Thursday, May 30, 2013


Since the American blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan the pundits have made pessimistic assertions regarding the future and credibility of American power. The political gridlock in Congress combined with recession and the threat of home-grown terrorism only aggravated this wave of pessimism. No day goes by without a book appearing announcing the future relegation of the United States to a declining power.

I can see that many indicators may indeed point in that direction. The U.S. Army is overstretched where it should not.  The Americans are seen by foe and ally alike as cynical opportunists who, since the Shah, are seen as throwing former allies who become cumbersome, under the bus. Diplomacy misses  focus and looks more often than not like an incoherent repair job which is missing a Grand Plan.  Numerous scholars are highly critical of the ways thing are going since September 11.  President Obama raised hopes and proved indeed to be a sophisticated thinker but one can also over-think and end up in some Hamlet soliloquy in a graveyard.  The President is eloquent in the land and abroad.  His oratory skills dwarf the utterances of Republicans and Democrats alike but there is a need to connect if the words are mend to hit a target. Obama appears strangely unable to bridge the gap between good intentions and change on the ground.

Accordingly, China gets all the credit while it is really more show than fact.  The structural problems will appear sooner rather than later when the toxic consequences of pollution, foodstuff security, construction standards, labour conditions, censorship, bottom-up discontent, a public sector shadow economy, and a hostile neighborhood come home to roost.  The extraordinary growth which is needed to support the country is unsustainable in the long run, when an aging population becomes a burden and when investors start to look for other low-salary heavens. China does not invent.  It is a predator both of raw materials and intellectual property. The rivers are sewers.  It is about time one looks at the facts behind the numbers. 

On the positive side, China pursues a smart policy abroad. Chinese infrastructure, which can be seen everywhere, is more popular than drones which cannot be seen. America must review how it is seen abroad:  as a brass, indifferent force which pays scant attention to local cultures or creeds. This is also partially unfair, considering its involvement in NGOs or US Aid.  For a country which invented contemporary P.R. it looks almost absurd that so little is invested in the positive.  President George W. Bush did more for the fight against AIDS in Africa than any of his former or current colleagues. The Americans, rightly so, came to the conclusion that certain changes have to come from within. This policy of distance is not a choice for indifference. Peace efforts under or with American leadership have to be continued. Humanitarian and other forms of support should be increased. Military might should become the exception, not the rule. The "pivot" to Asia should be seen and presented as a desire for positive co-leadership with China (which is more unpopular in Asia than it is in Africa or South America). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton understood the glamour of soft-power when addressing town hall meetings in all parts of the world. Her successor is right to be cautious and to try to involve others rather than doing it alone in Kissinger mode (Les temps ont change).

Vali Nasr has written a book which is almost a pamphlet "The Dispensable Nation."  He considers a mix of economic engagement and diplomacy, and rightly suggests that diplomacy should not be limited to the partners we feel "comfortable" with but also with the ones that might kill us.  All the more so, since counter terrorism has proven to be a dead-end.  He points to the shifting geo-political reality wherein America's absence is always filled by China, be it in Iran,Syria, Pakistan, or the Indian Ocean which might as well become a Chinese mare nostrum. Turkey might soon become the American's indispensable partner in the ever worsening Middle East spiral.

In the short-term all this looks rather ominous but in the long-term America will regain its footing. It is already the creator/manifucterer by excellence, even if the spare parts are "made in China," but for how long?  Its economy is mutadis mutandis resilient. It does not suffer from a Han Chinese xenophobia. The problem is that the Americans got tired of wars in countries that they do not relate to, the more so that they are becoming energy independent. They have to find the path back to a coherent worldview, some intellectual strategy as George Kennan, Dean Acheson or Henry Kissinger (with some reservations) had. They need to address multi-polarity which can be a force for the good rather than for the bad. China's threats are more directed to its own future than abroad (with the exception of Taiwan, Tibet -which could well become China's Iraq,after the demise of the Dalai Lama-, the South China Sea, the Dyaoyutais and the Autonomous Regions). If they are careful and patient enough, the Americans might as well have to look at China over their shoulder. A world on fire needs more than one to carry a bucket of water, so better know your neighbour and have plenty of buckets at hand.  Do not forget where the faucet is. I trust President Obama, who will meet his Chinese counterpart in the Annenberg capitalistic nirvana of Palm Springs next week, will be so gracious as to show Xi Jinping where the water outlet is.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Maps over time have become not unlike bodies after torture or strenuous unnatural exercise.
Formerly it was different. One in the Western Hemisphere was used to seeing the world through the eyes of the Flemish cartographer Mercator who created, in 1569, the first cylindrical world map, using meridians and parallels. His revolutionary projection was immediately considered a heresy. Nevertheless, his map still stands as a close-up scientific view of the world as it was known then, without any hidden agenda or malice. Europe in this mindset was the focal point of the Orbis. The Chinese emperor, who certainly had another concept of where China stood, nevertheless invited Flemish and other Jesuits to China to share their astrological know-how with the Middle Kingdom.

Since then, the objective translation of facts on the ground has shifted.  The political agenda syndrome metastasized, multiplying interventions which led to the upstart of artificial entities which overruled natural borders or self-contained cultural/political clusters.  Maps and worldview in general were manipulated and subjugated to hidden agendas.  Google is making strives towards the future, trapping misrepresentations by way of higher technological objective velocity.

In the 19th Century, Africa figured as a black hole, ready to be consumed. This void was also a statement. Today, Iran erases Israel from the map. Tomorrow the map will probably undergo a "topsy-turvy,"  which could overturn the worldview which has inhabited the Western retina for centuries.  Europe might be "relocated," becoming an extension of Asia.  The Asian tell uric mass is indeed marginalizing Western Europe which could be reduced to an appendix, if there were not the Russian buffer, which is actually more a two-headed Hydra looking both ways:  to Europe and to Asia.

Admittedly maps have been indifferent toys when the West ruled, carving countries out of the defunct Ottoman Empire.  Heterogeneous newcomers were created with no time spent to test their viability. Minorities were dispersed over several borders, which is partially at the origin of the Middle Eastern mess.  Curzon, Balfour, MacMahon, the treaty ports imposed upon the Qing Dynasty, etc., imposed arbitrary borders and nautical line limits disguised as map updates. Natural frontiers, socio-cultural homogeneity had to make room for expeditiousness and the depletion of natural resources. The Conference of Berlin in 1884/1985 and the Sevres Treaty in 1920 were more about indifferent carving than about mapping. 

Who knows what can be expected in the Arctic?  The eight Arctic Circle member states seem to have a consensual approach with regard to research and conservation. National borders have been agreed upon. What will happen when agreement meets the test of greed?  The science of mapping has been overtaken by other considerations. Paradoxically, the scientific exactitude of rendering logically the geographic mass has been mortgaged for political ends. Despite the advances of the tools, the possible positive consequences thereof have been distorted and we are left with sleeping toxic situations such as the unresolved border dispute between India and China or India and Pakistan for instance. Balfour is like Hamlet's ghost, clouding the Middle East peace(?) process...and one can go on.

Whatever the Google map shows, Google becomes in certain quarters the enemy. The distortion will continue to rule in corners, which refute the Holocaust as much as the reality on the ground. Maps were supposed to be enlightening. They might become treacherous and as a result we might look at the Mercator, Chinese or older Arab representations of the world as museum pieces, overtaken by ulterior motives.

I quote Houellebecq: "It's a game.  It's a million-dollar game."  The writer went into overdrive with the map allegory which figures in his book  "La carte et le territoire wherein the banal Michelin map becomes some sort of contemporary art totem.  He refers to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, the " usual suspects ".   We have come a long way since Mercator!   Prejudice and the empirical find themselves locked in a combat to the finish.

Friday, May 17, 2013


Traditionally, each Chinese leader likes to embrace some form of "slogan" which sets him apart from his predecessor(s).  Xi Jinping has come up with "The Chinese Dream" after the rather dour and opaque pulpit utterances of his immediate predecessors: "Harmonious Society" and "The Three Represents." In doing so he appeals to the ever-present nationalistic undercurrent in Chinese society.  Equally, he sends a signal to the PLA which has lately become a major player internally and externally, projecting a mix of hard and soft (?) power. 
One wishes that the Chinese could build a model society wherein rule of law is paired with economic and political projection. There remain many stumbling blocks in the longer term:  an aging population, a demographic pyramid turned upside down, social unrest, sluggish growth (all things being relative), current and future tensions in Xinjiang, Gansu and Tibet.

When looking at China many observers too often are blinded by the myriad of lights which make the coastal corridor glamorous. It has to be recognized that the Chinese leadership has made major inroads to alleviate the asymmetric economic development and to take control of the ecological disaster it has unleashed as a consequence of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
A fundamental question remains unanswered.  To what extend is the leadership in control of the trends?  In other words, do we observe a top to bottom policy or is there a bottom-up dynamic which "obliges" the Party to adhere to an economic and social acceleration which is, so to speak,  almost a wild card in the game? The Chines leadership has always been a cynical appropriator (Deng Xiaoping ).  It could as well be a mix of two energies which collude rather than collide. 

The former Governor of the People's Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan, might be the optimal representative of this more syncretic third way, navigating sound monetary policies with the consent of the Standing Committee which does not intend to lose the monopoly of Imprimatur of last resort on all aspects of governance.  Still, there can be a window ajar.  The Party fears, above all, that opening it too wide might lead to some Perestroika, which is taboo.

Meanwhile, "The Chinese Dream" is still in its starting blocks.  Xi Jinping appears to be very cautious in global world affairs.  The "near abroad" is something else all together.  China will not allow intruders in what it considers its zone of influence, be it on land or on sea. Washington's shift to Asia is taken seriously, but the Chinese remark about the American Giant, which is often considered in academic circles as more "dispensable" than not.  The drama played over the Diaoyutais, the posturing over the Paracels, possible developments in Taiwan or a post-Dalai Lama Tibet, should be taken seriously.  America's firewall leaves the Chinese more amused than worried, given the US Administration's reluctance lately to get over-involved. 

Nevertheless, Beijing has to tackle more structural problems internally if it wants to continue rising.  Besides, contrary to the American Dream, the Chinese one is for internal consumption only.  China has more clients than allies. The United States lately has more allies than clients. The two superpowers are more complementary than they like to admit.  The "pivot" might end up being more a rapprochement cordial than a strategic move in defiance of China's rights. 

The future is hard to predict. The slow demise of the United State and the continuous rise of China are unsustainable assertions.  The world has become a plural and major players will have to stear it with due respect for existing legitimate priorities and a willingness to manage flash points (climate change, poverty, terrorism) together rather than continuing to play the lonely cowboy when the public has long left the cinema.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

BRUXELLES... encore *

Jean Quatremer a fait dans un article paru dans Liberation le constat de l'aberration urbaine qu'est devenue la capitale belge. Je m'etais deja permis certaines observations analogues dans mon essai TRACES, qui n'ont pas manque de deranger ceux qui ont troque le regard pour la complaisance.
L'article paru dans Liberation est different parce que sans merci. Il eut ete opportun de considerer egalement les exceptions a la regle,  qui sont nombreuses mais tombees victimes d'un urbanisme absurde qui a disloque le tissus urbain plutot que de le renforcer. On arrive fatalement a une defiguration globale qui rend la ville illisible et incomprehensible. C'est sans doute la raison pour laquelle Bruxelles n'a jamais beneficie d'un choc Bilbao ou de l'intervention d'architectes type Frank Gehry,Norman Forster ou Rem Koolhaas (entre autres).
Le mal est fait, accentue par des constructions et des interventions qui semblent appartenir aux regimes defunts de guerre froide (et encore). Ce qui neanmoins continue a seduire dans cette jungle  semble isole, sans rapport organique avec l'environnement plus large (Lewis Mumford).
Bruxelles est la victime d'une mentalite, d'une gouvernance " provinciale" et de l'Europe qui se trouve a l'etroit dans une capitale qui ne parvient pas a digerer voir meme a co-gerer la metastase type GOS plan,propre a l'envahisseur Europeen. Ce dernier a fini par attraper le mal belge, qui ne pardonne pas. Le facadisme continue a faire des ravages et le concept d' "architecte belge" est entre dans les manuels. Cela est injuste car il ya plethore d'excellents architectes en Belgique mais l'autorite prefere deleguer a ceux qui lui ressemblent et qui privilegient le profit sur le dos du gout.
Certes, il faut encore prendre en consideration que d'autres capitales auraient aussi interet a faire leur examen de conscience. L'"autoroute" Pompidou cote Seine ou la tour Montparnasse ne passeraient plus l'examen d'entree. A Londres la cathedrale Saint Paul est prisonniere d'immeubles qui renvoient au meme scenario que celui qui etouffe la cathedrale Saint Michel a Bruxelles. Le mal est fait mais a Bruxelles il semble irreparable,  faute aussi de l'absence d'un maire comme Delanoe a Paris ou Bloomberg a New York (megalopole "propre" et securisante) .
L'autre jour j'etais oblige a changer de train a la gare du Nord a Bruxelles a six heures du matin...c'est la descente en enfer ! Ne parlons pas de Bruxelles Midi qui est a l'oppose de ce qui peut se fait dans d'autres capitales ou la gare devient un pole de croissance et de gout, cote services et accueil.
Le proces d'intention que le journaliste de Liberation fait a la circulation routiere a Bruxelles est exagere car le mal automobile est comme dans la piece d'Audiberti un mal qui court partout. A contrario si on avait eu le gout de rendre le Grand Sablon pietonnier autour d'un plan d'eau par exemple ou eut pu eviter la lente derive de ce quartier, qui avait garde son caractere, n'etant plus qu' un assemblage disparate et opportuniste qui n'a plus de racines. C'est la sociologie de l'epicier !
L'evolution politique en Belgique ne favorise pas la capitale qui n'a plus les personnalites ou les moyens pour s'affirmer. Elle ne parvient meme pas a tirer benefice de sa pluralite qu'elle semble considerer comme un probleme insoluble alors qu'elle devrait favoriser une integration plus eclairee (malgre les problemes inevitables que cela pose).
Le coup de semonce de Quatremer vient a point alors que le patrimoine culturel de Bruxelles est mal servi, desuet (Musees) ou absent (art contemporain, face-lift pour attenuer les effets catastrophiques de la cicatrice / Jonction Nord/Sud ou du decor lugubre qui accueille les voyageurs gares du Nord et Midi,...entre autres). Est-ce trop tard ? D'aucuns le pensent. Leopold II a frequemment fait appel a un architecte francais pour sortir Bruxelles de son obscurite. Le journaliste francais pourrait bien devenir malgre lui l'acteur d'un renouveau au lieu de devoir etre considere comme le notaire ayant passe acte d'un echec. Je lui donnerai volontiers la pioche pour demolir l'horreur qui a "remplace" la Maison du Peuple...Il faut commencer par l'estocade.

*Clavier anglais sans accentuation.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


"Leading from Behind," quoted by the New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, became a God-sent epitaph for the Obama foreign policy for Republicans.  After the May 8th Congressional hearing regarding the events which led to the death of four Americans in Benghazi, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, one might be tempted to elaborate on the latter statement and qualify the Administration's handling of the follow-up as "lying from behind."

It would be premature to mix both avenues or to rush to conclusions. The three witnesses gave a harrowing account of the events and their mismanagement by various officials in Washington during and after the tragedy. The testimony was a "J'accuse," pointing the finger at officials who were unable to keep up with events and who tried to cover up afterwards. All echelons of decision-making were criticized for their hapless response. Ambassador Susan Rice's assault on the media thereafter, stating that the event resulted from a spontaneous manifestation that went out of hand, was trashed. The witnesses' and the second-in-command Gregory Hicks in particular' asserted that they linked the events to a premeditated terrorist attack instead. They more or less implicitly laid the blame on the State Department, and right to the top:  the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.

This investigation is damaging for the President and for the Democrats as a whole.  It might lead to an unpleasant partisan spectacle, which gives the Republicans ammunition against the "indispensable" Democratic runner for the presidency, Mrs. Clinton.

It should also be remembered that the testimonies of civil or security persons who feel demoted have to be considered with caution. Nevertheless, the account of Gregory Hicks was both emotional and scathing for all officials he had on the line that infamous night. The Obama administration's narrative does not stand. Congressional Republicans might as well subpoena officials, including Ambassador Rice and the former secretary of state. The subject is now politicized and a U-turn has become hard to phantom after this first hearing.

If indeed the envoy were to have been demoted for reason of a cover-up, it might become a major reason for concern. If so many high ranking respected officials (Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen) were involved, the repercussions might become even more toxic.

During a press conference the President was asked if he still has "the juice."  This sub-title tells all.  Belatedly Obama is more often than not seen as an aloof president who confuses oratory virtuosity with resolve, watching the effect his words might have on others rather than monitoring their therapeutic or political added value. The dilettante takes over from the politician.  There is a Narcissus there, waiting on the sidelines. His charm offensive worked after the hubris of the Neo-Cons, his intellect still mesmerizes but he should use it to connect rather than to distance himself from the sycophantic ordinariness. For a politician, reticence might be seen as a capitulation.

Friday, May 3, 2013


The American administration has announced with some fanfare a shift in strategic priorities towards Asia, the so-called "pivot.  The intention is timely. Most emerging economies are in Asia and China's rise has to be monitored. This should be done in a creative fashion, the more so since the PRC will be, together with the United States, the major players in world affairs. The former has to maintain its credibility with the ASEAN countries and with allies such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, which have thrived under the American umbrella.

This latest shift will not come easy.  China is a highly susceptible power which is eager to remain in some form of control of what it considers to be its own backyard.  Myanmar was a good indicator of China's sense of entitlement.  Russia is a European or Asian power a la carte and is not remaining passive in this geopolitical twister.  Many countries in Asia do not mind if the Chinese overlord gets "cornered" but will not admit their Schadenfreude openly.

Washington has a difficult task implementing its ambition.  It is stuck in the Arab awakening which is becoming more an Islamist nightmare as the time goes by.  The new American Secretary of State, John Kerry, is trying to signal that the United States is willing to act again as a go-between in trying to solve the stalemate in the Israel/Palestine peace (?) process.  He probably wants more to cut the losses than to get over-involved again, with not enough time to implement new, more productive initiatives in other parts of the world.  He must feel very lonely. The Russians and the Chinese are too happy to see the Americans getting stuck in the Arab labyrinth, which impairs their freedom to act decisively elsewhere. 

The Arab Spring was a "trap" indeed and the Americans walked into it, for reasons that can be seen as naive, realistic, opportunistic or resulting from Realpolitik considerations.  Moscow and Beijing share many of the American misgivings regarding the radicalization of a Shadow Caliphate but they will not give a helping hand to disentangle the United States from this mistake. As much as they will be helpful in fighting terrorism on each other's home turf, they will not intervene to help reverse costly mega-military interventions which give them a quantitative advantage. Washington finds itself the prisoner of a Swiftian metaphor, having to finance what it doesn't like, while at the same time being unable to repair an aging World War II infrastructure at home. Likewise, strategic priorities have to take the backseat as a result of war miscalculations and the need to finance unsavory regimes and corrupt unreliable "allies." This type of investment has a negative return. Changing course might equally lead to an unpleasant aftermath but one might rightly ask the question: "so what?"  Anti-Americanism is there to stay and I doubt that a solution to the Israel-Palestinian dilemma would bring a long-term dividend in a region where metastasis rules.

Syria might be a test which could allow the United States to call the Russian and Chinese bluff. Washington could suggest a diplomatic threesome to put a halt to the slaughter. The West too often gives a free pass to other world powers, be it regarding North Korea, Iran or here, in case, Syria. It is less about taking sides, which is counter-productive, than about sharing responsibility with powers which are so eager to require equal treatment urbi et orbi.  So be it! The same might be applied to the Middle East where the Saudi plan, which was supported by the Arab League, could become the cornerstone of a large diplomatic initiative leading to a two-state solution.

The bi-polar world is no longer. Globalization dreams have become Goya nightmares. It is time to regroup and to consider essential choices, such as the "pivot," and not let them become hostages of third parties' ulterior motives. There is also a need to return to more conceptual thinking patterns.  Conflicts need more than drones, they need to be addressed by ideas and an enlightened mindset. China wins over the imagination with its soft power (while equally busy expanding the range of its strategic know-how, primarily as a major sea power.). The United States risks becoming the clone of its film industry, a robotic power which confuses entertainment with substance. Foggy Bottom might be well-advised to have a second reading of Lee Kwan Yew.