The History of TodayThe European Union Delegation’s headquarters rests just a block from Washington Circle Park, mere minutes from the George Washington University campus. The several dozen diplomats who operate out of this red-brick facility are drawn from the EU itself, as well as its member states. The delegation handles a carefully proscribed set of issues, reserving sovereign matters for the autonomous diplomatic staff of each member’s respective embassy.A security guard checked my driver’s license, confirmed that I had an appointment, and gestured towards a modern windowless hallway. Honestly, I felt like I was about to enter an IBM computer chip fabrication plant. I was lost within seconds, before being rescued by the mildly inattentive guard and ushered towards a waiting elevator. Francois Rivasseau, the deputy head of the Delegation, approached our interview with unparalleled enthusiasm, maintaining a nearly constant cheerfulness throughout the session. When I asked him how he became a diplomat, he seemed to find his life story, or perhaps my interest in it, rather amusing. As a series of incredible coincidences”, he replied, guffawing. “I wanted to be an archéologue.” Indiana Jones came to mind. I have to say, maybe that was one of the reasons why, but I was young at the time”, he said. “Then I realized in my twenties that it was too complicated.” Mastery of the ancient languages was simply too much, so he turned to history, and then promptly discovered it paid poorly and wasn’t terribly easy either. “Then I turned to law and political science, and I said, ‘OK, I shall not be able to work on the history of the past, but at least I should try to make something in the history of today.’“ From that point on, he served as a junior judge, then stumbled into the Deputy Ambassador spot at the French embassy in Bogota, Colombia, which was basically a war zone at the time. He was on the receiving end of three death threats from notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. After a whirlwind tour through other diplomatic postings, he became the Deputy Ambassador to the United States and was recently seconded to the Delegation. After introductions, we sat at an expansive conference table in his office. Common Space and the Virtues of PeaceEverybody is exceptional”, Rivassesau said with a smile. “Africans, Asians, Europeans, Americans—everybody is special, everybody has a special history, a special culture.” But surely Europeans must be proud of something that is unique to them. “I think we are proud of its culture and its history”, Rivasseau continued. “Both are very closely connected. We have made in the last centuries huge discoveries. We have invented a lot of concepts in the economic, in the technical, in the scientific, and in the cultural fields. Now, we are also proud of our achievement, which is to have been able to build something, the European Union, which we believe has been able and will be able to put an end to the conflicts that have scattered Europe during the last two millénaires.” He cited the incredible death tolls from the 20th-century world wars. As Niall Ferguson writes: “Significantly larger percentages of the world’s population were killed in the two world wars that dominated the century than had been killed in any previous conflict of comparable geopolitical magnitude.” The only previous conflict that came close to either of the world wars was the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) and that, well, took thirty years. Admittedly, not all of these casualties occurred on the European continent, but the majority did. “So it is normal for Europeans to now appreciate maybe more than some others the virtues of peace”, explained Rivasseau, his smile suddenly gone. “The European constitution, the European Union, for us, have been the way to solve wars which were lasting some hundreds of years. To stop the wars between France and the U.K., between France and Germany, between Germany and Poland, between Poland and Austria, between Austria and Italy. It’s something really which I think nobody would have built one century ago. Now we have this construction—which is an unfinished business, this is sure—but which has already succeeded in making war unthinkable between EU member states.” It occurred to me later that Americans living in, say, 1875, would have been in a comparable position after participating in the Civil War and witnessing the aftermath. “We are proud of building a common space where our youth can meet and study with Erasmus loans, a common space where we can develop common policies, where we can develop common economical realizations, such as a single currency”, he continued. “All these are achievements that are we are very proud of because we know that being in the time of globalization, a relatively middle-sized power or small-sized power could not achieve alone what we have been able to achieve through the European Union.” The pride in his voice was not affected. It was a sincerity borne from his service in a variety of diplomatic postings related to disarmament and other international security issues. He helped negotiate the Ottawa Treaty that banned personnel land mines and worked with the UN Security Council during the crises in Somalia and Rwanda in the early 1990s. Issues of sovereignty, the ability of states to do what they want to do, continually crop up in discussions over the content and character of the European Union. Can Brussels, where the EU is headquartered, tell the people of Copenhagen what to do? “It doesn’t mean that European Union member states are going to disappear in this new construction”, Rivasseau insisted. “They are there. But European Union is both a factor of peace and a multiplier of power. It doesn’t mean that people in the European Union are happy with the way it works. If you ask people in the streets, ‘Are you happy with the European Union?’ they will obviously answer to you, ‘No.’” He quickly drew an analogy to the United States, where approval ratings of even popular Presidents can fluctuate from well above 50 percent all the way down to 35 percent at times. We need not mention Congressional approval ratings, which hit an all-time low of 9 percent in October 2011. “But when you ask your fellow citizens, ‘Are you proud of the U.S. and why?’ they will say yes because the U.S. is a powerful federation and they are proud of their constitution, their executive, their Congress, even if they are very unhappy with the way it works today. It’s the same thing in Europe.” The Anti-ModelMany Europeans, particularly on the conservative side of the cultural and political spectrum, are anxious that an increasingly secular Europe is shedding its religious traditions. Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, published a book entitled Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, arguing that the Judeo-Christian heritage of Europe was foundational to the civilization. “I shall not react to the Pope’s speeches”, Rivasseau said carefully. “He’s the Pope. He says what he believes, but as a European citizen and a European officer, I don’t believe that the European Union is built around the Catholic heritage exclusively. This has been debated over the past ten years and the conclusion has been clear: Europe is a late construction. We have our culture, the Catholic heritage is a very key part of this culture, but we also have the Protestant culture in all its variety, we have Jewish culture, we have Muslim culture. All that is part of what is the European Union.” One feature of a nation that often distinguishes it from countries that don’t have a self-conception of special purpose is the idea of being a model for other nations. “I don’t think that the way the EU has been built can be seen as a model”, Rivasseau replied, when I put this notion to him. “After all, it has been a very slow, lengthy, painful and difficult construction, and we are still stuck with unfinished business. If it has been so slow and so painful, it’s because the position between the cultural specificities of each state were incredibly greater and deeply rooted than, let’s say, in the U.S. between the first 13 states. It wasn’t too difficult for the U.S., but it took, nevertheless, a war to achieve that, to make a federation from 13 states.” “[The European Union] is more of an anti-model than a model, if I could say so”, Rivasseau said, laughing. “Given these very difficult conditions at the start, what we have achieved is really unique and exceptional, and could not have seen as possible a number of years ago.” His hope, he added, was that in other regions where “the legacy of the past is not so heavy”, it might be possible to achieve some of what the European Union has achieved at a faster pace. Rivasseau continued: “I truly believe that in the future, the regional level of action will be more and more relevant. In the case of some huge states such as the U.S., China, Russia, Australia, India, maybe Brazil, they are regions by themselves. But for medium-sized states and small states, the original level is very relevant, so our work that contributes to regional integration [in Europe] can be seen not as a model, but as a useful tool for achieving the goals that they want to achieve.” Exercising Soft PowerEurope may not see itself as a model for others, but it certainly tries to exert influence on the behavior of other nations. Joseph Nye called this “soft power”, the ability to convince other nations to do what you want without coercion. “In some aspects we believe that we are exemplary”, Rivasseau elaborated, “in promoting the rule of law, in trying to have social coverage of the people, in the field of human rights, with all the caveats this notion can encompass, obviously. We believe that Europe has been able to show the way and to be exemplary, together with others.” European influence is not simply soft power, he added. He mention the “hard economic area”, asserting that China was inspired by high-speed trains in Europe to construct their own. Other areas where Europe participates in an exemplary way include anti-piracy efforts—he cited in particular Operation Atalanta, the EU’s naval force stationed off the coast of Somalia—and outer space. “There are elements where I think what Europe does can be usefully looked at by others, but that said, is Europe a source of power in itself?” he asked himself. “Probably.” He thought carefully for several seconds before continuing: “We have to see that in a historical perspective also. All in all, I think Europe can be a source of soft power, and yes, it still remains, but we are in a global order where the sources of soft power have multiplied. It would be a mistake, in my view, to believe that European soft power is as important in the world as it was, say, thirty years ago, or even twenty year sago.” Two or three decades ago, after all, the Berlin Wall was collapsing and the formerly “captive nations” of the Eastern Bloc were being reintegrated into the world. “Not that the components of this soft power have been much weakened”, Rivasseau added. “It’s the same in the U.S. We still have the European operas, the European music, you still have Hollywood, etcetera, but their relative weight in the world has diminished because other sources of soft power have appeared.” He cited the rise of Bollywood, India’s film industry, and Chinese opera as examples of this phenomenon. “It’s not a sign of decline”, Rivasseau continued. “It’s just the welcome fact that we are the same but others are growing. European soft power remains but is, maybe, a bit less key in world affairs than it was some years ago, and that’s normal. That should be welcome.” The Hazards of a Special WayAs I prepared to wrap up the interview, Rivasseau asked if he could make a personal comment. Of course, I said. “As I said initially”, he began, “everybody’s unique. Everybody’s exceptional. That in itself is something sound. You have to feel yourself a bit exceptional to be able to achieve things you have to achieve, and it’s part of your self-esteem. That’s sound. The problem begins if you think you are more exceptional than the others.”
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Published on: June 12, 2012A Conversation with Francois Rivasseau