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Lakhdar Brahimi: “A return to the world order before Donald Trump is neither possible nor desirable”

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Photo: Gordon Welters/The Elders

While the crisis of multilateralism has been accelerated by the Trump administration, it has its roots in the attitude of the United States, which has imposed its supremacy since the fall of the Berlin Wall, flouting international law.

Interviewed by Christophe Ayad and published in Le Monde.

Does the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States spell a return to the old world order?
History doesn’t go backwards. A return to the world order before Donald Trump – which had created intolerable inequality and injustice – is neither possible nor desirable. The spirit of the Charter of the United Nations seems to have been forgotten by the great powers: the UN is no longer able to manage, let alone solve, conflicts like those in Libya, Syria and Yemen etc. However, the end of simplistic improvisations from the Trump era should pave the way for a calmer international environment.

Can Trump’s attacks on international institutions and law be reversed?
For the most part, the damage caused in the Trump era is not irreversible - like the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization, for example. While the WHO isn’t perfect, leaving it in the midst of a pandemic  was sheer madness! Washington had already left UNESCO [in 1984] before rejoining [in 2003, only to leave again on 1 January 2018]. Yet no-one in the United States will question the recognition (in late 2017) of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. What is irreversible is the American exceptionalism that Trump has applied in a vulgar and brutal way, but which he didn’t invent.

Does the normalisation of the Gulf countries’ relations with Israel mean the prospect of a Palestinian state is buried?
The Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, has said that the diplomatic relations his country has established with countries in the region [the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in 2020] have nothing to do with the occupation of the Palestinian territories. But these developments complicate the Palestinians’ circumstances as well as the conditions of their national struggle. However, they are not without arguments; peoples’ right to self-determination is enshrined in international law. What is more, there is growing support for them in public opinion in the region and the rest of the world.

What is the main cause of this multilateralism crisis identified by your report?
The fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989) generated excessive, but understandable, enthusiasm. Many people thought at the time that all the problems stemmed from the Cold War and that now it was over, they would be solved. In Lebanon, the civil war (from 1975 to 1990) stopped largely because of this belief. The same goes for Cambodia (with the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991).

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who became UN secretary-general at the same time (in 1992), thought it was now up to the United Nations to solve all the world’s crises. But Americans had a different vision. They had won the Cold War and, according to them, the winner was to enforce its terms. Everybody remembers George Bush Senior’s speech before the United States Congress (on 11 September 1990), announcing a “new world order”. This new order was in fact the supremacy of the United States, later strengthened under Bill Clinton (president from 1993 to 2001). The end of the Cold War created a transitional situation, full of contradictions, which continues to this day. Everyone is trying to work out where they belong and who they are: look at the UK that decided to leave the European Union!

Has Russia become an aggressive power as a reaction to the dismantling of the USSR?
President Boris Yeltsin (in power from 1991 to 1999) was a puppet on the strings of Westerners. To the “average Russian” at the time, like young Putin, it is easy to understand that this treatment was unacceptable. Until 2015 (one year after the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine and during Russia’s intervention in Syria), Westerners continued to look down on Russia, fuelling a sense of humiliation.
George Bush Senior promised Mikhail Gorbachev that no Warsaw Pact country would join NATO. Now the only country missing is Ukraine. Ukraine is the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy. It cannot be separated from the Russian-speaking world.

The end of the Cold War also marked an acceleration of globalisation. What conclusions can be drawn from this today?
Globalisation was sold on excessive promises. Its many negative sides are visible today: the Third World has suffered much, the group of non-aligned countries has disintegrated, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) has not held together. In Western countries, class inequalities are now excessive. The United States is the only country where the poorest half of the population has continued to get poorer over the past 30 years. This world, dominated by ultra-capitalism, cannot function.

Today, the nuclear arms race has started once again.

Disarmament agreements between Americans and Russians have broken down and there is now only one agreement left in force [New Start, which expires in early 2021]. Faced with the nuclear risk, the only thing that can be done is to talk, to make proposals. The Elders presented a project at the Munich Security Conference in 2019 that focussed on containing the number of nuclear powers and reducing existing arsenals. As long as there is no genuine effort to disarm, arsenals will continue to proliferate. If Israel remains the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Iran, but also Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia will try to obtain their own arsenal.

Can the Iran nuclear agreement still be saved?
When Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from this agreement in 2018, despite the opinion of all the other signatories [the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany], these other signatories were unable to maintain their commitment to continue trading with Iran for fear of US sanctions. Iranians are being asked to respect an agreement that its partners are unable to honour. Everyone should agree to stop accepting this system of extraterritoriality under US law. There is one country, the United States, for which international law does not exist. The upshot is that this law is no longer respected.

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