Tuesday, May 22, 2012


The Chicago meeting has put President Obama’s hometown under the spotlight.  Otherwise, the summit was a boring affair where personalities clashed and ideas were on sabbatical.  NATO didn’t do its homework and the communiqué/deadline for exit out of the Afghan cemetery of empires are unconvincing at least. This is bad since it is the organization self  which should be reviewed before  opening the widows and run the risk of overstretching.

--NATO can modulate  the eastward direction of the American strategy.

--In a dysfunctional Europe, it can contribute to revamping a more homogeneous Western counterpart, at a time when there are ominous signs in the Balkans and wherein the roses of the Arab Spring might have more thorns than flowers.

--Europe’s military capacity without American military might is insufficient.

--NATO must get rid of a lingering Cold War culture and come up with new shared tasks, such as climate change, more weapons standardization, intelligence sharing, Cyber war, etc.

Those aspects concern, in the first place, strictly NATO partners and not participants, who cannot been trusted and can end up being friend or foe. It is time to review our workings and to stop indirectly financing Pakistani blackmail or Afghan poppy growers. President Obama was right not to meet face to face with the Pakistani president.  Boxed in by the politics of his predecessor he felt obliged however to meet in a bilateral talk with Karzai.

 The sooner we leave Afghanistan the better. Too many lives lost, too much money spent recklessly. Whatever the comments of the NGOs might want us to believe, the burka is there to stay, not to mention a perverse culture of honor killings and sexism. The West, in the first place the Americans, should not finance this poppy mafia.  In the end there remains only the tragic conclusion that we all  realize that too many gave their lives to no avail.  Do not expect Normandy-type cemeteries for the fallen coalition forces in Afghanistan, when this nightmare ends. Ingratitude and tribal bad blood will rule unabated.
NATO must come together again, not as some opportunistic electoral platform as was the case in Chicago but as a think-tank where new inroads can be worked out. The last Meeting did not enhance NATO’s credibility. It tried to hide disunity, hinted  how the new French president is reduced to become a “person of interest” in a fortnight, and missed an opportunity to examine China’s structural problems, the BRIC bluff or Russia’s Potemkin style of governing.  Wisely, Putin did not attend, leaving the mike to Obama and Medvedev for another comedy moment. In the United States things are not that much better.  Romney forgets that the Cold War is over and President Obama remains hostage to a lethal political/economical heritage. The EU and the Europeans individually end up being tolerated sans plus. Hence the importance of NATO strictu sensu where Europeans still can talk en famille and see how to work with the Americans in a galaxy of flashpoints from Asia to Europe.  Photo-ops will not do it.  A tsunami of problems is rolling  in ; better to be ready than to be taken taken by surprise.  Sometimes a potion of enlightened Rousseau-ism can help.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Carlos Fuentes died. The “Trinity” of Latin American literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes is no longer.

Fuentes was a complex writer, diplomat and historian. Often arrogant, at times courageous- during the student massacre in Mexico in 1968 – often suffering from an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Nevertheless, he chose to live in the volcano rather than under, like the hero in Malcolm Lowry’s book. In his latest novel “Destiny and Desire” he embraced Mexico’s current hell with a baroque furor. The narco-civil war becomes an atrocious home-made killing field. The gratuitous executions are devoid of the mythology we usually linked to the rituals of the Mayan civilization. There is no longer a trace left other than the bloodbath south of the Rio Grande which becomes the habitat of the obscene robbers of life.

Fuentes ended up swapping distance for proximity. As he said so well:  “The ocean is undrinkable, but it drinks us”.  The French Nobel Prize for literature Le Clezio was still able to go to the heart of the Mexican silence.  Fuentes stabs it.  Lately he wrote like Diego Rivera painted, overflowing with rage and sadness. The elegant aristocrat mutated into an angry iconoclast. The lyrical commentator of Mexican art became the disenchanted observer of his brethren, lost without a compass.
While I served as ambassador in Mexico I came to love the country and notwithstanding the current violence that engulfs it, I know all the good, creative and generous aspects which remain.  It was always difficult to find God in those overdone, busy altars which looked as if they were attempting to mix the pagan with the sacred.  The same goes for those religious rituals in the south where faith and violence collide and collude.  Fuentes, like other Latin American writers, had an exceptional empathy with the effects of the intrusion of one civilization upon another. He was undoubtedly more familiar with the invader but was never oblivious to the resistance and humiliation of the invaded. Latin American countries are laboratories of many clashes of civilization, race, and customs, which have given rise to a systemic malaise. The origin of many contemporary works of art can be found in this latent identity crisis, in the first place amongst the middle and lower classes. There is always a need for some Orpheus to find the words which can provide relief.  We have lost a major one… Guernica should feel at home in the Mexico of today.

Friday, May 11, 2012


The toxic division in the United States has reached the treasonous shore of the social issues. The rise of the Tea Party troglodytes is pushing the country to the right, obliging the advocates of, inter-alia, same-sex marriage not to remain idle. The gloves are off.

President Obama has endorsed same sex marriage. The measure is still not valid erga omnes as long as it remains an issue for the states. It has to be expected that the Supreme Court will get involved in the end. The political risk for the President is real since the measure might have a hard landing in his own backyard.  African Americans and Hispanics tend to be conservative. Still, the winds of social change can no longer be ignored. The voices of evangelicals and bishops thunder now, after having remained silent during decennia of child abuse. They give us the opportunity to witness the rush to defeat reason and justice by some established wrongdoers or Fox News addicts.

Obama, not unlike Montaigne, with whom he has a lot in common, is more observant than aloof. The T.S Eliot-reader from university days remains an intellectual, more seduced by nuance than by bangs. His oratory, which is generally lauded, tends to sound hollow when the issue doesn’t lend itself to more philosophical speculation.  As soon as the nitty-gritty comes up the natural narcissist becomes a salesman, who has to look outside, modus operandi which goes against his temperament, geared to take stock of himself.  Only the larger issues seem to haunt him. It takes him time to arrive at closure. Some argue that he was pushed by his vice-president to “rattle the chains that where broken years ago” with respect to gay rights. This might have been the case but the President is the type of person who arrives at his final decision mostly on his own terms, as was the case with the operation Bin-Laden. Therein lies, by the way, some of the roots of his disconnect with Congress. He will “signal” what he is up to, rather than choosing for proximity, as LBJ did so well.

His decision was certainly a difficult one to arrive at.  He may have made his re-election more difficult in doing so.  He felt he had to make a move now, for reasons more connected with destiny than opportunity.  He must know that he will be accused of defending “lofty” issues rather than bread and butter.  He might lose some, but most voters, as impatient as they might have been with the pace of performance, will still vote for him, whatever the context.  In acting the way he did he made a pact with history, opting for vision, foregoing the second term obsession which generally prioritizes what is convenient in the short term, foregoing the ambition to reform for generations to come. He promised change. He made it, again.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Do not be mistaken, this is not about Homer or Greek mythology (thank you Agatha Christie’s ‘Lord Edgeware Dies’.) This regards the French presidential elections. The result was predictable. The French have chosen an understudy instead of the monarchial presidents who have ruled France since Charles de Gaulle set the tone. The choice was not about programs--almost irrelevant--but about elitism versus populism. Francois Hollande is a smart, intelligent personality. The same can be said of President Nicolas Sarkozy, but he had problems hiding an arrogance which often went too far, irritating foes and allies. The most important outcome of this election is the realization, unavoidable almost, that France in Europe is a country like any other, facing the same economical/social nightmare. One tends to forget how difficult it was for Francois Mitterand to swallow the pill of German reunification. He got the second role in the duumvirate with Germany but everybody knew who came first. The charade continued under Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy until the latter overplayed his role in the sands of North Africa where he ended up calling 911. Still he had some pertinent ideas regarding the EU and monetary affairs which were all dead upon arrival in Berlin. Angela Merkel is a hard nut to crack and the French were obliged to arrive at the conclusion that they were the dupes in this mariage de raison. Sarkozy was a mover and a shaker in the American way. The French found him tiresome in the end and returned to their more placid, speculative roots. Hollande will be pushed by his supporters into returning to a classical, predictable policy which will turn France again in a more provincial direction: anti-NATO, bygone economical and monetary policies, suspicious of globalization and taken hostage by the trade unions. Sarkozy had his hubris but he liberated France from the Chirac long sleep. We do not risk a repeat but we might get bored instead. Europe is a mess. The Commission has no audience. Some rather unpleasant reminiscences have made a comeback and states like Spain, the UK, Belgium and Italy are on life support in their present form. Even Germany might run into political problems. Other newcomers in the EU are frankly mafia states. Meanwhile the United States looks to the East and the Russian bear plays the hibernating game. Germany is envied and stands alone, like China almost, a lender with an attitude. The French, whom the Germans already consider as understudies, might as well abandon first-class and travel business with their peers. This de facto European disintegration might very well be accelerated as a result of the French elections. France was not Germany’s equal, but it could at least temper the over-orthodox policies of Berlin, and indirectly help the other Euro members. Austerity can be useful. It should not become an ultimatum. Sometimes some Keynesian input and a zest of inflation should be considered. The American monetary and economical pragmatism might in the end work better than a Calvinistic disciplinary approach. Sarkozy was unable to convince Angela Merkel to moderate her hard-line economics. She looks almost obsessed by the spectrum of the former German inflation plague. I doubt that Hollande can be more successful. On the contrary, he risks creating tensions in the G20 meeting in Mexico or in the near future in the NATO summit in Chicago. Of course it remains to be seen if he will opt for a “wait and see” attitude or for an early “big bang”. I believe he will be more cautious than aggressive, more tempted to co-lead a consensus rather than play a Gaullist empty chair game. Still, his intellectual luggage looks worn out and he is the hostage of an electorate which is fundamentally anti-globalization and chauvinistic. After a “president acrobat” we might end up with a “president in shackles”. Marine Le Pen from the rightist National Front became Mr. Hollande’s kingmaker by refusing to support President Sarkozy. She could as well crown the new so-called “President Normal” in Reims, renewing with the the slippery steps of King Charles VII and Joan of Arc. Ms. Le Pen is ultimately the victor by stealth. She has staying power and is free from Cartesian rules.


The saga of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng in China would be a comedy of errors if it were not so serious. All the players in this political (melo-) drama seem to have forgotten their lines. Chinese, Americans, and Mr. Chen himself seem to have been embroiled in an absurd fable wherein everybody looks like having been duped. All this was a major distraction from the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China which mobilized the “who is who” on both sides. It is impossible to guess what the agreement was, if there was one. The Chinese lost face (a major drama), the Americans looked foolish and Mr. Chen appeared sometimes as being a manipulator. The official narrative looked surreal, given what was happening behind the usual official smiles and protocol. The American ambassador looked more like a nanny than a diplomat and every place Mr. Chen went became an asylum for the insane and thugs. As ambassador in Beijing I have seen enough of those seedy characters who run the show. The regime looked bad, almost a remake of post-Weimar Germany. The Americans tried to triangulate self-interest and human rights. This was an inglorious week, obliging the Chinese to show their worst side, inciting the Americans to stick to Realpolitik, which is not always that moralistic. It is to be hoped that this unsavory episode can be forgotten and that Mr. Chen and his family might come to the United States. There has been enough cynicism this week to fill a book where almost everybody looks opportunistic or worse. The secretary of state might have played the better role but only the future will confirm. The part played by Gary Locke, American ambassador, remains unclear even as his intentions were obviously good. The American side vowed not to expect a repeat of this incident. Human rights seem really to be a precious metal a la carte! American diplomatic missions seem to have their hands full in China lately. The surreal has become the norm, given the number of Chinese activists who helped Mr. Chen and have already been routed by the police. Maybe the Americans should start preparing proper lodgings for the Bo Xilais and Ai Weiwei since they are at it. We are only witnessing the U-turns of this Chinese-American “new-look” relationship. Too bad that rather than steadily progressing it goes sometimes into rear gear. After all, Tiananmen still shows the scars of 20 years ago, like some political Pompeii. The blind have to stop leading the blind.