Dear Partners in thought,
I wanted to speak to you about “The World’s Panic” (L’affolement du Monde) a book published in 2019 (in the French language for now) by Thomas Gomart, who is Director of IFRI (Institut Français des Relations Internationales), the leading, Paris-based, international relations think tank and de facto number two behind Thierry de Monbrial (TdM) its founder and perennial leader. IFRI was ranked in late January by the University of Pennsylvania that is known for such rankings as the second international relations think tank in the world after Washington DC’s Brookings Institution and the first one in Europe. It was set up by TdM in 1979 following his leadership of the Centre d’Analyse et de Prévision(center of analysis and forecast) of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also known as Quai d’Orsay where it is located in the 7th arrondissement of the beautiful left bank of Paris. I have always followed the works of IFRI, at times closely and at times from a distance, having been a member, on and off, since 1981. IFRI is a remarkable achievement of a French institution that was unusually able to reach a true international outlook and status while fully retaining its French roots. At a time when President Macron symbolises the future of Western liberalism in our challenging times, IFRI stands out as a major actor in the fight for ideas that will shape our world.
TG addresses the challenges the human race is facing and provides a useful recap of those developments that have shaped the world we know. His approach is especially useful by its recount of the history of each great power which also explains the respective foreign policies that were developed in the past until now. In many ways TG’s book will not unearth any new aspects that should be known by students of international relations but will provide a very coherent and quasi-academic piece on these key actors mixing history, geopolitics and current affairs. Of particular interest is TG’s classification of the ten sections of his book that encompass key actors (five) and themes (five) that will shape our tomorrow. TG’s book is first and foremost a very well covered and concise survey of our world today, even if a bit too academic at times, with many references to works published by historians in the past as a way, albeit useful, to provide historical grounding for his book. His habit of stating the birth and death dates of each key actor in all ten sections may also be a bit odd even if educational for those, among younger readers, with no or little knowledge of these men and (few) women.
I will cover only a few of TG’s ten sections as follows below.
China’s reach to world leadership
TG gives us a very useful historical perspective on China, which comes “first” in all of his ten sections, stressing that in year 0 of our era the world was then controlled both by the Roman and Chinese empires (something few of us are aware of) with the latter being responsible many centuries onwards for a substantial chunk of the world’s GDP. Once the leading exploring nation, China suddenly decided in 1433 for domestic reasons to take an inward course which ultimately led to the rising European powers to control it, notably in the 19th century. Humiliation then became the engine of ambition with dates like 1949 (victory of the Communists and creation of the PRC), 1972 (re-establishment of direct links with the US via Nixon and Kissinger, following a rupture with Moscow in 1962) and 1979 (being the start of the Deng Xiao Ping era and its policy of structural reforms that took precedence over the ideological fight) being hallmarks of new Chinese history and its climbing back to super power status. 1989, with this week the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and massacre, would be another key date with China having ever since continued its economic, though against all hopes and forecasts then, without the instauration of a Western-flavoured democracy.
The last 40 years have been marked by China and the Communist Party leadership gradually focusing on building economic power combined with strong political control while making the country (and some Chinese usually close to the leadership line) the leading economic power in the world. As Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, Xi Ji Ping was coming across as the new defender of globalisation and the clear opponent in chief of trade wars at the Davos Forum (for all the reasons we discussed in past notes). This rise to world leadership, that involves the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and “tactical” development aid (mainly for gaining political support especially in developing countries), many expect to be reached by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC. For the Chinese leadership this unstoppable assent is simply coming back to a glorious past even if it also entails many subjects of contention such as Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea islands and Xinjiang that create an unsmooth path to supremacy that acts like a spanner in a well-oiled and seemingly peaceful machine. Of interest and a bit too early for the book some EU member states, like Greece and lately Italy have joined the BRI as a way to deal with their own economic issues perhaps at a political cost that may be felt later but still remains to be seen.
In full transparency and as a seed investor and active participant in the development a global start-up that is changing outbound Chinese tourism – itself as key feature we can notice the world over – , I should add that I believe that we only have to gain from a China that is well-integrated in the world and that there is nothing wrong with them pursuing world leadership as long as fair rules are respected and harmony among nations achieved, the latter that should reflect the Chinese ethos.
The world close to asphyxia
TG addresses the universal fight to save the planet against man-made destruction that has affected the world climate ever since the invention of the steam engine in 1784 by the Frenchman Cugnot. TG quotes Jared Diamond who had stated 15 years ago that such a fight for survival was not at the selfish level of the nation but had to be truly global and coordinated. In this respect one can recall Trump’s declaration, when he announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the COP 21 Paris agreement on Climate Change, that he had been elected by the citizens of Pittsburgh and not Paris. TG goes at great length to list all the perils facing humanity with man-made “progress”, which in itself is a great guide for the non-specialist I would confess I am even though I am part of those who believe climate change is not a hoax or conspiracy from the global, cosmopolitan bohemian-bourgeois a.k.a. bobo elite. This section is definitely one with strong value add for the non-specialists who care.
The unknowns of American power
TG goes back to the roots of American history describing how in less than 200 years 13 British colonies became the leading world power. He spends much time going through the ruptures represented by the Trump presidency in foreign policy and the management of increasingly tense relations with its allies (not to mention I would add basic universally accepted American values of old and a certain sense and dignity attached to the American presidency) as a result of a unilateralist, protectionist and America First foreign policy, which was described in many earlier Book Notes. This section had to be done but the subject matter is well-known and the current administration so much in the news for its erratic moves that both history and current affairs in relation to America today will not be news to the educated and informed reader.
The return of Russia
TG going back to the roots of Russia since Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great draws a very detailed history of the country that spans one sixth of the earth’s landmass and whose geography spreading Europe and Asia and controlling Eurasia defines its foreign policy. He takes us into the history of Putin and his quest to restore Russia’s dignity and status following the heavy turmoil and drastic decline of the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia’s continental status and lack of Oceanic footprint will explain its drive to assert a very strong foreign policy footprint in Eurasia while it strives to regain leading power status fuelled by a strong defence apparatus and in spite of a relatively small economy by today’s leading power standards. Similarly to that of the American section, most readers will know most of the facts displayed by TG but will find it interesting to read a summary of them and link everything to the history of the key country that holds a special place in the world’s affairs also due to its key geographic location.
Europe without a compass
TG takes us through the 60 year history of the European project through its various names with the latest being the European Union or “EU”. In 2007, three years after the enlargement that welcomed the former central and eastern European enemies of the Cold War, the EU, now a 28 member club with Croatia (and still with the UK – don’t let me start on that one), went through the adoption of the Lisbon treaty that aimed for more integration based on a common cultural, religious and humanist European heritage. Its dual challenge is both existential due to the rise of nationalist populists movements across the continent and in terms of adjusting to a changing international environment. The EU fights a disconnect between citizens and the EU institutions this in spite of the longest peace time in the continent experienced in the last centuries. TG goes through all the phases of the European civil war with the balance of power sought by Britain after the Congress of Vienna until the upheavals of WWI and WWII that wounded the world and almost killed a continent. We then go into seven phases or cycles since the creation of the EC and then the EU until the mid-2000s when ongoing crises will mark the development of what is still perceived as the major political achievement of the last 60 years the world over. As TG would have written, the last EU parliamentary elections of late May have kept the dream alive and going forward in spite of the rise of national but not European populist parties (their key weaknesses) against that of green and liberal parties that can work together and a backdrop of declining and gradually irrelevant traditional center right and left governing parties (the French Socialist and Les Republicans parties that governed France and commanded more than 70-75% of French votes for years barely managed to combine 15% for the 26th May EU parliamentary elections held in France).
The other five sections cover the following topics:
The fight to control sea, air, land and space (a topic that is not an obvious one but is strategically crucial with major powers vying for supremacy)
The noises of war are moving closer (clearly a possibility as traditional alliances are weakened with the US retreating from center stage, even if prompting crises like with Iran and other powers like Russia and China rising in their own ways).
The declaration of trade war (a very topical matter with the Trump administration that made it a campaign driver and the focus of its challenge to China’s rise to leading power status even if there might have been a case to restore some element of balance in the trade relationship)
The multiplication of dangers from the Mediterranean to the Middle East (a subject not helped by the drive from the US to punish the culprits and spiritual and ideological backers of the dreadful 9-11 (sometimes elusive like with Iraq) by destabilising an entire region leading to unsettling changes with the Arab spring and the return of Russia and Iran in the region while backing Damascus for both and fighting against its Saudi foe in Yemen for the latter).
Migration and national identity (doubtless the key factor behind the rise of populism and vote-grabbing expert parties across Europe with the strengthening of Viktor Orban in Hungary, the now defunct Austrian coalition in Austria, the rise of the oddest coalition in Italy between two erstwhile foes and incompatible partners as PM Conte knows only too well, other developments in Poland with Law and Justice, France with a strengthened but as we saw not growing National Rally (ex National Front), AfD in Germany and to some extent the Leave vote even if sovereignty was also a combined factor – all culminating to a “possible” 1/3 of the European Parliament controlled by the Populists, though highly fragmented group-wise thus inneficient, that could have “some” impact on the EU and its policies going forward. Incidentally, there is an excellent map of the migration flows within and out of Africa (on this, there is always a great map at the beginning or the end of all chapters, reminding us of the relevance of geopolitics in international relations).
TG ends up his book with a social take on France and how it is coping with these challenges (the Yellow Jackets being both the latest oddity and French moaning pattern – see my Interludes earlier this year), which is quite expected since this book is first and foremost addressed to French readers. As we address France I am not aware of an edition other than the one in the French language that may make it a bit of a challenging exercise for some but could be another pleasant feature when reading the book if one is a linguist. All in all, the selection of key topics is very relevant and the combination of history and current affairs very well done even if one would like to hear from TG some vision as to where the world is going and what would be needed to ensure it goes where it should, also for this old West of ours which is at some crossroads.