Prophetic Speeches: Dominique de Villepin at the UN Security Council in February 2003

Source: United Nations Archive

“In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The onerous responsibility and immense honour we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament in peace.” As Dominique de Villepin finished his speech to the UN Security Council, outlining France’s position on a potential war in Iraq, a rare round of applause rang out. The French Foreign Minister had laid out his deep beliefs that a war in Iraq would further de-stabilize the Middle East, increase extremist terrorism, and weaken the international system of governance. 

In effect, he announced France would not support a unilateral US invasion of Iraq, coming head to head with the world’s superpower. However, the neoconservative establishment in Washington would ignore Villepin’s warnings. Within 10 years, the American superpower was noticeably dented, while Iraq became a breeding ground for international terrorism and international institutions lost legitimacy.

I’ve always been passionate about studying history’s greatest speeches. Delving into what has moved the masses in the past lets us understand how current leaders conduct their communication, and what their words try to convey to their people. A great speech not only influences the course of events at the time, but leaves a lasting legacy to the orator’s vision, intellect, and courage. Villepin’s speech at the UN is remarkable in its clarity to analyze the geopolitical challenges of the Middle East, international governance, and the value of peace. The French Foreign Minister’s iron will in standing up to American demands inspired many other countries, revealing the necessity of international cooperation: “The authority of our action is based today on the unity of the international community. Premature military intervention would bring this unity into question, and that would detract from its legitimacy and, in the long run, its effectiveness.”

By 2003, the world held its breath over the fate the international community had decided for Iraq. Following the September 11 attacks and invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the “War on Terror” presented the US an opportunity: the removal of Saddam Hussein. Invading Iraq had long been a dream of the new American political establishment under George W. Bush: the neo-conservatives. They believed that the United States could fashion the Middle East in its own image, implementing secular liberal democracies and pacifying the region. The Bush administration expected to have the full support of the international community, but this was not the case. Indeed, France and Germany refused to intervene militarily in Iraq until all peaceful alternatives from the UN Security Council had been exhausted. Although UN investigations into Saddam’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction Program” bore no fruits, the US still planned to move ahead with the invasion of Iraq.

Nevertheless, the French Foreign Minister laid out the consequences of a unilateral US invasion of Iraq. He pointed to the risk of destroying the balance of power in the region, and the consequent risk of extremism: “Such intervention could have incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region. It would compound the sense of injustice, increase tensions, and risk paving the way to other conflicts.” He explained that after war comes peacebuilding, which would be significantly harder than the war itself. Villepin warned that a unilateral US invasion without the support of the international community would weaken international institutions and cooperation, as “war is always the sanction of failure”. Finally, he outlined the duties and driving values of the UN Security Council, which should be upheld by the member states no matter the situation.

Villepin’s speech not only warned of the inevitable collapse of the neo-conservative dream but also their flawed approach to international relations: “The option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest. But let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace. Let us not delude ourselves; this will be long and difficult.” Villepin’s stand against US expectations of French aid in Iraq soured relations between both nations but became a symbol of the defense of international institutions and the value of peaceful resolutions to conflicts. His visionary stance against the war in Iraq spared the French of the difficult asymmetric conflict that was to come while bringing France to the forefront of international diplomacy. Villepin’s eloquence will be remembered as one of the great speeches of the 21st century, advocating for the value of international cooperation and peace. Let us end on Dominique de Villepin’s call for multilateralism, which stands today more than ever: “Faithful to its values, France wishes resolutely to act with all the members of the international community. It believes in our ability to build together a better world.”