Europe took about five centuries to build, from the end of the Middle Ages to the stabilisation of the European map. And we must consider that this was only definitively completed in the 20th century. Can we blame the Africans for not having done in 50 years what the Europeans took five centuries to do?
The first thing we need to do is to recognise the way forward. We are told that Africa’s misfortunes are due to strategic manipulation or terrorist actions. But these are epiphenomena, linked to “entrepreneurs of violence” who take advantage of a situation and factors of disorder that are infinitely more profound! We must know how to discover, beyond this, the roots of the African crisis, that is to say, this lack of political governance but above all of social governance. Everything has to be redone, starting with land tenure. One of the most serious causes of the wars and conflicts in the Sahel is the collapse of the traditional land tenure system, which is supposed to manage the distribution of resources, which are unfortunately becoming increasingly scarce, particularly due to desertification.
Precisely because the work to be done is long, it is essential to start right away. Nothing is more absurd than to use the pretext of the length of time to never start! All this implies an effort of reinvention that decolonisation has blocked by proceeding by mimicry. In The Imported State, I highlighted the fact that it is not by copying Western countries that Africa will get by. The first to say this were the great liberators of Africa and the great pan-Africanist thinking of Nkrumah, Lumumba or Kenyatta.
They made it clear that Africa’s path was not to imitate Western nation states but to discover forms of governance that corresponded to its history. Without this effort, Africa will reproduce the dialectic we know, where failed states can only react by reinforcing their authoritarianism and militarisation. This exacerbates conflicts rather than resolving them. We need to break this vicious circle and embark on a policy of reinvention. It will take time, but I believe that Africans are highly capable of doing this work.
In the Africa-France relationship, one has the impression that France has a blurred vision. Fears structure the visions of politicians. How did this come about?
You are quite right. That’s why I regularly say that decolonisation was a failure. It was carried out according to a model that does not correspond to the reality I have described. France, like the former colonial powers in general, wanted to maintain in the post-colonial period a certain number of advantages gained from colonisation. The perpetuation of these so-called neo-colonial or clientelistic models has had a pernicious effect on both sides.
A phrase that always makes me react in French political discourse is that France has ‘special responsibilities’ in Africa. I naively asked a French politician why France had ‘special responsibilities’ in Africa more than Guatemala or Bolivia. This person answered that this formula was due to the long history of the French presence in Africa. He wanted to refer to the colonial tutelage of yesteryear, which we are trying to perpetuate, as my African friends feel. Over time, this tutelage has become unbearable in the symbols, practices and philosophy of these relations.
Indeed, the great challenge of French foreign policy is to know how to talk to those who were not in the pre-war club. France, like its fellow countries, has never known how to talk to the emerging countries, i.e. China, Brazil, India, Indonesia or South Africa. But neither does it know how to talk to the former colonised countries, i.e. to create a real partnership.
By this I mean not only equal, because that word is overused, but also practical. Talking to the other, taking into account that they have their own choices, their aspirations, their history and their interests. Knowing how to discuss this, as we know how to do with Germany and, for a time at least, with Russia: we should use the same grammar in our relations with the Central African Republic or the DR Congo.
How can we bring about a world where countries are able to act but are also restrained?
This world is moving from a time of national and international security to a time of global security. In concrete terms, what threatens us today is not so much our neighbours, even if the Ukrainian example shows that there are still murderous resurgences of the old world: Vladimir Putin is waging a reactionary war reminiscent of past centuries. For Ukrainians, the notions of national security and territory obviously have a deep and current meaning.
Look at the world as a whole. It is threatened above all by climate change, which causes eight million deaths a year. Food insecurity causes nine million deaths a year. World hunger is the equivalent of eight attacks on the World Trade Center every day. Terrorism causes between 10,000 and 40,000 deaths per year, which puts it on a completely different scale. True insecurity is therefore global: it is not separable. It is impossible to separate the treatment of climate change in France, Brazil and Russia. We are dependent on each other and this is something that five centuries of past history prevents us from seeing. The great challenge is that of global regulation.
A utopian would simply say: “Let’s set up a world government”. It is obviously impossible today or tomorrow to build such a government. So we have invented a substitute term, “global governance”, which means something else, something much more subtle. The world still has 193 states, but institutional mechanisms that must enable us to face these major global challenges together. This is the meaning of the new multilateralism. But globalisation is so disruptive of acquired habits that peoples and societies are becoming afraid of it. They protect themselves with nationalist and populist reflexes that are sweeping the world. This is the most toxic thing in our world today, as nationalism solves nothing and complicates everything. Unfortunately, politicians know how to play on this fear of globalisation and this desire for protectionism to assert their own survival.
The obstacles are therefore considerable, and we simply have to trust in the human genius and its ability to transcend them. There are two factors of change in the world that can help: the lure of gain and the effect of fear. When rulers realise that sustaining a nationalist policy is too costly, they will move to global governance. When people become too afraid of the devastatingly hot summers, they will begin to understand that sacrifices must be made to achieve global governance. Unfortunately, we are of the wrong generation, the generation of transition, where we want to maintain the effects of the old world in a world that has already changed.
While waiting for this civilisation of humanism that Edgar Morin advocates, what could encourage optimism so that we don’t have a theoretical vision but converge on this world that you speak of?
It’s not a theoretical vision but rather an extremely practical one. Global governance cannot be seen but it already exists everywhere. I gave the examples of aviation and telecommunications but I could go on listing the successes of global governance. To pay tribute to the great African, Kofi Annan, he understood this perfectly well in his Millennium speech when he launched the MDGs. We must pay tribute to the UN agencies that put in place this global governance which, for example, made it possible to eradicate smallpox in Africa in the years following decolonisation. NGOs also do a great deal of work in global regulation and are considerably more useful than narcissistic governments that only show their flags. Let’s keep what works, such as the MDGs defined in 2015. It’s just that people prefer to watch the bloody inter-state matches that occupy the news, much more than the anonymous humanitarian efforts that hardly anyone mentions.
How to see the future? The West is making a considerable mistake in turning in on itself at a time when all blocs are unravelling and all lasting alliances are breaking down. It insists on existing as such and ‘in its own right’, which makes it a source of fear, distrust and astonishment in the countries of the South. The Ukrainian conflict should have been unanimously opposed to Mr Putin, so cruel and tragic is it. If there were so many countries in the South that abstained, it was because they feared the perpetuation of a Western bloc closed in on itself and its certainties, which reminded them of the time of colonisation.
What is needed is to build open, inclusive and pragmatic alliances, instead of perpetuating closed blocs in their outdated arrogance. We should not always be among ourselves, ‘white’, ‘Christian’, bearers of ‘exceptional values’ who have discovered rationality before the others, but rather forge generous and daring alliances that consist in cooperating in all directions. And to build, in the face of major challenges, alliances of circumstance. That is the new foreign policy.
What saddens me is that it is the “bad guys” who started it. Putin is making pragmatic alliances with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Pakistan and even Israel. We must not leave the practice of these fluid, new, open and pragmatic diplomacies to those who are destroying our world.