On Friday the 31st of January, as Brexit had just been officially announced, I met with Former Ambassador Gérard Araud in Paris to discuss this issue and many more. Ambassador Araud debuted a career dedicated to the field of diplomacy only one year after the election of Ronald Reagan, and it concluded two years after the election of Donald Trump. Throughout almost forty years of his career, he reached some of the most notorious functions of France’s department of Foreign Affairs: Ambassador of France in Israel, deputy permanent representative of France to NATO, permanent representative of France to the United Nations and the Security Council, and ambassador of France to the United States. After having published his memoir “Passeport Diplomatique”, an homage to diplomacy with reflections upon the future of international relations, the Marseille-born Ambassador, accepted to answer my questions.
In your book, you describe diplomacy as a ‘theatrical representation’. One in which words, actions, and practices, are calculated. In your opinion, is diplomacy an art?
That I do not know. Well, to be fair, it is above all a job. One in which somehow, like in a theatrical representation, our personality plays a role. Hence, as diplomats we are required to use the talents, qualities and flaws of our personalities in order to negotiate. Therefore, there are many types of diplomats. I myself am a Mediterranean, so I use my human warmth, my friendliness, as a quality. Also, when I describe it as a spectacle, I do not imply a performance in which diplomats lie or deceive. As I said in my book, diplomats rarely hide the truth. The first obstacle in a negotiation is to earn the trust of your counterpart. It is up to a diplomat to succeed in mitigating their counterpart’s mistrust in order to negotiate. There may be times in which you are forced to deal with a person with a very icy personality, and even if you performed a ‘strip-tease’, the diplomat will not give in. Some diplomats only react to reason whereas others react to a more brutal approach; which is why a diplomat must know all the different styles of negotiations beforehand. For example, a German will always abide by the law. Therefore, one must be prepared with lawful arguments if he wants to convince. For a diplomat to act as a politician would be disadvantageous. In our exchanges with our British counterparts, most of the negotiation process is hinted, close to a ‘political’ style without a need to say things explicitly. Therefore, we have no illusions on what to expect from them and can easily come to compromises; although some compromises can be sometimes limited, our work together is usually quite efficient. It is more complicated with Americans: given that they are a ‘superpower’, they are less inclined to negotiate in the first place. So, I would say that diplomacy is like a ‘theatrical representation’ in the best sense of the word, although it also depends on the play and who we are sharing the stage with.
In your career, what diplomatic event marked you the most?
Without a doubt, the war in Iraq, and the fact that France was opposed to it. It was a very intense moment as I explain it in my book, firstly because the Iraq War was the cause of a strong debate within the Quai D’Orsay (the French ministry of Foreign Affairs). I remember the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin along with his collaborators were participating in the debate, which resulted in very diverse opinions; this led to the beautiful speech he gave
to the United Nations in February 2003. This event was also intense because France decided to oppose the initiative of a leading world power, which does not happen every day. We were well aware that there could be consequences to this decision. It was a success, and we were right to oppose to the war, although very quickly we realised how important it was for us to get along with the United States. Soon after, France reconciled with the United States in 2004 and in a way, we can say that what happened in 2003 didn’t really have long-lasting consequences. This outcome was an example of power dynamics.
So, the decision by France to oppose the war did not, in any way, contribute to balance the decision-making process in the Security Council?
No, it did not have any consequences because the Security Council ultimately endorsed an American solution in Iraq. The mandate of the United Nations, and therefore to the United States, was in a way devised to endorse an American protectorate in Iraq.
Today is the 31st of January, as you may know the United Kingdom is officially leaving the European Union. In your opinion, what will be the impact of the UK’s departure in terms of our multilateral relations?
The real problem now, is what will be path that the United Kingdom chooses to pursue. Because, as we know, Boris Johnson now has an absolute majority in Parliament, and in some way, he can practically do whatever he wants. For now, he is doing what I call some kind of ‘chest banging’, to show that the negotiations will now open and they will hurt. We have seen that Johnson can be pragmatic when he wants to: looking at the way he decided to maintain Northern Ireland in a de-facto customs union with the EU, now we ask how far is he willing to go? Because it is up to the British to take on the initiative, whereas the EU will be deliberating upon the UK’s proposals. So, it will be up to Johnson to say if he wants a hard or a soft Brexit. As we wait for the negotiations to open, there is also the hypothesis of the UK becoming a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’, which I believe would lead to a complete rupture with the European Union. Which is why it is crucial to see what the Prime Minister is willing to accept vis-à-vis the European Union.
With regards to Foreign Policy, France has a very somewhat intimate relationship with its British neighbour. We have a treaty of military cooperation, the Lancaster House Treaties, and on both sides of the Channel, we have repeatedly manifested our willingness to work together. However, now that the British are leaving the European Union, many are asking ‘what’s next for European military defence?’. Personally, I do not believe that the European defence will truly become an obstacle; to me the real question is will the UK have any other choice – after leaving the principal European institution – but to go to Washington? Will there be a return of the so-called ‘special relationship’? One that the British decided to leave after the Iraq War, when they realized, after sending their army in the crisis, that this relationship had nothing special. They have come out of the war traumatized by the way they were treated by the Americans, leaving them no room to deliberate on the management of the Iraqi crisis. This is a series of questions that I believe now can only be answered by the British. On the side of the European Union, it will not be simply passive or reactive, we now need to know if the leading states in the Union – particularly France and Germany – will leave the upcoming negotiations in the hands of the European Commission. This is very important as the UK cannot be simply treated like Switzerland or Norway. Therefore, the European side will require in those negotiations to show some creativity, which is something the Commission does not possess. In a way, for the UK to negotiate alone with the European Commission, would be as easy as if Martin Luther went to negotiate with the Vatican; and above this ‘Vatican’, we wonder if among the 27 states, Paris and Berlin will cease to be neutral in an attempt to create a ‘special relationship’.
Nonetheless, the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a disastrous decision, for France it makes us realise that the imbalance between the member states is greater than excepted. Germany’s position within the Union is increased and this can only be done at the expense of France. Along with divisions in some parts of Europe, and crises bursting in Spain and Italy, I believe this instability renders the management of the EU even more difficult for France.
In your opinion what are today’s major international challenges in which France will respond?
Firstly, the fact that today, most of Europe’s periphery is plagued by crises; we can see this with Ukraine, Syria and Libya. And what is new this time is that the United States will not intervene, therefore it is up to the Europeans to deal with these issues. For the time being, France is alone on the front line, and what Macron is trying to do is to convince other Europeans to take responsibility for their own security, as the Americans will not do it for them. Of course, I believe there are other long-term issues, which also need to be managed: the internet, A.I, virtual currencies or climate change. I believe a coordinated response is urgent. Because on one side you have the return of states on the international stage, but also the multiplication of transnational entities, as we have seen with the Huawei situation. If we cannot respond to these questions, I fear that an authoritarian model, like the one in China, will be called to do it in our stead. This is why I believe we must try to have a European- American response concerning all these subjects. On the American side, if Donald Trump secures another mandate in the upcoming elections – forget it. But if the Democrats win, it will be up to us Europeans to propose them solutions.
And what do you believe will be the role of France in the next 15 years?
First of all, France has its own particular interests and means internationally, which will be maintained; but I believe that the future of France is linked to the one of the EU. There is a central question for Emmanuel Macron, which is, will the EU succeed in reforming itself and keep hold of a geopolitical relevance? This is what E. Macron calls for, although there is one enigma: Germany. Visibly, it seems that Berlin wants to play the role of a “Great Switzerland” and refuses its responsibilities as the main power. Germany isn’t keen in reforming the Eurozone, because the monetary union remains fragile. So, in some way this question also depends on the answer of our European partners, after all, it would not be in our interests to act alone. But if there is no European answer, I believe France must act nonetheless. So, this leads to two questions: the first being, “are we going toward more Europe? Meaning, do we inscribe our action in the frame of the EU?” or “Will the EU continue to be a dysfunctional bloc, thus forcing us to act nationally?”
On a national level, some argue that France is small country, not having much of role internationally, but I would argue otherwise. We are currently the seventh economic power in the world and the fifth in terms of military, we maintain good relations with other nations and so we do have a role to play externally. However, I believe that this role needs to be adapted to today’s challenges. For example, I found that our policy has been too much focused on militarisation these past few years, and I don’t believe that our adventure in the Sahel was essential. This is a lesson that visibly Americans have learned about the limits of the use of force, and I believe that France should reduce its focus on it.
There is also a certain image of France and how its values are shown internationally which I believe in the future, will remain as well. We have proved it with the COP21 (Climate Change Conference), showing that France can be efficient in responding to this long-term issue. But then, we cannot do everything on our own, and the question of the West resurfaces: “will Europeans and Americans be able to construct a common answer to all these challenges? Will we be able to construct our own path?” These are questions which will naturally be asked.
More precisely, in your opinion, what will be the role of the EU in the years to come?
I believe that the EU will always maintain a key role internationally. On the traditional aspects of geopolitics, such as military and strategy, those still remain under the sole responsibility of nation-states; but the EU holds responsibility over other areas of foreign policy. Particularly concerning the negotiation of transversal issues, which are crucial for our future. Firstly, the EU is by definition the entity responsible for anything in terms of trade involving Europe, therefore it is up to it to shape the future of trade. We are currently facing series of crises and I believe the EU will have to re-invent what we call the “free trade”. For example, in adapting to long-term issues such as climate-change: Is it still necessary to keep on importing certain products such as meat coming from Argentina? There are other phenomena to take into account, such as the deindustrialisationof the European regions and the consequences it will have on the political balance. Like I said the political weight of the European Union, allows it to conduct those great transversal negotiations. After all, the fact that most of the 27 (member) states share the same opinion on most of the subjects indicates that we can have a common European response. The EU will also have to respond to other countries refusing to play by the rules, such as China. Although, if we do not act on an early stage, as we can see with the Huawei affair, it will be too late. This can be seen with the way the Chinese are now seeking to divide the European Union from the inside. So, on all these subjects of a transversal matter, I believe the EU will have to make a difference. Even though the traditional aspects of foreign policy, as I discussed previously, will remain in the hands of member-states. Each having diverging views on the matter.
The Ambassador continues:
There are also subjects on which there cannot be a European agreement. The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is an example of this division. As I was Ambassador ten years ago, you would see within the European Union, on one side, Spain with a pro-Palestinian position; and on the other, the Czech Republic, siding by the Likud. A similar deadlock can be found concerning Russia. Whereas countries geographically close to Moscow such as Finland or Sweden can feel threatened, and therefore, have a more reluctant policy toward Russia; other members of the European Union, due to a distanced geographical position, have a much more relaxed policy toward Putin. We can then see how difficult it is to have a common European policy with the example of Russia. Of course, there can be a common European position when facing a situation like we have seen with the annexing of Crimea, but then it is very difficult to obtain from the EU a common policy concerning Moscow. The same problem exists on many more subjects: either some countries do not see an interest in intervening on a crisis, or there can be a profound political disagreement over the way we should respond to it. Therefore, the EU needs subjects in which we all share the same position to obtain a policy. This is of course, a sketchy representation of the possibilities of the European Union.
Is this division felt in the United Nations? We usually mention – when referring about the security council – of an alliance composed by France, the UK and the USA. This P3, would tend to exercise a strong influence on the decision-making process of the council; however, we hear much less of a European alliance, although there are currently five European countries sitting at the horseshoe table.
Generally, we try to work together. During my time as representative of France to United Nations and Security Council, I used to meet with the representative of the United Kingdom very regularly. Also, we were sharing a similar position very often, as it was the axis of our work together. I recall only two subjects in which we disagreed upon: The first being the Cypriot dispute, where our British counterparts are pro-Turks, and the second on the Western Sahara status. But otherwise, between Europeans, we try to work together. There are regular meetings between (European) members sitting in the council, and during my time I don’t recall a period in which we have been truly divided. After all, as you may know there are permanently two western European countries sitting in the council; also, the delegation of the European Union has been given the right to consult in the United Nations.
What do you think will be become of the role and the political weight of the United Nations on the international stage, in the years to come?
The fact is that most of us forget that the United Nations had no major role internationally from 1949 until 1991. We forget that during the Cold War, the Security Council was constrained and used to meet once every month with an empty agenda; it was due to the fact that both superpowers were blocking anything going against their interests or simply because there was no real dynamic within the council. Hence, proving that the multilateral system has always demonstrated some weaknesses. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been some sort of “renaissance” of the Security Council, born from a system dominated by the West. And with this pre-eminence, the United Nations served for a time as an extension for western world powers. Now with the re-balancing of the Security Council dynamic, at the expense of the west, we observe a security council where any resolution against the interests of a member of the P5 is blocked: we have seen it with Russia’s veto on Ukraine and Syria, the Americans on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or with China on Myanmar and the Sri-Lanka. Which is why I have always said that the United Nations are searching and responding to conflicts which do not go against the interest of any of its permanent members. Conflicts like in the Republic of Congo in 1960 where a million of people died, or in South Soudan where a civil war struck for almost six years; those are examples of major conflicts only taken care by United Nations. So, we should have no illusions on what the United Nations can do: They have been very useful in responding to conflicts but let us not forget that we made a choice of realism with this institution. The first multilateral organization, the League of Nations saw the successive withdrawal of all great powers. One of the first being Japan as you can see in the “Blue Lotus” with Tintin, then the withdrawal of Italy concerning Ethiopia, Germany; and the expel of the Soviet Union in 1939 due to the invasion of Finland. All left the League of Nations, and soon after the organization became inexistent. This is what the United Nations sought to avoid by giving the veto power to the five permanent members sitting in the security council. As of today, none of them has left the UN, but they have blocked resolutions when they considered their national interests were at stake. This is why I believe that the United Nations are useful, and it has become a part of our system, although we should not expect too much from it.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Middle East? Particularly with the “Peace Plan” from the Trump Administration?
Well the Peace Plan in itself is a monstrosity. It sets the idea that Trump wants to create a Bantustan, but under the condition that Israel accepts. In a way, like I say it in my book, Trump is similar to this child in the tale of “The Emperor’s new clothes”. The Emperor parade in front of the people, claiming that he has a new suit of clothes said to be invisible to those unfit for their rank. While no one dares to say that they can’t see any clothes, a child cries out “The Emperor is naked!”. So, what does Donald Trump tell us? What we cannot see, because we live in a Post-modern world. Firstly, that Peace is made by the winner, imposing his conditions upon the loser. And in this conflict, the winner is Israel. Secondly, that Palestine is left out by most of the Arab states. And thirdly, that even Palestinians no longer believe in the idea that both states can co-exist. If you visit Palestine, you can see that there is now in almost every corner an Israeli settlement. Proving they do not intend to leave. So, those truths tell us that even if we want to militate for the two-state solution, this will not happen. So, we must look for other solutions: Is the concept of a single-state possible, and under what conditions? We should also ask ourselves what does the young generations of Palestinian wants? When I left Israel in 2006, I did it knowing that there would not be a perfect solution to this conflict. Although the relationship between the United States and the Middle East has changed; Americans now look at the region with more reflection: They observe that Israel is no longer threatened. The only threat left to the Israeli being Iran, it is revealing that the last remaining subject which interests the Americans in the region is Tehran. Furthermore, after the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a lassitude in the US toward international engagement; so, what we observe is both a temptation and an attempt from the United States – with this deal – to withdraw at least partially, from the international stage. Now, will they succeed completely, I believe it will depend on the circumstances, but visibly this is what the United States are attempting. After all, the United States’ interests in Middle East were mostly fuelled by the need for oil and Israel. Now that Israel is no longer threatened, and that the US are producing their own oil, they learn from it a different lesson. Only one problem remains, which the US might aggravate: the situation with Iran.
Finally, I only had the chance for one final question. As I asked him who was his favourite painter, the Ambassador replied:
Oh well, I must say that it depends, as I have known different kind of phases in my life. For example, I had my Italian phase with Il Caravaggio. And another with Piero della Francesca. There was a time I was attracted by Florentine painting, or another toward the Baroque culture. As of today, I am still interested with the works of Chardin and Manet, which for me still remain major. I also have a weakness for the fascinating portraits of Ingres, but there comes the giant Vermeer, which is like a god for me; he is above all else, and by far. So, I will say Vermeer.
An interview conducted and translated from the French by Julien Nourian.
Many thanks to Ambassador Araud for an interesting discussion and a book recommendation.