Thursday, May 28, 2015


The other day I watched the British monarch delivering the traditional address to Parliament. As usual, Queen Elizabeth II was perfect in manner and delivery. The pomp, the dress codes looked gorgeous. The British political establishment inhabited the ceremony with savoir faire, as could be expected.

This being said, I fear that all which looks regal now, given the personalities involved, might look out of place in a future invested in a very  different mindset. Besides, the regal and imperial symbolisms risk being overtaken by the hard reality of a country "on the brink", which barely survived the last elections.  This is not unique to the "United" Kingdom (for how long?) and the same disengagement appears in many European countries in minor or worldwide in major.  The dissociation between assumption and specifics is creating a disconnect between problems awaiting resolution and the considered therapies.

Most political analysts continue to view countries, conflict, tension, crisis through an antiquated looking-glass. They focus on states and borders, which can be irrelevant, and in some theoretical geographical or geopolitical projections which are fiction. They are equally oblivious of the power shifts underneath. They are tone-deaf and continue to search for remedies, while the patient is gone.

The conversation around Syria, Iraq or Sub-Saharan Africa is a waste of time, since those countries are mutating into something altogether very different. Leaders who feel empowered are themselves overrun by tribal loyalties or by de facto autonomous entities. The photo-op in the Oval Office becomes farcical when the official received has no clothes.

The classical forms of diplomacy have not been able to catch up with the transformational earthquake which has created new players, new rules, and changes which overrun existing maps. There is a Darwinian temptation to look on while the rogue "transformers" fight it out amongst themselves. The Obama administration appears sometimes to be reluctant to intervene in those atypical syndromes. By being a voyeur or over-cautious one risks letting structural necrosis step in, as is the case in the Middle East. Too many leaders who are on the way out are still part of the game of mirrors, while the waves of change should oblige us to confront the new normal of heterodoxy.

Since the end (?) of the Cold War the West has acted like a bewildered orphan. It was used to classical confrontation and has forgotten to look elsewhere or to reboot its more creative analytical mind. The pomp in Westminster cannot hide the fact that Great Britain is no longer that great. The "red lines" of President Obama are no longer being taken at face value.  Like it or not, the new actors will not obey by the old order. Dr. Kissinger's brilliant Westphalian model is becoming obsolete, given that the concept of balance of power doesn't apply to parties which only go for the fratricide or nihilistic kill.

Ideology has always been an aphrodisiac:  Mao, Hitler, Stalin were in control of their show. They infused the spectacle with enough rationality to keep it going for a while. Only their ultimate encroachment led to their defeat. The current ideology does not waste time investing in some form of rationality. Hence the West lacks, for an unforeseeable time, the means to counter the perverse occupation of territories and minds which appears almost unstoppable and which has the ability to mobilize a fifth sleeping cell or column as it feels fit. This new curse cannot be ignored. Left to its own devices it will continue both its internal bloodshed and its external transgressions.

Regal speeches flatter the ego. They also hide the reality. Entertainment is no surrogate for being taken seriously. The lofty words out of the White House cannot replace an enlightened strategy. As much as containment worked yesterday, only engagement will reduce the new fighters and suicide bombers to the rag pack they are. Ignored they strive, confronted with the light they look diminished. Half measures prolong the agony, as is the case today. Their defeat and humiliation can come in many forms. The lack of imagination in the Western mindset is another form of cowardly retrenchment. I fear that an Iranian deal will only further aggravate what is bad, blurr the map and further alienate the moderately useful. 

We need Lewis Caroll's Queen of Spades!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

WATERLOO Revisited

Napoleon's defeat in Waterloo is 200 years old.  This event will be commemorated later this year in a series of events which will span the distance separating the ridicule from the historical.  

The French emperor was a extraordinary man, transforming Europe, the judicial system, strategic thinking, nation building, education and the cult of personality.  He was both a shameless parvenu and an irresistible diplomatic flirt who mesmerized those he met and who mustered awe which survives today.

The latest Andrew Roberts biography reads almost like a Byronic ode to love. Despite his terrible mistakes, principally in Spain and Russia, Napoleon remains the ruler of an epic wherein the infamous Berezina crossing or the Goya's Disasters of War are overshadowed by the legend of this singular man.  Even today he remains a moralistic and disturbing tale which is strangely familiar to all. His opponents, from Frances II (his eventual father-in-law) to Tsar Alexander I, are almost forgotten. Wellington was mostly a bitter aftermath.

Napoleon created out of his Saint Helena exile a shadow which continues to cast its spell. Jean Paul Kauffmann wrote a heartbreaking book about the emperor's humiliation, captivity and almost grotesque loneliness disguised in the left-overs of an absurd ceremonial.

The hype around the man is surprising, given the more than mixed record of the Eylau cemetery, weighted against the modern push Napoleon gave in all directions. I believe there is a hint of nostalgia in this ambiguous going back in time. The question remains if the extraordinary foresight of the man was worth the sacrifices. Still the adulation remains probably the lasting emotion, making it even to Wellington's Apsley House, where Canova's Napoleon the Peacemaker marble statue dwarfs all.  Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's nemesis in Saint Helena, has joined the rank of Judas & Co. in the popular imagination. Historical veracity takes second place.


The Republicans appear as an assortment of Agatha Christie personages in a remake of "And Then There Were None", waiting for slaughter.  Mrs. Clinton continues to stick to her Turandot role and stretches, as long as she can, her "above the fray" tactic.  All contenders will have to reckon sooner or later with reality.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is burning its fingers on all the issues it pretends to have an answer for. The list is too long and the issues are well known. The Secretary of State has become totally unconvincing and the White House Macbeth witches hide from view rather than confront a reality check.

The many Republican candidates are not uninteresting, considering that the arc covers a variety which includes both the Evangelicals and the "normal light".  It is too early to predict any kind of outcome.  Jeb Bush stumbled in the name of brotherly love and the more right leaning candidates look too type-cast to have long-term standing power. Until now, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie make some sense.  Mrs. Clinton will some day have to open the closet where she keeps the many skeletons which need to be aired sooner or later. I doubt if her skills and triangulation talent will muster enough coherent answers to allow her to sail the treacherous waters of a campaign which will be merciless.

The American political system is absurd. It stretches forever, ad nauseam, and is corrupted by money, manipulated by interest groups, and leaves all exhausted and bored before the endline is reached. Oranges and apples don't need to be compared but, for what it's worth, most European electoral "mores" have at least the benefit of brevity and are not overweight with "pork" as is the case in the United States, where elections are more often bought than won. Remember JFK?

The timing is not good since leadership is in short supply in the White House and since most candidates want to please contradictory priorities. The Republican right sticks at least to a coherent message wherein God, gravy, anti-gay, pro-life themes rule the seas. This ideological Juggernaut takes place in the heartland, since California or New York, inter alia, are off limits for the conservative zealots.

It remains to be seen where we will stand next year, same time. One should never exclude a surprise in one camp or the other. The debates will open the "Pandora Box" of shared contradictory lies and deals. There are strange goings on in the shadows right now but the "not to be" looks for now like having the upper hand over the "to be". A major event might well redistribute the deck of cards.

There is a temptation to ridicule some and to invest a few. Americans should be more cognizant of the consequences of their extreme First Amendment interpretation. All opinions, ranging from the macabre to the benevolent, fall under the protection of the Constitution. So one has to sweat this out until the brutal finish.  While it doesn't say that much in favor of the US democracy, the former is still the healthier one compared to some other models which are on life support.

Friday, May 15, 2015


It is becoming hard to find a country nowadays which gathers interest rather than a yawn.
The EU, Russia or the Middle East are a deja vu which puts people off. Only China (and to a lesser degree India) appeals to a deregulated curiosity. In this mindset the fascination differs from the awe created by Silicon Valley, for instance. The former appeases, the latter disturbs.
The latest issue of Foreign Affairs "China Now"  (Volume 94, Number 3) is a good example of the China "rage".

Hence the Chinese tidal wave which can no longer be contained and which does not fit the usual analytical models. Whatever China does is seen and analyzed through a looking-glass. The Chinese moves in the South China Sea (which need to be dealt with in a multilateral forum), the currency policy, the energy deal with Russia, the visibility of its military projection are the talk of the day.  However, Chinese actions remain mostly ambiguous, more about reappropriation than conquest, more about "face" than Putin-like aggression. The Chinese prefer to "project" historical or economic claims rather than resort to force. The Pacific powers have a difficult task, needing to protect the freedom of navigation, trade benefis, without antagonizing a power which might retaliate out of pique, in Taiwan, the Diaoyutais or Hong Kong.  ASEAN needs more to fear Chinese wrath than what it can expect from the US umbrella. America is being marginalized, hence the White House panic about the Trans Pacific Partnership (no China there) which is seen as a buffer against Chinese overreach.

Regarding China, everything gets exaggerated, inflated or magnified. The problem is that too many commentators take the short view as if they had suddenly discovered some destabilizing hybrid. The lack of any cultural/historical perspective falsifies the reality. China is seen as some aberration, while it should be seen in a continuity. The French Revolution or the Cromwell "interlude" in England did not finish off French or English history. The horrors of the Nazi  aberration or the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution did not stop Germany or Russia from returning to their historical path. Observers were always willing to consider events in the long run.

With China, things are different. Many comments discuss its growth as if there were nothing before, as if an emerging country suddenly, by miracle, had been able to make an unexpected giant leap forward. They forget that China was a major power, culture and laboratory for innovation, spanning an arc from the successive dynastic orders to Sun yat-sen. Beijing is reclaiming its due. That Mao inflicted a Dr. Mabuse-type of therapy on the Chinese does not diminish the resistance manifested by the besieged DNA in the psyche of the Chinese who felt betrayed by their own, after having been humiliated by the West.

Since Tiananmen, the Chinese have slowly rebuilt pride and can now project power. Certain China watchers, like Gordon Chan, see this house of cards collapsing in the near future. It is one thing to pretend that the Communist hold on power is there to stay forever, it is another to imagine that the Chinese will forego their might without guarantees for the future. China is here to stay and is taking over the narrative for the new millennium.

The major threat is less one of aggression than of soft-power manipulation.  Today, China has become the repository of fantasies, like America and Europe were before. This image overhaul will still require time to become overall effective. The man in the street is still more the result of the former Cultural Revolution debacle than of current Shanghai "sophistication". The former needs still to gain traction before it can compete with other's models. There is too much money and not enough manners. There is an inequality of wealth, housing and opportunity which remains often unattended for reasons of corruption and size. Nevertheless, progress happens, often uneven (Xinjiang or Gansu). The Chinese entered purgatory after their season in hell.

China has become a creative powerhouse and slowly but steadily it is able to "brand" its own competitive manufactured goods, fashion and culture. The old days of overall intellectual property transgressions are being overtaken by better behaviour. The undesirable cyber-spy rings continue to raid mostlt the United States and need also to be targeted by Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign. 
Seen in historical terms, China's rise could have been forecast, although the pace of the change surprised all.  

Voltaire's assessment regarding China sounds more accurate today than Edgar Snow's Mao sycophancy. In the end I prefer to bow to Andre Rijckmans (Simon Leys), who sorted out both the culture and the evil. Still, in the end China has appropriated his pen and is writing its own chapter.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


If Descartes were alive and well in Washington, D.C. today, he might choose the short path to the exit door. The dysfunctional or delusional tidal waves are battering the shores of rationality.

The Democrats in the Senate are blocking the fast-track regarding the Trans-Pacific- Partnership between the United States and 11 nations around the Pacific. The Republicans support it. A compromise will be found shortly( the Democrats will harvest the "currency manipulation" bonus) but meanwhile the false arguments will continue to pile up. The President is confronted by the left wing in his party under the leadership of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who loves to play a B-movie version of Joan of Arc. In reality, the Democrats fear losing the financial support of the unions which oppose free trade. Their mothballed arguments go against any form of contemporary economic/finance/trade thought or of IPR/currency policy accommodation with China (which by the way is no party to the proposed Partnership). The Republicans are delighted to embrace the initiative of the President who finds himself a defendant against his own flock. The minority leader in the Senate looks the part of a genuine Mafia plotter.

The meeting with the Gulf States regional leaders was heralded as a diplomatic coup. Obama had the ambition to bring together a united front on the highest level.  Now it has become a remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? ".  Most sent their number two and the absence of the Saudi monarch is seen as a major snub. It has also to be considered that inviting an ailing head of state for a two-day meeting (in "rustic" Camp David) shows little consideration for protocol and "face".  Yet again the NSC shows how "gauche" it can be.

A security treaty (a mini-1955 CENTO, Central Treaty Organization) with the Gulf States is highly unlikely. The sale of top-notch "desired" weaponry is in doubt.  Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not going to change the chosen path in Yemen or Syria. The former will continue to undergo a variety of treatments which divide more than they cure.  Iran will remain the large elephant in the room and this costly Camp David photo-op will be yet another flash in the American diplomatic pan.

As usual, Russia and China will look from afar at how the Americans seem to be everywhere, looking exhausted and achieving little. By the way, it is interesting to follow the Egyptian moves. If not well understood, let alone monitored, one could see a different form of pivot in the region, which might not be to Washington's liking. The American administration is wise to abstain from what the President called "dumb wars". Engaging Iran should not be condemned per se, as long as allies know where the endgame leads. A verifiable agreement might be a positive given, as long as the collateral is being honored and allies are reassured by measurable gestures. As of now, the ambiguities remain and the uncertainties are unanswered. 

It is time for the Syrian debacle (and the metastasizing Libyan situation) to be wheeled into the Emergency Room. Too many vultures feast on this rotten corpse and the prey must finally be taken away from the predators. Only the participation of all can begin to tackle this ever- growing catastrophe. The Paris Vietnam Conference might be an example to follow.

Diplomacy has its idiosyncrasies for sure, but it should not fear unorthodoxy!

Saturday, May 9, 2015


The Conservatives won...somehow, but the laurels might go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than to David Cameron.  The Labour Ed (Cain) Miliband lost despite having gotten rid of his brother David (Abel) in some Greek tragedy "brother feud".  The Scottish were the only ones who voted with a passion rather than caution.  The British ceiling cracked.

It has to be said that the election rules in the UK could serve as a template for other similar events elsewhere, especially in the United States. They are brief and to the point.  In America they take forever and often appear more concerned with the religious and the petty than with the existential and the pertinent, pandering to non-starts rather than to up-starts.

P.M. Cameron got a majority. He also found a two-headed dragon on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street:  the Scottish vote could booby trap the United Kingdom, and the promised referendum on the adhesion of the UK to the EU in 2017 is a sword of Damocles. All decisions regarding Europe risk being mortgaged to this promise made.  That the United Kingdom is no longer the power broker of former times is a fact. Since the Thatcher days, the country has been obliged to face a descending spiral. The Falklands might have been the last show of power. With Tony Blair the United Kingdom became a Sancho Panza to American folly. The Cameron years where more indicative of London's lower profile than of a firm strategic vision.

It would be tragic if the United Kingdom were to leave the unloved EU. For sure Brussels is viewed more as a curse more than as a recipe, but the absence of London would make it even more parochial than what it has become.  Besides, a Sottish divorce could as well set in motion the downfall of Dr. Kissinger's Westphalia model. The United States would lose a reliable prime interlocutor in Europe.  Chris Patten offered a balanced criticism to Americans when he thought they were not always versed in international "ways". The current "mood" in the US is in provincial mode and requires a firm but not-too-intrusive politico-cultural input from a third party, as only the British can provide. Alas, the Thatcher/Reagan chemistry is gone.

After all, in the EU Germany is a power without desire, France is one in repetitive trauma. The "American air carrier" needs an escort(er) that can only be British.

Cameron will need to tame his backbenchers and to lift his constituents out of the (deserved) EU blues. He will have his hands full keeping the UK together and not letting the bridges to the EU be booby-trapped by his own Euro sceptics. The EU had better help, otherwise it might well become, even more, a project adrift!  The Anglo-American relationship is essential.  The US and the UK have to become more cousins again, and less strangers. *

* Chris Patten.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


I have returned from Europe. 

The old continent feels strange, out of sync almost, when compared with a world where newcomers, both good and bad, believe in themselves at least. Coming from the West Coast of the United States, where ''upstarts'' rule, Europe feels to be in a state of coma, shell-shocked. The Mediterranean has become a nightmarish path for people who want to escape, and is now an insolvable problem for countries which feel like they have had "enough".  The EU, which acts hapless in this as in most other matters, is seen as an over-regulating, unloved Orwellian construction, adding  more gloom to the usual grey Brussels (the Mayor must have deleted the words "clean street" from his priorities). The euro was sold as a "high", but has become another "hangover".  Even Putin has more fans than the Commission. There are also some unpleasant late Weimar Spring-like "awakenings" in member states which, unfortunately, have nothing to do with Wedekind.

Obviously others have their share of problems, but compared with how Americans manage to deal with them, the many bumps in the American road appear to be more temporary and manageable than their European counterparts. The EU appears unable to create a narrative. The relative strength of Putin or Xi Jinping resides in their ability to spin a mythology.

I was surprised how Kominterm-like Europe is becoming.  Entertainment, which can give a therapeutic (and economic) boost, is lagging. Most things remain bourgeois, the opposite of the American rap/hip-hop (etc.) phenomenons, which are too often considered (wrongly) low-brow. This "wave" has set in motion a pluri-cultural/economic tsunami. The Europeans try hard to copy but often look pathetic in comparison. On the other end of the American cultural commodity spectrum, Tim Cook & Co. are today's Magellans, navigating every spot in the ocean of the imagination, transforming innovation into something operatic. Europe feels like such a tired continent, making all the wrong moves and forgetting that there is a story waiting to be told. Even the European peace dividend is becoming shaky!

In the non-American world only Narendra Modi seems to have the ability to dream up an approachable alternative to India's enormous problems which so many (Octavio Paz comes to mind) chose not to confront head on.

To ignore the collateral damage of immigration in the EU is almost unforgivable. The inability to come forward with political or moral answers regarding the more human toll of this continuous "on line" tragedy is equally inexcusable. The timidity seen in grass-roots innovation is also staggering. The right wing parties have their "Hail Mary" moment in a continent in denial, taken hostage to the "other half" in the east and to the above-mentioned human spill out of Libya in the south!

Internally, less desirable provincial attitudes start to occupy the media and front pages. From Finland to Belgium a kind of perverse Heimat war is being waged. Almost everywhere, the extreme wins over moderation. Europe was more perceived as an added value up until the '70s. Yesterday's positive engagement has become today's negative resignation. It is hard to see how this growing negative trend can be reversed. Unfortunately, there is a total lack of a blueprint for the future while the EU or European defense and even monetary policies have become unconvincing. Hence Europeans now look and act more fatalistic, preferring a selfish "Me" lifestyle rather than facing the fact that they have become more irrelevant among the influential Others. Where is the EU heading, confronted with the aggressive Left of Syriza and the dubious Right-turn of Orban?

History makes for very strange overtures. The death of Klinghoffer was, together with the Munich Olympics tragedy, the first note in the terrorist Requiem. The recent Lufthansa suicide tragedy feels like the prime indication of a malaise, of a kind of European collective morbid Third Act wish.  Humans have become lemmings!

In case the United Kingdom decides to leave the Union, the grand ambition of the Treaty of Rome might as well crash.

Mark Leonard wrote a book ten years ago claiming Europe would run the 21st Century. Now he asks himself if he was insane. Edmund Phelps, 2006 Nobel Prize in Economics, pleads for innovation and philosophy to help revive the continent. I am afraid that innovation has packed its bags for unforeseeable time. The Medusa raft arrivals on the Mediterranean shores will only accelerate the European brain-drain rather than compensate for it. Yet again the EU commission tries to tackle the tragedy with some bureaucratic band-aid, engineering a diaspora rather than going for a multilateral therapy to solve it at both ends.  A contrite Mark Leonard writes now that Europe has to come to terms with its own "Galapagos moment".  Its former achievements isolate it to a point where it has lost touch with others who refuse to follow suit and prefer to advance without constraints and over regulation.

The European hare is beaten by the other's tortoise.