The rise of populism in Europe, the renunciation of humanist values and human rights, the failure of Western military and humanitarian interventions, the return of the Taliban… While acknowledging the failures, drifts and regressions, Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and former French Minister of Foreign Affairs, strives to remain optimistic, calling for more faith than ever in Man, who is certainly capable of the worst, but who is also and always capable of the best.Interview By Atmane Tazaghart
– How did you experience the American fiasco in Afghanistan and the “acceleration of History” that led to the return of the Taliban to power?
– I would not say that this is an acceleration of history, it is too early to say and we do not know how the situation will develop. One thing is certain, however: the departure of troops involved in conflicts always leads to chaos. This chaos could have been better prepared by the Americans, it is true. But having witnessed the fall of Saigon, I know from experience that it could have been worse. For the Americans in any case, and for the Western world that has supported them for the last 20 years, I believe that not being at war anymore is a great satisfaction.
I think Joe Biden will regain his popularity in a few weeks. But the bottom line is that Western efforts to establish “democracy”, more or less, have failed. Yet all these interventions, whether humanitarian or military or both, have been demanded by the peoples of the countries concerned. I believe, therefore, that these interventions serve no purpose. I’m sorry to say it so bluntly. We need to find another way to help the people who need it, the poor. Because every time, it is poverty that is the source of evil and that is the cause of the disease.
Biden had told Obama that he disagreed with his policy in Afghanistan, i.e. against counter-insurgency, which the US military had modelled on what the French had done in Algeria. A curious model, by the way, because we lost! Does this mean that Islamic extremism is winning everywhere? I fear that it is winning in many places. Is this the ultimate form of aid and democracy? Not at all. Will we realise that it is essential to work closer to the people? I hope so. When we founded MSF in 1971, we were coming out of the Biafran war in Nigeria. Nobody thought we would do anything. But we did a lot and it was a resounding success, including the Nobel Peace Prize. Did we ever imagine that we would be so successful? Absolutely not!
I am still attached to this idea that people come closer to each other. Is that enough? Apparently not. And that’s a defeat… because you know, the Taliban won the war! I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is…
– Is this observation of the failure of military interventions that supposedly complement humanitarian actions a questioning, on your part, of the principle of humanitarian intervention of which you were one of the theoreticians and which has worked well in certain cases, such as in Kosovo, but which has ended in bitter failures in Afghanistan, Iraq or the Sahel?
– We have done well and we will do well in helping the most unfortunate. I am talking about humanitarian interference. But what is interference? The word is scary. So let’s say that working “alongside the people, with them” is humanitarian. Sometimes this was accompanied by military operations and you mentioned Kosovo. Kosovo is a success because there is no longer any war. There, as if by chance, the Muslim population was being helped. Of course, tensions persist between the Serbs and the Kosovars, but this will be resolved as time goes by. It is never immediate.
Yes, Kosovo is a success story, as is Macedonia, now North Macedonia, where the international community has responded to the call of the local populations. We must not improvise, this is not a kind of war of conquest, even in humanitarian terms. The populations ask us for help and we refuse or accept. In Macedonia, the international community had sent blue helmets and there was no war. It did so as a preventive measure. The idea is to be preventive, which is easy to say but almost impossible to do.
So we are faced with this reality: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In Afghanistan, unfortunately, 40-45 years later, we have to remember that there was first a Soviet invasion and a demand for humanitarian aid from the people. We were obliged to dig hospitals in the mountains and to bring medicines, food, etc. from afar, and we did it. Let’s also not forget that the Americans created the Islamist students who became the Taliban. Why did they do this? Because they were fighting against the Soviet Union at that time. The US and the Soviet Union were really in confrontation, even if it was not military. Afterwards, the situation changed. The Taliban arrived, interventions inside Afghanistan took place, it’s a bit complicated anyway.
Finally, on the substance, things have changed more than we think, especially for women. Especially for Afghan girls going to school. It has changed, I have witnessed it. Certainly not enough, it’s never enough. But it has changed. You mentioned [in a previous issue of Watchscreen] women demonstrating saying “Don’t abandon us” and you’re right, we shouldn’t abandon them. I think we should talk to the Taliban, because they are the leaders of this country. We need to have a dialogue to see how we can continue our interventions on the ground and help the Afghans.
– Yes, but does that mean that we should continue to think that we can export democracy through military intervention?
– It would of course be better without the military, but I have no illusions. When populations are chopped into a thousand pieces, as in Syria, how do you stop the war? Not only through humanitarian aid. Moreover, humanitarians could no longer go there, it had become too dangerous. There is no such thing as a neutral humanitarian. At some point, he has to take a stand and be on the side of the people who receive the bombs, not those who throw them. Is it better to impose Sharia law and permanently subjugate women? No, no and no!
I was the first to say, after our first interventions in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, that those who came from Pakistan wanted to chase away the infidels. I told my friends and I remember telling Claude Cheysson, then François Mitterrand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs: “be careful, there are difficult times ahead”. Chasing away the infidels who came to care for their wounded and their children was really not a good omen, it was a deeply negative signal.
However, when I was Foreign Minister, I defended my country’s policy. I told people about Afghanistan that we had done much better than we had done badly! That’s how it is, if you really want to tell the truth, the real truth, that is to say the truth that you really think, then you shouldn’t do politics.
Humanitarian aid and intervention, interference if you like, is usually without military intervention, like in Africa. I work in hospitals in Africa, where there is no military intervention at all in places that nobody cares about. In particular Guinea-Conakry. The vast majority of these humanitarian operations continue and will continue.
In France especially, but in Europe in general, we first say bad things about the Americans, and then when we need them, we call them. For example, on Syria, there was not a single demonstration in the streets of Paris to ask for peace in Syria. The current European population is turning away from human rights. They have become selfish, nationalistic, even more so…
– It is terrible what you say about the renunciation of public opinion in France and in the West in general concerning human rights, humanist values and democracy. The question that arises is this: how can this Western model become universal and export democracy and human rights elsewhere in the world if the West itself renounces them?
– I don’t believe in automatically exporting democracy with soldiers by imposing it. The proof is that we have failed, to say the least. But I think that the future will make it possible to do so with a globalisation that would be humanistic. One could say humanitarian, why not? It is long and difficult, but there are places where it has succeeded. Part of Africa is much more democratic today, with less corruption. Latin America, which I used to visit, was entirely dictatorial; now it’s over. We must believe in democracy, in its profoundly humanistic values. We must cherish it more, and protect it too. We don’t represent it well enough, of course, but we are still doing quite well compared to others. I’d rather live in France than in China, for example.
– So do I!
– You do too. In fact, you do it. What we do in France is not bad. Of course it’s not enough, of course we should share more. But go and ask people to share today, it’s not easy. It’s a difficult time for many of our fellow citizens, they don’t know if their children will find work. So in France, and even in Europe in general, people are turning inwards for fear of the future. You will see that after her departure, Mrs Merkel will become the heroine of Europe. Overnight, she has taken a million migrants. History will bear her name in an admirable way because she did it. In France, we think that migrants will take our jobs, etc. Racism and nationalism are on the rise; unfortunately, they are a movement that is holding Europe back.
– Does your observation on the worrying rise of egoism, racism, nationalism and populism mean that you agree with those who think that there is a kind of “fascisation of minds” in the air that could lead to the worst in Europe today?
– The far right sold the migrants as enemies, when in fact they were people who came to us as legitimate refugees, because at home they would have been killed. But the migrants were numerous. We didn’t think about it, we didn’t have a debate. Finally, it’s very hard to have a debate in France. We could still have tackled this problem. Ideally, it should have been tackled at European level, but we didn’t succeed in doing that either, or not very well.
It is true that we have not made sufficient progress. But at the same time, I can’t just express my negative opinion of the European Union without also saying that there are some tremendously positive aspects. In my parents’ generation, we would never have been told that we were going to be friends with the Germans. We would never have been told that we were going to have a common approach to the current pandemic with common money coming from Europe and that we were going to pay back together. This is great progress. I look forward to seeing more of it. But ask people why they want to come and live in France and they will tell you that, compared to the rest of the world, France is not bad.
Unfortunately, as with people, there is a good side and a bad side. I prefer to choose the good side, but finally… Once again the example of MSF and its success confirms me. Is it enough? No. But it is an example that we would benefit from following in many areas. In the case of Brexit, for example, the British have left, it’s a failure. Will we continue anyway? Yes. Will it be successful? I don’t know, what do you want me to say!
I do my job with some successes, like for the millions of people for whom we have set up a care system… We don’t realise how lucky we are in France and in Europe. But in France, with this pandemic, we haven’t paid for anything ourselves. No French person has paid for PCR tests or anything else. We have the vaccines and the doses, and despite this unprecedented health crisis, our health system has held up well and remains very efficient.
We have done all that, it’s still great. In other countries, in which I am interested and in which I live very often, more than in my own country, many people envy our health care system; it is a dream for them. So, I try, for example, with my friends, because fortunately I am not alone, to preserve the hospital in Kabul which is a marvel. I hope that the Taliban will not sweep it away by some sectarian and racist measure because this hospital is dedicated to women and children. We must reinvest in this hospital, return with technicians who will train the Afghan doctors on duty. Moreover, it is the Aga-Khan, another famous Muslim, who ensures the technical operation and management of this French hospital. We cannot act without the Taliban who now rule this territory. So we have to make arrangements with them so that they accept the arrival of foreign doctors until the Afghan doctors, and they are almost there, are able to fully manage the hospital.
This French hospital was never protected: no guard or army, useless because it was not attacked. You had to be brave to tell the doctors and the patients that “you are not at risk”. When we arrived in the waiting room, we saw bearded men holding children in their arms, half of them Taliban, if not more. But we were treating their children and they were happy. It’s also a hospital for women, all women, without distinction, from the entire Afghan population. That is interference well done.
– Today, looking back, would you accept to be Foreign Minister again?
– Yes, it depends, now I’m getting a bit old. Perhaps I would ask for more power, but not in the French constitution, it’s the President who decides. You can’t permanently oppose the President.
– Especially with this one!
– That’s not true. The discussion was robust, it’s true… You mean Emmanuel Macron?
– No, Nicolas Sarkozy.
– With Emmanuel Macron it can’t be easy either, believe me. It is perhaps even more difficult. There was violence or let’s say character, but I always had frank and rather fraternal discussions with President Sarkozy. I think it was easier with him. But I never see President Macron. He went to Rwanda without inviting me, even though I was the only one to witness what was happening in Rwanda. It was in 1994 and during all these years I said that the French position was not good, that Mitterrand had made a mistake, etc. Macron did well to go to Rwanda. When you are President, you think you can change everything. In Lebanon, in Rwanda… everywhere. That’s how it is, it goes to your head. I’m not just talking about Macron, but about everyone. It’s the function that wants this, it’s the Fifth Republic. The French President is one of those who have the most power in Western democratic organisations.
– There will soon be elections in France and elsewhere in Europe. In view of this rise in populism, do you think that the emergence of a European Trump or a French Trump would be possible?
– It could, but it won’t! Firstly, because we will prevent it. Secondly, I believe, on the contrary, that this hatred, this detestation of the elites, which is at the heart of all the evils you have mentioned, will not persist. Yes, the “fascisation of the mind” goes very far, but it exists. There has always been an extreme right in France. Will it always be the same? I don’t think so. I think that the current globalisation, whether we consider it successful or not, will give way to a globalisation that is closer to the people. It will bring people together, especially Africa with us, without forgetting the Arab-Muslim world, of course.
Among the evils you mentioned, there is also the rejection of immigration. In Europe, we have not even managed to reach a common position on this subject. Consensus will come one day, I believe in it. Not very strongly, I believed in it much more before. But I think it will come. The younger generations don’t have an ideal at the moment, but they will find it. I realise that the current evolution of things is surprising, it’s true. But I am not bitter.
I have been criticised for putting a lot of politics into humanitarian work. I think that today I would put even more. I would ask politicians, from both the right and the left, to get involved with us, even if I feel closer to the left, or at least to the idea I have of it. Perhaps I am completely wrong? In fact, I’m completely wrong. But neutrality is difficult. I don’t show it, but in my phone I have images from Afghanistan. Afghan opponents are being killed in a terrible way. In spite of this, I think that people will get in the way, including the Taliban.
I am an incorrigible optimist, with a deep background of pessimism: I have seen men capable of everything, of the worst. But, once again, I have also seen men capable of the best. Even if they are not the same, it is true.
And if I had to do it all over again, would I do it again? (After a long silence) Yes!