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Denys Pluvinage : Multipolar or Unipolar – We Cannot Go Back

Denys Pluvinage

Consultant to the French-Russian Dialogue, Paris.


I used to be handicapped for a long time by an imperious need to find the answers to all the questions that posed to me. But after a career of thirty years, in six different countries, in the midst of people whose cultures are different from mine, I have learned that when the answers cannot be found, we simply have to learn to live with the questions. That the answers would come in time, but above all that it is pointless to impose our own answers on anyone.

There are, however, some general principles which must guide us to make our actions legitimate and efficient. It is within these general principles that we can build something, without needing answers to every question.

The big problem today which has sparked a debate, caused concern among our leaders and provoked so much violence and destruction, is the issue of the global order. This issue is new in the history of mankind. In the past, a sovereign would go to war against his neighbors to extend his power, gain new riches, but the technical means at his disposal would prevent him from thinking about a limitless extension of his dominion. The scale of aspirations has evolved along with the technical means, such as ship building, for example, which allowed England to build an extremely extended colonial empire.

Today, the technical means at the disposal of the greatest states allow them to dream of an unlimited hegemony.

The bipolar organization which prevailed from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Soviet Union, gave the world a certain balance. What immediately comes to mind is the “balance of terror”, but it went far beyond that. Both poles acted as an impediment to the hegemonic aspirations of the other, not only militarily, but also in the realm of ideas and politics, because both sides represented an alternative, at least theoretically, to the policies of the other. The people in all countries had, if not a choice, at least a point of reference. Among nations, there was indeed a choice, because each bloc was willing to reward in one way or the other the countries that joined them. The two main powers were thus limited in their options.

With the disappearance of the USSR, this balance disappeared, and it is in that context that one must consider the comment made by Vladimir Putin on the “geopolitical catastrophe”, which he said the disappearance of the Soviet Union represented. The Russian Federation has been for almost fifteen years now a weak power, both economically and politically. As early as 1992, the United States began looking at the Soviet Union the way it looked at Germany or Japan at the end of WWII. Russia could determine its internal policy to a certain extent, and it was allowed to play a role in international affairs, but only as a minor participant mindful of American interests. Considering itself as the winner of the Cold War, the US set out to build a unipolar world.

That motion gained speed after the events of 9/11, when the US gave itself the role of global policeman, with the consequences that we know: “Patriot Act”, invasions, civilian bombings, torture, color revolutions, targeted drone strikes with collateral damages, etc. That was the first victory for the terrorists, who managed to transform our lives into a nightmare.

Today, all of this is questioned by Russia, along with other countries from several international organisations, which represent half of the world population. And make no mistake, that is precisely what is at stake here.

No one can turn back in this confrontation, where the main issue is not Ukraine or the Donbass but the organization of the world (unipolar or multipolar). Either the coalition US-NATO-EU wins, and Russia is quickly brought into submission, along with the other BRICS countries and possibly even China, or the control of the US over Europe will diminish progressively, leading to the disappearance of American hegemony. The stakes are very high, which is why the highest level leaders of the governments of China and India went to Moscow on May 9 for the ceremonies surrounding the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, , in a show of support. And let’s not forget the essential role played by Kazakhstan and its President, alongside the Russian President.

Why is a multipolar world more natural? Because each country has its own culture and it is impossible to impose durably on anyone a system which is in contradiction with its culture.

By culture, we mean not the fine arts or literature, but what Friedrich von Hayek defined in his book Law, Legislation, and Liberty published in 1983, as “a tradition of learnt rules of conduct which have never been ‘invented’ and whose function the acting individuals usually do not understand. There is surely as much justification to speak of the wisdom of culture as of the wisdom of nature.” The American ethnologist Edward Hall, who is considered to be the father of the discipline of inter-cultural relations, gives another definition: “Culture is an invisible control mechanism operating in our thoughts.”

Those of you who have lived in a foreign country have experienced situations where the behavior of an individual seemed to be strange, surprising, incomprehensible, inappropriate or even shocking. It might be a simple remark, the way they looked at you or talked to you, or their table manners. In the same way, although we are less aware of it, we might look strange or surprising to other individuals who have grown up in another culture.

We all integrate our “maternal culture” at the earliest age, from the time of our birth to the age of seven. It is instilled within us by the adults around us, most often parents and people who are close to us. This “programming of the mind” includes standards, values, beliefs and hypotheses concerning life.

What we call “hypotheses concerning life” are something which is central to our culture, but no verbal explanations have been offered yet. That’s why it is sometimes difficult for us to explain certain choices. They were deducted from observed behavior. Some examples of hypotheses concerning life: “Is man fundamentally good?” or “is man fundamentally bad?” Few people ask themselves those questions, although they have a direct impact on our behavior. In cultures where it is assumed that man is fundamentally good, we will obviously tend to trust human nature. Personal and business relations will not rely on laws or strict and detailed rules, and rifts will be settled directly, rather than having to go through a third party in the legal system. That is the case in the French or Russian cultures.

On the contrary, in cultures where it is assumed that man is fundamentally bad, everything will be done, particularly in the legal and judicial system, to prevent people from wrongdoing, and human relations will be governed by much judicial formalism and by business relations handled through detailed, burdensome contracts. That is the case of the American culture.

No matter which culture we belong to, we will always find that the system in our country is better, and that the other system is inadequate. Moreover, any attempt to impose rules which are in contradiction with our culture will create psychological discomfort, a fact which many psycho-sociologists call a “cultural shock”.

On the other hand, the misunderstandings arising from unexpected behavior creates mistrust, which is itself a cause of aggressiveness, which can lead to war.

Let’s take the example of the attitude towards law; in the American culture, everyone thinks that the law should be the same for everyone and should be applied in the same way in all circumstances. The criminal procedure for example is very formalistic and does not take into account the context. In the Russian or French cultures, we think that “the law is the law” obviously, but also that a law can be interpreted. At each level of the hierarchy, those in charge consider that a part of their prerogatives is to interpret the law or the rules. In the first case, one is persuaded that the only way to treat people fairly is to treat them all alike. This is considered to be unfair in the second case, where one has to take into account the context as well as the personality of the accused.

But if we look at the French system from the outside, from the German point of view for example, there is something that seems to be very unfair. Indeed, only a French citizen is capable of knowing how and in what circumstances a French law or rule can be interpreted. A German, unless he has lived for a very long time in France, cannot guess when and how a law should be interpreted, which places him in a situation of inferiority to his French competitor. On the other hand, he will consider quickly that because of this “French way” of interpreting the law, the French are unpredictable.

Human relations are profoundly marked by our culture, and disrespect of the standards of behavior is very frustrating. When the lack of consideration towards the standards of our country is also accompanied by a patronizing, if not arrogant attitude, the situation becomes quickly unbearable, especially if you are treated in this way in your own country.

How can a system based on a set of rules, values and beliefs from one culture be accepted in a country which has developed a different type of system over several generations, if not by force? And if force is needed, how can we get the consent of the population? My philosophy teacher told us repeatedly that “the use of force is a sign of weakness”. A system imposed in this way will necessarily be unstable.

Only a multipolar system, managed through a code of international law recognized by every country, can help set up a world organization respectful of the culture of every country, while guaranteeing a satisfactory world order.

I will conclude my remarks by paraphrasing a recent declaration from President Putin: to build a realistic, efficient international policy (he was talking in this case about economics), we obviously need a brain, but also a heart, to understand the consequences of our actions upon people. If the people feel that we have a heart and a real desire to listen to them, they will trust us. Once we have won their trust, they will accept the efforts they are asked to make. Otherwise, they will not accept them and we will have no other choice but to give up our action or to pursue it under the protection of force, be it the police or the army. In some countries, it is symptomatic that the police forces is beginning to resemble that country’s armed forces, as they take over the same equipment and methods.