Friday, October 28, 2011

THE BRUSSELS ICEBERG PHOBIA

On October 28, 2011 the EU debt crisis got a shot in the arm. Banks agreed to a 50% loss (100 billion euros) on their holdings of Greek government debt, they have also to raise additional money (106 billion euros) and the EU rescue fund was increased to 1 trillion euros.
The “wait and see game” can begin.

The Greeks will always be Greeks. Expecting them to suddenly become addicted to paying their taxes is a far-fetched naivety. The Italians are running into problems and the interest rates are moving upwards. The European Central Bank remains a Swiftian hybrid which has to do what it wasn’t mean to do. Meanwhile, the personal attacks and tensions amongst member states are becoming frankly unpleasant.

One should certainly hope that the rescue plan will achieve tangible results. The rise of Italian interest rates since doesn’t abode that well. The EU Titanic continues on its dangerous journey, finding itself in treacherous waters.

The crisis has divided the EU into two categories, members and countries which have adhered to the euro, and those who haven’t, which leaves the UK, inter alia, out. This first crack might have large consequences for the future. There is no need for self-flagellation yet, while the plusses still override the minuses. Still, the simultaneous tensions between individual member states, and the larger break in continuity, constitute hurdles that will be hard to overcome. The EU has already lost its soul; it should not lose its engineering skills. The Central Bank needs to be reformed into a body which combines agreed financial and political room for maneuver. The ECB went, fortunately so, out of its way and mandate and intervened when member states stalled when they were supposed to ratify the European Financial Stability Facility. The member states should stop playing “hide and seek”. Countries should be held more accountable and not feel free to avoid pain for little gain. Remember how France and Germany broke the terms of the Stability Pact in 2000?

It is too early to gauge the fallout of this latest rescue given that the street has not had the time to react yet. Likewise, lots of egos will need some time to recover. All this should benefit the clout of the American currency and the creativity of both Wall Street and the Fed to come up with solutions. The end of the economic slump is still far away but the US might still be the first to reach the finish line. The Chinese ‘miracle’ shows signs of a structural weakness. The Russian boom is too messy to last. Hence the US will have to build a firewall against "Greeks bearing gifts” and be more aggressive in addressing their debt. The dollar remains the reserve currency of last resort but it also has to stop playing musical chairs with regulation and deregulation.

For the Europeans there remains the pressing issue of averting a drift between north and south. The member states must converge or the EU risks becoming the next cruise-liner to hit the icebergs which undoubtedly will lie in its way. The new ECB chief Mario Draghi will need a sturdy hand to avoid becoming hostage to infighting passengers or intrusive states. Distraction can lead to a major collision.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

BENELUX QUO VADIS ?

In 1958, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg decided to form the BENELUX economic union, which was launched in a more modest format (the London Customs Union) in 1944. When the treaty, which had been previously enlarged, was renewed in 2008 ,this became the BENELUX Union, taking into account the broader scope of the revised original treaty.

In the past BENELUX was seen as a model for the larger European model to come. It worked rather well considering the existing disparities between the three partners. There remained room for common aspiration and shared values and interests. This power nexus could partially neutralize the weight of France or Germany.

Today, BENELUX looks more and more like a thing of the past. The three countries have drifted apart and the constitutional fragmentation of Belgium accelerated this negative trend. Belgium started as a unitary state with its colonies and wealth. Today it is a splintered state which will never recover from its endless reforms. It has lost credibility and financial, economical and military added-value. Meanwhile, the Netherlands have, rightly so, been able to take full advantage of globalization. Its industrial mass is on a world scale and it has chosen to put self-interest ahead of past more continental oriented commitments. Belgium has a network of creative small enterprises but has also become hostage to major French interests which have overtaken large strategic sectors of its economy.

The Netherlands were, with Belgium and Luxemburg, European champions.
Currently, The Hague looks more to London, the USA and Asia than to the EU, where it became a more selective member. The BENELUX consultations prior to EU summits were important insofar as common goals could be actively considered. They become more and more meaningless. Both the BENELUX institutions and political” solidarity reflex” are now in the emergency-room. The Flemish nationalists who counted on the Dutch for support in their linguistic and cultural demands find little sympathy in a country which has opted for English and which has contempt for this Heimat culture-war at its southern borders. Luxemburg follows an equidistant policy but does not hide a certain estrangement from Brussels.

BENELUX survives as a relic from other times. Meanwhile, the frictions between Belgium and the Netherlands cover a large area. The Netherlands consider themselves as the smallest of the “large states” in the EU. The historic “contention” over the access to the Scheldt, the link between Antwerp and the Rhine or the competition between Belgian and Dutch ports is not for the weak at heart.

The BENELUX bureaucracy of this survivor is probably doing something but who knows what? Frankly, I do not see the use of an organization which is no longer representative of any common aspiration and which has lost credibility with the exception of within the ranks of some hard-core defenders who continue to lecture while the church emptied a long time ago. There are too many corpses in the international morgue. Let’s start getting rid of this one.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

MOAMMAR GADHAFI… EXIT.

The miserable end of the Libyan leader raises many questions. Some are circumstantial and frankly sordid. Others are far-reaching.

Let us consider the latter. The roles which the rebels, NATO and the USA played in this outcome will become clear in the near future. This nexus had a script, a scenarist and was ”delocalized“ to a number of executants. I imagine that the USA would still prefer to be seen in the background, rather than to be considered as the chief-executant (and follow the oil?) The Libyans do not forget that the West too often looked elsewhere when the dictator ran amok. The new ruling National Transitional Council is geographically split, made up of competing tribes.

It is difficult to foresee how all those factions will cooperate in a state which was left for 40 years unstructured. The West shouldn’t get involved in what might very well become an internal warzone. Arabs are susceptible. Their despise for the former leader might very well change course if they perceive the change in Libya as a repeat of Iraq. Gadhafi gone, we should leave Libya to the Libyans.

It will be interesting to see how the events might affect situations as those which prevail in Syria, Yemen or other failed or rogue states. Likewise, the formation of a duumvirate USA/Saudi Arabia (which exists de facto) might be more assertive in the future. Is there an Obama doctrine in the making? Is the drone war the war of the future, combining several categories of forces and resting upon a distribution of tasks, responsibilities and calibrated engagement?

Libya does not warrant a lasting military involvement. The political puzzle is too uncertain to arrive at conclusions. The West should not co-opt the remains of this long-fought creepy conflict. The UN resolution has been stretched to the limit and it has to be hoped that some rule of law might replace the rule of the jungle. I am afraid that the death of Moammar Gadhafi is not the end of a curse, which has scarred the minds and hearts of too many, who will ask for vengeance but also for revenge. We were right to intervene with a “humanitarian” agenda. We will be well advised to stay clear from getting involved in cleaning up the political mess – but pay attention to the pile of lethal weapons - which are left.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

NUCLEAR DETERRENT: “A THING OF THE PAST“?

The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 might well have been the last armed conflict which respected a certain set of rules. Later, the agony of the Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli disaster, no longer followed the given rules; the consequences were as messy as their onset. The horror of the two world wars each carried a lethal load. The victorious powers decided afterwards to take all measures to avoid a repeat. The nuclear hell which engulfed Hiroshima and Nagasaki became a turning point which deeply affected hearts and minds. It also opened the door for an avalanche of a far-reaching revisionism of warfare and military might.

The nuclear clubroom soon became overcrowded. Today it has become conceivable that a nuclear black-market could become the ultimate provider of weapons of mass-destruction, which could end up in the hands of the contemporary outlaws. The nuclear armaments were for a while a monopoly “a quatre”, regulated by tacit consent. The major powers, the URSS and the USA, played wars by proxy, cold war or “war games”, with the knowledge that their actions were restrained by the nuclear factor. They were all too conscious of the fact that the use of the nuclear option by one meant automatic retaliation and the destruction of all. Despite their antagonism and strive for hegemony, there still remained a hybrid moral barrier, a fear element, which none dared to cross. The nuclear arsenal became the ultimate deterrent. Peace became, under those circumstances, the daughter of non-consensual parents.

Unfortunately, freelancers acquired their own nuclear arsenal. While not being members of the club of four, they became an unpredictable second-generation of bystanders who did not feel obliged to adhere to non-proliferation “fantasies”.

A third underground generation looks now unavoidable, given the rise of non-states and nihilistic ideologies which have chosen a culture of death rather than a vision of hope. There are no comparable precedents. Neither Vietnam nor the paranoid regime of Kim Jong (very) Il come close to those rogue opportunistic strands. The latter might acquire a pocket nuclear arsenal and will not feel bound by any moral brakes, nor would they send an early-warning sign or ask for permission to use them. Their worldview is purely pragmatic, based on simplistic, often religious imperatives wherein death becomes a desirable partner. This seemingly primitive behavior does not stand in the way of their becoming acquainted with the tools of modern technology, cyber-warfare, social networking and the cutting-edge Steve Jobs means of communication.

In 2011 the world is divided between “classical” globalised states, which are under financial siege, and an underground of loose groupings which are united by a murky mix of frustration, ideology and self-inflicted humiliation. It would be na├»ve to imagine that the existing nuclear deterrent will stop them from being the first to use biological or nuclear weapons. Under those circumstances classical nuclear deterrence has no teeth anymore. One can only imagine the times when President Truman agonized over the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The moral fiber was still part of the political discourse then. The actors have changed. The new breed of enemies obliges us to consider new strategies and weaponry. Drones are now activated 1000 miles from the war theatre. It is to be expected that the technology of Unmanned Aircraft Systems might also fall into hostile hands. The “unblinking stare” gives the West a considerable advantage, for now. Monopolies do not last.

Certain situations may occur wherein the first use of a nuclear weapon might still have to be considered. The “classical” enemy of yesterday was to a certain extent not unlike ourselves. His reaction and “modus operandi“ were predictable and obeyed to a strategic lexicon that had, in the end, a lot in common with ours. Today’s “new class” enemy is an “other” in more than one way. For him or her, life is too often just collateral and its ending almost indifferent if he or she dies a “martyr”. One can predict a future where the battle is no longer one of ideologies or territorial ambition but a brutal shockwave between adherents to life and the addicts to death. In such a scenario it may become advisable to be on guard and strike rather than wait for a terrorist Valhalla. Hence, all options must be on the table, including the first use of a nuclear device.

Intelligence, infiltration, pursuit of non-proliferation policies with states such as North Korea, Pakistan, India, Iran, inter alia are priorities which can contribute to shackle terrorist mayhem before it can act.

It is obviously easier to conceptualize than to execute. Before resorting to a first strike, the qualification of the menace must be certified, the active involvement of a culprit state must be beyond doubt and all possible alternative means of retaliation must still be considered. The objective of a denuclearized world remains the primary goal and the nuclear powers should prioritize actions rather than words. Unfortunately, new hybrid realities have added a codicil to this end.

It is ironic to notice how in this new barren strategic landscape some of Dr. Kissinger’s ideas look almost outmoded today. Triangular diplomacy, balance of power, linkage concept, containment policy, spheres of influence, and one can go on, are conceptual inroads which remained valid as long as parties obeyed the rules of the game, as Nixon, Mao and Brezhnev did, to a point. The new adversary does not adhere to any intellectual or geopolitical game. If he has a “special relationship”, it is less with a rational doctrine than with an irrational set of edicts that are often rooted in religious vernacular. In sharp contrast with today, yesterday’s enemy became, fatally, an obliged partner with whom conditions of co-existence and early-warning, had to be notarized, step by step. War and surrender were ruled by mutually accepted conditions. One should also admit that Realpolitik considerations were never absent from the concert of Nations imagined by Metternich, Bismarck or Dr. Kissinger. Given that they came up with extraordinary ideas, systems and achievements they seldom honored the hotel bill, which was left for next generations. Lately the effects of napalm bombing in Vietnam, the landmines in Cambodia, and the nuclear jungle in the Caucasus have stayed while the guests have long departed.

Fortunately there was also some form of accountability at the end. This is now gone. Kennedy’s concept of Interdependence got lost with the absence of a “regular” enemy (the Soviet Union). Europe keeps on reforming, enlarging, but ends up being a toothless economical giant. The Libyan intervention, both military and political, is almost pathetic.

The “normal” world needs a revision in order to be able to create a common pool rather than a stellar utopia of competing bodies and ad hoc organizations. While it is normal that at a regional level economical clusters appear, it is equally imperative that a general review of ways and means to combat the new generation of peril without a name, without a territory, be considered. In this endeavor there should be no outsiders. The EU, China and Russia are equal shareholders in this battle which is already being waged at their outskirts, if not in their midst. The US is right in asking for the burden to be shared, in the first place in NATO. On the other hand, the Americans should also listen to the counter-arguments of their friends and allies when they overreach.

Until the new virus mutates, a far-fetched wishful thinking, all appropriate means of defense and attack should be on stand-by. The nuclear option is one of last resort on condition that undeniable proof exists pointing to links between potential perpetrators and identifiable states. We should not be the ones who play timid while weapons of mass-destruction are readied under the cover of a boarding pass, in a container, or assembled by a homegrown “fifth column” benefiting from foreign patronage.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (Henry IV, Shakespeare).

Here we go again. Roland Emmerych’s film “ANONIMOUS” attributes the Shakespeare opus to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The claim is neither new, neither unique. Other contenders are, inter alia, Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Bacon, Fulker-Greville, and the list can go on. Even Muammar Qaddafi had his candidate in the person of a Sixteenth Century Arab sheik Zubayr bin William…! Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud and Henry James were famous “doubters”.

The authorship war opposes mainly Stratfordians and Oxfordians, proponents of Edward de Vere. Indeed the latter has the most convincing case. Very little is known about Shakespeare and the Oxfordians gloss about the classical learning, the sophisticated play with words, the absence of name on the Quartos which point in their opinion to a writer with a more aristocratic background. Besides de Vere’s coat of arms depicts a loin shaking a broken “spear” and he was a patron of the private Blackfriars Theatre. They omit to ad that de Vere died in 1604, years before Shakespeare’s dramatic carrier ended.

The movie does not add to this literary feud which will continue forever maybe. We have few data and we are not even sure what Shakespeare looked like. Probably the portrait in the first folio by Martin Droeshout the Younger stands close to his likeness. The famous Chandos portrait (with the earring) appeals more to romantic, sensual inclination than to proven veracity. It alludes indirectly more to the writer of the Sonnets than to the author of the tragedies.

Codes, ciphers and cryptograms have been unearthed but the closer one comes to the man, the more distant he becomes. Most of the Sonnets are addressed to a young nobleman (“To the onlie begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W.H.”). The identity of the “sitter” remains clouded in controversy, mostly because they refer to a homosexual relationship, possibly with Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, reputed for his looks.

The mystery of the sonnets better remain as opaque as the man who wrote them. The Shakespeare myth which has preoccupied academics for centuries and will continue to do so, does not come close to the beauty of one single line of this genial man, who preferred to remain shrouded in a cipher of his own making. He chose to go for a walk in our heart, making sure to erase his steps.

It remains strange how the spell continues to obsess. Very few care about the wanderings of so many celebrities, composers or authors - Shelley and Rimbaud might figure among the few exceptions - while any hint or trace of the Bard continues to rattle our souls. He is truly a distant king whose words spill over his identity, which remains largely hidden, and leaves us, the humble subjects of his genius, searching forever and in vain for him.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Elio de Rupo, potential Belgian P.M., ...or to make a virtue of necessity.

After a governmental lockout which looked hopeless, Belgian political parties, minus one, have reached a framework agreement. Getting there was tedious. A micro-argument caused the longest crisis in history and ended up in a complex, inflated agreement which will, in all probability, be over-ruled like previous short-lived final reforms.

This is for how long? Past history now and the “reset” looks ready to be restarted. Belgium might soon have in the person of Elio de Rupo a Prime Minister unlike any other. Sophisticated, ”sarcasmofile”, elegant and smart, he will also be the first French-speaker to occupy the post of Belgian Prime Minister in decennia. He also risks being obliged to preside over a government wherein the Flemish majority in the country might be the minority in the Government. Last but not least, he will have to be some sort of wizard to preside over the formation of a small government, while his majority in parliament represents “all minus one”. Everybody will feel entitled to a seat in the coalition and it will be hard work to rein in the appetite for a portfolio.

The main Flemish radical opposition stands alone. It remains hostile to an agreement which ended up touching all aspects of the political, financial and institutional realities of this often absurd country. This does not mean that the current outsider will give up. Bart De Wever might be a gorilla in the corridors of power, but he remains also a force to reckon with. For now the foil did override the bull, for how long? Some deeper fault lines continue to exist. It remains to be seen if we are witnessing closure or a cease-fire. That eight parties from North and South could agree is nevertheless a positive step. The absent partner represents a menace insofar as he will go for the higher bid, feeling frustrated, offside. He will obviously try to divide and set his populist appeal in overdrive. The economic/social slump does not appeal to classical politicians who remain tuned to more globalised themes. It will be difficult to satisfy both basic necessities (bread and butter/the welfare state), and the more lofty challenges which derive from often contradictory globalised political, financial or military emergencies. The past crisis showed how wide the distance is which separates populist politicians from what Bart de Wever calls the addiction to “cosmopolitism”.

The provisional(?) end of the “Belgium fatigue” is a relief, both for the country, for the European Union and for the Euro Zone. The personality of Elio de Rupo, if confirmed, will sooner rather than later put his mark on the workings of the European Council. He is not the type of politician who favors subtitles. He must avoid becoming bored in the Belgian ghetto, which will not fade away. He has tried, successfully, to air and to detach it from its provincial instincts. The time for recovery has come. In the 50s, Belgium was Europe’s go–between. This a-typical, probable Belgian Prime Minister, with Italian DNA, should have the talent and the intellectual savoir-faire to renew this former tradition. Let us hope that the national trivia do not metastasize in the usual landmines, which have shredded too many ambitions and grand plans to pieces.

Belgium got its (last?) chance. This almost-failed State might still recover. Both King and Prime Minister, while being “strange bedfellows”, in Shakespeare’s words, are at the same time the right men to avoid the abyss.

They should not forget to pay attention to their rearview mirror.