When France’s former ambassador to the U.S., Gérard Araud, was last in Atlanta, the Paris agreement on climate change still had not been signed. He had arrived a month prior to the opening of the 2015 conference to promote the United Nations‘ efforts to combat environmental concerns.
During his visit, he launched the sixth annual “France-Atlanta Together Towards Innovation” program and underscored France’s view of the importance of the agreement to the future of mankind.
With many attendees, former Mayor Kasim Reed and former Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson looking on, he underscored his view that humanity’s future was at a tipping point requiring “a paradigm change” in lifestyles.
His perspective during the event held at the Besharat Gallery in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood was relatively optimistic, holding that the UN goals were feasible if guided “by a trust in science” and cooperation among the world’s countries.
But during an April 24 Zoom teleconference of the New York-based French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) concerning COVID-19, his remarks had an entirely different cast.
His pessimistic view was further emphasized when he was prodded by the moderator to provide at least a ray of hope for the future.
“Of course, this is for an American audience which always wants an optimistic response.”
His view was that even once COVID-19 has been contained, “The world afterwards will be worse than the world before.”
The difficulty of making any specific future predictions at the moment, he said, was due to the “uncertainties” involved in many issues that the world is facing.
As examples, he cited the inability to forecast when a vaccine for COVID-19 might be developed, or what will be the fate of the global economy in the meantime. He did predict a worldwide recession, but couldn’t foresee how serious it would be.
These questions only reflected an outer layer of growing concerns in his mind. Underlying trends amplifying his pessimism include populist pressures pushing countries to reject free trade and globalism as they adopt more nationalistic policies and reject multilateral diplomacy, liberalism and international law.
“Nationalism is on the upswing,” he said. “Nation states are viewed now as the protectors of citizens, and multilateralism is criticized by both the right and the left.”
Multilateralism was perceived, he also said, as not being up to the task of managing the world’s crises, pointing to the criticism that the World Health Organization has faced confronted by the COVID-19 crisis.
While the coronavirus has “transformed reality” for many, other factors such as a realignment of world powers also is creating uncertainty. In his view the role of the U.S. may be weakened, but the commonplace notion that the world is experiencing “the end of the American empire” is inaccurate due to its current entrenched status.
Nevertheless, he added, “It’s unnatural to have only one great power,” especially if like the U.S., “It doesn’t care about the rest of the world.” He severely criticized the U.S. for ignoring a leadership role among the G7 powers. “It could have played a cooperative role in taking on COVID-19 by sharing equipment and developing a vaccine.”
Declining to forecast whether incumbent President Donald Trump or presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would win the Nov. 3 election, he did say that he was early in his recognition of Mr. Trump’s skill to dominate the U.S. in the current political climate, although his comparison of Mr. Trump to an aged, “whimsical” and “unpredictable” King Louis XIV has been widely reported.
Although China in his view is counterbalancing the influence of the U.S., it also has been hit hard by the virus. Yet even once the virus is contained, he said, it would not necessarily come out as a winner on the world stage.
“China won’t be a loser,” he said. “but it won’t be a winner either,” pointing to the need for further development.
Since the U.S. has “no appetite for cooperation,” the European Union, which itself “has no inclination for further integration, will have to be self-centered and look toward its own survival.”
In a global system where power politics and fragmentation dominate, many global concerns requiring cooperative efforts will be unresolved, he said, citing climate change, control of the internet, artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies.
Pushed to come up with some positive perspectives, he said concerning COVID-19 that “the danger is identified,” qualifying his forecast that “we still are in the antechamber of hell.”
“If I have to be optimistic, I would be banking on today’s youth,” he added. “But if the West doesn’t improve, the Chinese authoritarian model will be the future.”
Mr. Araud served as France’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2014-19. He also has served as France’s permanent representative to the United Nations as well as director general for political and security affairs of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development.
“The 2020 France-Atlanta Towards Innovation” program is still to be held in the fall with a final program scheduled to be released this summer.