Nobody foresaw this. The dominant narrative since the fall of the Soviet Union had been that history was coming to an end, with all nations rallying to a more democratic and economically liberal world order. But passions were still running high. We had witnessed the confrontation between East and West around the two pillars of liberal America and communist Russia. Caught between the two, countries belonging to what was then known as the Third World hesitated. In this old order, France tried to find a unique role for itself. Drawing on their national history, French presidents, especially General de Gaulle and his political descendants, considered that they embodied the Enlightenment in a more universal way than capitalist America. But this Gallic position, halfway between Moscow and Washington, was largely an illusion, and French diplomacy never found its coveted place as an indispensable intermediary. In 2009, it fell to President Nicolas Sarkozy to accept this reality by bringing France back into the Western alliance, and in particular into NATO’s integrated command.
The old East-West distinction, which was more ideological than geographical, has now been replaced by another confrontation between the Global North and the Global South. Once again, this is less a question of borders than ideas. This notion of the South came to the fore with the war in Ukraine. Westerners, and French leaders in particular, were stunned that Russia had invaded Ukraine, and even more stunned that this invasion was not condemned by all nations across the world. To our great surprise, seemingly liberal democracies claiming to be governed by international law, such as Brazil, India, and of course China, refused to outright condemn this new example of Russian imperialism. The battle for Gaza, which also unites the South against the North, has only heightened our astonishment – and awareness. In both Washington and Paris, we understand that there are now two new sides facing each other.
The “North” is nothing new, but until now it had been called the “West.” Washington lies at its center and the European Union floats in its immediate orbit. The “South” is more surprising. It is vastly heterogeneous, stretching from China to Brazil via South Africa, Algeria, and Venezuela, and is generally difficult to define in ideological or geographical terms. Yet the “Global South” is now the name accepted by the countries that identify with it. In truth, the South is essentially defined by its opposition to the West of the past, which has since become the North. These countries in the South no longer accept the international order dictated by the United States from 1945 onwards. Most of these countries were also colonized by the North and have never fully recovered. They readily attribute their current poverty to colonization, and believe that international law is a new form of colonialism perpetuating White power and ignoring local civilizations, whether Arab, African, Chinese, or Latin American. Any conflict is now a pretext for the South to emphasize its rebellion and its singularity. But who runs the South? Beijing, Moscow, Pretoria and Brasilia are currently vying for the crown, but until now they have only agreed to collectively condemn France’s presence in Africa and more generally the United States.
Are we – Westerners, Northerners – guilty of having mistreated the South? Perhaps we still have remnants of an unconscious colonial mindset, as shown by the persistent revolt of Black communities in the United States and the people of the Sahel region against France. A little self-criticism in the North can’t go amiss; we need to be better at listening to others who don’t necessarily think like us. But while we can be introspective, I see no good reason to deny our values. Yes, the international order was designed and built in the North, but every nation that has embraced democracy and the market economy is in better shape than those that have not. Look at Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan compared with China and North Korea.
Against this new backdrop, France, the European Union, and the United States are on the same side, as they have been historically when faced with external perils. This rapprochement between Europeans and Americans is a winning combination in terms of the economy, diplomacy, and peace. So let us uphold our founding principles, without arrogance, listening to others but without being duped by the claims and posturing of Southern leaders who do not necessarily represent their people. Invoking the South is also a way for this region’s dictators to perpetuate tyrannical regimes in the name of some pseudo-resistance against Northern universalism.