Geo-politics Overview

Introduction

The Summer 2015 Forum focused region-by-region on the dramatic global changes affecting the world. Distinguished speakers provided updates on worldwide developments and examined their significance to the United States (US), their policies, and their economies.

Ambassador Jean-David Levitte set the stage for the Forum discussions with a comprehensive review of the altered global politics of the last 3 decades. And Mr. Levitte speaks from vast personal experience. He was the Ambassador of France to the US during the war in Iraq from 2003-2007 and, from 2000-2002, served as the French permanent representative to the United Nations (UN). He has also had an illustrious career in the French Foreign Service, holding various senior positions and serving on the staffs of three French presidents. Most recently, he has served as senior diplomatic advisor and sherpa (emissary) to President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr. Levitte described the dynamic global geo-political transformations that have characterized the last 3 decades.

“For decades after World War II, history seemed to be frozen, and the US-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) détente balanced power on the world stage. Suddenly in 1979, history started to move again, and, every 10 years since,  a new world has evolved.”

1979

In 1979, events set the world in motion. The fall of the Shah of Iran precipitated the beginning of political Islam with conflicts between Sunni and Shia Islamists and sent a second oil shock to disrupt global oil markets. The US appeared weakened as President Jimmy Carter struggled to intervene in Tehran, while the USSR looked strong as it invaded Afghanistan. Japan seemed to be the rising global economy, and economic reforms in China signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution. The world had changed.

1989

A decade later, the Berlin Wall fell, ending the bipolar confrontation between the US and the USSR. The demise of the Soviet Empire and reforms in China marked the end of a century of ideologies. Without actively seeking it, the US became the world’s only superpower and enjoyed an economic rebound.

1989 marked the beginning of the information technology revolution, the age of digital communication, and the container revolution, which allowed globalization of markets as goods moved quickly and cheaply around the world. The market economy now reigned supreme. The world was no longer bipolar, but global and unipolar.

2001

Twelve years later, on September 11, this dominant America suddenly discovered its vulnerability in the face of nearly two dozen jihadi suicide bombers. “Where did the 9/11 terrorists come from? Why did take action at that time?” Mr. Levitte asked rhetorically.

His answer illustrates some of the shocking ironies of political policy. The terrorists arose from the US response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. To counter the USSR without engaging American troops, Washington armed Afghani, Pakistani, and Arab “freedom fighters” with Saudi Arabian support. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, these war-hardened fighters sought other battles and “global jihad.”

With the area deeply destabilized, the US became involved in two wars, in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, which would demonstrate the limits of the country’s military supremacy. No longer was the world unipolar. It had become multipolar, with the extraordinary ascent of China, followed by other major emerging countries such as India, Brazil, and South Africa. Russia was rebuilding. We entered the era of “relative powers” where no one country alone could claim to resolve the problems of our time.

2015

From Ghana to Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire, African economies are strengthening. These major emerging countries want greater rights in multinational forums, but their key focus is consolidating local power and, unfortunately, they fail to share responsibility for solving the globe’s current difficulties.

A new world is already emerging. Along with the major emerging countries, new powers—Korea, Indonesia, Turkey, and Mexico—are claiming their place at the decision-making table. The Arab Spring launched changes that have already been overturned. From Ghana to Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire, African economies are strengthening. These major emerging countries want greater rights in multinational forums, but their key focus is consolidating local power and, unfortunately, they fail to share responsibility for solving the globe’s current difficulties.

Now more than ever, our planet is seen as a global village, interconnected. But there’s no one in the driver’s seat. After two frustrating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is in a phase of disengagement and no longer wants to be the world’s policeman. But no other leaders have emerged to take over this role.

Today, international order is fragile and threatened. The world is no longer multipolar; it is now apolar, and the risk of fragmentation is quite real. The old world international institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization are struggling to evolve and are weakened by a lack of collective leadership, at a time when they are more necessary than ever to combat the increasing fragmentation of power.

And that disconnect is threatening world order: Russia is pursuing an expansionist policy in Crimea and Ukraine, while China is seeking to integrate its neighbors into its economic sphere. Fragmentation threatens within the European Union (UN), as Scotland, Catalonia, and Belgium seek autonomy. And the Middle East is subject to fragmentation as Shia and Sunni forces battle for power.

“We are living in a period of disruptions and discontinuity that is far from ending and is increasingly out of control.”

Solutions

Mr. Levitte proposed that coalitions must be organized to solve these problems one-by-one. For example, the US-EU coalition can be a mediator with Russia to solve the Ukraine issue without going to war. He suggested that the P5+1 (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US, the United Kingdom (UK), France, China, and Russia plus Germany), which recently completed the Iran nuclear negotiations, could become a mediator for solving Mideast problems. He suggested that the P5+1 could invite Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to work together to find a solution to the Syrian Civil War.

“Coalitions must be organized to solve these problems one-by-one. We need a convergence of efforts by those who can act to intervene in these conflicts.”

Discussion

Sen. Sandy Pappas (MN): You describe the world as apolar and lacking leadership, like a plane with no pilot. What about the UN? Can they take responsibility?

Mr. Levitte: You are too optimistic about the UN. Those old institutions cannot adapt to these rapidly emerging changes. The UN plays a role where no one else wants to go. In a globalized era, we need a global player like the UN, but that is not happening; instead regional solutions are being attempted.

We need leadership, and it could come from the US. No one else will take the lead. The US is in a period of isolationism after Iraq and Afghanistan. US citizens are tired of wars and of solving problems outside the nation. They want to build a strong US economy instead. However, the US is still the strongest military power in the world⎯its forces represent just a little less than all the other countries combined. The US is inventing the new economy and has the assets to provide leadership. A new president and a new beginning could allow the US to lead the world. For decades to come, the US will remain the No. 1 world power. We hope you will come back to leadership. The US cannot lead on its own, though, and it will require ad hoc coalitions—including former adversaries—to solve today’s problems.

Sen. Troy Fraser (TX): The US has war fatigue. We are dealing with the $3.2 billion costs of wars, and support from other countries has evaporated. Now we are expected to deal with Russia in the Ukraine, but France and Germany refuse to support sanctions against Russia. And Russia will not help us with Iran. It is hard to form coalitions when even our “friends,” such as France and Germany, will not support us economically or militarily.

Mr. Levitte: In negotiations between the US and the EU, France has taken the lead to impose sanctions on Russia, but less stringent sanctions than the US proposed because the EU is more dependent on Russia for oil, energy, and trade. Furthermore, Russia is now in a recession due to sanctions and the drop in oil prices. This is playing into (President Vladimir) Putin’s propaganda that a war is being imposed on Russia by the US and could drive a Russia-China alliance to counteract the US.

Further complicating the issue, as China seeks to extend its dominance in the South China Sea, an alliance of regional actors that include Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore could form against China, leading to unknown and potentially explosive results.

With this complex background of shifting alliances, the EU should do more for its own defense and security of its borders; however, EU budgets are still constrained. Defense expenditures by the UK and France account for 50% of all 28 EU countries’ military spending. Germany could do more. The EU needs to do more to protect the Balkan states. This should be determined by NATO (the North American Treaty Organization), which could have a stronger role in the future in response to the risks posed by Mr. Putin and Russian expansionism.

Sen. David Long (IN): Could a coalition of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia solve the Syrian crisis by a military defeat of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)?

Mr. Levitte: The 3 countries have different priorities. Saudi Arabia is obsessed with Iran and wants to eliminate the Shia leader in Syria. Iran, which is happy with a strong Sunni presence, is obsessed with the rise of ISIS and the threat of a return to a Shia caliphate. Turkey is obsessed with the Kurds and are opposed to an independent Kurdish state. Aside from these obsessions, these countries have a common urgent need to resolve the Syrian crisis or their state structures, including police, army, and administration of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia will collapse.

In Syria, more than 300,000 people have been killed and millions displaced. Syrian refugees now make up one-third of Lebanon’s population, and they want to come to the EU. The P5+1 could promote an alliance among the 3 regional powers to crush ISIS in Syria.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (AR): Why is France taking a harder stance than the US concerning nuclear power for Iran?

Mr. Levitte: Today, there are 2 nuclear categories⎯nations with and without nuclear weapons. This negotiation creates a third category⎯nations on the threshold of nuclear power. If other countries believe that Iran will stay on the threshold, developing nuclear capabilities only for power and not for weapons, the situation remains stable. However, if they anticipate that Iran will violate the agreement and make nuclear weapons, adjacent countries such as Turkey may feel compelled to develop nuclear weapons capabilities as well.

France is totally opposed to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. If the US-Iran nuclear power deal (which was being negotiated at the time of this speech) is not strong enough to ensure access to monitor nuclear facilities, the current plan could trigger nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.

We hope the US Congress will approve the Iran deal to ensure that inspection is strong and monitoring is enforced. The risk if the American Congress blocks the deal is that Japan and other countries will rush in to help Iran develop nuclear power, leaving the US  isolated. Alternatively, if the deal is blocked, Iran could resume its nuclear program, and then the US would be forced to decide how to respond.

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia (PR): Today, people are very polarized, and there were more far right votes in the last French election. How would you assess the EU situation today?

Mr. Levitte: The picture is 2-fold. On one hand, the EU is liberalizing by making progress in 3 key areas: moving to a capital market union, abolishing borders, and integrating Eastern border countries into the energy grid. On the other hand, the influx of new immigrants is exacerbating anxiety about economic disaster. Our difficulty in controlling immigration is triggering right-leaning populist movements.

Speaker Biography

Jean-David Levitte

Ambassador Levitte is a member of the Institut de France, a professor at Sciences-Po in Paris and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Jean-David Levitte has had a distinguished and outstanding career in the French Foreign Service, serving on the staff of three French Presidents and holding key senior positions in the French Foreign Service.

From 2007 to 2012, Ambassador Levitte was the Senior Diplomatic Adviser and Sherpa of President Sarkozy.

He served as Ambassador to the United States, from 2003 to 2007 during the difficult period of the war in Iraq.

From 2000 to 2002, he was the French Ambassador to the United Nations. In New York, Ambassador Levitte successfully handled several international negotiations, including resolution 1441 on Iraq.

Ambassador Levitte served as Senior Diplomatic Adviser and Sherpa of President Chirac from 1995 to 2000.

From 1990, he held senior positions in the French Foreign Ministry, first as Assistant Secretary for Asia and then as Undersecretary for Cultural and Scientific Cooperation.

In 1988, he was designated to his first position as Ambassador and served as the French Ambassador to the United Nations Office in Geneva.

Before 1988 Mr. Levitte was assigned as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Foreign Minister; Deputy Assistant Secretary in the African Bureau; Second Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations in New York.

Mr. Levitte joined the Foreign Service in 1970. He was first posted in Hong Kong and Beijing in the early 1970's. A few months after his election in 1974, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing asked him to work on his staff at the Elysee Palace, where he stayed from 1975 to 1981.

Born in 1946 in the south of France, Ambassador Levitte earned a law degree and is a graduate of Sciences-Po (the renowned Institute for Political Science in Paris) and of the National School of Oriental Languages, where he studied Chinese and Indonesian.

Ambassador Levitte is married to Marie-Cécile Jonas and has two daughters and three grandchildren.

 

Other Foreign Relations articles:

Ambassador Jean-David Levitte

Member of the Institut de France

Professor at Sciences-Po University

Distinguished Fellow at the
Brookings Institution

 

 

For decades after World War II, history seemed to be frozen, and the US-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) détente balanced power on the world stage. Suddenly in 1979, history started to move again, and, every 10 years since,  a new world has evolved.

 

From Ghana to Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire, African economies are strengthening. These major emerging countries want greater rights in multinational forums, but their key focus is consolidating local power and, unfortunately, they fail to share responsibility for solving the globe’s current difficulties.

 

Now more than ever, our planet is seen as a global village, interconnected. But there’s no one in the driver’s seat. After two frustrating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is in a phase of disengagement and no longer wants to be the world’s policeman. But no other leaders have emerged to take over this role.

 

We are living in a period of disruptions and discontinuity that is far from ending and is increasingly out of control.

 

Coalitions must be organized to solve these problems one-by-one. We need a convergence of efforts by those who can act to intervene in these conflicts.

Sen. Sandy Pappas

 

We need leadership, and it could come from the US. No one else will take the lead. We hope you will come back to leadership. However, the US cannot lead on its own, and it will require ad hoc coalitions — including former adversaries — to solve today’s problems.

Sen. David Long

Sen. Jonathan Dismang

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia

Ambassador
Jean-David Levitte

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