Having recently published his memoirs, the French geopolitical expert Gérard Chaliand sheds light on the current crises gripping the world. Interview by Hichem Ben Yaïche with the assistance of Nicolas Bouchet.
New African: At 88, you are an alert man with very clear ideas that allow to decipher the complexity of the world. You have written 80 books and have recently published your memoirs, Le Savoir de la peau [“Knowledge of the skin”] with L’Archipel. Why this title?
The representation of the world changes with the spirit of the times. Today, everything Putin does would be a war crime without us trying to understand why or how. And everything the Ukrainians do would be perfect. This is not what you would call an analysis!
The Russians are of course the aggressor, and the Ukrainians are of course the victims who are fighting out of nationalism and want freedom. But I don’t want to be drowned out by the propaganda of either side. I try to get as close to reality as possible and go to the field most of the time. I was in Ukraine a year before the war and February this year. It was a corrupt country, run by unsympathetic oligarchs. But Mr Zelensky is a remarkable leader, able to marshal energies, communicate and bring together largely favourable circumstances.
What a wonderful boon for the Americans to be able to fight by proxy, after their pathetic twenty-year departure from Afghanistan. It is an ideal situation for them, who hate military losses. They have reacted admirably from day one in terms of intelligence, the delivery of weapons and concrete aid, including technicians.
As a geostrategist, you have a knowledge of the terrain which we find in your writings. We are entering a new era with the war in Ukraine. How do you see this change?
We entered a new era some time ago. There was a time when the world was bipolar between East and West. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, after which there was a unipolar moment where the Americans were alone from 1991 until 2001. We had many illusions about this new world.
Since the subprime crisis in 2008 and the rise of China to second place in the world ahead of Japan in 2010, a multipolar world is in the making. This completely new world is made up of powers that were apparently negligible in the past but which now play an important role. Turkey, for example, was nothing twenty years ago.
Today, Mr Erdogan has managed to establish himself as a key player, straddling the Russians, NATO, the Americans and the rest of the world. The Iranians are still active, despite more than 50 years of American retaliation and sanctions. The Saudis, yesterday still relatively loyal allies of the Americans, are now telling them that they will not produce more and that they are only interested in seeing the price of oil rise. To this multipolar world we can add this unexpected war in Ukraine. It is the strategic mistake of a misguided and misinformed Vladimir Putin, who thought that the matter could be settled relatively easily.
Mr Putin is discovering, in the end, that he is faced with a situation that, since 2014, has changed profoundly. He discovers that Ukrainian nationalism is strong and that American support is immediate. But also that NATO, this ‘old thing’ that apparently no longer serves any purpose, is instead experiencing a kind of fantastic new youth. Even the Finns and the Swedes want to be members.
This crisis is unquestionably serious. Despite the threats from all sides, we are wise enough not to go to extremes, i.e. to go nuclear. In my opinion, there will be no military winner in this war because the Ukrainians cannot win and Mr Putin has already lost. But he is not defeated and has been forced to adopt a “plan B”. Ukraine will never again be a client of Russia. It will be necessary to negotiate. Probably before the end of the winter, which will be very hard, and because our European public opinions are not reassured by rampant inflation and the present economic difficulties.
Let us turn to the United States. Mr Biden’s position, however remarkable it may have been in the aid he gave to the Ukrainians, is very difficult to maintain at home. His country is in a state of cold civil war and Trump’s supporters are strong. Next month, the House of Representatives will go to the Democratic Party even though Mr Biden tried to buy the votes of students by cancelling their debts. The public is tired of the huge amount of military and especially financial aid that the country gives. These difficulties are weighing more and more on the pacifists who want to achieve peace.
In the meantime, we are going to have a hard time! The President of the French Republic is right to say that we must stand firm and that our principles prevail over our difficulties. But he knows full well that we will not hold out.
To better measure this multipolarity, is Africa really going to become the closed field of rivalries and of this uncontrollable race between old and new players?
This closed field is now everywhere. The Chinese are seeking to bypass the extraordinary maritime domination of the United States. They are doing it by land with the famous silk routes that allow them to be in Piraeus and Genoa. They are in Western Europe and in a number of African countries. They are helping to build railways, roads and large, extremely useful infrastructure. The Africans fear that they will be indebted to them in return. But in practice, they are looking for support in votes, i.e. there is no condemnation of Chinese policy by the Africans. It’s a win-win situation!
The Chinese are also present in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and most countries with a few exceptions. They are playing an absolutely international game, not to mention Taiwan, which is hurting the United States but where, in my opinion, the Chinese are too smart to launch a military operation. They know the cost to Mr Putin but it allows them to titillate Uncle Sam.
Today we see the Sahel in a state of collapse. How do you see this unexpectedly situation and is there a need for African but also international action to stop the fire?
There is a redistribution of the cards. The fact is that after more than half a century of indirect French domination over a significant part of West Africa, there is now a real question mark. France, quite frankly, is no longer popular at all. I’m not just talking about Mali, but about the whole of what is known as the Sahel. We are losing ground severely compared to others, the Chinese, Russians or Turks.
Can we identify the reasons for this situation?
We have been neo-colonial, without question. We reproach these regimes for being corrupt, but we corrupted them ourselves for the good reason that, during the Françafrique era, Mr Foccart corrupted the leaders. This allowed him to exert indirect influence over an extremely important part of Africa. Those days are over.
You are one of the greatest experts on irregular conflicts, i.e. wars and terrorism. How would you characterise the jihadist terrorism that strikes indiscriminately and seems to antagonise Africa?
An important distinction must be made. On the one hand, terrorism is an essentially psychological action whose effect is infinitely more important than the physical damage. There has been no regime collapse or anything new. What matters is when guerrilla warfare succeeds in changing a regime, bringing it down and building something. This is becoming very rare.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban won twenty years of struggle and have been independent for a little over a year. What have they done? Reintroduce the chador or the length of the beard, in short, moralism. They have not taken on what they need to do, which is to change the living conditions of their citizens and to produce economic growth. You can’t get out of humiliation with bombs alone. You have to really work very hard.
The Vietnamese managed to beat the French and the Americans. They hung on when the Chinese tried to force them to change and they walked them back to the border. Except for a Stalinist period of about fifteen years, we see that for the last two decades Vietnam has been growing at 6% and more. Compare this with Algeria, which is always complaining about being colonised, but which has done nothing for sixty years.
How can we question these mechanisms? Some peoples manage to overcome themselves and emerge from their traumas, while others are completely stuck in their situations of suffering.
There are those who are lucky enough to have an enlightened despotism at the helm to modify the situation and bring about change, even if the regime has been strictly dictatorial. And there are those who are corrupt and always blame others: it would be the fault of the French for the last sixty years. As if, with roughly similar situations of colonialism, it is possible to blame one while the other gets away with it. One thing is certain, the Algerian elites have lied and continue to accuse the French of all the misfortunes that they themselves have prolonged, on which they have been nourished, and of the corruption of which they are, in the end, the very expression.
The West has been the reference element in the way it projects itself into civilisation. Today, we can see that it is mostly gathered around a hard core that is not connected to the rest of the world. How do you see this decline and who will take over?
The West has contributed a lot: the industrial revolution, the absolutely new idea at the end of the 18th century of putting an end to despotism. That doesn’t stop despots from coming and it’s a hard-won freedom. It is always possible to have despots or a Mr. Trump, as in the United States where democracy matters so much. But we have brought a new breath and the new idea of the Nation.
The best proof of this is that the anti-colonial liberation movements were called national liberation movements. This means that it is no longer possible to have a North China and a South China, a Tonkin and a Hannan. Everyone would feel Chinese and fight for freedom. So the West was extremely useful at one point, and then took advantage of the hegemony it exercised. We are no better than anyone else and the tendency when we dominate is to enjoy predation. It is human nature! If Westerners were reduced to a kind of semi-slavery, they would cry and say that they should not promote slavery.
All this is not hereditary. Just because we used slavery does not mean that we are slavers today. It is too easy to say that slavery was strictly Atlantic when, from the Indian Ocean, the same number, if not more, of slaves were taken to the Muslim powers of the time.
With the long history of wars and crises in mind, and in a context of uncertainty, can give you a sense of optimism?
We are at a moment of accelerated change and perhaps even at a turning point. That is, the decline of the West may continue and become not a trend but a fact. In any case, I hope that the idea of democracy or the refusal to differentiate between men and women in order to make one or the other superior does not disappear. There must be as much free discussion as possible. I continue, with a certain optimism and perhaps wrongly, to think that it is worth fighting for some of the values that the West has been able to produce, but not for itself.