Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Turkey's president has an ego as large as his new Ceausescu-like palace.  Since Hitler, a certain style prevails among megalomaniacs (remember Saddam?) and "believers."

After throwing Ataturk's legacy under the Muslim bus he issued some type of edict stating that women are not equal to men.  His reasoning is too pathetic to repeat.  His usual outlet, attacking the US, has run out of steam. I hope that NATO and, in the first place, the EU will take notice. Federica Mogherini might as well show him out of the membership waiting-room.

The merry women in the White House might also consider stepping in, where they are expected (for once), rather than messing up where they are unwelcome.  His statement is insulting. Human rights are not to be taken a la carte.  Tayyip Erdogan should be disinvited .

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


America is (in)famous for Black Friday, following Thanksgiving.  The Administration will now be remembered for its own 'Black Week.'

The secretary of defense was dismissed. The traditional ceremonial announcement was embarrassing to watch and painful for all the actors concerned:  humiliating for Chuck Hagel and hypocritical for the President.  Hagel probably lacked the macho, to the point, zingers that are expected for a man/woman in his position.  Mostly he fell victim to Obama's inner-circle seraglio, led by the even more gauche Susan Rice.

The secretary of state, who is starting to get a reputation for 'talk 4 talk', came back from Vienna with an Iranian assurance that the oral games will be continued until no more synonyms for centrifuge are available. This is almost a repeat of the Middle East talks, which led to 'nowhere minus', since the situation is deteriorating by the day.

Kiev is supposed to consider a rapprochement with NATO. Corpses attract.  It is to be hoped that Ms. Nuland will discourage this insane proposal.

Meanwhile, the President tries to sell his immigration plan, which makes sense but is also misguided insofar as yet again it totally snubs the legitimate susceptibilities of the Republicans. Electoral wins have consequences in democracy.

Racial tensions are flaring up everywhere after the Grand Jury verdict in Ferguson. The a la carte ubiquitous attorney general prefers a low profile, until now. The President procrastinates. The looting and destruction send us back to times which we prefer to forget. The Administration suffers from opportunistic memory-loss, mobilizing "have-beens", playing "dummy ", hoping this too will pass.

We find ourselves in the week of 'the long knives', in an almost surreal situation wherein the White House plays into the business-as-usual sophism when the reality on the ground is one of bruised egos and a burned inner-city.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


The President has acted on immigration, but he resorted to executive action in doing so without Congress.  It is paradoxical that Obama, who is often criticized for America's perceived low- profile, opted for this head-on approach.  The Republicans are mobilizing the Founding Fathers, and are plotting revenge.

It is not for me to say if the President has overstepped constitutional boundaries but the measures he intends to implement do look rather reasonable, at first glance. Besides,  America is doing well in the macro-sphere and attracts. The country is creative, becoming energy independent, while Wall Street is reaching to the skies and the dollar rules.  In comparison, the rest of the world looks like a poorhouse fair.

Nevertheless, the mood in the United States remains impervious to the numbers.  The man in the street is not cognizant of what works and is more concerned with what is perceived as a country in retreat internationally.  The health-care fiasco, the Piketty narrative and the political nausea have alienated Main Street.  Obama's style has not helped in healing the morale or in reasoning with Congress, which feels despised on all sides.

The observer can only be further destabilized seeing how a world, for an unforeseeable term divided, has become stuck in a Darwin-like predicament. In Ukraine (when are they going to study Finland's Kekkonen strategic savoir faire ?), Iran, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Africa, the pendulum swings towards the law of the stronger rather than to the rule of law.
It is unfair to relate all that goes wrong to an American lack of involvement. The United States is everywhere, but lately it has become too arduous to intervene since the everywhere is taken over by the nowhere. 

States collapse, hybrids appear, frontiers no longer apply, covenants are disregarded. When a superpower finds fewer partners than before, it will retreat. It is ironical that, for the time being, the United States has only China, which can act as (almost) equal nemesis, competitor and partner.  Maybe that is why President Obama chose to act on immigration the way he did, after returning from a successful trip to Beijing.  His copycat decision has a Chinese footprint.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


President Obama has returned home to the "usual" after completing an "unusual" journey in Asia.  Nothing mind-boggling was achieved but some "markers" were politely confirmed.
Contrary to what happens with the US/Russia rift, the opposites attracted, while no one had spare room for illusions.  The added value of the Sino/US relationship is that it is rooted in an uplifting, self-conscious moment, wherein China reclaims its past.  On the contrary, Russia meanwhile is burdened by its recent past and resentment is overtaking any other consideration.

The agreements between Beijing and Washington do not eradicate the lingering tensions regarding America's posture as an Asian power, which collides with China on the seas, on land, in finance, intellectual property, human rights and in cyberspace. Over time the United States has been able to contain China behind an iron wall of "friendly" allies and a sea power without equal. The Chinese are pushing hard to transform the South China Sea into a Mare nostrum. This shadow battle is not without risks and miscalculation and accidents can occur. The two rivals seem to be conscious of the danger and act accordingly.

Washington gives the impression to understand Xi Jinping's more historical "references." The
shadow of the Middle Kingdom looms larger than Mao's achievements.  Like his predecessors, Xi follows also an equally cautious path.  He is not going to invade ASEAN countries or force Taiwan into submission. The troubles in Xinjiang or Gansu, the unavoidable post-Dalai Lama times, unresolved border disputes (mostly with India) will require a space for maneuver which shouldn't be overcharged with other contentions.  Xi already has respect, while Putin has lost most of his credit.  Xi is no threat for his neighbors, Putin is. Xi can compete with the United States on all fronts, Putin is reduced to desperado or blackmail tactics.

The November 15th Economist issue gives in its special report on the Pacific Rim a brilliant apercu of the Chinese order. The writing is compelling, the story is breathtaking.
Having served in China 10 years ago I can only add that the diplomats in their right mind saw it coming. The Chinese diplomatic service was already a laboratory of ideas and sophisticated analysis. Intellectual life was monitored but nevertheless awesome.

The pollution continues to rule almost unabated and one must hope that China will join the Trans Pacific Partnership instead of being shunned. Membership to the TPP can lead to a burden-sharing of the considerable cost of pollution which plagues China but also originates in other Asian countries. Climate change, water distribution (the Mekong delta which might end up being hijacked by China), and trade require a cooperation which is in the interest of all and directed against none.

The Chinese leaders are realists. When they feel "resistance," they adjust. They have no other choice since they are themselves bound by a pact with their citizens who accept mortgaging their political ambition for a tangible exponential increase of wealth. This Faustian arrangement is a shaky one in the long run, however. When basic needs are satisfied one climbs the ladder to reach for more democratic reforms. 

China does not suffer from a cultural coma as most Arab states do, paralyzed by a religion gone amok. In the clash of civilizations, the West and China (and a contrite Russia) are on the same page.  Xi Jinping looks more and more like a partner, but I am confident that he carries Sun Tzu in his pocket.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Recent international gatherings have proven that the hidden agenda can easily marginalize the official one.  Ukraine is fast becoming the phantom of the international opera.  It is one thing to react to Russia's overreach in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea; it is another to refuse to engage in or to ignore particular aspects.

President Putin has broken the rule of international law and passed agreements.  As in Georgia he refers to specific cultural and historical precedents. Indeed, the consequences of the Truce of Andrusovo in 1667 (which led to the construction Muscovy + Ukraine = Russia) whereby Poland had to relinquish Ukraine to Moscow are lasting.  This "acquisition" is a structural footprint in "Russian" DNA which cannot be ignored ( "Europe" by Norman Davies).
But to acknowledge those "particularities" is not the same as to condone them. Russia could have chosen the path of consultation rather than the road to confrontation. Diplomacy can be creative when challenged and acted upon with expertise. Russia's heavy hand was met with Western amateurism.

The sanctions are deserved but perhaps the conflict could have been handled better in more abstract terms, because the over-personalization can easily backfire.  Putin is here to stay and the West in particular needs his cooperation badly, be it in the Middle East in general, in the 5+1 nuclear negotiation with Iran, in the fight against Jihadism or global governance. Sanctions must focus more on the deed than on the man.  Besides, Ukraine is not just an indifferent country in the Russian narrative. One should recognize this "special relationship." In doing so we deprive Russia of a repeat in other countries on its Western border, which do not share in this "exceptionalism."

The West must take sides in the respect for obligations and treaties, but it should abstain from setting a quid pro quo precedent of interference in Kiev's affairs. Ukraine should be granted unconditional self-determination.  Likewise, Moscow should stop acting through a proxy of thugs.  Putin is no pariah, neither should he be isolated. When snubbed he might bite more. If engaged on proper rules and protocol he might enter into a more normative dialogue. The Kievan history is a most complex one.  The free Ukraine and free Russia which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union are still too sensitive not to be handled with care. Positive containment of the crisis is in everybody's interest. The West should not hand Putin an undesirable scenario.  He might call its bluff.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Post-1958 Europe thought it had seen it all.  Since the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which gave rise to the EEC (European Economic Community), the ups and the downs have multiplied.  After Britain's membership and the Luxembourg compromise in 1966, Europe gave the impression to have finally found a democratic legitimacy with its constituents and it was able to decide upon a common economic policy, a European Central Bank and the euro.  Under Jacques Delors, father of the SEA (Sinle European Act , abolishing trade and mobility barriers) the Commission became the think-tank for the future thanks to the Belgian memorandum  (1990) settinout subsidiarity, democracy, efficiency and coherence.

The "unbounded" fast-track enlargement which followed could not hide the fault-lines between the original Europe of six, the Vysehrad Triangle, the United Kingdom and former EFTA (European Free Trade Area) parties. Besides, the waiting-room for adhesion got packed. Lately, the biggest elephant in the room is probably Turkey, which embarrasses most without enthusing any. The cherry on the EU pie is currently Hungary which acts as if it were homesick for the former opposite extreme Bela Kun/Horthy days, meanwhile the EU is still supposed to be standing for a set of values.

Now we have a new Commission which was criticized from all sides before it could even get to work. The President Claude Juncker is a paradoxical choice again, having been prime minister of a country more (in)famous for being a tax-haven than for its rule of law. The commissioners look like a sullen group of individuals which member states preferred to get rid of.

Ms. Federica Mogherini, in charge of foreign affairs (after Baroness Ashton, who improved), was expected to be low-key while learning how to navigate the labyrinth. Europe is besieged by many problems, starting with its eastern borders, the British snub, unchecked immigration, a foreign and defense policy on the dole and an overall credibility gap in Asia, the Russian Federation and the United States (which is equally in troubled waters). Ms. Mogherini has now proclaimed that she strives for the recognition of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital.  Nowadays crazy ideas are plenty. When they are premature or irresponsible they also become intolerable.  Is the EU going its own irrelevant wrong-way in a situation where it hardly counts? Is the EU going to jeopardize the two-state outcome? Is the EU going to alienate Israel for the foreseeable future? I am sure that the "spin" will follow but the harm is done. To start one's tenure dealing with a problem that has plagued the world for decennia is surreal.

The European project remained for years, both politically and existentially, a worthy challenge. The embrace between de Gaulle and Adenhauer remains a highlight in world history. The mistake was to hurry into attempting to mix asymmetric histories into one. This sum of contradictions can only accelerate an eclipse. The Commission might waste more time in dealing with Serbia than with the United States, at a time when the Atlantic Partnership needs to be revamped, more than just in trade terms. It sounds old-fashioned maybe to refer to the Jean Monnet, Paul Henry Spaak, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schumann founding fathers but I might argue that the Americans have no problem referring to their own as the ultimate reference. Europe is giving up its raison d'etre for short-term opportunity.

Both the United States and the EU find themselves in a sort of depressive historical moment. They had better realize that individuals count more than anything and that the best rules of engagement become paralyzed if they are not served by the brightest individuals. Lately, persons tend too often to disappear in the fog of institutions. The machine and bureaucracy have a free hand in today's democracies. They tend to fill in the openings with commodities rather than with the best. Elite has become a dirty word. Exceptions still exist, fortunately so.

Democracy is the best of all systems as long as it leaves room for talent and integrity, two qualities that seem to have bypassed the EU corridors lately.  Montesquieu and Tocqueville should return and write Les Lettres Europeennes or Observations in Brussels.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


The debacle of the Democrats is staggering.
The American mid-term elections gave the Republicans the Senate majority and an overall victory.  Even off-limit states like New York or California suddenly look more porous.  The Democrats paid a heavy price for President Obama's toxic cloud which obscured legitimate grievances and ambitions alike. 

The vote has its own ambiguities.  Normally, local issues prevail but this time around the growing malaise regarding America's "cloud" in the world spooked the voters.  The Republican gains leave the internal  power struggle between the establishment and the Tea Party unchanged. The Republican civil war is coming.  The Democratic brand Reid/ Pelosi has lost credibility but the party has still enough self-deception to turn to the Elizabeth Warren/Paul Krugman mantra to further auto-destruct.  As a consequence, Hillary Clinton will have to juggle with too many balls.

Obviously, the President is the big loser.  The man of "hope and change" has become the man of doubt and procrastination. His character was on trial because what voters detected was different from the earlier projection. His inner circle of advisers only inspires a sinking feeling.
It is difficult to foresee what the Administration's final act will be.  Can foreign policy be rebooted? Can some form of consensus prevail internally?  Republicans will have a 2016 presidential ambition. The Democrats will be torn between a populist alternative and bruised egos.  The President has lost his political capital and appears unable to regain his dented credibility both inside and out in the world.

This "vacuum" is all the more dangerous since other players will go ahead with ambitions which are now out of the American reach. China will start with the gigantic Silk Road project which is mind boggling.  Russia might condescend to help (in the Iran nuclear dossier) but will assert itself in its near abroad, with in the knowledge that the American president is colorblind when red lines appear.

There are also more paradoxical aspects in all this. American stocks do very well, the dollar rules, unemployment in the US in under 6%, job creation is up, energy becomes abundant...but the average American remains in his heart enraptured by his flag and the myth of exceptionalism. When he looks around or abroad he does not recognize himself in the wider mirror, which is cracked.  This creates an opening for extremes, and a dangerous cliff which the United States better stay clear of. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Everywhere, World War I is being commemorated.  The possible consequences of the Sarajevo assassination could have been contained but the European powers chose not to.  This led to a horrendous manslaughter while the chief actors looked on, as under the spell of their own incompetence.  The Americans joined later in a conflict which left the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance shell-shocked.  The Versailles Treaty was a dystopian affair which would in due time haunt its underwriters and become seen as the unavoidable overture to World War II.
The "balance of power" policies which worked in the past failed and disappeared into the vault of history, since the unipolar American post-1945 world rendered them obsolete.

Today the world seems to be backtracking again. For the time being, and on America's clock, the former Pax Americana order no longer applies. The American leadership is contested not for reason of irrelevance but because of a lackluster performance, verging on abdication.  In this vacuum other powers become assertive and one might as well look over his or her shoulder and see the remake of a pre-1914 situation.  Yet again a plural of countries strive for regional hegemony. And yet again a sleeping Europe suffers from a potential Serbian rotten apple in its midst. Russia, China, Japan and South Korea are enmeshed in mutual distrust and maritime brinkmanship, as was the case between Germany and Britain before 1914. Ukraine might well be the new Berlin, opposing the United States and Russia. The Middle East born in Sevres is no longer, while Africa is too often looted by others and left to its own devices.

The overall situation is all the more complex and ominous in that it opens the door for accidents to happen, as was the case with Sarajevo.  America's retreat is therefore dangerous. The new actors enjoy testing very dangerous waters and borders and in the absence of a common understanding and political culture they play into the Jeux interdits.  Nobody looks willing or able to impose a structure on this new "free for all."  The United States is disinclined to intervene or impose a more consensual order. The EU is deflationary in its ambitions. The UN has become the predictable shooting-range wherein frustration and inferiority complexes determine the agenda.  All this leaves newcomers by themselves, on a roller coaster which they do not control. 

Miscalculation, incompetence, nuclear wizardly besiege the rational path and accidents are prone to happen.  It is naive or cynical  to pretend wanting to reverse course while at the same time being part of this gross miscalculation. Unfortunately managerial distance will only increase disenfranchisement while there is in reality no other alternative than to return to balance-of-power-type policies, in the absence of a sole accepted, be it reluctantly, federating leadership. As in old times we might have to return to reciprocal zones of interest or condominium models. Ukraine or the South and East China Seas might be tests.  President Obama cannot reverse the negative perception he helped to create and his successor awaits a formidable task to regain the lost influence.

History repeats itself, so the saying goes. The post-Berlin Wall euphoria is reduced to a piece of rubble in some museum. The Holocaust risks becoming a footnote in the larger history. Empires come and go and Gibbon might add a new chapter to his epic.  Let us not forget that Dr. Kissinger's methods are still valid. They might offer the only way to get the patient out of history's emergency room. His classical formula could spare us from the ruling amateurism. Diplomacy is more than a commodity after all.