“NATO Must Be Able to Repel a Russian Offensive”

Jean-Marie Guéhenno is a former French diplomat currently residing in New York City, where he is a professor at Columbia University. He was in charge of U.N. peacekeeping operations from 2000 to 2008. A leading geopolitical thinker, he recently published Le premier XXIe siècle : De la globalisation à l’émiettement du monde, a book that challenges us to rethink our threatened democratic ideals.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: With the rise of authoritarian governments and xenophobic ideologies that reject both freedom and equality, are we living in a sort of reverse Enlightenment?

Jean-Marie Guéhenno: After the Enlightenment, there was a Romantic backlash and an emphasis on individualism and difference in reaction to universalism, which sought to erase those differences. Something similar is happening now. We are putting less energy into working toward a societal project, and more into supporting a mythical identity, such as Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or Putin’s ethnonationalism and its dreams of recreating a Russian empire. For people who are lost and unmoored, coming face to face with the world is frightening. They want borders, and the nation is a source of reassurance.

Democracy is languishing. But hasn’t it always been languishing, arising now and again when faced with a serious threat?

It’s true that having an adversary can help reunify a society, and that the spectacle of tyranny reminds us of the value of freedom. What we once took for granted is no longer so. But I have noticed that a large part of public opinion in democratic countries believes that the Ukrainian conflict does not concern them, and would prefer not to get involved. So far in this war, we have not had to ask ourselves what values we would be willing to die for.

Won’t the aggressive actions of the political leadership in Russia and China – and even Hungary and Poland – spur the revitalization of liberal democracy?

Liberal democracy is not just the absence of dictatorship. It is a society where the clash and discussion of opinions is not only possible but encouraged. I am still pessimistic about this. With the exception of Germany, whose Nazi past has perhaps made the country immune to the dangers of populism, most major democracies are in trouble. In the United States, Republicans have become an identitarian party, which no longer resembles the party once led by Eisenhower or even the two Bushes. In France, presidential changeover is no longer possible, as extremist parties at both ends of the political spectrum attract roughly 40% of voters. This coalition-party crisis is symptomatic of a deep-seated political crisis, which I analyze in my book. For liberal democracy to survive, there must be a society, a collective project around which political debate is structured.

French President Emmanuel Macron once said NATO was “brain dead,” but have Putin’s threats against his neighbors inadvertently saved the alliance?

It has been saved temporarily, but let’s be clear. For the moment, NATO has taken a united stance because of the fear stoked once again by Russia. By indirectly supporting Ukraine through arms deliveries, the alliance is helping ensure the security of its members. If Russia has trouble taking control of Ukraine, then it probably wouldn’t have enough resources to go any further in the immediate future. But how would the alliance react if Russia were to ultimately defeat Ukraine and launch a conventional operation against a NATO member, whether deliberately or accidentally? Western opinion is currently based on the spectacle of war, not actual war. Expressing sympathy for Ukraine is undemanding at this stage. But would NATO members continue to stand together if doing so meant that each one was exposed to a direct risk, particularly the terrifying risk of nuclear war? I doubt that either Europe or the United States would be willing to cross the nuclear threshold if the conflict spilled over into the Baltic states and Russia emerged victorious from a conventional operation. America’s highly touted nuclear umbrella, while an essential component of the alliance, has a hole in it. NATO therefore must be able to repel a Russian offensive using conventional means, because if democracies show signs of internal weakness, then the threat of nuclear escalation is hardly credible. Conventional defense capabilities urgently need to be strengthened. And with the possibility of Trump returning to the White House and the strong tendency of the United States to pivot to Asia, Europeans need to be ready to shoulder most of the burden themselves. They have the means to do so, and Germany’s decision to sharply increase defense spending is very encouraging in that regard.

Having reached the end of the post-Cold War period, are we now entering a new era of violence with the war in Ukraine?

In my book, I say that “war is a popular word at the moment,” and that “if a disaster is to occur someday, it will not be the result of escalation, which itself signifies a clash between two collective wills. It will be accidental, the product of a world made savage and where the conscience of common humanity can no longer be found.” That is where we are today, and what I wrote about the cities of Syria now also applies to those in Ukraine. The situation is extremely serious. We cannot completely rule out the risk of widespread catastrophic destruction. And even if that doesn’t happen – which, fortunately, still looks to be the most likely scenario – our inability to prevent the Ukrainian tragedy will bolster cynicism in our societies and encourage a destructive withdrawal, which will allow us to avoid mass violence but will lead us toward violence between smaller fragments of society made up of fearful individuals who no longer believe in anything.

Can the Chinese model be applied outside China? It doesn’t seem that China wants to export a model. They just seem to want to assert their authority…

In my book, I present the paradoxical idea that Western democracies are tired of becoming increasingly fragmented – thus creating dysfunctional societies – and could eventually be tempted to adopt a more “harmonious” Chinese-style system. I’m not saying that Western opinion is ready to accept the repressive methods of China’s dictatorship. But perhaps the West might be tempted to go beyond repressive dictatorship and implement “preventive dictatorship,” which China is currently trying to do with its social credit system. Every second of our lives now leaves a trail, and the Chinese authorities are trying to systematically collect all that data in order to envelop every Chinese citizen in a bubble of prefabricated happiness from which they can no longer see their prison bars. The current business model of America’s Internet giants goes in the opposite direction. Polarization and extreme opinions generate more clicks, and thus more advertising revenue, than do nuance and moderation. But we are seeing mounting pressure to regulate relations between communities, including web-based virtual communities. It is not always easy to tell the difference between speech that kills and speech that upsets; and I worry that, when in doubt, we will increasingly restrict not only speech that kills, but also speech that upsets. The rise of political correctness is symptomatic of this trend. It wouldn’t be the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party, but that of big-data companies, which would seek to lull us to sleep as quiet and happy consumers. But in the end, I believe that the age of data will be dominated neither by China nor the West. We are entering a new era of human history, because no human structure will be able to control the exponentially growing stream of data. Algorithms and artificial intelligence will be needed to manage those data streams. The political issue that both China and the West will need to address is what institutions to create in order to control dataflow. All of this may prove to be just as challenging for the Chinese Communist Party as for Western democracies.

The ties that bind our societies are weakening, and trust in government is at an all-time low. But are we just idealizing the past? Isn’t the social pact currently being rebuilt on new foundations? We might, for instance, see the rise of direct democracy through social media. Artificial intelligence isn’t a one-way street: It would also allow citizens to keep an eye on governments that have gone off the rails…

We are entering an age of data that offers extraordinary possibilities, both positive and negative. It vastly increases our brainpower, just like the industrial revolution vastly increased our physical power. It is also shaking the foundations of political legitimacy in the same way that, six centuries ago, the invention of the printing press rocked the various forms of religious legitimacy. But these changes are happening much faster now, which explains the malaise felt in our societies, whose institutions are struggling to adapt. I don’t think direct democracy is the best answer. In a world where virtual communities are competing with territorial communities, direct democracy does not settle the issue of political community. Self-created communities on social media are more like hateful, inward-looking tribes than the cornerstone of a new political order. I outline other possibilities in my book: With the remarkable expansion of knowledge comes a need to organize the coexistence of competing legitimacies and to better define the respective purviews of knowledge and democracy, in order to avoid the risk of populism and “dictatorship of the learned.” The separation of powers also needs to be widened to build new independent institutions that can harness the new power of data. Lastly, we need to strengthen the rungs on the ladder leading us from local to global level. And in all these initiatives, we must be modest and not fool ourselves into believing that we already have the answers to a major upheaval that has only just begun.


Le premier XXIe siècle : De la globalisation à l’émiettement du monde by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Flammarion, 2021.


Interview published in the April 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.