Thursday, May 29, 2014


No need to go back to Elizabeth I's speech at Tilbury to be roused by oratory.  After all, in one single address to the nation President Kennedy sent the United States to the moon.  The expectations for President Obama's commencement speech at West Point were high. The critical barrage against what is perceived as the Administration's muddled foreign policy is relentless. The silence of the White House on the many bumps in the political road has been deafening, so everybody expected the President to come forward with a global strategic vision.

The President spoke, but unlike Caesar he neither convinced nor won over the doubters.  He stuck mostly to banalities.  Instead of suggesting a remedy to heal the fraction lines which are appearing worldwide, he went along with them, more passive than pro-active.  He is certainly right to argue against the use of military force as an "umbrella policy," but standing shy of projecting power only creates Lebensraum for the foes and disquiet among allies. Russia and China continue their territorial and maritime ambitions, unchecked almost, and the US allies feel lost in the labyrinth of American ad hoc initiatives.

Obama missed a chance. His sincerity is probably genuine but his variable statements come over as amateurish and diplomatically unconvincing. While Moscow and China pursue unabated the consolidation or completion of their spheres of influence, the United States looks more and more entangled in pin prick interventions which change nothing while troubling all. The situation has become so absurd that Washington looks desperate, almost depending upon Tehran to score a diplomatic success(?)  The chooser has become the beggar.

In Washington both Republicans and Democrats are perplexed. The accumulation of bad tidings is only aggravated by a perceived reluctance of the White House to correct and intervene. Strength is more than the accumulation of power (the lessons from the former Soviet Union had better be learned).  Weight alone might lead to obesity and inaction.  Power is transubstantiating, a nexus of quantitative might and qualitative perception by others. Today the American might is there but the use thereof is in doubt, hence undermining both its potential and its credibility. Undoubtedly power is made of many components, not the least of economical content, soft power, structural ambition and arms control.  Alas, free-trade looks hard to come by (faulty US Congress), the Chinese "dream" is pushing against its American counterpart, and the "exceptionalism" got punched after the NSA, Benghazi, Syria and VA fiascos.  When one is perceived by others as looking weak, the chances are that one might become ill indeed.  A placebo might bring temporary relief but in the end "more"of the same may no longer be enough.

The President is right to have put an end to the ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to have identified the morphology of the new terrorism. He should nevertheless  come forward with a renewed American codex which addresses the world as it has become.  Conceptual neglect comes with often empty gestures and irrelevant photo-ops. Shaking the hand of Raul Castro is not a policy, neither is a stroll on the Maidan.   Parading by proxy on various fronts only increases frustration when inflated gestures are not followed up by action. Hamlet's monologue does not work when the house is on fire.  Yet again Obama's reference to hammer and nails send us back to the toolbox metaphor.  Bystanders are starting to fear that the hammer is missing.   Only the nails pile up.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Some Europeans, in modest numbers, cared to vote last Sunday for the unloved EU Parliament.
The voting pattern was almost surreal. It looked more like a disclaimer for interest in the arcane workings of this travelling institution (Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg) than as an investment in its workings.  Voters' apathy and estrangement ruled and the likes of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen had their minutes of notoriety.

It is sad to see how the EU institutions are getting marginalized.  Enlargement has led to a lack of identity. The EU apparatus looks bloated and the affinities which existed with a smaller, more identifiable decision-making nucleus have disappeared.  This is regrettable, but not beyond repair. Sooner or later the EU will have to face its own "stress test".  A Bretton Woods-type of formula should be found, correcting the cumbersome weight of a representation of "all" members per se, which leads to a zero sum outcome. The same goes, for instance, for the translation of documents into a myriad of languages, which is equally absurd. The cost of many of the EU arcane workings is staggering, feeding the general overriding indifference of the EU public opinion towards most things Brussels.

The overall correction will come when a new generation takes over. The Commission has to become a focus of excellence and had better cease being the Saint Helena of disgraced politicians. The same goes for the EU Parliament. The names for the possible Spitzenkandidaten for the presidency of the Commission don't stir the slightest interest.  Old timers fail to raise expectations. Better to take a risk than step further down the road to becoming irrelevant. Jean-Claude Juncker or Guy Verhofstadt are both high-quality personalities but the deja vu works against legitimacy. They look like belonging to some country club wherein the board members vote for each other ad nauseam because of lack of applications. Only Herman Van Rompuy, the accidental president of the Council, was able to become a respected and almost Machiavellian leader.  The task of sorting out the Papabile for the presidency of the Commission falls to him yet again, since the consensus seems to have taken a break.

Likewise, the ECB is performing better for the reason that it is identifiable and more accountable. The ECB indeed "is" Mario Draghi.  When the financial brush fire looked unstoppable, public opinion got the reassurance that Ben Bernanke (Fed), Mervyn King (Bank of England) and Jean-Claude Trichet (ECB) would be able to stem stem the financial crisis. Their names and identities were familiar and trusted! 

Solutions, grand plans, and ambitions do not fit into a bureaucratic anonymous nexus. To trust, one has to relate. The EU will not fail but it should beware of becoming "indifferent".  The hybrid wave which won the EU parliamentary elections has little staying-power because populist frustration dies fast.   In the end there was much to do about almost nothing.


Plus ca change....
En  electorale debatten ware van een beter niveau dan wat men gewoon was en de sfeer was inhoudelijk en hoffelijk. Verschillende maatschappelijke en socio economische problemen werden professioneel aangekaard en de jongere politieke klasse verdient respect voor een nieuwe savoit faire.
Dat de N-VA in Vlaanderen de grootste partij blijft is ergens verdiend omdat zij ook meer actuele pistes , buien het bekend eisenpakket, heeft willen aanraken.  Positief is nog dat de regeringspartijen niet werden gepenaliseerd.
De koning heeft al eerste Bart De Wever ontvangen, wat te verwachten was . Dat dit ook kon gebeuren in een soort "routine" atmosfeer pleit voor de goede werking van de democratie in federaal Belgie. De N-VA kopman is nu informateur, wat ook past in een transparente regeringsformatie.
De uitkomst staat open voor meer dan een formule. Het was hoogtijd dat een Waal kon opreden als Premier en Elio de Rupo heeft zijn taak met brio vervult. Het bewijs wordt geleverd dat een "primeur" nooit moet afschrikken. De nieuwe politieke klasse is trouwens taboe-onvriendelijk en staat open om voor de moeilijke financieel-economische problemen creatief te denken. Het is bijna symbolisch dat de verkiezingen samen vielen met het overlijden van Jean Luc Dehaene, de laatste maar ook de grootste van de vorige politieke klasse. 
De nieuwe politieke generatie wordt waarschijnlijk meer aangesproken door Thomas Piketty's "r > g", dan door de zoveelste Staatshevorming saga, die hopelijk onaangeroerd blijft. Aandacht wordt beter besteed aan meer actuele problemen,zoals aantrekken van investeringen, productiviteit, R enD, financien, onderwijs, ruimtelijke ordening (eindelijk), buitenlandse politiek (Scandinaafs model) en NAVO verplichtingen, gezondheiszorg, energie, pensioenen.
Belgie kan het halen, niettegenstaande een verward politiek maatschappelijk model dat dikwijls abnormaal aandoet  ( absurd buitenlandse handel model). De keuze is duidelijk. Ofwel gaat het land de weg op van een soort neo kapitalistisch "protestants" Aggiornamento, ofwel kiest het voor het voortbestaan van een hybridische formule waarin al te dikwijlsverliezers aan hun trek komen.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


John Updike said that America is a vast conspiracy to make one happy.  Today the Americans are realizing that if hummingbirds can fly, they cannot walk!

President Obama's spell from the early days of his administration has reached a dead-end....Veterans, National Security Agency, Benghazi, Health care, human rights  a la carte...Better intentions need to pass the "stress test"... they fail !
Non-Americans (among them, myself) and Americans alike were happy that the dark Bush/ Cheney years were over.  A new era was supposed to bring change and closure as well as a creative foreign policy which was to reach out rather than be divisive.

Today, however, America seems out of its wits and the President seems unable to grasp the elementary rules of diplomacy.  Under his administration's watch, the Middle East has become a total disaster. There is hardly proof yet in the Iranian pudding.  Allies in the EU or the Gulf feel ignored. The Asia 'pivot' appears destined to follow the Russian 'reset' on the way to irrelevance. The Monroe Doctrine is mothballed and the Chinese raid South America. Africa is a basket-case of civil wars, terrorism and genocide.

Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry are seen all over the planet but they are left to their own devices. Without a comprehensive doctrine they lack a safety net and credibility.  Lately only France seems to have some type of "special relationship" with the United States.  It is the story of the blind entering into matrimony with the crippled.  It will be interesting to see what Paris does when the time comes to decide to deliver to the Russian Federation the two warships built in its shipyards.  

For the time being, other players than the United States have a free pass almost in the absence of any tangible American counter- or interaction.  The problem is less one of loss of might than of loss of self-confidence. American exceptionalism is not disappearing because "others" are at the gate.  It is becoming an illusion because the user-manual seems to be lost.  The President of the Nobel Prize has become the prophet of broken and half-baked promises. Negative energies are unleashed and dysfunction gets a free ride. Where lies the soft power in the administration? Where are the Kissinger, Brzezinski, Showcroft heirs? What happened to the Reagan/Clinton magic touch? 

Americans are in a mid-term election rush and will be in full pre-presidential frustration mode next year. The President might lose the majority in the Senate which will become a shark's killer frenzy overnight. The Republicans will continue their internal onslaught between the Old Guard and the Tea Party crusaders.  The lame duck President will be shunned by his own party and will resort to White House 'Alice in Wonderland' parties, cherished by the First Lady. The scenario will be welcomed by the Chinese who will stubbornly proceed on their own selfish path, making a historical and strategic gas deal with the Russian energy behemoth.  Putin can be counted on to continue to make trouble while abstaining to create havoc (he noticed the crocodile tears over Ukraine). The BRICS & Co will follow their interests without any pretense of "purity".

President Obama certainly had the opportunity. He looks as if he lacks the capacity after all. 
From Theodore Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, decisions were made which punctuated the story of a country that presumed to make history. Maybe the pendulum had to make a correction after the over-activist Bush years, but the swing has been too brutal and the machine has become unhinged.  As a result the world, which liked or disliked American leadership in equal terms, feels orphaned.  Obama speaks often of the necessity to repair America's failing infrastructure.  His successor will have to bridge the gaps which have appeared lately with the outside world, both in conciliatory and offensive terms.  I fail to see who this heroic "persona" might be since Clinton fatigue has set in and the Republican Cains and Abels are too busy fighting it out.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


The official inauguration of the 9/11 museum (?) in lower Manhattan was dignified.  The visitor will probably be somewhat perplexed by the juxtaposition of the trivial and the tragic.  Wrecks speak louder than rags. The more than 3000 faces of the people who perished, haunting like yesterday's daguerreotypes, speak louder than voices.  Still the museum strikes a balance between the personal loss and the staying-power of an event which changed the world stage forever, as only Shakespeare might have imagined.

Since that fatal blue morning sky a lot has happened, often for the worse.  America, too reluctantly maybe, has to face chaos instead of leading others into a normative world, a "paradise lost". The hijackers of the four planes are now seen as the avant-garde of the rogue actors we see appearing at random, from Nigeria to Yemen, in quiet streets in London or Boston.

In the "normal" world civility looks like an endangered species and instead of bringing individuals together, the tragedies which confront all of us are often used for the political gain of some.  The Manhattan "cenotaph" should be a place of remembrance and healing.  I would have liked to hear President Bush or Mayor Giuliani, since their words and actions then united and galvanized. They stayed out of the limelight (by choice?) and the ceremony, although moving, missed an opportunity to be also transubstantiating. It was normal that President Obama was the first to address the audience, but it would have been symbolic if the former president and mayor, who inhaled the toxic dust of death, could also have spoken. Their words might have been less ceremonial and more familiar with this truly sacred ground.

Tragic historic events have to be remembered indeed. They should never be allowed to become traps wherein remembrance repeats rather than relives.  The unspeakable magnitude of the Holocaust is better served by what remains than by any monument, with the exception of the Yad Vashem in Israel.

The United States remains stuck in a jam of its own making.  No opportunity should be lost to bridge a divide which looks too often like an abyss.  Congress is despised and the political class would easily fit in the amphitheater of the absurd of the EU Parliament.  Do I have to say more? Let us come together in lower Manhattan and be still.  The sound of permanent flowing water is worth listening to.   Besides it blocks invective and soundbites.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Dehaene was een "speciale" politieke laatste "Belg" ?
Als geen ander heeft hij Belgie geragen... als een "ambulancier".
Het is onbegonnen werk om deze "historische" politicus te proberen te ontleden.
Achter zijn  soms ongewoon optreden verschool zich een man met gebreken voorzeker, maar vooral met gezag, uitstraling en loyauteit.
Ik heb hem als ambassadeur mogen "meemaken" en ik ontdekte dat de ras politicus ook een verdraagzame, open man was die misschien een te "short fuse"moeilijk kon beheersen, maar die een ongewone zin had voor de Staat en voor allen wie hij respecteerde, in de verschillende partijen, sociale geledingen en gedachtenstromen.
Met zijn echthenote vormde hij een team waarin humor en openheid de voorrang kregen.
Een gesprek met hem was niet altijd evident maar het was nooit een tijdverlies in "small talk".
Hij was een overtuigd, creatief Europeaan en niettegenstaande zijn soms (verdiend)"brutaal" optreden, een man met gevoelen en kultuur.
Ik beschouw het als een eer hem nader the hebben mogen kennen. In mijn carriere waren gelegenheden zoals deze al te zeldzaam.
Hij zal me mijn ontroerd, bewogen nederlands willen vergeven !
Vous allez manquer a beaucoup !

Saturday, May 10, 2014


President Putin's Crimea show was impressive.  Some might be tempted to grin.  I think they are wrong.  The Russians commemorated the incredible sacrifices which they made stoically in WWII and received the Crimean annexation as a too long-delayed "bonus."  The whole operation was done with creative (cynical) flair and the world was reduced to a parterre of hapless onlookers. 

This being said, in doing so Putin ignored all international rules:  the Budapest memorandum, past guarantees given for Ukraine's giving up its nuclear arsenal and, last but not least, the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act.  Everybody knows that the West will not move if East Ukraine gets further destabilized. The EU is divided and the Russian Federation has in Germany a de facto geopolitical and economic co-player, while NATO and the EU seem to be unable to agree "firmly" on anything.  Sanctions hardly bite, notwithstanding what the unconvincing pundits say.

The Russians are good chess players and Putin is a master of the game.  He knows that the West has few options and that Germany and the United Stated do not see eye to eye. He prefers to make sure that China remains on board and is re-calibrating the economic links with Beijing to compensate for possible more tangible (?) negative effects from  new Western sanctions which are expected next week.

NATO should be more than the "poorhouse fair" it has become. To compensate for its structural European deficit and the absence of a credible burden-sharing, an alternative course might well be considered.  Various NATO members should co-operate militarily with countries like the Baltic States and Poland by stationing hardware and exercising joint manoeuvres in a transparent way, with prior warning and consultation ( consolidation > confrontation ). The United States should deliver defensive hardware to the same states.  Meanwhile, Ukraine should be encouraged to signal a modus vivendi model, which reassures Russia, guarantees its existence as a sovereign state and leaves open a path to internal reconciliation, becoming a bridge rather than considering an unacceptable outcome for Moscow.  The American President should leave his ad hoc Wal-Mart appearances and finally deliver a presidential assessment of how Washington sees its relationship with Europe (Russia included). Shunning Putin is no substitute for policy. It is high time to return to creative diplomacy and leave the, by now infamous, "toolbox" in the attic.

These current events are rooted in a long memory and various comments have returned to assumed earlier precedents. They are often misguided insofar as they underestimate the traumas which the Russians have endured since the advent of the Soviet Union.  Some were the result of their own making and cunning, some were inflicted by forces (both internally and externally) out of control.  There have been times (Lenin's return to Russia with German logistical help, Brest, Litovsk, Rapallo, the pre-WWII German/Russian entente, the independence of Austria) when reality's demands overtook logic, and the reminder of those unforeseen developments should serve as a warning. 

The Cold War is a thing of the past.  So was the short-lived American uni-polar world. The globe has become the reverse of the American "in pluribus unum".  One had better adapt if one wants to avoid becoming isolationist and irrelevant. The multiplicity factor requires more involvement, not less. Old arguments have to be stored away and room made for new ideas which might be in flux for an unforeseeable time, since the new galaxy looks more and more like a big bang and less and less like a happy end.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" has become the latest "uninvited" best-seller.  Probably not since Keynes has an economist been so present in the social narrative.  Only David Stockman ("The trading room is a weapon of financial mass-destruction") came close to the current hype of the French sensation.  Milton Friedman is past history (unfairly so) and Paul Krugman tries, in vain, to keep us awake with his "great unraveling."  Meanwhile Piketty' " R> G" inbalance might soon adorn T-shirts and dorms of universities in the land.  I have started the book and indeed I see some validation in the thesis that the return of capital is larger than the rate of economic growth. I wonder if he will see this projection as structural or if he will attach socio/political ramifications to this premise.

This short comment is about something else, fed by social networks.  Piketty is a very French phenomenon, a Balzac-type of economist, rooted in an almost hexagonal worldview wherein typical local realities control the trajectory of a brilliant set of observations which will be "catnip" to the left and "anathema" to the right and to the school of unbridled globalization.  Wealth, taxation, inheritance are realities which are conditioned by very cultural/sociological realities and are difficult to be generalized one way or the other.  Both globalization and Piketty's "Capital" can lead to the over-simplification of issues which are often intertwined.

More interesting than the analyses which will follow and be contradictory, is the rapture created by a book which is non-entertaining while, admittedly, unassuming.  The French have always excelled in self-promotion, albeit generally with a very short lifespan. We had the nouvelle vague, the nouvelle cuisine, the nouveaux philosophes and the nouveau roman (dead on arrival).  Now we get the nouvel economiste.  It is positive to elevate the public discourse but it is to be expected that this too will pass, to the chagrin of some and to the relief of others who feel, rightly, bypassed by a very smart interloper.