ONLINE EXTRA: The View from France's Foreign Minister
Hubert Vedrine talks about U.S.-Europe relations, the new Bush Administration, and the big issues that both sides will soon face

Hubert Vedrine, France's outspoken Foreign Minister since 1997, is fond of repeating that France has the obligation to say "no" to its big ally over the Atlantic, the U.S. Indeed, some would say that 53-year-old Vedrine has turned that obligation into something of an art form. He coined the word "hyperpuissance" -- hyperpower -- to define what he sees as the political, military, economic, and even cultural domination of the U.S. in the post-cold war world.

Yet beyond the posturing, Vedrine has actually helped ensure that France is a steady ally of the U.S. French and American cooperation have proven particularly crucial in the management of the complicated Balkan crisis, and France has quietly backed President Clinton's efforts to broker Middle East peace accords.

He also has an unusually close working relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The two have enjoyed long discussions about the respective roles of France, Europe, and the U.S. in the world. And he credits his friendship with Albright for an overall improvement in relations between Paris and Washington. Says Vedrine: "With Madeleine, we changed the style of Franco-American relations."

On Jan. 12, Vedrine spoke in Paris with European Regional Editor John Rossant. Here are edited excerpts of their talk:

Q: Do you see a new equilibrium developing between U.S. and Europe? There's an apparent economic slowdown in the U.S. and steady growth and a new self-assertion in Europe? Do you believe that the reasons which led you a few years ago to call the U.S. a "hyperpower" still are true?
A: Economic growth will be equivalent, let's say, between U.S. and Europe. I believe that the structural reasons that led me to talk about hyperpuissance are still true. Remember that I added up all the forms of power and influence wielded by the U.S., as well as the kind of "soft" power it has [in terms of media, etc.]. The weight of the U.S. in the world is still immense and is not comparable to anything else. When I made this analysis, it was to stimulate the debate in Europe.

There has been a cyclical change in the economy, a soft landing in the U.S., a discussion about the extent of the slowdown, but it's coming after an unprecedented long period of expansion and job creation. [It's] very impressive, the longest in U.S. history. So if there's a slowdown, it's relative. And if U.S. growth is now at same level as Europe's in the years ahead, it will still be quite impressive, even if it's lower than what America has been used to these last few years. But it's also because Europe itself has better growth. We'll see growth of between 3% and 4%. It's curious that I'm the one who's rather optimistic for the U.S. economy!

Q: In terms of defense, Europe seems to be becoming more assertive.
A: On European defense, we've advanced a lot, but in cooperation with the U.S. It's not a move against the U.S. It's no secret that within the U.S. Administration, the Pentagon was hostile [to European defense initiatives], one could say. For the Pentagon, it's easier to be able to run the thing. The State Dept. was split, it wasn't completely against [the European defense initiative], it could be accepted on certain conditions. Finally, it was the White House which ruled. Clinton was convinced by our arguments, that it's not bad for the alliance. There again, it's not a zero-sum game, it's good for everybody. It's not a victory of Europe over the U.S., it's a victory of Europe and the U.S. for the spirit of cooperation. If the U.S. was really against [the European Defense Initiative], if they had mobilized all their power to say to European allies: "Don't do this," I think it wouldn't have gone forward.

So we had to change habits, we had to convince people [about] this apparent contradiction between the maintenance of the [NATO] alliance and the European defense pole. So it's a nuance: There has been a lot of progress these last few months in Europe, but none of it should be interpreted negatively by the U.S.

Q: Given that Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell comes out of the Pentagon, do you expect the same sort of understanding for European aspirations on the part of the Bush Administration?
A: I'd like that, and I hope it's true. But I can't make an analysis of the new Administration's politics because they are not in power yet. And it's not sufficient to know the names of the players. Look, I don't really remember exactly what Clinton promised during his electoral campaign. In the American system, the new Administration needs time to settle in, plus it hasn't even had the usual time to prepare because of the problems over the elections. So we have to wait a certain time before we really know their positions. I'll wait. I hope that this Administration will understand, as Bill Clinton in the end understood, that our European projects don't have any negative aspects for the U.S., that the spirit of cooperation will continue.

Q: Do you see [Vice-President-elect Cheney, Powell, [Defense Secretary nominee Donald] Rumsfeld, and Bush himself as mostly pragmatic when it comes to foreign policy, but not ideologues?
A: Yes. It's true in general of Republicans [that they are] pragmatic. It seems to be the outlook [of the Bush team], too. I'm convinced we're going to be able to have a dialogue. But we have to above all explain to this new Administration, to many of these people who had positions of responsibility over eight years ago, what has happened [since then], why we developed this or that project, why we negotiated. The world has, after all, changed a lot in eight years.

Q: What about the U.S. proposed nuclear missile defense [NMD] system? Is there a possible trade-off between European acquiescence in NMD and a U.S. green light for greater European defense autonomy?
A: NMD could become a problem, it's true. It's a little early to talk about [a trade-off]. First of all, NMD is about the preservation or not of a bilateral strategic-arms treaty, a U.S.-Soviet treaty. In a legal and formal sense, this has to do with the Americans and the Russians. But the consequences of this treaty are so important that, of course, it concerns everybody.

It's no secret that most U.S. allies are asking themselves questions -- what is this threat, where does it come from? Is it still the old story of rogue states? If it's something else, what? Because U.S. policy has itself changed in a substantial way. It's somewhat changed vis-a-vis Iran, it has changed a lot regarding North Korea. So if there is a menace, what is the real evaluation of the threat? How do you make a serious judgement about it?

The second point -- and we don't have the [information] to make a judgement about it -- has to do with technical credibility. What is this system? What does it consist of? The technical consequences of the system will vary according to whether it's a system to intercept missiles when they're launched or at their arrival. The consequences for the territory you're trying to protect aren't the same. And above all, will it work? We can ask all these questions, but we don't have the answers.

What concerns everybody are the strategic repercussions. Will the new American Administration want to look for an agreement [on NMD] with the [Russians], who are directly concerned and, until now, are very hostile to this program. Or will the Administration want to push ahead, even without any agreement with the Russians? The strategic repercussions are not the same. As allies, we'd like our views on this to be listened to.

Q: Will competition between Airbus and Boeing degenerate into a trade war? Clinton used very strong language recently against the Europeans.
A: Nobody in Europe wants this to spark a trade war.... Airbus now is on completely commercial and competitive grounds. Everything Airbus has done conforms to the agreements of 1992. It's commercial competition, that's all. There's no reason for it become a trade war.

Q: What about your differences with the Americans regarding Iran and Iraq?
A: We think U.S. policy toward Iran has been too rigid and inefficient, and we [favored] an evolution of Iranian policy. But it's complicated for internal reasons. We were also very opposed to unilateral laws decided by the U.S. Senate -- which wanted to sanction non-American companies [for trading with Iran]. You know the story, which is now a little old and passe.

As far as Iraq goes, there are real differences [between U.S. and French positions] but we've succeeded in managing them as well as possible. Our difference doesn't concern the security needs of the region. We know very well what the Saudis and Kuwaitis think of the situation, as well as the Jordanians and Iranians, who are more ambivalent. We also have very close relations with them. The security concerns of Iraq's neighbors are justified. They aren't absurd.

But we think that we can manage the regional security problems in ways other than an embargo. The embargo is cruel and inhuman and we've created generations of people now who are anti-Western, who live in terrible conditions. And the embargo isn't very efficient because, as is often the case with embargoes, powerful regimes can override embargoes.

We want to lift the embargo on oil and a lot of other things because, even within the sanctions committee, the way the oil-for-food program is managed is very heavy, very complicated. So if the new Administration is disposed to search with us for another way to deal with these security problems, we'd naturally be very happy.

Q: What about Middle East? The U.S. seems to have taken a few blows of late, with the breakdown of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
A: In the Middle East, it's not at all a failure for Clinton.... We've been looking for peace in the Middle East [for decades] and no one has found it. The Israelis and Palestinians have not yet succeeded in finding the historic agreement. It's appallingly difficult for the two, of course. Clinton has worked on this with more energy than any other President ever, and he should be commended for this effort. It's not a failure. You can't say that just because there is no result yet that it's a failure. It certainly won't translate into a lessening of American influence.

As long as there's no peace accord between Israel and all its neighbors -- the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese -- we'll have a situation of tension, more or less strong. Now, it's very, very strong. It's a very, very serious situation, so we must continue tirelessly to search for a solution. It's not the only problem the world faces -- in Africa there are a lot of problems, Afghanistan, the future of Indonesia, which is a big problem. There are a lot of problems out there. But it's true this problem is the most pressing.

Will Bush be less out front [than Clinton]? I respect absolutely the right of the new Administration to manage the problem in a different way. If the new Administration wants to do it in a more reserved, more diplomatic, and less personalized way, it's their choice. No one can criticize that. But it would be unjust to criticize Clinton. He showed very great political and human qualities.... No one in Europe thinks that Clinton reduced his prestige in doing this, no one in Israel or the Arab world either. We'll see in a few months what the proposals of the new Administration are.

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