Tuesday, December 31, 2013


We are supposed to get accustomed to a tailored worldview wherein the remnants of post-World War II coexist with a number of ad hoc "avatars," which are supposed to represent new regional or other specific interests.  A third category of non-state actors and the mestastizing Al-Qaeda further complicate any rational overview.  This shortened summary is totally misleading. The former great powers cling to the leftovers of a system which is actually still working (UN Security Council and specialized UN organisations, the World Bank and the IMF) . Outsiders  prefer to be become part of the Institutional architecture (Security Council) they dispize rather than trying unsuccessfully to wipe it out, ending up ingloriously outsmarted and devoid of alternatives, which are by the way beyond the reach of their expertise.

The "others," inter alia the BRICS , the OAU or the Arab League, lack cohesion and are more preoccupied undermining or exploiting each other, than formulating a comprehensive model for cooperation. Their impact remains marginal, if not non-existent. This being said, they can do a lot of harm by diverting the potentially positive to the structurally negative. On most issues, self-interest undermines common determination.  Hence it becomes urgent for like-minded countries (to a point) to accelerate the negotiations which could lead to the TPP (Transpacific partnership) and a free-trade agreement between the EU and the USA. China could join the TPP by the way, because economy and trade are becoming strategically more important than any other alternative and China shouldn't be ostracized.  Besides, this might contribute to lower or normalize China's ambitions in the South and East China Seas. After all, Beijing has agreed to join the US-hosted RIMPAC next year, the most ambitious annual international maritime exercise. Trade needs freedom of navigation!

I know that the Chinese Document 9 regarding the "seven perils" of Western ideas does not bode that well for the future.   In the end, interdependence will beat divergence, and restraint in American foreign policy will beat isolationism.  I am the first to lament the bygones from the good old Wilsonian, Atlantic or Kissinger brushstrokes, but few admit that the size of the canvass hasn't grown, while the group of painters has increased disproportionately.  At the same time, the quality of political science has taken a nose-dive.  The "old" post Berlin Wall order is under siege, conscious of the traps (as Putin lays them out so well), which are becoming "minefields" (but may come back to haunt him). China, for its part, had better control its nerves because those "anodyne" island disputes with the likes of Japan or the Philippines or Vietnam might easily get out of hand. In this category of "melodramatic" scenarios the role and responsibility of the United States remain unique. Only Washington can talk to all and has both the soft-power to induce and the hard-power to deter. Last, but not least, the fight against terrorism will be a stronger bond than any pact or agreement and could very well warm up current chilly relations.

It doesn't sound fair maybe, but the fact is that the Americans (rightly so) no longer consider the Middle East an imminent strategic imperative.  Europe, for its part, is considered as a Wodehouse nice uncle, whom you consult more out of courtesy than for any necessity other than commerce. Asia is the "Thing" and one can rightly ask the question why there is still so much travel in the sand and too little on the Silk Road. The cynics might argue that there is haste to get rid of the inconvenience (Middle East) so that there may be more room for the imperative (Asia).  The United States had better remain focused!

Monday, December 30, 2013


Koen Geens, le tres intelligent ministre des finances, a suggere qu'a l'avenir le poste de  premier minitre en Belgique soit reserve a une personnalite Flamande. A priori je n'ai rien contre. On pourrait d'ailleurs avancer que le principe de majorite democtratique soutient pareille suggestion.

Il faut cependant se garder,me semble-t-il, de legiferer ou de vouloir codifier ce principe. Il entrera d'autant plus facilement dans les moeurs politiques s'il reste sotto voce. En attendant , l'actuel Premier Ministre accomplit un parcours sans faute qui risque de le reconduire plutot que de le demettre.

2014 sera une annee difficile, qui mettra  les nerfs a l'epreuve .Le sens de l'Etat et les finances se trouveront sous haute surveeillance. Le roi Philippe a reussi son entree,  mais les elections risquent d'etre un baptheme du feu redoutable. La formation "normale" d'un gouvernement appartient desormais au domaine du possible, personne n'ayant envie de revenir aux temps passe des blagues belges. Les choses vont mieux, la reforme de l'Etat est devenue une realite et l'opinion publique impose a ses gouvernants  des problemes plus immediats : immigration,chomage des jeunes, environnement, recherche, infrastructure... Les themes uses chers aux inconditionnels provinciaux du Nord et du Sud font moins recette.

Le pays a besoin de reaffirmation, sans quoi il risque de devenir a jamais une "station service EU" sans identite. L'effet Bilbao ou le Rijksmuseum renove font envie mais rien ne bouge en Belgique, si ce n'est un nouveau sous-classement dans le Moody's culturel.

Le P.M Elio De Rupo est un rassembleur credible et il serait sage de ne pas interrompre une trajectoire positive. L'idee de Koen Geens doit aller de soi, devenir spontanee par voie d' induction pour qu'elle  puisse passer sans heurts ou egos meurtris. Le "savoir faire" belge est rarement "classe" mais , mine de rien, il a peu a envier a Macchiavel.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Albert Camus suddenly intrudes again into our dour lives today. We rediscover that Meursault is our contemporary, that Sisyphus never gave up and that Caligula is more than the sum of his aberrations.  The chain-smoking womanizer, the Hamlet-like philosopher "observing" the Algerian War comes closer to us as the time passes.

His Sartre nemesis on the other hand starts to look more Manichean, scripted (contrary to his extraordinary and insufferable companion Simone de Beauvoir.)  Still, both men shared in the belief that love is a multiple which dies off if it fails to mix permanence (friendship) with interlude (seduction.)  The former dies when it is not impregnated by the latter.  Paradoxically, Camus looks more the part of the existential loser while Sartre comes over as the rational mathematician. Both were sex-obsessed, but that is forgetting that for most French sex is a way to be polite rather than to enjoy.  The French savoir faire is more a savoir plaire, more seduction (selfish) than genuine interest (altruism.)

The beach walk in "The Stranger" can only be French (coming from an Algerian.)  The nonchalance of the deed is a form of elegance, applied to murder.  Maybe only Mozart was able to bring betrayal closer to the sublime. We know that the best well-meant feelings don't necessarily make great art.  Camus often preferred to forego current times.  He ignored slogans or abbreviations and looked dispassionately at the ultimate inexplicable contradictions, both in himself and around him.  He is so close because he prefers to maintain his impressionistic distance.  Satie might be his most fitting musical alter ego.

This extraordinary split Frenchman made me love an idea of France, the other side of the coin of Grandes Ecoles and Academies.  He is Jedermann, he wouldn't feel at home in the Pantheon. He rather would share a smoke and a chat bien arrose with whoever happened to be at the Zinc.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


The Fed's outgoing chairman Ben Bernanke announced yesterday that the Federal Reserve would gradually pull back the stimulus policy, unless future developments would warrant a U-turn. Assurances were also given that interest rates would stay low after the bond-buying ends. Wall Street liked what it heard and the Dow Jones gained 300 points.  Obviously, the Fed's reading of the signs of improving growth had an immediate ripple effect (mostly in Asia). 

Investors who dislike uncertainties cheered and Bernanke leaves with well-deserved laurels, after the cataclysms of Bear Stearns and AIG,  rescued by the Fed in ways that were unorthodox. "Quantitative Easing" was also set in place.  The enacted Dodd/Frank act is an attempt to correct former transgressions.  It increased transparency at the Fed while maintaining independence of monetary policy. The act is supposed to further the stability, transparency and accountability of the financial system. It ends the former "too big to fail" mantra and protects taxpayers by ending bailouts. The recently adopted Volcker Rule prohibits an insured depository institution from engaging in proprietary trading or sponsoring a hedge fund or private equity fund. A firewall was set in place.

All this happened while Europe seemed shackled in austerity measures which were imposed from higher up and created a populist uproar, which still survives.  EU politicians did come up with a hybrid "Single Resolution Mechanism" and the creation of a "Banking Regulator," a set of measures too complex to convince. The EU stumbles from compromise to compromise with blurred demarcation lines between politics and global intervention and a myriad of decision-makers who stand in the way of efficiency.  For awhile the three central bankers at the Fed, the ECB and London were able to work together.  Now this looks suddenly more difficult.

Britain has recovered and follows the American model.  For now the EU might as well delete the words "growth" and "employment" in its dictionary.  The United States seems to be heading for a slow but steady recovery (unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, energy independence, R and D boom, housing market up.)  The EU's problem is political and rooted in its heartland where inequality rules. Some decisions are considered as more imposed by necessity than by choice. Mario Draghi, the brilliant ECB'c chief lacks the room for manoeuvre that his American and (new) British counterparts have.

China is becoming a major player. The Renminbi, the "dim sum bonds" (traded in Hong Kong but denominated in RMB), and last but not least, the "sea turtles" (Chinese returning after US education) are dethroning the euro. The Chinese currency might as well choose London as a hub rather than anywhere else. China is a good learner.  London and the United States are the motors behind the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  The United States should likewise accelerate a trade deal with its Asian partners. 

Diplomacy today evolves in  large part around free trade. The  quarrels in the East and South China Seas are more than just  about ego and natural ressources. They highlight the mostly categorical imperative of freedom of navigation, which is copming under threat, and which equals trade!  China's blue water ambitions are a larger menace than its "ostentatious" strives elsewhere!  Xi Jinping knows where his interests lie!  The new Fed Chairperson, Janet Yelen  - and the Obama administration as a whole-  better get used to "navigating" both economic crisis and Chinese treacherous waters.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


We were promised a grand American finale, the "end of history," but Fukuyama's projection fell victim to numerous mini-strokes which have left the world body weakened to the core.  In Europe the EU is considering a half-baked banking union, which is better than none but may fail yet again to convince the Euro-skeptics. Besides, the Russian bear has awakened for good. The Ukraine crisis is even more dangerous than it looks.  If President Yanukovych can snub the EU for Putin's stake he will return Europe to the days of the Soviet stone age. Russia is already busy in the "stans" to consolidate its Eurasian might.  Now that it looks westwards the alarms are on!

Asia is becoming hostage to a Sartrian Huis Clos wherein China, Japan and South Korea could end up playing Russian roulette. The tensions regarding the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands might very well escalate and impail freedom of navigation.  In the North, the Kim Jong Un "receipe" to get rid of uncle Jang SongTaek has been described as Shakespearean.  I think this is an insult to The Bard.  It is Hitlerian and reminds one of the night of the long knives. The collateral damage to follow will alienate mostly Chinese sensitivities.  President Xi Jinping is replacing the former collegial power structure by a one-man show and a NSC which may curtail the influence of the PLA.  Prime minister Li Keqiang meanwhile is conducting an overhaul from export to domestic consumption and interest-rate liberalization.
In Asia's south, in India the possible end of the Gandhi rule  and the surge of a Hindu nationalistic alternative might destabilize a pluralistic democracy.

The Middle East is more messy than ever while secretive negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis continue in a climate of indifference.  Israel made a deal with Jordan and nobody seems to take notice. 

South Saharan Africa, Mali included, is a total mess.  Religious and tribal fault lines are overtaking porous borders and "institutions."  Obama's African speech last week fell on dead ears. Mugabe an Co. probably wore earplugs.

South America doesn't figure among any power's priorities, maybe with the exception of China which takes the raw materials and runs...as it does in Africa.

All these flash points seem to have their own life-cycles and burn like unattended brush fires. The usual American world leadership is lacking.  Ambassador John Bolton often mentions the US passivity or indifference. He is more known for "hard" talk than for diplomatic "niceties" but he has a point here. We used to know where America's choices - good or bad- stood.  Nowadays we are lost in a kind of remake of a US dervish dance worldwide without any credible compass or hierarchy.  Washington is trapped by Putin and ignored by the Chinese.  The "pivot" to Asia or the Syrian and Iranian volte faces convinced none while alienating most.

It might seem unfair to be that critical of a super-power while the EU lately is more noticed for what it cannot do than for what it does.  The point is that one is entitled to expect more from the United States.  When the leader fails, the flock tends to abandon ship. The mood among America's allies all over is not rosy and the apprehension looms larger than the former confidence. Washington should consider urgent, concrete confidence-building measures through free-trade, global partnerships with its Asian allies and the formulation of a "doctrine" fit for the dysfunctional world of today. The metaphor of the blind leading the blind needs a timely burial, otherwise prophecies will haunt us for considerable time.

The United States sees itself as "exceptional."  So be it.  This is also the result of a surprising sense of alienation one encounters here. Americans in general do not compare, do not speak foreign languages, are living in a cocoon which serves them strategically but disserves them socio-culturally. The great American movie saga no longer observes the quality canon.  It has become a good made-for-export product, tuned to the sensibilities of masses that have no interest in the European "angst" product.  One is entitled to be surprised by the vast "provincialism" in Congress or in the public at large.  This is not unique but it can be life-threatening in a country which is supposed to "feel home abroad and at home."  In many ways, this country has the best in education, science, R and D, the arts and medicine.  It also has much of the worst compared to other modest Western countries.  The distribution of wealth perpetuates inequalities and the lack of proper infrastructure from the Eisenhower/Franklin Roosevelt days is appalling.  The debacle of Obamacare is further undermining what is left of trust in government at a time when positive, creative, lean government action might be welcome. 

I disagree with the many pessimists who argue that America's days are over. The pluses are plenty but they need to be awakened or rejuvenated. The political parties are rotten to the core and, if unattended, they will  make further room for populist Tea Party extravaganzas.  The United States still remains a magnet for talent and manages immigration much better than its counterparts who are stuck with the likes of Snowden or Jihadists.  Silicon Valley has no counterpart (Israel comes close). The skyscrapers from the Emirats to Shanghai speak more of bluff, arrogance than necessity. The US will remain the "necessary" if not the "indispensable" power for an unforeseeable future.  Building for "shine" can easily lead to bankruptcy. Hold on to your dollars!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Two events marked the boisterous Mandela commemoration.  The South African President Jacob Zuma was was jeered:  democracy strives in South Africa thanks to Madiba's legacy which was in full sound and view on the moment of his adieu...

President Obama shook hands with Raul Castro
The uproar this  created in the ranks of mostly Republicans is deafening. It was to be expected coming from the likes of Senator Rubio but I am surprised by the reaction of Senator McCain, who cannot be accused of provincial attitudes. The gesture per se was almost anodyne. Cuba is more a relic than a threat. Besides, no Cuban in his right mind speaks of wiping countries off the map or covering terrorism. It helps Venezuela as losers do, comforting each other. For sure the Castro brothers are no fans of human rights but neither are so many world leaders and "allies" who are worse but find open doors worldwide while closing their own doors so that their internal murky dealings remain out of sight. I wonder what the critics of today would have said when President Nixon met Mao?

The US President did the polite thing, which was fitting in a celebration of pluralism and reconciliation. The "nays" look once again like political Neanderthals, alienated from the ways the world at large functions. This "dystopia" maniacal attitude leads to caricatured assessments, generally shared by bigots at large, who can by the way be found in all segments of the American political spectrum, from left to (more often) right. Politicians are stuck in premises which are often outdated, trying (almost pathologically so) to apply outlived archetypes on contemporary situations.

Diplomacy is more about ways than about friends. If the ways collude, the better, if they collide, the worse. Formerly accepted easy prejudices must be overhauled by stress and reality checks. The diplomatic customers vary but there is no other choice than to deal with what there is rather than pursuing what there is not.  Presidents Karzai or Yanukovich are hardly palatable but they cannot be ignored.  Yesterday's foe becomes today's friend (remember the generals in Myanmar and the monks on fire?)

Diplomacy looks for a resolution wherein the chances for an unavoidable military outcome (on condition that one keeps control of scope, time and space, as was the case during the first Iraq war) are reduced and wherein the desirable alternative becomes an incremental goal. Paradoxically, this also implies that the deterrent of undiminished military might needs to be looking over the shoulder of the negotiators. Lately the fury of unnecessary prolonged conflicts has created a subculture which has invaded civil society.  It has become banal, a parasitical commodity which distorts the conversation like chronically phoning or texting.

The invasion of hybrid entities, overlapping-border tribes, clans and freaky Jihadist components leads me to believe that a bad state is better than a non-state. The various former US presidents who have visited Pyongyang will not contradict me. Neither will the American and other investors who are impatient, waiting in their starting blocks to do business with Cuba.

Friday, December 6, 2013


The out-pour of emotion after Nelson Mandela's death had to be expected, given the man's charisma, dignity and achievements.  I certainly will refrain repeating what others do so much better.  I just want to stand still and ask myself why we are so touched by a man who chose always to remain in control of his complexity in a world which is driven by over-simplifications and demagogic categorizing.  The strength of Mandela was his refusal to explain, which would have amounted to banal normalization of the exceptional.  He forgave and went on without acrimony or bitterness.  He didn't have to rationalize and "do" talk-shows.  He just had to be himself, leaving the "pleasures" of scrutiny and analysis to friends and foes alike.

Intuitively we know that for an unforeseeable future there will be no other. The void will remain and his record can be found in the black hole his demise has created. His legacy defies enumeration because it is less about quantifying what was accomplished than about an ethereal quality, which remained childless.  World leaders look even smaller now, in comparison. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013


The unpleasant debate regarding universal healthcare is, in reality, more complex than the decibels pro and contra which hijacked the "heart of the matter."  President Obama has, willingly or not, set in motion what some perceive as a correction of the American psyche.  By doing so, the extremes occupy the "conversation."  The record of the current administration has become an afterthought, overshadowed by an often paranoid larger dispute between Democrats and Republicans. The gridlock in Washington is widening by the day, absorbing former civility and rational thinking. The healthcare battle is more an alibi (the website will work eventually.)  It is the tip of a larger political iceberg, a veil covering a debate over the existential direction the United States will take internally (redistribution) and externally ("pragmatic stick" versus "big stick.")

The dispute being waged is over a fundamental differential between the adherents of less and the proponents of more.  The public does not always realize what they are marching for or against, but senses intuitively that what is at stake is a "reformation", which unsettles some and is felt as contrary to the more familiar Thatcher/Reagan "happy-feel" Anglo sphere.  One hears many misplaced arguments, accusing Obama of standing in the way of the continuation of an American "experiment" based on individual principles, a form of Deism and bottom-up entrepreneurship. Hence the accusations of socialism (few know what this covers), Euro copycat, and indifference towards religion.   

The administration has a flawed defense or attack strategy, insofar as it seems too often aloof and unwilling to engage on the core issues, which loom much larger than "glitches." Overall, the White House has often been an unwilling communicator, both on internal and external affairs. It should engage Congress and mobilized public opinion gurus and intellectuals so that its bona fide agenda can be clarified.  Instead, it uses Congress when it shouldn't (on immigration) and ignores it when it should (on healthcare).  With regard to other issues (Benghazi, IRS, intelligence, Iran, Afghanistan, the pivot towards Asia), the Obama inner-circle fails equally to come forward with a coherent narrative (which is probably there, confined to the inner sanctum). It is losing favor because it is seen as snobbish almost, unwilling to explain or to entertain.  In this vacuum there is plenty of room for legitimate criticism, but also for a perverse personalized hatred, unlike anything we have seen before (Kennedy comes close).

All this is worrisome. America is still the world's steward.  From the relief to the Philippines, the tensions in the East and South China Seas, Iran, the former Arab Spring, the American role is surpassed by none. The growing American energy independence might push the United States to become more distant, not by necessity but by choice. Such a move could further boost isolationism, at a time where a world in tatters and with divergent agendas needs a leader and arbiter. America might no longer be alone as was the case after the end of the Cold War, but it remains ubiquitous by its presence and absence alike.

I still believe that the President has better intentions which can appear, admittedly so, too over-intellectualized.  He is a particular persona.  Remember the Obama from the first presidential debate in 2012?  He looked uninterested, bored, almost despising the explanations he was supposed to deliver.  He only got his mojo back after a collective SOS from his own panicked staff. Too often he retreats into academic ruminating, forgetting that politics are mostly about praxis.  Republicans should not be marginalized, otherwise they will fall prey to their parochial right-wing and become a party of bygones.  Obama should not be misunderstood.  There is fire in this glacier but it needs ignition. The Democrats still have lots of ways to trap Republicans who think that the mid-term elections will be a slam-dunk.  It is too early to predict. The doomsday spin-doctors of the Tea Party better start to argue in a more sophisticated manner some of the acceptable issues they pretend to defend.  It is not enough to be right, one has to sound it too.

The debate between the rights of government and the states is as old as the Federalist Papers and the rift between Jefferson and Hamilton. The added moral and intellectual values thereof should not be left to amateurs, soundbites or unpredictable "iconoclasts." If the discussion does not attain the level it deserves, it might lead to social dysfunction and populism. The President should enter and own the issues before it is too late. He still has a lot going for him but he is running against the clock. The country is not in a foreign policy mood and his possible success there will remain obscure as long as internal matters remain in limbo. He needs the Republicans to tackle immigration, climate change, debt, and the shutdown.  Only the combination of a bi-partisan double and fast-track on such matters as foreign and internal policies or free trade agreements can bring some respite.  The choice is simple:  to choose to engage or to continue to ignore. William Styron's "Darkness Visible" might be recommended reading.