Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Queen Elisabeth II acceded to the throne 60 years ago. This event will be celebrated in numerous ways. London will be the world capital of the crown and of the Olympic torch. Royal fever will rule, unbeknown elsewhere. No other monarch is able to command to such a degree both loyalty and respect. The paradox lies in the abstraction of the person who will be celebrated. With the exception of the events which followed Princess Diana’s death, the person of the Queen has remained unshaken by events, political turmoil or dysfunction amongst the royals. Indeed, nothing transpires besides an image which is unrolled by some hidden projector. There are no faux pas, no gossip worth mentioning. The peep-hole reveals nothing but corgis, horses and pageant. In all her representative, solemn, antiquated roles, the Queen has maintained an unfailing composure. Once, in what she called her annus horribilis, emotion got hold of her but that was the rare exception since the day she descended the airplane as Queen, after her father died.

The British monarch has the unique capacity to dwarf foreign royals or leaders. The mystique around her does compensate for the lack of words or more demonstrative emotions. Her presence is her “She”, who does not have to explain or legitimize her likes and dislikes which remain unknown to most. The British will celebrate a person they do not know and an institution which carries the pride and also the nostalgia of a nation which was “the” empire. No doubt the times of Elisabeth II will be the equals of Elisabeth I and Victoria Regina. Her devotion to the Commonwealth of voluntary associated states is proof that there is an iron ambition which lurks behind a benevolent façade. Nobody has an inkling of what the future holds, neither should one try to foresee how the Prince of Wales or Prince William will balance continuity and change. One thing is certain: it is going to be a hard act to emulate. The Queen is a survivor, unchallenged by the socio-economic changes or fads which reshaped her realm. She uses distance as a guardian of the legitimacy of a style and a ceremony which adhere to her narrative, if not becoming it. The future will be less friendly with this class vocabulary which will certainly become more obsolete since the new generation representatives have already come out of the closet, so to speak, and there is no way back. Diana did not open the windows, she smashed them. The savoir-faire of the Queen herself was for a brief moment almost under siege.

We will all co-celebrate and there might be some sadness in many hearts because this monarch, frozen in pomp and style, has always retained a demeanor unmatched and a self control unequal. She continues to impress and fascinate because she neither gives in nor speaks out. We look up to a mystery wrapped in a mantle which has protected her from anything mediocre or demagogic. What she touches becomes the State. Her beloved Brittania was not a luxury yacht, it became the ship of state. The fire which destroyed part of Hampton Court in 1986 shattered her heart because in her vision castles are also the collective memory of the State.

This private woman has innumerable admirers and followers but nevertheless she carries with her an aura of loneliness which remains impenetrable. She is supposed to have all the qualities of a normal human being such as a sense of humor, a passion for animals, a supreme sense of duty, but she has chosen not to reveal rather than to exhibit. She remains the unquestioned master of her distance, unremitting. There is no other.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


China has entered the year of the dragon (Did you notice the new assertive angry dragon stamp?) with a bang. Premier Wen Jiabao visited Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors and the US has expressed its support for Taiwan’s re-elected president Ma Ying-jeou, who wants to pursue a more normalized relationship with Beijing. His beaten opponent, Tsai Ing-wen, stood for a more confrontational policy.

The Chinese version of the “Russian dolls” is in full swing. The mad tea-party will come up with the final result behind the closed doors of the queen’s croquet ground, the Great Hall of the People (the name always struck me as absurd, given the fact that no people are allowed in). The current leadership will almost certainly be replaced by Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. As usual, the known résumés of the probable successors of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are as bland as possible. At least the future president has a consort who specializes in singing kitsch lyrics which will certainly sell well.

The current leadership has been able and cautious. The prime minister does not have the formidable soft-power of his predecessor Zu Rongi, but he has showed humanity and real concern for the many inequalities which still besiege modern China. The canary in the Chinese coalmine has little chance to keep his feathers. Pollution, a shaky environment, poor governance in the provinces and the deliberate choice for the quantitative matrix weaken the Chinese society. Improvements at the local level cannot compensate for what looks more and more like an asymmetric model where tensions are plentiful: Tibet, minorities in Xinjang and Gansu, migrant workers, an unorthodox monetary policy, and one could go on. Nevertheless, while there is some patchy improvement, the democratic dividend remains taboo, while the reach of Intelligence and censorship are on the rise.

Contrary to Jiang Zemin, who successfully saved China from the brink after Tiananmen (April/June 1989), the upcoming leaders will have to look over their shoulders as impatient princelings claim their place under the sun. Bo Xilai in Chongqing and Wang Yang in Guandong are formidable contestants who feel entitled to roam around the throne. In foreign policy the complications abound. In spite of the outcome of the elections, Taiwan remains a question mark. In the ASEAN, the feelings towards China are tepid at least. The rise of the big neighbor is a multiplier for regional growth, which is welcomed; however, the territorial claims in the South China Sea (the Paracels) upsets the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan, who all claim sovereignty over the seabed and the inlets which are rich in raw materials and oil. No wonder China is expanding its fleet while the US Navy is rethinking its strategy, creating a firewall to contain Beijing’s new maritime ambitions. Meanwhile, the Chinese propaganda machine is in overdrive. The maritime exploits of Zheng He in 1433 are the “mantra” of the day. The blue sea power is replacing former more pedestrian priorities. Technological advances abound, often with uneven success. The man in the street observes all this. The elder generation is often displaced without an early warning, while the young can be divided into university nerds (who perform extraordinary well) or techno junkies (who perform even better.) There is some political discussion, an awareness of the need for more pluralistic and moral values but this is done sotto voce. Big Brother watches and listens.

Recent Chinese leaders generally specialize in imposing empty slogans (“The three represents”, “harmonious society”, etc.) which are meaningless. This is in contrast with the Hegelian experiments of Mao and the more practical approach of Deng Xiaoping, who might well be the greatest reformer of the last century. During his last “southern journey” Deng secured his philosophy (“Seek truth from facts”, “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “one country, two systems”). His legacy might be unique in world history. In less than 30 years China was able to become a superpower. He was a reformist to the core who changed the map of the world, wherein Europe ends up being an archipelago of Asia and the BRICS no longer take their clues from the United States. China could breathe again (“It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; if it catches mice, it is a good cat”).

Still, problems remain inside and out. Too often China hides behind its “non interference” policy to observe moral decay, economical depletion, and environmental downfall without intervening. It frequents loathsome regimes as long as it can take advantage of faulty or broken states. This is one of the major reasons why international institutions or the Security Council do not function as they should. While it must be admitted that the West has been an accomplice of unsavory regimes in Latin America and in the Middle East, Beijing’s business-class relationships with the likes of Iran, Zimbabwe or Venezuela are equally inexcusable. The end of the story may very well be that the West gets cheated by the offspring of the so-called Arab Spring, while China faces undesirable outcomes in Myanmar or North Korea. Kim Jong un did not catch the first available train to take his marching orders from the Middle Kingdom.

China risks never being a model. Speed is not everything. The lure of the lights in coastal China does not compensate for the abject poverty in the west, or the cost of dissent which is increasing by the day. Furthermore, China is often unappreciated in the surrounding neighborhood where it projects a perverse form of a Pavlovian society, which is unappealing. America, for its part, is still able to maintain its exceptional aura which continues to fascinate. Lately the US is presenting itself more and more as a Pacific power, which is the right strategy, given that Europe lags behind, both in the fields of soft and hard power. Nevertheless, the strategic location of Western Europe should not be underestimated, given its proximity to possible theaters of conflict. In the monetary area, the European financial Gordian knot seems inextricable while, on the contrary, the financial problems in the US look solvable and do not affect as much its standing worldwide.

China (and Russia) is too lenient in its handling of pariahs for the sole sake of acquiring the raw materials it so badly needs. This contributes to the creation of breeding spaces wherein failed states and non-states alike can create unremitting havoc. China should never forget that sleeping with the enemy can be lethal. Like Russia, it is in the eye of the storm of terrorism and of the possible consequences of the black market of weapons of mass-destruction in the Caucasus. China will have to face difficult choices in Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, or the Straits of Hormuz. Wen’s visit to the region was not accidental.

Beijing remains obsessed by the United States. It steals, hacks, copies and fakes full-time. It has little respect for intellectual property rights and continues to discharge poorly finished goods on markets which are eager to buy and sell cheaply in these difficult economical times. This will inevitably again lead to some crisis which will eventually ebb away. With few exceptions it is difficult to brand Chinese-wear, which is looked upon with rightful suspicion. At the same time it manipulates its currency and in so doing corrupts offer and demand, or elementary market rules. Rightly, the West has avoided protectionism or engaging in economical warfare. Talking might not be enough but in the end it is better than provoking some neo-Boxer revival. The Chinese are not really territorially aggressive (with the exception of Taiwan and Tibet, considered to be part of the Motherland) but they are often psychologically insecure and are an easy instrument for the leadership to manipulate for chauvinistic reasons. The Chinese remain multifariously resistant to atonement. There is a dormant dangerous force there which has to be integrated into any strategic thinking with regard to most things Chinese. Tensions with Japan or the US can be diverted into cacophonous and dizzying reactions of the street, stirred up by the system. The better manners displayed during the Olympics and the Shanghai World Fair have already disappeared in the smog which has made a remarkable come-back after numerous factories (closed during the events) reopened.

Here and there one can witness the rising of a civil society on the local level. Slowly the central government has taken sometimes harsh measures against corruption and some timid interventions with regard to violations of intellectual property (when there is foreign coverage). A marginal but vibrant intellectual life and creativity are daring to come out in the open, be it at a price (Ai Weiwei and the empty chair at the Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo speak loud), while the authorities still look at what is going on in the cultural and intellectual fields with suspicion.

The new leadership is probably going to choose continuity over innovation. There are too many potholes in the street ahead of them and China’s state capitalism formula is still more fragile than what is perceived, however, I do not share Gordon Chang’s doomsday scenarios because there are many signs which indicate that the Chinese are reclaiming their identity after having regained their dignity. The Zhongnanhai will not suddenly become a glass house, nor is it expected to become one. Chinese civilization is one of order and hierarchy, of face and a mix of Confucianism and seniority. Seen against this background, Mao appears today to have been an aberration. He will always be remembered for the Long March and his handling of the Sino-Japanese War. His successive U-turns, which almost derailed the psyche of a society, left too many scars. I believe that the achievements of his heirs are astonishing. It is to be hoped that the upcoming leaders will be able to add to the current upswing reality a more humanistic, qualitative dimension which supposes agile diplomacy, added connection with the citizen, a “better” rather than “more” quality of life, and a participatory presence in world affairs rather than an opportunistic, voyeuristic one. Premier Wen’s engagement in the Middle East is an encouraging sign.

Just as there is no Europe without the United Kingdom, there is no West without East.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Euro Crisis Darker Side

Since the Greek Medusa intervened, the meetings in Brussels look more and more like providing palliative care rather than a cure. Meanwhile, the metastasis has set in and contagion advances like a brushfire. I believe that half-baked solutions will be found at the end. Member countries of the euro zone will remain morose but the euro will survive, while certain common rules and the role of the ECB will be revamped. If there will ever be a fiscal or economic consensus remains a question mark. Germany stands alone since the French lost their AAA rating and this hegemony starts to have political consequences.

The euro was supposed to make “Europeans”. So much for that. The EU is already split, de facto, between southern and northern blocks. Meanwhile Germany is looking eastward again where Poland and Hungary, for different reasons, are becoming more assertive. Russia is considering a EU2 to regain its lost zone of influence in the Caucasus. The US is becoming a more distant partner, steering a new political/military/economic strategy eastward. Turkey has switched from its European ambition towards its Ottoman geopolitical psyche. In fact the EU stands alone, divided and almost irrelevant despite its still formidable economic weight. The soft power is still there, the hard power is dubious for the least.

The Treaty of Rome was the cornerstone for a future European Federation. The Treaty of Maastricht might have been the first nail in the coffin. Macro vision had to make room for bureaucratic areas of competing interests. The EU has lost its glamour and its constituents, who look homesick for their former currency and control over eco/financial policies while resenting what is felt as Berlin’s unstoppable rise and stubborn financial rigor. All this creates a distraction from what were the EU’s ambitions and lofty goals and could very well lead to dangerous fault lines in Europe.

One should not feast on one’s own doomsday prophecies since they might be self-fulfilling. On the other hand one should not hide from the play in the play. This economic downturn might very well have unpleasant political consequences and awaken populist gut reactions which we do not need. The EU is paying a heavy price for its rush to enlargement which did not pay enough attention to immigration and asymmetry. Opt-out mechanisms and ad hoc collaborations between the willing deserve closer attention. The workings between member states and of the EBC were too weak from the start. They need to be reinforced and made obligatory.

The euro created a euphoria at the beginning. It is creating problems now, more than it creates Europeans but it is still worth fighting for, even at the price of switching from orthodoxy to pragmatism. The Common Market worked because Jean Monet foresaw an incremental concept which eventually led to the EU. The euro may have fatally failed because it has put ambition ahead of the reality of the larger EU which is a heterodox construction wherein too many contradictions co-exist. The Commission was obliged to retreat and to let the Council rule. We risk seeing the inter-governmental arrangements fill the space left by the federalist withdrawal. Clusters of likeminded states risk to undermine the core idea of a European Federation, and weaken the soft power which was Europe’s strength. The euro battle is more than a shock of wills or conceptual opposite visions. Its outcome will determine if the EU remains relevant in a world where the US, China and other BRICS are shaping the future. Giving a facelift to old antagonisms is not the answer.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Not later than yesterday we got a preview of the internal rivalries which exist in the Republican squadron. It looks more and more like Mitt Romney will become the Krishna under which wheels the competitors will end up crushed. Only Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Obama’s former ambassador to the P.R. of China, Jon Huntsman, make (often crooked) sense. The newcomer from suburban American hell, Rick Santorum, fits more in some Arthur Miller dark play than in the race. At least the US has in this latest aberration a fascist for modern times. Europe has lost yet again another monopoly.

The debate was rather painful to watch. The toxic mix of religious nonsense and lack of worldliness creates an atmosphere of unpleasant provincial amateurism. This is remarkable given that the US has plenty of intellectual and media personalities who have a vast knowledge of world affairs, second to none. The Republican candidates are often excellent in specific areas but hopeless in projecting a coherent world view. Meanwhile, the President and the Secretary of State are re-routing America’s strategic and maritime might towards Asia. The ideas of Francis Fukuyama and Joseph S. Nye prevail in the current diplomatic evaluation in the White House and State Department. Latin America still remains too often neglected and Europe is no longer a priority. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs published an article about the euro which is unflattering at least. Meanwhile, the Americans look as if they will be able to overcome the economical and financial slump, albeit with unorthodox means and over a long period of time. Unlike the Europeans they shun theological debates, and rightly so.

The Obama administration is also charting a new course in warfare, more in tune with technology than the former classical combat doctrine which we see failing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also high noon for dealing with Iran but it is wise to avoid confrontation, other than by proxy, intelligence and the “Libyan way”. The administration doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The Secretary of State is pursuing a sophisticated policy, shifting America’s priorities and maritime policies from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Nothing of this is discussed and one is stuck with the banalities and bombast which a Donald Trump spews out like some poker player in Atlantic City.

I still think that a Romney/Obama debate might be enlightening. When Romney leaves the pressures of the campaign behind him, he can be the impressive politician/businessman that he is, and a formidable match for Obama, who will be under pressure to switch from distance to proximity. The Republican and Democratic establishments are sophisticated enough to choose their candidates, as soon as this obligatory populist phase is over. What happens now is embarrassing. It is not representative. Still, it highlights certain frustrations which are legitimate and allows for an overview of a very complex country indeed, wherein class warfare exists and wherein poverty, poor education and alienation are becoming toxic. President Obama, who has achieved a lot after inheriting so little, seems to have underestimated the frustrations which are currently undermining the American dream. Too many are still lured by this utopia and have to find out that the reality is different from what they expected. They can still advance faster here than where they came from but they likewise experience that the effort required is a burden they did not expect. Indeed America has lost its exceptionality, while still retaining its array of almost infinite possibilities. Obama and Romney (if the latter is the Republican candidate) will have to switch from fairy tale talk to hard talk if they want to convince a disenchanted electorate, which in both camps looks more resigned than committed.

For Europeans, too, there is a lesson to be learned, both in the mishandling of democracy here and in their own increasing irrelevance in the world. Before ridiculing the American mess they should look over their shoulder, if they don’t want to become totally shortsighted. In the clash of ideas they are becoming an absent player, while their soft power is slipping away. The only way out is to rejuvenate a new-look Atlantic partnership, which will be difficult, given the US indifference to the EU, which is often considered as failing in the political, monetary and military fields. The Americans are fed-up with wars and one should not expect them to start leading from behind as a rule. The “burden sharing” idea will again become a point of contention in NATO, where the Europeans no longer fulfill their part of their share.

All this leads us away from the parochial Republican primaries which cover mostly the banal, seldom the important and never anything European. The old days of Thatcher/Reagan, the political counterpart of the Ginger Rodgers/Fred Astaire shared chemistry are over and neither Obama nor a Republican will bring them back. Peking Duck and Sushi rule. Americans will be too happy to vote for the chopstick rather than test the temperature of the Euro pessimistic/cynical waters. Angela Merkel will have to be content ruling over what is becoming an Asian archipelago in the new re-oriented projection of the world map.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012 !

New Year is over. One tries to find some reason for happiness but one ends up in the misery of vulgarity, certified by a hangover. This latest “Passation de pouvoirs” was a rather sober event, playing out with the North Korean weeping chorus as background. The morose met the absurd. 2012 should be a year to look forward to, with Queen Elisabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the London Olympics (and Kim Yong Un for fun). Elections, inter alia, in the USA and in France might put a damper on the good will which such events could create. Besides, the financial skies look more ominous than ever. We have the means to come up with solutions but the EU does not have the Sisyphus to push the heavy stone up hill and begin again if it rolls down. The American political scene, for its part, is for awhile irremediably dysfunctional. The Europeans meanwhile keep busy piling up bureaucracies instead of reaching out for creative solutions. In the current conditions the Gresham Law could very well have a revival. On both sides of the Atlantic it erroneously looks as if salvation should be the result of a multiplication factor, rather than the outcome of the ideas of a few. Keynes changed the world economy. Jean Monet changed Europe. They did not need an entourage. Their intellectual heritage is overtaken by zealotry. They stood alone and suggested a clear, transparent outcome. Nowadays a stalemate prevails and both the United States and the EU look rudderless. The US institutions are under assault and the President gives the impression of preferring distance to proximity. The EU machinery is an unloved tool, generally ignored, often snubbed by governments which sometimes appear closer to the 100 Years War than to the post- World War II peace.

2011 was a backward-looking disaster. 2012 does not look any better. Foreclosures in the United States will increase. The euro crisis might not be contained, with all the negative consequences for a globalized world. Reliable banks, which are not short of cash, will continue to be reluctant to lend. Political populism is here to stay. Some royal or sportive distractions will not bring any lasting solace and better be managed in minor. What is missing is leadership. Europeans are drowning in a tsunami of institutions which fight for relevance in the Brussels EU web. Their purpose is overtaken by the yield which they are supposed to provide for the civil servants who dwell in this phantom circuit of competing EU institutions and the absurd commute between Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasburg and Frankfurt. Athens and Co. could start to fight over the seat of the EU Pawnshop which will have to be created.

I am sure we will have a new generation of Quartets, Tony Blairs, Arab League inspectors, Euro groups, sub-groups, BRICS, G2, 4, 8, 20… while the Arab “Spring” will have plenty of opportunities to cheat the many who believed that the day of democracy was in their grasp. All this sounds pessimistic. The rates of poverty, bad education and financial mismanagement at home, the loss of soft power abroad (in Latin America, Asia, Africa) would not have escaped Nabucodonosor, even if the gravity of the situation now seems to be taken too lightly by our graying multiple Pollyanna leaders. In the EU as in the US, the right statesman seems to be AWOL. This coming year has too many fathers to become a normal offspring. We had better fasten our seatbelts, keep our savings under the mattress and learn how to dance with the stars, who might well be Chinese, if we have to believe in the overpowering might of the dragon. Let us take some solace in the fact that a Singapore Sling still tastes better anywhere but in China or in its little bastard offspring, North Korea.

Slim Europe, slim! The United States might also need a Jenny Craig makeover. We are in this together! A toast to that! The more, the merrier…