Tuesday, September 30, 2014


The "Occupy Central" movement and the "Umbrella Revolution" in Hong Kong look a lot like the start of the Tienanmen movement (15 April--4 June 1989).  Having served both in Hong Kong and Beijing, the current events do concern me in more ways than one.

Hong Kong was China's oxygen tank when China was still weak, striving to follow-up on Deng Xiaoping's call for reforms in 1992.  Today China is assertive, and given the growth of its Eastern corridor, Hong Kong has now become "one among others."

The Basic Law gave expression to the principle "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong".  The system inherited from the British rule is supposed to remain unchanged until July 2074.  The selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage was enshrined as the ultimate aim. The "one country/two systems" policy was also meant to be a blueprint for future situations (Taiwan).  The formula worked rather well to a point. The Chinese obeyed more the letter than the spirit, but overall the follow-up was satisfactory.

Beijing's choice of the current Chief Executive, Leung Chung-ying, raised alarm bells from the start.  He appeared to be more a Beijing surrogate than his own man. The Chinese misunderstood too that the passing of time, since the handover in 1997, did not erase the aspirations of a generation born after the handover to China. The last British Governor Christopher Patten was able to push the conversation about democracy forward, both against Chinese disbelief and the obstruction by Office mandarins in London. His legacy fills Hong Kong's streets today.

The situation ahead of October 1st (China's national day) is potentially tense. It is to be expected that President Xi Jinping will do the utmost to avoid having to intervene in a harsh way.  The financial/economic Pearl River Delta is too important to fail.  On the other hand, he must avoid contagion in southern China which is politically more porous than the north. He also understands that the manifestations are less directed against China than against its governance. Everybody who lived in China knows how the bonds with the "motherland" are sentimental and socio/culturally deeply-rooted in the hearts and minds.  The street in Hong Kong is against the Mainland's heavy hand, nothing more.

Hong Kong continues to be relevant as China's modernization laboratory.  Any misstep could have enormous consequences internally and internationally. The protesters should beware of miscalculations or provocations. Beijing had better listen and show restraint, likewise for the stake it has in the perception of neighbors and Taiwan. 

After having been briefly arrested, it looks as if Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old student activist, was set free. The pro-China camp better beware of making martyrs. Any too blatant reference to Tienanmen in either camp might ignite what is still manageable into a full-blown crisis. The Chinese mind is well suited to come up with face saving measures. A half-measure might suffice to calm down the provocateurs on one side and the hardliners on the other.  The West had better remain low-key, for now.

Hong Kong is like a tiny scorpion at China's far end.  Despite its insignificant size, its sting can nevertheless be fatal.  In choosing to harm, however, it might simultaneously sign its own death warrant.

Monday, September 29, 2014


Yet again, America finds itself in the eye of the storm.  It is fruitless to look for cause and effect when the house is on fire. Academic debate only slows when speed is needed.  Unfortunately, on top of more objective arguments pro and contra, the out of hand polarization of American politics brings out the worse outcome in both parties. The right looks and sounds like a deranged species, while the left is torn between demagoguery and utopia.  As if this mess was not enough, there is a president who has lost so much credibility that he lacks the political capital to convince.

As is often the case, China and the Russian federation play their usual voyeur role and should not be counted on to support a world order which, in their eyes, has been hijacked for too long by the United States.  A lot is said and written about America's supposed "free fall."  Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" has been rewritten as "America Degenerated:  Victim of Internal Vetocracy".   Obviously he has a point. The political discourse in Congress is nothing but shameful on all sides and Obama has lost his "touch" and appears to be reluctant or unable to reconnect, both in the US and abroad.

All these negatives do not diminish the "indispensability" of America's role in world affairs. It has just become more arduous, given the topsy-turvy turns in various situations and alliances, and considering that the branches of the political system in Washington act more as opposite camps than as the depositories of a checks-and-balance philosophical model.

Unfortunately, America has no choice but to get involved, since nobody else dares (as yet) or just cannot. The enumeration of situations which require urgent attention span an arc which goes from Asia to Europe. The sum of problems is further mortgaged by asymmetric components which lead to weaken the purpose of ad hoc alliances. They simultaneously strive more often than not for divergent ends. 

The Iranian clock is also ticking.  If a transparent agreement were to be considered wherein the loopholes look larger than the benefits, Washington might as well "pack" for a while, rather than alienating the Sunni states who are already suspicious of any accommodation with Iran or, for that matter, of the US president's vacillations.

The pessimists who comment about America's supposed downturn exaggerate. The model still attracts. More people want to emulate it, rather than follow Russia's dead end or China's Orwellian paranoia. This being said, it has equally to be recognized that the United States must recreate an all encompassing concept of society and strategy for the long haul. Presently there is too much short term coping, which just fills the gaps rather than creating an opportunity to participate in a larger ideological ambition.

One can double-guess Putin's long-term goal (the transgressions of the Helsinki agreement or the Budapest memorandum speak louder than words).  We can guess how China will try to satellize its reach (Hong Kong is an interesting "flash point"), be it through economic or military (sea power) means.  One doesn't know any longer what America wants. The rhetoric is flat and the ideas, if they appear, are unconvincing.  It becomes more difficult of course when the US has to fill a black hole without much hard- or soft-power support. The vacuum should allow the United States to project a coherent ambitious project for a new world architecture, as was done before (with uneven results). America has to stop looking "reluctant" and not stay shy of projecting ambition.

Instead of looking forward, the White House and Intelligence are stuck in a turf war over who underestimated ISIL! 
The very able Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed the US in almost condescending terms.  They better get their act together rather than being patronized, by Russia of all undesirable others...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


The latest opus of Henry Kissinger is almost overwhelming. In tracing a path from past and recent order to the current dysfunctions, he confronts the reader with a mesmerizing panorama of cultures and worldview.

He can be analytical (Europe), fascinating (China), brilliant (India), perceptive (Russia), visionary (America) or...Delphic (the future).  All emotions and rationality are interwoven in a Bayeux tapestry of personalities larger than life:  presidents rescued from purgatory, bitter but unavoidable endings, and almost unmentionable conflicts. There are also omissions (true, while this is not a memoir, those events had "consequences") such as the overthrow of President Allende in Chile, the secret bombings during the Vietnam War (alluded to). To the contrary he remains equally discreet and humble regarding how his China coup came to fruition or how he literally "shuttled" Israel and Egypt into agreeing! 

It would be absurd to dare to comment about what comes close to an epic tale mixing friend and foe. Almost all the protagonists mentioned by name had or have at least a vision, which even when not shared, deserves some form of awe.  The villains remain largely marginal or unmentioned, since their "heritage" is more remembered for its vile vulgarity than for its passing or lasting pertinence.

The portraits in Dr. Kissinger's Westphalian pantheon are familiar but he approaches them as Velasquez might have done while painting them.  Richelieu, Bismarck, Metternich, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon appear complex, at the same time flawed and reckless, self-centered but obsessed with achieving an almost cosmic-like system of checks and balances which led to equilibrium then, be it at a cost.

China and Islam followed different concepts. The Emperor ruled as if there was no one else at his level of all encompassing perfection.  Islam believed in one empire ruled by one faith. Plurality did not figure in their vocabulary.

The so-called Westphalian concept which prevailed until the Cold War is now under attack, mostly from hybrid actors or degenerates into a tool for self-agrandisement for others. States such as Russia reclaim their past Czarist realm in the name of the previous order. Dr. Kissinger appears to show some degree of understanding for such sensitivities which require more therapy than humiliation.

He is a realist and admits that his demands for equilibrium are not always rooted in the imperative of purity.  Rightly so, he highlights the role of the United States in Theodore Roosevelt's ambitions, in Woodrow Wilson's Utopia or in Nixon's Realpolitik, which were anything but unselfish. He recognizes that nowadays the United States is no longer the ultimate balancer and that past strategies need to adapt to, inter alia, the newcomers, the interlopers and the digital era. The former times of George Kennan's "Long Telegram" are past.  So are the days when America spread values that others wanted to replicate.

I was struck by Dr. Kissinger's unequivocal appreciation of President George W. Bush who is indeed seen in a better light today than was the case six years ago. The EU is mentioned in half-baked ways, as could be expected, with the exception of the high marks given to the holy trio of Adenauer/de Gasperi/Schumann.   Rightly, he notes that the question remains how Europe will steer its transition to a regional unit.  Bureaucracy does not lead to unification--if that is the purpose--indeed.

While "World Order" feels often like a river overflowing its bed, it is reduced to more modest proportions when it meets the delta of the future.  Dr. Kissinger argues that the universal must be paired with the reality of historical diversity.  He argues in favor of "order within the various regions in the world so that they end up relating to one another."  At present this looks difficult to achieve insofar as the world is divided and its components fall, more often than not, into pieces.  China claims the mantle of the Son of Heaven.  Russia becomes Czarist by everything but by name. Europe is ready to become an arts and crafts outlet. The Arab world is a sum of divisions split in syllogisms, split in denial, all under cover of the Quran.

Dr. Kissinger seems to think that divergent cultures can still be translated into a common system.  He often refers to the European Westphalian system, which overcame all divisions. Indeed, but there were no Chinese, Muslims or "others" involved and the balance of powers achieved was certainly formidable then but looks now like a Rotary dispute over club rules. The fratricide wars then were horrible but were also partially ruled. Kings took their "cousins" prisoner but the choreography remained largely untouched until Sedan.  By now the conventions and protocol look like dying species. The Christian world has not much to brag about given past atrocities but it eventually atoned for them. Today Jihadism sees the violence no longer as a means but as an end.  The China of the Mings closed the door to conversion but left the windows open for some form of respect. Today the Arab world is victim (self-inflicted) of pan- regional sectarianism while Western Medecins sans Frontieres risk being beheaded rather than welcomed. The Arab states are on life-support and after we were fooled by the Arab Spring we learned that the pays reel is as infrequentable as the pays legal.  Is there a choice? Dr. Kissinger dares to hope and he does so in pleading for a "superior order above the particular ideals of any one region or nation, a "modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities."   He suggests that "components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural and juridical..."  May he be proven right, as he often was.  Still I might object that the remedy looks too Cartesian or high brown for today's consumer.

Monday, September 15, 2014


The vote regarding the future of the United Kingdom as we know it will have far reaching consequences.  A Yes or a No vote does not carry a moral weight per se, but if the No vote wins, it would nevertheless be seen and felt as a victory over more provincial interests and as a recognition of the value of larger considerations. The United Kingdom can still find ways to adapt, to meet the needs of devolution, while an independent Scotland would almost certainly lead to a flawed analysis of what might lie ahead. The more inward looking, almost "tribal" component of the Scottish psyche might accordingly stand in the way of its ambition and credibility internationally. England would receive a blow for sure, but the English (and Welsh) have proven to be able to turn hardships around.

I am of the opinion that, when confronted with memory, the Scots will end up staying in the Union. Sentiment might end up playing a larger role than taxes, oil revenues, currency and other more irrational issues. Still it has to be recognized that the the party of Yes and Mr. Salmond were better than the dour, often desperate sounding uttering coming out of London.
The Queen's mild admonition might have a larger effect than the London Chorus.

A lot has been said about the possible "multiplicator" effect from a Scottish Yes vote on similar situations in Catalonia and Flanders in particular. The interrogations are legitimate but can also be reversed in case of a victory of the No's. Besides, the comparison with other particular cases does not fly since the history, the narrative and the interwoven interests are different.
As a European I would regret the "reduction" of the United Kingdom to a mariage a deux + Northern Ireland.  Europe is besieged by demons of its own making--immigration, bureaucracy, political alienation, home-grown Jihadism--and it does not need an other hybrid problem in the minus column.

Whatever the result of the vote, the United Kingdom will be different, be it in its quantitative might, or in its qualitative recalibration of the Union, in case the No's prevail.  Reforms would become unavoidable and as a result, the Union is destined to become looser in any case, having to placate constitutional opposing camps. The United Kingdom might end up looking to the despised Belgian model for inspiration.  Mrs. Thatcher would turn in her grave.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


The President spoke.  He looked rehearsed, unconvincing and unconvinced.  His Magnum Opus  left his audience in the cold.  He played the part of Jimmy Stewart attempting to be Churchill. The inspiration was gone, like the bust in the oval office before.  I leave it to others, better informed, to pass judgement.

As an outsider I noticed hints of contradiction, mistakes and strategic "spin":

--To layout beforehand what you might do and how far you might go is a major blunder.
--To call the moderate Syrian opposition a cluster of white collar jobs at first, and mobilize them now is beyond rational understanding.
--To mix party politics with a supposedly existential threat leads to denigrating the latter and to banalize the former.
--The President remains unable to connect convincingly either with Congress or with the public opinion at large which is running for the EXIT doors.
--One felt that the words used received the seal of approval from the usual close sycophants rather than from the politico/military think-tanks at large.
--The partial de-localization effort, to the "grand coalition" (?), to friendly (?) Arab states and, last but not least, to the "Iraq nouveau" is an other toss of the dice. 
--Air strikes on Syrian territory will certainly provoke Assad, not to mention Putin.

Obviously this was a treacherous bridge to cross for the President.  He is entitled to his misgivings and to feel uncomfortable in the current circumstances.  As commander-in-chief he 
has nevertheless the obligation to stand for the principles that are inherent to his call to duty. He tries to convey the impression that he is conscious of the hard choices to be made. His posture still  betrays his reluctance.Likewise, his perceived "detachment" and "defensiveness" are looming in the background. If not checked, they could allow the "ultras" to occupy his territory, so that at the end  the center might not hold!

All this being said, the president deserves respect for trying to do so much...against his own nature.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Je n'aime pas les Sinologues. Cela est une des particularites que je partage avec les Chinois.
J'ai passe 9 ans en Chine et je considere les Sinologues comme des parasites, au demeurant depasses aujourd'hui et faux monnayeurs par definition.
Pierre Ryckmans etait le contraire du Sinologue.
Plus intuitif que numerique, il approchait la Chine sur son propre terrain.
Son nom de plume (Simon Leys), emprunte au Belge fictif cree par Victor Segalen (Rene Leys), renvoyait a une Cite Interdite, premonitoire du Chateau de Kafka.
Ryckmans a ete un clairvoyant hors pair qui voyait tout alors que d'autres ne regardaient que l'empereur.
Il traquait l'injustice et la terreur quand d'autres intellectuels preferaient collaborer ou de s' auto-censurer.
Il aimait et comprenait la Chine, mais ce pugiliste ne craignait pas d'assommer des coups ni de les recevoir.
Mao avait trouve un adversaire a sa taille.
La Chine a perdu un ami qui ne sacrifia jamais la verite a la passion.


I was in Europe, I survived.  Brussels was on its bureaucratic best.  The new Commission looks dead before formation.  Its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, is to the EU what the 4th Republic was to France. Not that he is not up to the obscure task, he is just irrelevant. The appointment of Frederica Mogherini as the foreign-policy representative says it all.  She was Italy's foreign minister for six months.  Nobody noticed.  She makes Catherine Ashton almost look desirable...il faut le faire.

In Ukraine or the Middle East the Europeans look like a bewildered flock without a shepherd.
The economy in the EU has stalled and the latest initiatives of the ECB (cut in interest rates and stimulus) might not be enough to highlight growth rather than austerity. The fear of deflation rules. 
Europe always acted upon the call of the United States. Lately the line was cut and notwithstanding the "unanimous" chorus in Wales the troops remain divided and the American President continues to inspire more perplexity than awe.  Besides, individual EU members have to cope with the Freudian (France, Hungary) or with the abyss (United Kingdom, Spain).  The "hoopla" regarding the bi-millenial anniversary of the death of Emperor Augustus is the best indicator of the Weimarish Zeitgeist which prevails in Europe now: seeking refuge in past "harmony." The pax romana has become a footnote in history books and recently, the pax americana appears to be on sick leave.

The world nosedives into a diplomatic/strategic Bermuda triangle:

--Ukraine is an exercise in cynicism since everybody knows that whatever Putin does will become a fait accompli. The Europeans have no empathy with the Slavic world and Kiev rightfully does not put its trust into NATO's crocodile tears.  Ukraine will be what Putin allows it to be.  Any agreement with Putin will be written by Moscow with a pen filled with evanescent ink (starch, water and iodine).  Mariupol will be an interesting place/case to monitor.  Leave your "Illusions" for the Cahiers du Cinema.

--Many Europeans have joined Isis. The EU had better consider the perverse consequences of a homecoming of the home-grown Jihadists, which might be costly.  ISIS is a global threat and must be fought accordingly.  There again, an American-lead coalition--Arab states included--is indispensable.  For once I agree with Ambassador John Bolton that the "Islamic State" must be destroyed.   It will be easier if the West can contribute to the creation of an alternative model which could be seen by the Arabs as more desirable than the hell in their midst.

--The almost non-existence of the EU in world affairs is one thing, the contradictory signals given by Washington on many fronts are another.  The "pivot" to Asia seems lost and China pushes its advantage towards the first island chain in the East and South China Seas. The neighbors worry but they start to see that the benefits which derive from the China engine might be more rewarding than the security provided by America's strategic umbrella. Likewise, Beijing has co-opted Africa, where it invests and depletes, unconditionally.

The Middle East is in chaos and the United States has failed to project a coherent policy yet. The Jihadist threat was considered "manageable" by President Obama, who has corrected, belatedly, this rather embarrassing lapsus.  How does one manage Ebola?  The President fails, insofar as he is still reluctant to state that the solution can only come out of the realization that an alternative model in the region is more desirable than the death cult of the Jihadists. Often he tiptoes around issues, afraid to come over as anti-Muslim, while facts speak louder than words.  The situation requires that the Arabs--and Syria and Iran--finally speak out in favor of reforms and plurality and that they openly reject the message of hate and obscurantism which ia starting to infect Islam as a whole.  A major problem is that the majority of Arab states are de facto "failed states" in the grips of bygone, wrong, almost theocratic structural aberrations.
There are times when being overcautious risks becoming a slap in the face of principle. Certain critics of President Obama have gone into overdrive but the President himself--and his "entourage"--are responsible for a growing trust deficit which is undermining the credibility of US guarantees. Some quote Oscar Wilde's aphorism while seeing the American president on the links in moments of high drama:  "Give me the luxuries and I can dispense with the necessities."  Playing golf gives the wrong signal, coming after a beheading.

Obama's approval rating is sinking more by the day.  The President plays nonchalant, but in doing so he looks as if he lives in a virtual reality.  Sometimes he appears to return to his mood in the first presidential debate with Romney:  detached.  I remember Romney saying "You can keep your plane..."  He certainly uses it a lot lately.  I would not exclude a Nixon moment in the future and see Romney running again (against Mrs. Clinton?), if Jeb Bush doesn't.  The "Yes We Can" sounds so out of touch now, and might well embarrass all those who came close to believing in the mantra.  It might not be too late to salvage a sinking presidency but the lifeboats had better be ready, in case. The news out of Wales and Kiev is somewhat better but the question remains if it will have staying power.  NATO has received a shot in the arm, but it remains to be seen if it is a remedy (which costs) or a placebo (which fools nobody, in the first instance Putin).

Armed conflicts should be avoided, if possible. Certain situations (Ukraine) are hard to swallow but reason must correct instinct.   On the other hand, the barbarians at the gate (Europe's, in the first place) must be eliminated by all means for the sake of dignity and self-preservation. The Middle East must see that there is another road than fatality.  The West must also, and for ever, turn the page of Orientalist illusion. The so-called Western Arab allies in the region are a rather unsavory lot.  They have even more to fear what might be coming.  Hence, they had better repent and reform before it is too late. The crisis is still primarily a regional one and the regional powers must act accordingly, instead of solely taking refuge in the usual "God willing." The better might be the enemy of the good, but the Arab leaders better start improving before they become irrelevant in the eyes of their own kin. It looks as if they are getting the message, but...

President Obama is supposed to outline the US ISIS strategy next Wednesday. Let us hope it will be more than a tale of strategy lost and found. His swaying often ends up getting the ball in a bunker.