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Trees and Forests in the New World

Fall 2010 Tête À Tête

Trees and Forests in the New World

GB talks new-century politics and geopolitics – from the local to the general – with former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali

GB: How do you see the future of your own country, Egypt, and in particular the question of presidential succession?

BBG: The problem for Egypt in the next 10 years will be one of demographic explosion. We will have more than 100 million inhabitants, and they will be concentrated on five percent of the territory, which is the Nile Valley. The desert cannot be used – this is problem number one. Problem number two will be that of water. We will need additional quantities of water, and there is only one source of water – the Nile. But the sources of the Nile are in Ethiopia, in Uganda, in Sudan, in Burundi, and so on. There will be other problems, of course, but they will all relate in some way to these two fundamental problems.

GB: Are you optimistic about Egyptian leadership post-Mubarak?

BBG: Yes, because I believe that there is continuity in Egypt – a kind of integrity of the country. There is no division; there are no tribes; the only problem that you have is that of a Muslim majority and a Christian minority, but this is not much of a problem at all. They are all Egyptian, all speaking the same language – something that does not exist in 50 percent of the countries around the world; countries divided into tribes, with different languages and different traditions. So here, for the first time, you have a country that is based on one unity, which is the Nile River; a country that has a single national language, and indeed the same traditions dating back 5,000 years. So whoever will be the leader of this country, I believe that we will have continuity. Egyptians are all of the same racial group: you cannot make a distinction between a Christian and Muslim Egyptian, physically. You can make a distinction between a Hutu and Tutsi. You can make a distinction in any other country because one belongs to Tribe A or to Tribe B, and one speaks with an accent or without an accent. But here you have a real unity of the country.

GB: Is Egypt, at its core, an African country or a Middle Eastern country?

BBG: I believe that, if you are talking about geography, it is an African country. If you base your criteria on history, then we are more involved in the Jerusalem problem than in the Nile problem. But I would say that geography is more important than history. The future is related to the problem of water in Egypt more than the problem of the future of the Middle East.

GB: Will Egypt solve the water issue?

BBG: Yes, I believe that it will take hard work, but there is no reason why there should not be a solution.

GB: How do you see things evolving regionally for Egypt? Are you optimistic or do you worry?

BBG: In 1945, we were all under the impression that we would be able to create the Arab United States. Now, in 2010, we are more pessimistic, and we believe that this will not happen soon. Whether there will be Arab unity depends on leadership. With the right leader or leaders, there is no reason for which this unity should not happen; after all, Muhammad Ali created unity. He founded the new Egypt; he created unity between Egypt and the Sudan; he created unity between Egypt and Syria. Nasser created a short-lived union between Egypt and Syria. So there is this political will to have a better integration among the different Arab countries – not because they have the same language or the same religion, but because they are neighbours. You have nearly a half million Egyptians now working in Jordan. You have well over a million Egyptians working in the Gulf. You have countless many thousands of Iraqis living in Egypt today; and how many thousands of Sudanese in Egypt? So the integration at the level of the people already exists.

GB: How do you see Iran and Israel fitting into this conception of Arab unity?

BBG: For the Israeli question, I believe that, sooner or later, within five to 10 years, the one-state solution is the only solution, because you will have more Arabs than Israelis, and you will find more Arabs inside Israel and more Israelis inside the Arab world. So the integration already exists. The two-state solution – even as currently proposed by Obama – can be a step. But there is such integration between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that a one-state solution is very conceivable. We need new solutions, new imagination.

As for Iran, I think that, regionally, the dispute between the Shia and the Sunni has been exaggerated. It reminds me of the historical disputes between the Catholics and the Protestants, which makes me believe that, sooner or later, they will be able to find a common denominator.

GB: What about the nuclear question in Iran?

BBG: I am for denuclearization in Iran, and indeed all over the world. I support the project of US President Obama in this regard.

GB: In the Winter 2010 issue of GB, Sam Sasan Shoamanesh (GB Co-Founder and Managing Editor) and Hirad Abtahi of the International Criminal Court wrote an article on the conception of a Middle East (or Western Asian) political-economic-security union that could include Israel, Iran, Turkey and all of the Arab states – and going even into parts of south and central Asia. How do you react to this proposal?

BBG: My reaction would be: what would be the degree of cultural integration in this proposed union? As long as nearly a third of the population of my country is illiterate, and as long as they have the same problem in many other Arab countries, then it will be difficult to use language or rhetoric as a tool to encourage integration. As long as you do not speak any foreign language, you will have a kind of repli identitaire in the region, and this is quite dangerous.

Successful, winning countries, regions and unions like the one proposed will be ones that manage the dialectic between the village and the satellite. The village represents repli identitaire, while the satellite represents globalization. Today, we are still underestimating globalization, because many states continue to jealously defend their sovereignty. Let us not forget that 50 percent of the countries that are members of the UN obtained their sovereignty just 50 years ago. For them, sovereignty is something very important; however, I believe that sovereignty is not as important as it once was. After all, sovereignty is a concept that was invented in Westphalia. In the age of globalization, in this new century, the state as a player will not be classically sovereign, as it will not be the only important player in international affairs.

GB: You made a very important intervention when Quebec was attempting to secede from Canada in the mid-1990s. You said that if every nation decided to create statehood for itself, the world would be ungovernable. Based on this political philosophy, how do you reflect on the recent International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Kosovo?

BBG: Quite simply, I am against it, because I do not believe that micro-states will be helpful. Sooner or later, we will inevitably return to a kind of federation or a kind of political-economic integration driven, very practically, by globalization. You cannot, therefore – practically – have a small country like Kosovo separated from its neighbours. You simply cannot.

GB: How do you see Canada’s future, against this background?

BBG: Canada is a success. It has been able to manage the dialectic between the satellite and the village. The fact that Canada is an open society, and that there are so many foreigners coming and trying to obtain the Canadian nationality – is so very important. The power of a country – a key condition for winning in the new century – is the ability to assimilate others. I used to always say in my country: Are you ready to have a prime minister from Azerbaijan? They would look at me in a strange way. The Americans, I would say, accepted a German-Jew, Mr. Kissinger, as Secretary of State. So unless countries are ready to accept this ouverture – this openness – then they will have problems, as globalization demands it; it imposes it. The winners in the new century will be at ease with this basic dynamic.

GB: What do you think of Kissinger’s career and his legacy? He is, after all, one of your contemporaries and, like you, one of the grey beards of international affairs.

BBG: For me, the importance of Kissinger is that a foreigner was admitted into the US to play a role in its high policy. As long as you are able to assimilate foreigners who have the qualities necessary for success – and winning – then you will be fine. Otherwise, as I have said, we return to the repli identitaire wherein you are afraid of foreigners; you are afraid of the village that is near your own village; and you are afraid of globalization. You create the conditions for extremism.

GB: How do you see the future of some of Africa’s conflicts?

BBG: There is a kind of international discrimination at play here between conflicts of the third world, to which nobody pays attention, and those in other parts of the globe that are relevant to international public opinion. If there is a dispute in Georgia, everybody pays attention to the dispute. But if there is a dispute in Mogadishu, nobody tends to the existence of these failed states.

GB: How do we deal with the more neglected disputes?

BBG The participation of non-state actors may help. I do not know whether this will solve the problem, but these actors may contribute.

GB: Do you still see war as a legitimate instrument of international affairs in this new century?

BBG: I would not use the word ‘legitimate,’ but I can tell you that wars were evidently used as an instrument during the last 50 years, and there are more than a dozen wars going on today. These wars are taking different forms: you have the wars in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and you have problems in different African countries. So war is not necessarily a dispute between two governments, or between two armies. Instead, it may be a dispute between a group of terrorists and a government; and this may not be a conventional war; but it is still a dispute – a confrontation of importance for the international system.

GB: How do you view the vocation of diplomacy in this new century?

BBG: The key change will be the growing need to involve and legitimate non-state actors. The whole international system, from the League of Nations and to the UN, was based on one concept: the sovereign state. Now we are confronted by new actors – new non-state players that are very often more important than states themselves. So how will they participate, and how will they coexist with the states?

Today, very few people are interested in what is going on in Afghanistan; very few people are interested in what is going on in Somalia; or they may not even know that a state called Somalia exists. So the question is: how can we obtain the support of international public opinion to do anything meaningful in these theatres? The support of international public opinion may be obtained – and I emphasize may – by the participation of the non-state actors. As long as the solution to international disputes depends on a limited few diplomats, we will never obtain the support of international public opinion. And without this support, the chances of success in resolving these disputes or other major issues are slim.

GB: How do you see your former home organization, the UN, changing, or not changing, to meet this challenge?

BBG: We must prepare ourselves for a new stage in the evolution of international organizations. The first stage was the League of Nations, based on the sovereign state. The second stage was the UN of today. The third stage will take years of work, but this third generation will have, or must have, the participation of non-state actors.

GB: Which will be the ‘winning’ countries of the early 21st century?

BBG: I do not know. I will tell you why I do not know: it is because I do not know what will be the impact of new technologies in the next five to 10 years. They may change everything. Everything depends on whether a country will be able to cope immediately with a given technological revolution. If it can, it will succeed; it may win. If a country, on the contrary, will not be able to cope with a given technological revolution, then it may lose 50 years.


Boutros Boutros-Ghali was Secretary-General of the UN between 1992 and 1996.

(Photograph: Courtesy of Boutros Boutros-Ghali)

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