My experience at the United Nations Security Council over the last five years has led me to see a harsh truth: The world is growing more dangerous and less predictable by the day. While the tectonic plates of power are shifting under our feet, driven in no small part by the combined effects of a technology revolution and the rise of China, we are also witnessing the return of heightened competition among the major powers.
We are now in a new world disorder. The three main safety mechanisms are no longer functioning: no more American power willing to be the last-resort enforcer of international order; no solid system of international governance; and, most troubling, no real concert of nations able to re-establish common ground.
As I prepare to return to Paris after almost 20 years as a diplomat in North America, nearly half of them serving consecutively as France’s ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations, I feel the need to share these personal conclusions. The situation today is objectively dangerous. Each serious international crisis has the potential to spin out of control. That is what we saw happen in Syria and what we need to prevent with Iran and North Korea, and in the South China Sea.
In the absence of a functioning multilateral system, the world tends to devolve into spheres of influence; that leads of confrontation, as European history has shown too many times. The risk is even greater when geopolitical divides are superimposed on the technological battle between American- and Chinese-led digital worlds.
In our rapidly changing world, the crucial choices Americans and Europeans are facing are comparable in scope to those we confronted together in the aftermath of World War II.
Europe faces an existential decision. Does it want to remain a full-fledged player in the world, with a vision and policy it owns? Or will it resign itself to becoming, at best, an impotent witness to the rivalry among the great global powers or, at worst, these powers’ playground?
My deep conviction is that Europe has both the historical responsibility and the means to become one of the major centers of action and influence in a multipolar world. It is Europe’s duty to act as a link, a connector and a balancing power for the world. I also believe that it is in America’s interest to have a stronger Europe that can take on a greater share of the burden in a renewed trans-Atlantic alliance. That’s why it is critical for American diplomacy to more clearly support European integration.
The United States also faces a fundamental choice. Does it want to become a new “Middle Kingdom,” an insular Fortress America? Or does it want to continue speaking to the world and helping to shape it?
Beyond domestic American politics, we can see three powerful trends whose combined effects are significantly changing America’s foreign policy.
The first trend is based on the premise that the United States must prevent a strategic alliance between Moscow and Beijing. But the conclusions differ, as China is now perceived to be the main competitor. My experience at the Security Council showed that beyond the theatrics, the strained United States-China relationship is already affecting the international order. The rise in Chinese power and influence at the United Nations during the last five years has been spectacular.
The second trend is the now rather widespread belief in America that the postwar order no longer benefits the country as much as it used to — and that its financial costs and human toll outweigh its strategic benefits. That explains the current American aspiration to at least partly move away from multilateralism and build an international order on bilateral relations. The proponents of this view believe that, by doing so, the United States regains its freedom and maximizes its comparative advantages.
The third trend is a “Jacksonian impulse” that the United States is currently experiencing. Echoing the populist views of President Andrew Jackson — a strange mix of unilateralism and isolationism — the Jacksonian school of thought is part of American history. America’s disengagement started before the current administration. I believe it is here to stay.
This is regrettable. A prerequisite for a stable international environment is for America to be engaged in world affairs and multilateral institutions. To combat terrorism, prevent nuclear proliferation, manage international crises and protect our children from an environmental tragedy in the making, we need America’s strong commitment, as well as new forms of multilateralism adapted to the times we live in. America can’t make it alone, and the world can’t make it without America.
It is this friendly, bipartisan appeal that I want to issue to all my American friends before boarding my flight to Paris to begin my new role. On the basis of their shared values, the United States and France have a special responsibility to lead the way. After all, the Statue of Liberty, gifted by France to the American people, remains to this day the best ambassador of the American dream.
François Delattre is France’s ambassador to the United Nations.
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