We have got used to criticising the neocon US, and calling for British disengagement from its aggressive unilateralism. But what do we actually want to put in its place? And how, realistically, do we propose to go about achieving it?
In a new book* Hubert Védrine, foreign minister in the French government of Lionel Jospin from 1997-2002, gives Europeans (and more so the French: but they will answer for themselves) a severe examination, starting from two painful observations. The first is that far from opposing the aims of the neocons, European liberalism supports most of them, rejecting only the means employed by the Americans. Briefly forgotten after decolonisation, the right and duty to intervene in the interests of "civilization" is once again de mise. Second, we should not be too hasty in dismissing Huntington's "clash of civilizations". The threat is real, and can't be wished away by talk of multiple identities.
Indeed we Western idealists delude ourselves if we think we can preach democracy and human rights to the rest of the world. We have too often contradicted our own principles for that. Nor should we imagine that international civil society provides an easy means of achieving harmony and development in the world. Civil society is ill-defined and internally fractured, and where are its democratic credentials?
Védrine sums up: "right-thinking, well intentioned, hegemonic, paternalistic, self-assured Western universalism, fuddled by its naive refusal to accept the inevitability of power, has collided with the realities."
He's talking about us!
At the core of these realities is the dominance of an increasingly unequal global market impatient of all regulation and dismissive of the state, which promises benefits to the consumer but never calculates the loss to the citizen in terms of democratic control.
But to think that international institutions - the UN, the European Union, a vaguely conceived "multilateralism" - can bridle the market is a further illusion. What has the UN actually delivered in ten years: multilateral co-operation between states hollowed out by market forces and which have lost power to unaccountable international agencies merely displays their shared impotence.
So what remains? For Védrine the bedrock of the international system is precisely the state, the hard power without which soft power is impossible. Against Fukuyama, history has not ended with the victory of global capitalism, and the state emerges with a crucial role to play. But of course he doesn't mean any sort of state: "it's a question of modern, reformed, effective states, concentrating on their real functions, and all engaged in a process of democratisation. It's essential to understand that we can't delegate to the 'international community', the UN or any other form of Providence".
Therein lies the problem of Védrine's analysis: how do you get these rather angelic states?
But that doesn't remove the sting from his critique of international idealism. If "another world is possible", perhaps strong but democratic states are an indispensable means towards it.
* Continuer l'Histoire (Fayard 2007)