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Laurent Fabius, French FM: Taboos of International Life Are Being Broken, Making World More Chaotic

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius speaks at a Brookings event, May 13, 2014. (photo: Paul Morigi)

"We live in dangerous times because the pillars of the international order are increasingly being questioned," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a Brookings audience today. "It is not just that the world has grown more complex and interdependent," he said, but:

The novelty as I see it is that various taboos of international life are being broken, making the world more chaotic. In the Middle East, where there is still no peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The taboo against chemical weapons has been shattered by the Assad regime. Next door, Iran is challenging the nuclear nonproliferation taboo already broken by North Korea.

Moral taboos are under stress as well. In Syria a barbaric regime is using mass crimes and famine to prolong its hold on power. In Africa the specter of genocide has come back in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And what about Boko Haram in Nigeria?

In Europe the taboo of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, the cornerstone of world order, was violated by Russia when it annexed Crimea. It is troubling and dangerous to see Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, violate its international commitments and ignore its role of guarantor of Ukrainian integrity, offered in exchange for Kyiv renouncing nuclear weapons in 1994. That contributes to making the nonproliferation taboo less relevant.

These broken taboos reveal something about our world. They tell us of tectonic shifts happening, even though we don't know yet their full scope.

The foreign minister said that the emerging countries "need to share the responsibilities in sustaining the international order" in a world he sees as having moved from a unipolar, to a multipolar, and now to a "zero polar" world. In this context, Minister Fabius described "four major lines of long-term action for French diplomacy ... Peace; Planet; Europe; and Growth."


Peace

"France has been on the forefront of international response to crises and challenges over the past two years," the minister said.

We have been side-by-side with the EU, our American friends, and NATO allies on a host of issues jointly addressing proliferation challenges in Iran and the Korean Peninsula; crises in the Middle East; and terrorism in Africa. Sometimes France had to take the initiative on its own to cope with emergency situations, such as was the case in Mali when al Qaeda terrorist groups threatened to march on the capital city. A swift reaction was necessary and after we helped our Malian friends, with African support, to reconquer their own country, we assisted them ... In the Central African Republic six months ago, disintegration and large scale religious tensions were threatening lives. And here again, we acted swiftly. In both cases a UN peacekeeping operation has been approved to take over French and African efforts.

Yet, although we intervened in Africa twice last year, we see each intervention as another collective failure to build robust African capacities. It is for Africans first to take care of African security.

The Planet

The foreign minister divided his remarks about the planet into two parts: governance and climate.

First, global governance, of which the UN is the pillar. In line with our commitment to international law and multilateralism, we always care to act under the aegis of the United Nations, which remains the key source of international legitimacy. The problem is that the UN Security Council is increasingly paralyzed in the face of mass atrocity. That is why, in addition to a necessary reform of the UN in order to make it more representative, we suggested the adoption of a code of conduct to refrain from using veto when mass crimes are committed. This would be a voluntary and collective agreement by the five permanent members. We are now discussing it with partners, including the U.S., with a view to raising this issue during the next UN General Assembly. Look, we are not naïve. It will be very, very difficult. But we are not ready to accept UN paralysis, because if there is UN paralysis ... it will jeopardize UN legitimacy and capability. It is our goal to put this question on the agenda in 2015.

When saying the Planet, the Planet also means, very concretely, our very survival. We are ... on the edge of a climatic abyss. In fact, we have 500 days to avoid climate chaos. If the current trend continues, the rise of temperatures may not be limited to 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels, but might reach 7 to 9, which means 4 to 5 degrees Celsius, which would be catastrophic. In this context, the UN conference on climate change which will take place next year in Paris, is an absolute top priority. The goal is to achieve a post-2020 agreement that should include all countries and be legally binding.

This is ambitious, but there are some glimmers of hope. Compared with Copenhagen, climate denial, at least in Europe, is less audible. The latest U.S. report on climate change was a wakeup call. It demonstrates President Obama's personal commitment on this issue. The business community is also somewhat moving. The shift is not limited to the developed world. China knows it has to act. And it is acting. ... African states are committing to sustainable development strategies. Brazil and South Africa have set ambitious environmental targets. The way to Paris is surely not easy, but it is indispensable and doable.

Europe

"I am aware of the interrogations and sometimes skepticism in this country about the future of the EU," he said.

It is true that the euro crisis was so serious that at some stage the whole fabric of the EU appeared to be in jeopardy. But by and large, we have overcome this challenge and moved towards stronger integration. We are now working towards rapidly achieving a banking union and better governance of the euro area. We are putting forward new initiatives for a common energy policy ... and for better collective action in support of economic growth, particularly in the industrial sector. Beyond this, the main question is whether Europe generally wants to be a power and if its nations are ready to share part of their sovereignty to do so. We the French with others believe that Europe can and must follow this path and we are working to improve our cooperation.

Economic Growth

"The country that loses economic strength will sooner or later be weakened on the world scene," he began. 

Its ability to act and follow through will be questioned. While committing to a policy balancing fiscal consolidation with progress measures, we are right now undertaking structural reforms. We need to invest more to boost competitiveness and spend less to reduce our deficits. We are working to give more oxygen to the French economy. That also implies more efficiency on the part of government. We are particularly focusing on supporting French exports and on attracting in France more investments, more business, more tourists and more students.

The foreign minister explained two preconditions for the success of this strategy: strengthening the transatlantic relationship and engaging with emerging powers. He said:

Strengthening the transatlantic relationship is an absolute necessity. That is why, besides the economic impact, France is searching for a balanced and ambitious TTIP agreement. This is a very complex negotiation, and I am aware of the debates on both sides of the Atlantic. But I think both sides need to move forward.

Getting the emerging powers on board is a second prerequisite. We often meet with the same difficulty. They consider that the international order is biased in favor of the West. We might disagree, but we have to take into account this perception. It's especially true with China. A Security Council permanent member and a nuclear weapons state with a GDP equal to all of the BRICS, Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia combined. China is a country that necessarily we have to work with, without being naïve, but with an open mind. That is why China is a really top priority of French diplomacy. With a view to increase cooperation within the UN and G20, and also on the ground with concrete initiatives in Africa. ...

We also attach high priority to strengthening our already dense strategic partnership with our Indian friends.

"As a final word," Foreign Minister Fabius said, "let me stress that French-American cooperation is more necessary than ever to build up a stable world for this new century. We need to do more together and to mobilize our partners to do more with us."


Get audio and video from the event's web page. Visit the Center on the United States and Europe for more research and commentary on Europe and the transatlantic relationship.

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