Is there really a new world (dis)order in the making?


Dear Partners in thought,

The war in Ukraine has been a catalyst for what many see as the start of a potential reshaping of the world order—an order we have known since WW2 and the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union gave rise to three decades of relative world peace and strong growth (even if they were peppered by crises like in 2008), driven by an unprecedented globalisation. Both world peace and globalisation are under threat today as new and stronger party lines are being defined along two camps. It is worth calmly reviewing the situation and assessing whether this new world order forecast will materialise and endure. Or whether, more importantly, the West may lose its historical supremacy.    

The two not-so-new camps are being largely defined on one side by the West—a strong unity between the US and Europe rooted in the transatlantic alliance via NATO (allied with, among other countries, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand). This is indeed reminiscent of the post-WW2 era, and has been strengthened as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As stated in a recent Book Note, the West—while its societies suffer from too much social media-focused individualism, vote-grabbing incompetent populism, and capitalism at times losing its soul—is still predominant worldwide. And that is despite an uncertain American leadership, weakened by many domestic challenges, and a Europe still going through existential changes and weakened by a specious Brexit.  

The other camp, that is not yet defining itself easily, is led by President Xi’s resurgent ambitious-for-world-supremacy China, and an increasingly-lost Russia, that needs a strong partner even though it is relegated to a new and very junior role. While the US-Europe camp is based on democratic values, the China-Russia camp is reflecting an autocracy that has risen over the last ten years in their midst. There is more coherence and commonality of values and interests within the US-Europe camp than in the China-Russia one, even if the defining basis of the latter is primarily found in its opposition to (if not rejection of) America and its longstanding world leadership. While Europe and the EU may fight against America on trade subsidies and similar economic matters, they are one on issues of democracy and the international world order as we have known it. The China-Russia camp is more the expression of the “enemy of my enemy must be my friend” which may be tactically viable but not the strongest construct in its essence. Meanwhile the world is at a crossroads since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Major emerging world actors position themselves alongside one of the two camps depending on the policy or matter at hand. The US-Europe camp, even if going through many travails in recent years, is still much stronger than its “would-be” rival and its relatively weak and disparate club of (at times sizeable) followers—this in spite of many recent developments. If anything, the main achievement of the China-Russia club, however partly unwitting, was to provide the world with future years of likely slower economic growth, through the combination of two events stressed last week by the Head of the IMF, viz. Covid-19 and the Ukraine invasion. This is hardly a positive advertisement for any future aspiring world order. 

A third camp-in-the-making, or actually sub-camp, is the Global South—comprising disparate members with, at times, little in common, each following one of the two main camps (depending on their tactical priorities of the moment). Of late, the Global South has seemed to look after its economic interests first, and Western concerns or the old-fashioned international world order and its values later—this being helped by the fact that a war in Europe is clearly not their concern. The Global South is increasingly taking neutral or tactical stances in the rising “great new rivalry” (if not yet conflict), when not actually taking sides with the China-led coalition-in-the-making. Not a surprising stance given rooted resentments for the traditional Western supremacy, if not ancestral or at times perceived actual colonialism. Africa has been a clear example of such positioning with many of its countries (notably including currently problem-ridden South Africa) wanting to deal with China and its Belt and Road Initiative, or clearly putting the West and the US in competition with China or indeed Russia as VP Kamala Harris noticed during her recent “marketing” trip there.

As for Latin America, a new world order-in-the-making may also be perceived as a potentially better redistribution of cards in relation to dealing with its closer (and also too powerful) Northern neighbour. Turkey in its election year plays a high wire act between being close to the West, a helpful and well-paid migrant manager for the EU and a key NATO member (even if still not willing to open the door of the latter to Sweden) while being an understanding mediator and at times a bit more with Moscow. Saudi Arabia, that now often oscillates between both factions, has clearly chosen a path disliked by the West at this particular juncture in reducing oil output with OPEC and triggering a price rise in early April. Modi’s India seems to go increasingly the autocratic way, looking at its crass treatment of the opposition while buying more Russian oil.  Many Global South members naturally play a very opportunistic and inconsistent card of their own, without necessarily formally taking sides—all while periodically affecting the great new rivalry in the making.         

Besides sheer geography, the new world order, as it might be redefined, clearly pins a recently-weakened democracy against a stronger autocracy, the latter of all flavours. It is yet not clear that democracy as we know it, a still young historical construct, will survive if it is not ready to stand firm and eventually fight through its many means. It would, however, be too early to believe that the West is in a losing position as the world evolves, even if democracy may be actually much harder to manage in a fast-paced 21st century than a simpler autocracy—especially for leaderships and populations more historically at ease with this concept and way of life. When looking at this potential new world order—or indeed disorder—reshaping, it is best to look at the various components and dynamics at play.

While remaining the undisputed leader of the (so-called for some) Free World, America today is dealing with domestic challenges not experienced in recent history. Moderate America seems to have been replaced by a rise of the extremes in both of its main parties. The unforeseen Trump presidential ascendency in 2016 gave rise to a hardening of positions taken by the Republican party, and more voice to extreme conservative (if not reactionary) types not much heard previously. At the same time, the Woke movement on the left took extreme positions in many walks of American life: both extreme wings also being driven by a strong financial incentive to many of their leaders and promoters, themselves helped by ever-present social media and traditional media squabbling over a declining audience.

Moderates in America, historically driven by public common sense, have become a minority—as shown by the legislative inability to enact sensible gun control to avoid daily mass shootings in schools and malls across the country. The recent Trump indictment, whatever its rationale, be it political or not, is another example of what many would describe as another proof of the American decline—while some would also rightly argue it shows that no one is above the law, even in our troubled times. A new Trump presidency in 2024, however unlikely, would be a major blow for the West—especially Europe—all the more as only 25% of US GDP is linked to international trade. This makes isolationism or “America First” an easier way of government than would be the case in any other major country, China included. (It is clear that Trump’s indictment increases his chances of winning the GOP primary, which many Democrats like Biden or another Democratic candidate would rightly prefer him as a more easily-beatable candidate in November 2024).

American extremism is also shown in the handling of its foreign policy with unnecessary trips to Taiwan by the House majority Leader, or quasi-provocations rooted in domestic politics. Both fuel a Chinese leadership’s anger that needs little provocation in the new assertive Xi era. The best American way to protect Taiwan is simply to be found in supporting Ukraine and ensuring its victory—a stance that some leading GOP members like Ron DeSantis may unwisely (and it turned out at their own costs) disagree with. The US approach to TikTok, whatever its merits, is also another expression of a shift to a Cold War mentality even if, by the same token, spy balloons should never be welcome. Moderation and common sense are what may be missing most in the US domestic and international political discourse, but these key features seem to still prevail at the right time. Not least because they are also based on the fact that America’ strengths have not disappeared in terms of actual leadership: world GDP, innovation, culture, military clout and overall message to other nations. America is still the leader of the West, and the latter is more united than ever due to the Ukraine war, even if the word “free” attached to the old appellation of “Free World” is harder at times to recall or notice for some.      

While China is still searching for ways to capitalise on its global ascension, it seems to be hesitating between being a peacemaker (as seen with its concocting the Saudi-Iran rapprochement) and belonging to an anti-Western front, through an unclear Kremlin visit and military exercises together with an imperial—if not imperious—Russia and an outcast self-searching Iranian follower. It is clear that Xi’s style is more focused than ten years ago on making China a world leader and on the rivalry with the American nemesis. This new approach also takes place as China’s economy and demographics are no longer what they were, forcing the Chinese leadership to be more practical, for example by not heavily controlling the local tech sector (see the potential return of Jack Ma at least in the news) and its foreign investors as it did in recent years. China is far more pragmatic than some of Xi’s official statements may suggest, also remembering that its rather obedient middle class is more vocal than their parents, and its formerly docile behaviour was also linked to enjoying the benefits of a peaceful globalised world—notably through outbound tourism and buying Western goods.

Not being the China of Mao or Deng, its desire to be respected as a global power is natural. The West should encourage its willingness to be more active in the context of a peaceful, if competitive, relationship with the US. China is first and foremost a pragmatic country that has little to gain from military confrontation—assuming it could indeed manage a conflict. This might be unlikely, given the rigid Chinese command structure which mirrors the Party one. Perhaps as with Russia, this is a common feature of autocracies. It is unlikely that China would invade Taiwan, even if military exercises close to its shores are often seen as retributions, like for the recent meeting in California between the Taiwanese President and US House Leader McCarthy. China is unlikely to back Russia militarily in Ukraine, given the clearly-stated red line, or to get closer to Moscow than what we see today. As long as it is perceived as a true leading country worthy of world supremacy aspirations, Beijing will play a tactical supportive game with Moscow, provided it can continue to play its chips well in international trade, and salvage the remaining needed globalisation. The Belt and Road Initiative, which so far has been an economic burden, if not failure for China, is more likely to continue being one of its main tools of foreign policy, as long as no provocations arise from Washington. Xi’s desired legacy is not to be remembered for his wars, but through an assertive will to build a stronger China by other strategic means. While China is clearly building a leading world role, its natural ascension is not imperialistic in a return of old history like Russia under Putin, for which other peaceful ways to exist meaningfully are closed off today.               

Russia is going through its most existentially-challenging period in its modern history. From a major power during the Cold War, and still a key country post-Soviet era having adjusted gradually to a globalised world, its leadership felt it had lost its deserved historical status and reverted to old imperialistic ways, unseen in Europe on that scale since WW2, to reassert itself. Far from regaining its perceived lost status, Russia showed unforeseen military weakness and poor leadership, giving it today no choice but to resort to being a China-follower in what would be a new autocratic world order. It is unlikely that China would support a more aggressive Russia elsewhere in Europe (beyond Ukraine, the mercenary Wagner Group is now rumoured to be looking at the Western Balkans) or in Africa (where the Wagner Group helps Russia make a comeback though with a military focus, like in Mali and Burkina Faso). However, the Russian economy, which the West expected to collapse nine months ago, has shown strong signs of resiliency and indeed reorientation—helped by both China and India buying its oil and gas. It remains to be seen whether Russia and its leadership can go on as if there had been no invasion of Ukraine, given the situation after 14 months, and the unlikely short-term ending or positive outcome for the Kremlin. Russian leadership traditionally falls on badly-managed wars, as clearly seen in 1917.

Russian society, while well under control today with no information outside the realm of state media, and an increased security apparatus in action, is questioning the war more and more — all the more within its elite that feels deprived of what the post-Soviet world had offered them (as shown in recent phone call leaks reflecting the general mood). Rage and despair are noticeable among technocrats and bureaucrats, military officials and even security service “siloviki” who now have joined the unhappiness of the oligarchs who have lost their yachts and ways of life. The recent trend of unhappiness may strengthen the Kremlin’s hard societal management, though not without avoiding the fate of previous Russian leaderships when the wider population and its elite (those who stayed) are gradually confronted with reality that time does not help. With the likes of the mercenary Wagner Group’s criticism of the Kremlin management of the “special operation” it is not clear that a coup or a leadership demise would naturally result in a more liberal and Western-like Russia in the short term. While an Ides of March’s Julius Caesar scenario is not unthinkable, most astute observers are wary of its aftermath with, at best, the rise of a less warmongering, but still hyper-nationalist post-Serbia-like Milosevic Russia that would evolve in a flawed democracy, while remaining at odds with the West.

Hopes of a Western-like liberal democratic Russia ended on a Moscow night and bridge in 2015 when Boris Nemtsov was assassinated. Today Russia, with its oil and gas that it sells less to Europe, is more and more looking like an isolated Saudi Arabia with nukes. The state of Russia today is not a sign that the new world order shows a very strong replacement for the West, again given that autocracies are not the best at such grand designs, being focused on domestic control first and foremost. It is clear that the West, while supporting Ukraine and ensuring Russia does not win there, should also make sure the natural divide of the opportunistic weak partnership between Moscow and Beijing is further affected, thus the need for the avoidance of noble but ill-thought-through provocations against the latter. Having said this, an alliance of nationalists is always an odd concept, even if there is never any guarantee that a Sino-Soviet-like split would always occur, however likely. The last thing the world needs is a collapse of Russia leading to a period of domestic chaos with ultra-nationalists eventually taking over a now hard-line Soviet-styled but still predictable Putin regime.              

Europe is known today through the EU as the world-leading trading bloc. But it is also a Western sub-club of, at times, 27 very different member-states across the ancient Cold War divide: from an old France, with a very deep history, to a new Croatia. The EU today comprises very pragmatic Germany and foreign policy-ambivalent Hungary. Not to mention the ceaselessly Brussels-sensitive (but Ukraine-highly supportive) Poland. As previously stated, one clear lesson to be drawn for all European nations, including those that made past world history, is that “the power of the bloc”, such as with the EU and the critical need for it to go beyond its main trade focus, is now essential.  While Europe is broadly the EU and its former UK partner, the concept and reality of the bloc matters more today. A probable Labour government in two years will likely continue, more strongly than any moderate and clear-thinking Tory one today, to bring the UK closer to the EU, while likely not re-joining it for some years. The Ukraine invasion transformed the EU through unexpected and rapid changes in its energy, economic and security policies—not to mention the rejection of any future Merkel-inspired plans to integrate Russia more closely into Europe, at least for the foreseeable future. In a stark contrast with decades of quasi-pacifism, Germany notably abandoned a historically-rooted and virtuous but not economically unhelpful refusal to focus on defence and military matters—even if actual transition takes time.

Key EU member states like France are adopting a less antagonistic stance towards China— the EU largest trading partner—than the US, serving both parties’ interests as China also needs Europe on trade. All while EU Commission President von der Leyen (incidentally a former German defence minister) clearly stated to Xi that China’s active Ukraine mediation would be a determining factor in EU-China relations. Taiwan is not much mentioned in European capitals, even if they support its “independence” and Prague is closed to Taipei, having cancelled a twin city partnership with Beijing in 2019. Macron’s visit to Beijing last week clearly showed a more moderate approach, not only aimed at bolstering trade and cultural relations with China, but also attempting at making Beijing more neutral in its stance towards Moscow with the challenging aim of finding “a shared responsibility for peace” or an equivalent to the Saudi-Iranian settlement the latter engineered, even if for its own diplomatic rationale. While the EU will get stronger at many levels, including on defence as wanted by Macron for some time, it will distance itself from Russia with relationship rebuilding taking at least a generation. At the same time the EU will redefine its position towards China in focusing more on “security and control” away from “an era of reform and opening” without weakening economic relations, or forgetting mutual work on the environment and nuclear proliferation, so as to keep working together on common issues. If anything, Europe, through the EU and its likely gradually closer British partner and eventually member anew, may unexpectedly emerge following the ill-fated Russian move in Ukraine as the inherently strongest member of the West, even if the latter will still be led by a soul-searching America.         

At a time when the Middle East, known for having been the centre of world upheaval since 2001, following the disastrous Iraq war and subsequent Arab Spring, is going through another set of unsettling developments, largely due to the rise of an extremist Israeli government, the world order has not yet changed in spite of the unprecedented since 1945 full-scale invasion of a European country. It is important for the West, democracy—and by extension the world—that Ukraine wins (or does not lose) a war that is far more than territorial in nature. At this point, the world order is still the one we know, and is unlikely to change soon. But it requires some serious attention and care from the West and especially its leader, still the “indispensable country” of my youth, also at home.   

Warmest regards,


Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival (Luke Harding)


Dear Partners in Thought,

I wanted to introduce you to a great book that is perhaps one of the best concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine today—even while the subject matter is still unfolding before us.

“Invasion” is a timely book and also, indeed, great reportage for its quality and that of its author, Luke Harding.  I met Luke in February at an event of the Prague Center for Transatlantic Relations, an excellent think tank in Prague whose focus and location vividly reflects our times and indeed geography. Luke Harding is a seasoned journalist from The Guardian with a longstanding focus on Russia and its society for years. As a sign of the new Russian times to come he had been The Guardian Moscow correspondent as of 2007 and was expelled in 2011, already being a nuisance to the Kremlin at a time when only the dreadful Litvinenko murder and the unexpected old-style invasion of South Ossetia had happened and made public news. At the time, the West was rather silent with only “limited and conventional responses” to gradual Russian aggressive moves as a prelude to its relatively mild positions when Crimea would be taken and eastern Ukraine occupied in 2014. Putin felt the West was weak and irresolute, thus fuelling his ambitions for a Russian imperial return that would be skilfully sold within Russia via now state-controlled media and an only too willing “captive” audience—the latter being expertly addressed in the book.

In its opening, Harding addresses the many events led by Putin that announced the invasion, while relating many comments of Russians about them. He starts by exploring how Putin tried to “rationalise” (a word that is admittedly hard to apply to the Russian leader) the non-existence of Ukraine as an independent country, stressing its inherent belonging to Mother Russia. This was clearly demonstrated in Putin’s two-hour historical tirade on Russia and Ukraine in June 2021, that left scholars around the world puzzled, where he tried to give a quasi-academic justification for events to come eight months later. Harding reminds us of the war against neo-Nazis and the liberation of Ukrainian brothers well before stressing that the war (or “special operation”) was essentially a pre-emptive strike against NATO and the West who were about to attack Russia. Putin’s statements that left the West speechless were only a prelude to comments, such as Sergei Lavrov’s at a conference in India one year into the invasion, stating the West had actually attacked Russia, thus triggering a massive laughter from the audience, even if from the rather neutral and (for many) too accommodating Global South. As the war turned out to be challenging for Russia, Harding provides insights as to Putin’s leadership style, micro-management and martial tendencies combined with utter ignorance about military matters (not unlike Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu) in a reminiscence of his admired Nicholas I and his failed Crimean war, Nicholas II and the regime-changing WW1 (or a Stalin who did not want to listen to Russian intelligence about a forthcoming massive Nazi offensive, as he knew better). In stark contrast to someone now also under Hague ICC warrant for the forced transfer of children, Harding projects Zelenskyy and how a great local actor, who played President in the famed “Servant of the People” and was an early proponent of dialogue with Russia, became a new Churchill and the most admired leader on earth—or at least in the West.

Harding was on the ground in Ukraine immediately before and during the invasion, giving us both a reminder of events most of us saw on our screen and read about—as if it were a distant story or a movie that could not be real in our day and age. He sensed that the invasion was coming in February 2022, an event that US and British intelligence had repeatedly stressed, but might have been dismissed by too many as unrealistic in 2022, 77 years after the end of WW2 and all the more at the heart of Europe. Harding’s connections with many key individuals in not only Ukraine but also Russia, provide us with a very personal perspective of all these events. Names like Kherson oblast, Mariupol, the Donbas region and even the small city of Bucha, where the first known war crimes occurred, all covered by specific chapters, are coming back to us. His book is a “first rough draft of history” as it infolded in front of us. He also gives us a better understanding for Ukraine through a number of poets and political thinkers from both Russia and Ukraine, while stressing the tolerance of the West for all the exactions of the Kremlin ranging from the killings of dissidents outside Russia to the annexation of Crimea in 2014—eight years before the full-scale invasion. He stresses the incredible failure of Russian forces to seize Kyiv in a week as planned, and the impact on the image of the Russian military, due to its many weak features reminiscent of a history most had forgotten. Russian soldiers and their “Z”-marked vehicles did not know where they were going, expected a short trip with no resistance, and had been told they would be welcome as liberators from the neo-Nazis by the Slavic brothers. Supply lines broke, food disappeared and looting started. Harding stresses the reckless approach of the Russian military command in its seizure of the forbidden area of Chornobyl, putting the lives of its own troops in clear danger with likely future health consequences. Then Kharkiv, home to Russian speakers and nationals, and its residential buildings starting to be the target of missiles and drones in a derailed Russian war scenario. We remember the long convoy of Russian tanks and trucks on their way to Kyiv ultimately going nowhere. He witnesses for us the awakening of a nation and its indomitable fighting spirit. Harding naturally addresses the Kremlin-unexpected resilience of the West and strengthening of NATO as a result of the invasion from another age.

While the war in Ukraine still rages—now at times with days without major news (short of missile strikes launched against residential buildings) likely triggered by a lack of ammunitions on both sides but mainly Russia’s—Harding’s earlier conclusion is that “Russia had basically lost”. This sentiment, which is rooted in the fact that war is still on after one year is definitely correct, but Ukraine needs support so it wins the war—not only for itself but also for all of us and for the heart of Europe to go back to a stable peace where old-fashioned warmonger and existentially-lost states are kept at bay. Harding’s book may be the first chapter of a redefinition of the world order as we have seen it since WW2 and then the end of the Cold War. The West, while its societies suffer from too much social media-focused individualism, vote-grabbing incompetent populism, and capitalism at times losing its soul, is still predominant worldwide, with an uncertain American leadership weakened by many domestic challenges and a Europe (still going through existential changes) that was weakened by an illusory Brexit. While China is still searching for ways to assert its global ascension, it seems to be hesitating between being a peacemaker (as seen with the Saudi-Iran rapprochement) and belonging to an anti-Western front, through an unclear Kremlin visit and military exercises together with an imperial—if not imperious—Russia and an outcasted self-searching Iranian follower (even if an erratic North Korea is not sought as a partner yet in this opportunistic construct). There is an odd and opportunistic alliance in the making based on “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend” that, if unclear and not based on solid foundations, also carries its own set of problems—not only for the West but for the world. To borrow from Mao’s prescient 1957 words, as the FT’s Gideon Rachman reminded us this week, there is a possible risk that the East wind might indeed be stronger than the West wind just now. This world order redefinition takes place as the now newly-defined Global South is increasingly taking neutral or tactical stances in the rising “great new rivalry” (if not yet conflict) when not actually taking sides with the China-led coalition in the potential making. The new world as it is redefined clearly pins democracy against autocracy, the latter of all flavours. It is not clear that democracy as we know it, a still young historical construct, will survive if it is not ready to stand firm and eventually fight through its many means. One clear lesson to be drawn for all European nations, including those that made past world history, is that “the power of the bloc”, such as with the EU and the critical need for it to go beyond its main trade focus, is now essential. 

Democratic survival is why the West (and many in the Global South) should support Ukraine so it wins and Russia is squarely defeated—thus prompting regime change in Moscow along traditional historical lines (even if never a guarantee of a return to more Kremlin rationality). The time, which is clearly tougher for Western citizens with higher energy and food prices though not lethal, is not for weak and slow support of Ukraine, which will be self-hurting later for the West. The Ukraine conflict is not simply about territory, even if Estonian PM Kaja Kallas might rightfully be more nuanced on the point, while by the same token, President Zelenskyy should adopt a sensible and wise approach to Crimea today. It is also about the world as it should be, according to the sound rules of law and values the West has promoted since the last global conflict, however imperfect they may be. Once Russia is squarely defeated (but not before), our times may oddly be back to those of George Kennan and his containment approach found in his famed February 1946 “long telegram,” already dealing with an expansionist Kremlin. We should all hope for the likes of Donald Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis to get the message regarding support for Ukraine beyond sheer electoral tactics sadly fitting our current Western political era. While Russia may have lost, Ukraine, now “a proven state” as stressed in the last chapter of the book, has not won yet, this with few end game scenarios being offered (my very point to Harding at the think tank) short of getting ready for a long conflict. We should make sure Luke Harding’s next and tenth book will tell us how Ukraine and the right values finally won. Today we are all Ukrainians.

Warmest regards,


One year on – Assessing where we are and clarifying the Ukraine war scenarios


Dear Partners in thought,

As we go into its first anniversary, it is useful to try clarifying where the war in Ukraine may lead—all the more given the massive production of opinions and the fluctuating situation on the battlefield and in the world capitals. In the absence of scenarios for how this war could develop, it is also necessary to realise where the current conflict may evolve, this in a realistic and sober way.

The first and unquestionable conclusion is that Russia (read Putin and the Kremlin) lost so far, and massively. Russia did not take Kyiv in a week. Russia did not take it in 11 months. Its armed forces have even retreated from parts of invaded Ukraine, surprisingly showing poor military management and “command and control”, understandably poor morale and aged equipment. If anything, Russia showed weaknesses at all key levels, doing away with any myth of traditional military strength. Mobilisation, also botched, drove many young men, among them qualified professionals, away from Russia, including in areas which were not targeted like key urban centres, drawing a blow to the long-term prospects of the Russian economy. Western sanctions will gradually be felt throughout the country and its many sectors, if only in terms of key industrial spare parts and, for many, no longer having access to Western goods and lifestyle, or enjoying the pretence of living in a free society. Reasons for invading Ukraine—from following the example of Peter the Great in returning territories, to liberating brothers from neo-Nazis—have been laughable, furthering the decline of the image of Russia, which is becoming gradually isolated. Even China is now adopting a far more cautious and practical de facto approach to the war, leaving Moscow only with the active support of the likes of Iran or North Korea. Russia’s image has been further destroyed by targeting civilian infrastructure (supposedly as it built most of it in Soviet days) and the many atrocities its army and the infamous Wagner Group mercenaries have committed in Ukraine. Russia will gradually face a dual battlefield in Ukraine and at home, the latter to maintain a domestic support that, despite a century of a traditional and well-engineered quasi-“Stockholm Syndrome,” is gradually declining—and is bound to further decrease over time. It is hard to see how the Kremlin hopes to “win” anything today at any level, or to see Putin backing down in the face of reality—which are dangerous factors for Europe and the world.

The second conclusion is that Russia united the West to an unprecedented level while giving rise to a strong Ukrainian identity. Ukraine has now become a fully-fledged nation as shown by the clear response of its citizens to the invasion.  NATO has been given a new and needed fresh wind, and is looking to welcome Sweden and Finland who changed their longstanding minds on defence matters, assuming that a tricky Turkey does not use its right of veto for quasi-existential purposes. Germany very quickly decided to launch a massive and un-heard of defence spending programme, even while still battling with demons of its past. While Germany’s post-WW2 focus was always very practical (the economy first) it became too hard not to becoming more engaged in its support of Ukraine. The recent Leopard 2 tank developments have shown the conundrum of either not helping Ukraine enough militarily, thereby facilitating a Russian victory, or providing it with offensive-type weapons, and then also potentially sliding into a direct NATO-Russia conflict—the latter still not being an unlikely scenario. Largely speaking (and acting as one) the West has also managed the energy shocks arising from the invasion surprisingly well. Even though, for most of Europe, its prior dependence on Russia was partly designed to integrate the latter more into a globalised and thus peaceful world. Lastly, it is clear that Western unity was also required to prevent copycats in other parts of the world like Taiwan, especially at a time when China was more aggressive towards it in 2022 as it struggled to define the new course it now seems to have hopefully achieved.     

It is clear that Ukraine cannot win (nor indeed regain its invaded territories) without Western assistance. NATO countries have gradually provided defensive weapons, notably anti-missile ones, and gradually shifted to light and not-so-light tanks like the UK Challenger, French AMX-10, German infantry Marder vehicle and now Leopard 2 and soon US Abrams tanks. Military jets like F 16s are likely to be the next step in assisting Ukraine through various ways. NATO is clearly sliding into a phase where it is indirectly—via Ukrainian troops for now—at war with Russia (the recent terrorist attack on the French railways cable network by a yet unnamed “foreign group” is an example of things to come alongside initial cyber-attacks).  Germany’s wavering government stance, while showing flip-flops and being unproductive in terms of clearly wanting to defeat Russia, put its future prospects of relations with Ukraine and other CEE countries at risk—as demonstrated by a statement from the German PM, that jets were out of the question, following previous similar ones regarding the provision of Leopard tanks.  It is also fair to stress that Germany has provided much financial assistance, and that many German leaders (including Annalena Baerbock, current Minister for Foreign Affairs and impressively ex co-leader of the Greens), have been unequivocal regarding Germany’s need to support Ukraine from the onset of the invasion. While fully supporting Ukraine with full-range military equipment and training, the West should also ensure that Kyiv focuses on regaining territories lost since February 2022 but does not aim, feeling strong enough, at recouping Crimea, this to give Moscow a peace escape route, however wrong in nature, and given the affinity of the Crimean population with Russia.         

The Ukraine war could be seen as the war also opposing—again to date only indirectly—the old powers that ruled the world for centuries (some could even daringly call it “the war of the white man”, if forgetting the many Russian minorities being mobilised as less problematic for the Kremlin, and the fact that Japan is a clear supporter of Kyiv). Key non-Western nations seem not much directly involved in the conflict from a strategic standpoint. China clearly would prefer a return to peace so global trade could still prevail, but still keeps a neutrality not devoid of measured criticism towards Moscow (which the West is welcoming after months of unclarity) while India is thinking more about its future as the most populous world nation and how to maximise its status to the point of enhancing energy supply from Russia.  Many developing countries in Africa, Latin America or the Middle East refused to condemn Russia at the UN at the time of the invasion, this for diverse reasons including not wanting to be aligned with the West. While nominally neutral, South Africa recently welcomed Foreign Minister Lavrov, showing some “understanding” for the Russian position while fragile states Mali and Burkina Faso have welcomed the Wagner Group and sent France back home (at the same time countries like Angola, Botswana and others, at times with trade ties with Russia, still condemn the invasion).  Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf countries are taking a practical stance in relation to the conflict, for many reasons driven by sheer economics. It is clear that the Ukraine war is also seen by many emerging countries as a way to obtain the best deals, trade or otherwise, from the West or Russia. All that being said and seen, the Ukraine war is clearly perceived by the unified West as a return to previous centuries, where neighbours would invade neighbours. The West is thus focusing on other means of managing international relations productively and peacefully, hence its unwavering, if at times domestically challenging, support for Kyiv (as a key matter of geostrategic principle, admittedly) and all the more given its location in the centre of Europe.  

There are not many scenarios on offer given the irrationality of the Kremlin and what clear defeat would mean to both sides. The West most likely faces an ultimately binary outcome: either Putin stops, more likely but not only via a coup, or a WW3-type conflict facing NATO countries and Russia could happen either though miscalculations or clear decision-making of last resort. Russia could not win, all the more so, given its poor showing against Ukraine. However, the potential damage tied to the latter may be immense, especially (but not only) for Europe. In a far worse repeat of history (Napoleon’s France, Hitler’s Germany) the Russian military would be eventually destroyed if facing a coalition comprising the US, the UK, France, Germany and other NATO members. The risk of nuclear conflagration, triggered by an overwhelmed Russia for tactical purposes, or even targeting Western capital cities, especially in Europe, would be real, but might not lead to actual strikes, as it would also very likely trigger a quick regime change in Moscow—many in Putin’s inner circle being loyal to date but not crazy.  

A direct conflict of the West via NATO with Russia, while highly possible an outcome, is clearly not to be desired. However, it looks like the best way to deal with Russia, while avoiding a conflict, is to be strong—and unwaveringly so. Being weak or half-hearted in supporting Ukraine would only help Russia achieve its goals from another era, while not preventing a later wider conflict or encouraging the Kremlin from further geographical expansion, like in the Baltics. While the risk of direct conflict is real for NATO, being strong for its members is the only way to either make Putin stop, however unlikely it would be, or foster a coup driven by practical judgement on the part of the Russian elite (obviously not the ultra-nationalists). It would not be unthinkable for the West to also explore ways to facilitate such a latter option, and help and even entice those Russians—be they part of the current leadership, security apparatus or oligarchy—who really want a sound future for their country that could again “one day” return to the global community.

Warmest regards,



On the primacy of geopolitical risk management in our new world disorder


Dear Partners in Thought,

The world drastically changed in early 2022. The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought “a return of history” not seen for 77 years in Europe, and triggered gradual (and often inadequately noticed) shifts in the global geopolitical order. A new cold war, at times quite warm, now seems to be in motion, with the West facing opponents that will act on and off together—and to different degrees—on specific issues that serve their strategic purposes. This new cold war may also encourage more drastic and less diplomatic developments among many countries globally that may starkly focus on their own strategic needs in a less collegial world.

The West, which had shaped the world for centuries, and which still represents the key force in international affairs, is no longer without major rivals. Rivals, indeed, who are more assertive than they were in the past. Some of these, like Russia, who had been in deep relative decline, have resorted to old ways of supremacy—like full scale wars for existential purposes (and likely to secure a dual “negative power” in the energy and grain sectors). Others, like China, with world leading ambitions (but also deep internal challenges and a more dangerous Taiwan focus), have taken advantage of the current turmoil to play tactical games in relation to a resurgent Russia and the likes of key oil rich Saudi Arabia—the latter also tactically wanting to create a more “balanced” relationship with the US.

At the same time, Iran is going through a largely self-induced 1979-like existential crisis, all the while using theocracy to justify its inhumane ways, and thus digging itself further into an unmanageable situation. North Korea seems happy to follow an increasingly erratic and dangerous demonstration of its relevance, affecting not only Seoul now but also the whole world. Turkey, while a NATO member, has been able to play a useful mediator role in the Ukraine crisis, though at the cost of not having a clear identity in relation to the West. Only these past weeks the world has seen disruptions of different magnitudes at the country and leadership levels in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Tunisia, Peru, Brazil and even South Africa —to name but a few.

The West itself is no stranger to political disruptions—as seen by the impact of Brexit, that made both Britain and the EU weaker, or in the travails of Brussels with Budapest and its veto power on key EU programmes. Even Germany, a model of democratic stability, unimaginably faced the recent prospects of a coup led by an extremist group intent on restoring the monarchy. America itself, the leader of the Free World as it was known, has been weakened by a political divide since the mid-2010s that has hampered its very essence and smooth functioning. Extremism has been more vocal, and the two main parties have seen their very existence and nature challenged. More generally, globalisation (while not yet in peril) is receding. Supply chains are redefined, with a gradual repatriation to domestic markets. The fight against climate change, while supported by many (if not all) countries is taking a back seat to energy independence. Geopolitical risk has risen and created many challenging issues requiring management at all levels.  

Planning for the future has become arduous not only at the country and government levels, but also at the corporate and investment levels. Geopolitical risk management has become the rising key focus of corporations and investors acting globally but also domestically. The key features of market entry, management and exit, have become essential steps to be reviewed with great attention to geopolitical risk. Due diligence is no longer mainly about numbers and whether there is a market to develop. Political stability and partner identification have become key. All these geopolitical risk aspects are still mainly related to emerging markets, although they increasingly need to be considered for domestic or outward investments also in the West, mainly due to the rise of populism and its unpredictability. The Private Equity sector, with its USD 10 trillion of investments worldwide, is one of the natural business segments needing to assess geopolitical risks globally, much like corporations when conducting mergers & acquisitions internationally to develop their business. Even a private equity manager mainly focused on its domestic market will need to assess the quality of a foreign investor coming from a less well-known geography, or plan for the potential impact on its investment activities of the vagaries of a currently divided legislature, like in the US. In this new era of world disorder that can still be managed efficiently, it will be key for world actors to receive the proper geopolitical risk management input that combines superior human and digital intelligence—the former remaining crucial even in our fast-changing tech world. Experience, judgement and networks will be essential in managing geopolitical risk as a key component of corporate and investment decision-making.

Warmest regards


Danger Zone – The Coming Conflict with China (Hal Brands and Michael Beckley)


Dear Partners in Thought,

As we are living through times reminiscent not only of the forgotten Cold War, but also of the gradual rise to WW2, it should be useful to review “Danger Zone”, the new book on the collision course of China with the West by American scholars Hal Brands (Johns Hopkins, American Enterprise Institute) and Michael Beckley (Tufts, American Enterprise Institute). 2022 has seen a return to old geopolitical ways in the middle of Europe, with Russia’s failed rapid invasion of Ukraine and, more globally, with a China, under the leadership of an increasingly Mao-like Xi Jinping, that seemed ready to assert its ambitions through old ways at a time when it is also faced with serious internal challenges. The dual threat to both the West and the world order as we knew it was surprising to many (like me and…Angela Merkel amongst others) who genuinely thought that globalisation and the “economy first” would create enough incentives to (relatively, for some) powerful autocratic states never to return to old ways of supremacy assertion. Ukraine changed everything rapidly, putting Taiwan on the map of serious potential world issues. While Russia leads an ill-fated and, so far, unsuccessful existential drive not to be relegated to what it actually is, energy and nuclear weapons aside, China is the “potential” and “eventual” world leader in the making, the question being in how many years. While the world is getting upside down due to an erratic Russia and a soul-searching China, the West is getting weaker by the year led by a Civil War-like-divided America. Even the European Union, weakened by a Brexit that that never made Britain stronger, is divided among its members on many issues and policies, the latest being the funding of its energy needs. At this stage, China may be a factor of stability or one of crisis enhancement globally, the latter being the topic covered by Brands & Beckley.

Brands & Beckley start the book with a bang in January 2025, and a Taiwan invasion at a time when a truly-divided America is arguing anew who won the 2024 presidential race, with fights in the streets in a super-January 6 mode—this time across the whole land. The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier is also hit by a missile, while Chinese special forces target Taiwanese leaders, and cyberattacks take down Taiwan’s power grid and an amphibious assault begins. While this scenario seemed outlandish in the early to mid-2010s, the world changed as China started to assert itself more forcefully but also Russia gradually changed the game, first starting via “little green men” and local Russian nationalists in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and then more clearly in February 2022 with the direct invasion of its European neighbour. Brands & Beckley put forward a sound explanation for China’s potential bellicose assertiveness, that would not be driven by seeking world leadership (as often stated) but more as a result of serious internal weaknesses, like poor demographics, slow economic growth and a more autocratic leadership style—as seen with the new (life?) term of Xi Jinping. China is still relatively strong, if only due to its size and its role in the world economy, but actually not so much as seen with the inept Zero Covid policies in large urban centres, that create economic and social havoc, with no real health basis, annoying the local population, and stressing a rather incompetent Chinese political leadership. Some should question the relevance of the Chinese Communist Party in 2022 in terms of its current relevance and societal usefulness—in the same way the out-of-this-world Iranian theocratic regime and its inept policies, that could likely fall at some point as younger and even older Iranians who want to live in the real world “don’t want it anymore”. The deal between the CCP and the middle class based on “travel the world and buy Western goods” is under potential threat (hopefully not, especially for Toorbee, a start-up I am close to and which is focused on making Chinese travel the world better as well as bringing good ideas back home). According to Brands & Beckley, the key Chinese problem lies in its “peaking power” status that makes it very dangerous. One of Beijing’s problems, that could accelerate a conflict, is that it has reached a point of historical weakness in its competition with the US for world supremacy, which might trigger a more hostile stance. Insecurity would be a driver, as it may have been for Putin, arguing that his Ukraine move (once the childish Peter the Great points are cast aside) is driven by the eastern NATO expansion and the direct threat to Russia (as if the West wanted to invade it… which makes eyes roll across all Western capitals). It would seem that China’s problems may be linked to its earlier economic successes that were not skilfully managed by a CCP leadership, also going back to a Mao-like era, with Xi Jinping who drew a line over the recent past (what was to be gained from the public dismissal “for health reasons” of former Premier Hu Jintao as if to make things of a new era clearer?). Brands & Beckley point to declining economic performance, misallocation of capital on a grand scale, an oversized property sector and rising uncontrolled debt—to which could be added issues with its grand “Belt and Road Initiative” scheme of investing in developing nations, like across Africa, and suffering many financial setbacks—all reminding observers of many of the lethal pitfalls that made the former Soviet Union eventually fall. This last point opens the debate on whether autocracies can really manage the economy well and, again, whether loyalty to the leader(s) is not always accompanied by incompetence that eventually destroys the leader(s)—Russia and Iran being ongoing cases in point.

China should be engaged more forcefully—not to make it more dangerous but to remind it that its best interests are to be part of the concert of key nations in a globalised world. China should learn from Turkey’s Erdoğan who seized the Ukraine crisis to play a positive moderating world role, at a time its image had not been very positive for years. It looks like China was taken by surprise by the Ukraine invasion, right after a warm declaration of mutual friendship with Putin’s Russia a few days before the invasion. China had to be neutral and not condemn Moscow but grew increasingly concerned as months went by and Putin failed militarily (both on the battlefield, and with his ill-fated mobilisation drive, that showed more Russians leaving the motherland than joining the army) and found itself gradually isolated, only finding firm support from the likes of North Korea or Iran. It should be noted that the US is not the only party to have issues with China, as seen with the recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Beijing, as he deals with the massive and increasingly Berlin-uncomfortable trade between the two countries. The West, as a whole, has good reasons to ensure that China stays on a globalised course and avoids Putin’s delusions that will mark Russia for generations likely after he is gone, willingly or not.

There are other books on China today that are worth mentioning, namely from Mandarin-speaking former Australian Premier Kevin Rudd’s “The Avoidable War”, which presents a more optimistic future of the challenging US/Western -China relationship. While always being attentive to the hostility of autocracies, and fighting its overt expressions like with Russia, the united West (hopefully also at home in the case of America) should always remain positive when dealing with China, as it is too big an opponent to have regardless of its many own challenges. A Western-China conflict would be a lose-lose scenario, which does not mean that the West should be too accommodating or forgetful of its founding values. The world should concentrate on stability, and sound globalisation should be its focus as a way of maintaining mutually-beneficial peace.

Warmest regards,


The Age of the Strongman (Gideon Rachman)


Dear Partners in Thought,

As I wrote about leadership-making in David Gergen’s recent book “Hearts Touched with Fire,” where leadership was deemed “good” in essence, I also stressed that some leaders were not always good in nature, often leading their countries and the world to a dangerous path. As such, I thought it would be good to do a Book Note on “The Age of the Strongman – How the Cult of the Leader threatens Democracy around the World” from the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman. The very gifted journalist and author (one of the best columnists at the FT today) tells us about those leaders who are easily identified as strongmen—and there are many today. These men (there is no woman yet) are household names, and sadly represent a large segment of the world population, usually in the developing world or (in the case of China) as the aspiring world leader. Rachman tells us more about Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Xi Jinping, but also Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro and others like daringly, Boris Johnson for whom he makes a strong case for strongmen club membership—however mild he may be in comparison to the others. He reminds us of earlier times, when many of those leaders in the developing or actually rising world, showed a more Western-like democratic flavor in their governing style (and policies) when they fully played the global cooperative game—unlike today also, in the new cold war scenarios we see unfolding.

The picture we get is worrying at two levels: i) these leaders, often representing very large countries, seem to increasingly rule the world or have a great impact on its events and ii) the democratic West is not healthy today, due to a combination of the rise of the extremes, a loss of basic values that made it, and the initially-unplanned adverse impact of tech, via truth-distorting and opinion-shaping social media: all affecting how people, and then voters, think. These leaders at both macro (country) and micro (corporates, business and investments) levels also create never-seen post-Cold War geopolitical risks, this including in parts of the West, when leadership can at times slip into practical authoritarianism in style, and increasingly in substance—as seen on a few occasions in post-Brexit Britain and in Trump’s America, even if in a mild way given the democratic context.

Vladimir Putin is emblematic of the old-fashioned strongman as seen with the invasion of Ukraine but also in the way Russia was governed since 2000, and especially since “Georgia” in 2008—not that Russia ever was a beacon of freedom and peaceful foreign policy-making. Even if George W. Bush in post-9-11 shock was able to “get a sense of his soul” in 2001. Twenty-two years is a long time in politics, though strongmen tend to stay in power forever—as shown with Xi’s plans for life ruling, or Erdoğan’s tenure in Ankara, that mirrors Putin’s. While Putin is naturally the first strongman to be addressed by Rachman, there is a large number of them that he focuses on. Rather than going into the features of each of them, I thought it was better to list them and their short chapters (about 15 pages on average) so as to let readers discover their details, while focusing on interesting aspects of the world of strongmen. The main feeling, admittedly very worrisome, arising from reading Rachman’s book, is that the West is not the world, and that the world is not democratic—also at a time when Western democracy is in peril due to its own issues today.

Rachman’s strongmen list starts with i) Putin – aptly named the archetype (2000); followed by ii) Erdoğan– from liberal reformer to authoritarian strongman (2003); iii) Xi Jinping – China and the return of the cult of personality à la Mao (2012); iv) Modi – strongman politics in the world’s largest, still-called, democracy (2014); v) Orban, Kaczynski and the rise of illiberal Europe; vi) Boris Johnson and Brexit Britain (2016); vii) Donald Trump – American strongman (2016); viii) Rodrigo Duterte and the erosion of democracy in South East Asia; ix) the rise of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and the Netanyahu phenomenon (2017); x) far rightist Bolsonaro, in Brazil, radical leftist “Amlo” in Mexico and the return of the Latin American caudillo (2018); xi) Abiy Ahmed and democratic disillusionment in Africa (2019); xii) lonely Merkel, Macron and Europe’s struggle against the strongmen; xiii) George Soros, Steve Bannon and the battle of ideas. The book finishes with an epilogue on President Biden in the Age of the Strongman. It is worth noting that some strongmen like Lukashenko in Belarus, Hun Sen in Cambodia or Kim Jong-un in North Korea are not addressed, not as they are gentle ones, but as they do not play a key role (so far) in changing the climate of global politics (one could disagree with the erratic Kim, but selection is key when dealing with such a large population of leaders that would give political commentator and author David Gergen a strong headache).

While the stories of these strongmen make for fascinating reading in terms of how they got to power and managed their often evolving “leaderships,” Rachman makes very useful points as to the nature of these types of leaders and their times, as follows:

• The general backdrop is clear. Over the last 20 years, liberal values like freedom of speech, independent courts, and minority rights have been under assault all over the world and especially as strongmen developed their autocratic style and/or rule.

• The West and its elites, especially political and mediatic, mistook many future strongmen like Putin, Erdoğan, Modi, Orban, and even Xi as reformers who could take their countries on a Western liberal path, that was deemed the universal way post-Cold war. These future strongmen, some who changed very quickly like MBS, also showed unusual liberal and reformist “tendencies” as they started leading their countries when compared with past leadership, this for a short time as the “Riyadh hotel jail” episode showed. The West did not see what was coming.

• The strongmen are different in nature from the unchallenged autocrats (Xi in China, MBS in Saudi Arabia) to those in the middle (Putin in Russia—this arguably— , Erdoğan in Turkey) who are subject to some increasingly-vanishing forms of democratic constraints like elections, and limited press freedom—to those who operate in democracies, but show contempt for its norms, and keep eroding them (Orbán in Hungary, clearly Trump in the US, and even Johnson in Britain, who showed perhaps the mildest, but a real strongman-case on many occasions).

• The strongman model was furthered even among clear authoritarian regimes like China or Saudi Arabia, where the likes of Xi and MBS gradually concentrated power around them, and away from a more collective leadership, either from the Communist Party or the Saudi Royal family. Today Xi is becoming a new Mao with no term limits.

• The two emerging powers of the 21st century, China and India, have both gradually adopted strongman politics, while representing an immense part of the world population that, so far, seem to accept such a political modus operandi that projects nationalism, strength, and a strong hostility to weak (Western) liberalism.

• The strongmen are not all the same, but they are similar through four cross-cutting common features: i) the creation of a cult of personality; ii) contempt for the rule of law; iii) the claim to represent the real people against the elite a.k.a. populism, well shown with Donald Trump even today and; iv) a politics driven by fear and nationalism.

• Strongmen sell themselves as indispensable and the only ones to save the nation, making little or no distinction between the state and the leader. They stress their nationalism, cultural conservatism, little tolerance for minorities, and dissent for the interests of foreigners, however fair and valid.

• Very often, strongmen rule as a family, with Erdoğan having appointed his son-in-law as finance minister and Trump his own son-in-law to take a key role in foreign and domestic politics. Bolsonaro appointed his three sons to key official positions, including one as Ambassador to the US. Duterte’s candidate to succeed him in Manila was his daughter (but then a young Marcos also came in). Even Boris Johnson appointed his brother Jo to the cabinet and then the House of Lords, as an aside (my comment), not the most democratic or meritocratic of institutions.

• Strongmen, unlike the dictators of the 1930s, operate in a challenged but still globalized world, where international law theoretically prevails, though take advantage of the technologies of the 21st century, allowing them to connect directly with the masses and, in many ways, shape their views and/or control them. These developments can take different forms, with two extremes in motion: in the West, actual and aspiring populist strongmen rely on social media and the likes to shape and control the minds of voters, while in true autocracies like China, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (the latter used by Alexei Navalny in Russia in earlier days to post online videos of the corruption of Putin and his inner circle) are blocked, and the internet is under strict online social control.

• Long periods of power allow strongmen to appoint loyalists in key positions, including in the courts, that have an impact on the daily life of their citizens. Duterte “restructured” the Filipino Supreme Court to his liking, while 4,000 judges were purged in Turkey during a state of post-coup emergency in 2016. Although not in the same environment, Trump (admittedly due to his timing in office and following a legal process) ensured the US Supreme Court became very conservative for some time, resulting in decisions (or no decisions) not reflecting the views of a vast majority of Americans today.

• Strongmen disdain institutions but love “the people”—this being associated with populism as still seen in 2022 with Trump and his die-hard base. Simple solutions for complex issues are put forward also, as they can be understood by the largest number, many of whom are not troubled with analytical processes. Simple messages like “Get Brexit Done” and “Build that Wall” were famously heard in recent years with great results for the strongmen.

• Legal and state institutions are often portrayed by strongmen as obfuscation tools used by the elites and a “Deep State” to protect themselves, and need to be broken when the ends justify the means. Similarly, shadowy foreigners are often portrayed by strongmen as plotting against the interests of the people, George Soros having been a case in point in Orbán’s Hungary.

• In most cases, strongmen fight for the people living in small towns and the countryside against the urban elites, often splitting the vote—when there is one—like in the US in 2016 and 2020—on educational lines. Trump lost heavily among college graduates, but gained 80% of the vote of non-college educated white men in both presidential elections. In the UK, 73% of school leavers without any qualifications voted Leave while 75% of voters with post-graduate degrees voted Remain.

• Nostalgic nationalism works also for the strongmen, hence the famous “Making America Great Again”, as they attract those poorly educated voters who have not benefitted the most, if at all, from globalization and experienced standards of living declines in recent decades. Bringing back the good times also works well in America or Britain, whatever the precise message. Similar messages are heard in Turkey, Hungary or Russia, with the Peter the Great approach about regaining territories, therefore past grandeur. Even Global Britain, that drove Brexit is linked to some nostalgia for an era when Britain was ruling the global waves, a sentiment not lost on the oldest voters even if they should remember the dreadful seventies better than a Victorian era they only read about.

To look at this week’s world, the already-disputed election of William Ruto in Kenya, a self-styled “hustler” and former chicken street farmer, also known as an African Bolsonaro, is a potential additional sign of a slide into authoritarianism and strongman ethos in Africa—even if resulting from an official democratic process. The news that former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison took over “discreetly” five ministries during the peak of the Covid era, this whatever the rationale for doing so, is another (admittedly mild as Western-flavored) example—very unusual for Australia—of the rising strongman era, even in the democratic West.

The Age of the Strongman brings three additional remarks: i) there were many strongmen in history in recent centuries like Louis XIV or Napoléon Bonaparte. If anything, strongmen always ruled “their” world; ii) the current era may make us realize that democracy, as we used to know it even in its more natural incarnation and fullest form in the West, is a very short and thus fragile experience in world history. There were only 12 democracies in the world in 1945; and iii) while being nationalist first, strongmen can work together especially against the West and its positions, as seen with their effective support or lack of condemnation of Russia, also for tactical reasons, in the context of the Ukraine invasion. In a rather low-key though telling development, China will send troops to a Russia-led military exercise in the Russian Far East where India, Mongolia and Tajikistan will also take part.

Liberal democracy was only ascendant for 20 years following the end of the Cold War, also reflecting a unipolar US world that non-Western strongmen started to attack as they built their power at home. The financial crisis of 2008, the ill-fated Iraq war, and rapid rise of China stopped taken-for-granted Western world dominance, even if the US stayed the leading world player. The rise of the strongmen and the fragility of Western style-democracy is also why it is imperative for liberal democrats not to be weak, and defend democracy with the utmost vigor. This fight is implying a renewed Western focus on education in order to best fight against the domestic dangers of social media-driven populism and its vote-grabbing and skill-less politicians of our times.

Gideon Rachman’s book is very dense, going through all the key strongmen of the moment and their main themes, like migration, which became a central tactical focus of the far-right parties in Europe since 2015. The Age of the Strongman is a book that needs to be read thoroughly and in a focused way, so rich are its contents and consequential its essence—all the more for the West, as we would like it to be, and how it should react to stop the authoritarian tide.

Warmest regards,


The Power of Crisis (Ian Bremmer) – How Three Threats and our Response Will Change the World


Dear Partners in Thought,

Ian Bremmer, founder and CEO of Eurasia Group—a New York-based global research and consulting firm—and G-Zero—a media company providing coverage on international affairs via its Signal newsletter—wrote a new book (from a “measured” American vantage point) on the three threats facing the world. The three global threats are i) deadly viruses similar to Covid-19 as experienced globally since early 2020; ii) climate change and; iii) the unexpected impact of new disruptive technologies (seen as the greatest threat of all as they impact mind and behavior. This is, incidentally, a threat that I wrote about in previous Interludes as a source of self-harm today in Western society. In doing so, and perhaps due to the timing of his publishing that coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ian Bremmer is not listing among major threats the large traditional wars, all the more within or close to the West, that belonged to a forgone era—before Putin’s Russia brought them back into the limelight. He does mention, however, this tragic example of a return to old times in an Addendum. Incidentally, Bremmer likes the number three, as shown with his 2015 “Superpower” opus, where he stresses the three choices America could make for its role in the world

While having identified the three threats, Ian Bremmer emphasizes the poor level of preparedness to fight them due to two key factors. One is the state of domestic politics in America where consensus has disappeared and he rightly calls (with a degree of irony) a state of “uncivil war” that weakens the still-sole-superpower’s ability today to manage key problems for itself and the world. It is for Bremmer the only nation able to project multi-faceted power into every region of the world, while being at war with itself through a lack of unity on essential socio-political themes. All worsened by hardened partisan politics, and a rise of extremism, vividly seen among elected officials since the Trump era. Bremmer also sees America as a nation of contradictions, with Texans at times struggling without electricity, while NASA is landing on Mars. He provides a sound review of what is wrong with America today, and how it goes against its own interests and that of the West—and to a great extent the world. The key domestic dysfunctional drivers, at times combined, would be according to Bremmer i) the widening wealth gap; ii) the veneration of the private sector, leading to the neglect of American workers, this enhanced by; iii) the importance of money in politics, and the dependence trap of elected officials given the expected returns on investment of donors (see with the NRA); iv) the discredited societally-dividing formal and social media; and v) the embedded structural racism still pervading society (this, I would humbly add, in spite of much visible progress in many walks of American public and private life). He could have added more starkly, mass-shootings and politicized Supreme court disconnections with American society. Ever the pragmatic one, Bremmer then comes up with solutions to fix the American dysfunctionality, many of which may seem hard to reach today—or any time soon.

The other factor is the gradually-rising “new cold war,” far worse than the first one, between the US and China—two powers that should be rationally inter-dependent in our globalized set-up, which could eventually hamper the world’s collective future. Bremmer actually sees it as a more guaranteed way to the MAD scenario (Mutually Assured Destruction) of old. As of 2017 in Davos, Xi Jinping made it clear that China’s time had come to change history, following his plans for China’s global supremacy in AI, quantum computing, robotics and other tech segments—an initiative led by the state, and thus communist party, (whatever the latter means today in relation to its roots)—all in a globalized, inter-dependent world. Nine months later, Xi switched his official message from being a member and co-reformer of the international system, to leading it in providing the “Chinese solution” to the world’s problems. China has since then wanted to expand its control of the South China Sea, controlled Hong Kong further, and pushed Taiwan to “rejoin” (when not demonstrating aggressive military strength when top US officials visit the island nation). Beijing became externally more assertive in creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that invests globally, and developed its (now struggling) Belt and Road Initiative further with more ports, roads and bridges—especially in Africa and Asia. All while Americans increasingly want the White House to focus on domestic problems, as gas price at the pump and inflation are rising today. As a key side-show, Covid-19 created more opportunities for Beijing to develop authoritarian solutions to control the disease, such as recently seen in Shanghai with its strange Zero-Covid policy, potentially and unexpectedly bearing the roots of key domestic middle-class dissent.

Bremmer’s G-Zero, a third issue of a permanent nature the world deals with, is rooted in a world once run by the G7 from 1975 to 2009. At that time of the global financial crisis the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada, who shared political values, led the world economy. By 2005 other countries like China, India, South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and Mexico started rising to more preeminence and independence from the West. This led to the G20 that regrouped key players with different views on democracy and free market economics. They all worked during the financial crisis (as they did post-9-11) to defeat the common enemy, but did not agree on much afterwards—hence Bremmer’s quasi-humorous G-Zero as the world entered an era of “geopolitical recession” which is ongoing, if not worsening. The Trump presidency had a major role in making the US more inward-looking and less globally-focused, with doubts about key organizations like NATO or the withdrawals from trade agreements, climate accords and the World Trade Organization. This G-Zero geopolitical recession in turn emboldened populist leaders (Gideon Rachman’s “Strongmen”) who were focused on easy answers to complex issues with a narrow nationalist focus. Bremmer therefore argues that global crises should enhance global cooperation in their fight and de facto that we actually need them for the world to work “together” in spite of rivalries, and to reset a failing world governance. Bremmer sees the hard-won nuclear reductions of the past as having been much easier to reach collectively, than creating a new “global public health system”, managing climate change fallout, or dealing with the destructive aspects of disruptive new technologies. Global cooperation will be all the harder in wealthy countries, as the non-college educated struggle to be part of a secure middle class, while in poorer countries the many have-nots now have a clearer and frustrating view of those who are more fortunate at home and globally. And a return to an “America First” in 2024 with Trump or one of his copycats would kill global cooperation. Bremmer however favors cooperation between rivals, even enemies.

Bremmer stresses that the US dysfunctionality and confrontation with China hurt the world’s response to Covid-19, a type of virus which was not only predictable but was indeed predicted by George W. Bush (2005), Barack Obama (2014) or Bill Gates, who actively led his foundation to focus on this matter. Both the dysfunctional US and autocratic China harmed the global response to Covid-19, that grew from one Chinese death to one million infections globally in three months. China, in particular, initially tried to silence doctors who wanted to share information on the virus, or avoided smooth global cooperation on finding its origins. This in turn leading to a more authoritarian stance on Chinese activism, more control on Hong Kong, and stronger views on Taiwan. Bremmer goes through the few real successes in global cooperation, and the many failures to be learned from, as Covid-19 (still persisting even if in a milder form after two-and-a-half years) should be one of many such threats arising in the future. Investing and cooperating early are the two simple recipes that are hard to achieve in a cold war environment among the two world leaders (all the more today, in the new context resulting from the invasion of Ukraine and its multiple impacts). Successful efforts against future pandemics will demand investment, moral imagination and political will in the context of a “Global Covax” in a cooperative context, involving rivals that will stay politically different.

Climate change does not care about borders and political tribes. It threatens the collective future of humanity on a larger and longer scale than pandemics, while affecting countries at all levels. Such a mega-threat requires cooperation on climate policy among direct competitors facing a direct enemy (in a wink to that scenario, Bremmer tells us of Reagan, a sci-fi movie lover, asking Gorbachev the first time they met in 1985 whether the US and the Soviet Union would cooperate if the earth was attacked by someone from outer-space. The quick answer was yes, perhaps paving the way for another world). Climate change has created famines that played roles in unrests and civil wars that led to displacements of populations, leading to backlashes as seen in Europe in the mid-2010s, with consequences favoring unforeseen political developments like Brexit. The section on climate change provides a very useful way for readers to understand its stakes and how to fight it, again in a global cooperation mode. Bremmer proposes a “Green Marshall Plan,” taken from the original post-WWII American design that involved rebuilding Europe—not the US—and was only enabled due to the Soviet threat in Europe. The American population had not been keen on it initially, preferring focusing back on domestic matters after years of fighting in Europe and Asia. Bremmer’s “Green Marshall Plan” would involve multinational investment in renewable energy and green jobs, and a global agreement to help resettle people displaced by climate change.

Tech has been front and center of news in the West via Big Tech, as the US (and more so the EU) have tried to regulate it as it gradually became omnipresent and thus increasingly powerful. Tech, like Aesop’s tongue, has been the best and the worst of things. The threat of rapid and disruptive technology is not new, and was always there in history. It is just far more rapid and more disruptive than ever, even if not always unleashing bad outcomes for mankind—far from it. Covid-19 started a war nobody won, but tech and the makers of disruptive tech were among those benefitting from it. Covid-19 showed that tech, in spite of having a chaotic virus to deal with, enabled a better management of the crisis through a better monitoring of the virus evolution, a vaccine development and, crucially, efficient remote working. The rapid, and the biggest threat of all—according to Bremmer—is, however, very real and deep when looking at the impact, not all positive, of lethal autonomous drones, cyberwarfare, biotechnology, Artificial Intelligence or the algorithms that replace people with machines in the workplace. These technologies have been rapidly shifting the relationship of individuals between themselves and with institutions in the West, while China gradually controlled the internet at home. In stark contrast to the message of 20 years ago, that the internet revolution would empower individuals and spread democracy, the reliance from too many on tech-based social media, often hate dissemination conduits of fake news, conspiracy theories and tools of oppression and violence, has been heavily damaging societally. These new media pushing clear agendas have curtailed independent thinking from individuals primarily seeking confirmation of their opinions, and have been highly damaging behaviorally also (my take) when combined with what seems a parallel declining focus on the quality of basic formal educational standards in the West. Lastly, communications tech, even “neutral” in nature, gave more exposure of inequalities to the have-nots globally, giving rise to massive anger and social disruption with direct attacks on institutions and their leaders. This section also gives us a very useful exposure to the race between China and the US to dominate quantum computing, which is another source of conflict, even if it should lead to more cooperation. Bremmer stresses the need to work together and set up the right framework, and indeed entity, to deal with the key issues related to tech.

Bremmer uses a quote from French scientist Louis Pasteur summarizing what is needed going forward and why: “Chance favors the prepared mind” or as Napoleon said and I like: “To govern is to foresee.” This, of course, is a rather basic fact, though not easy to implement in the context of a conflictual world, both domestically and globally. While we live in times of extraordinary opportunities, built over the last 50 years, when billions have comforts and opportunities far beyond the reach of medieval kings, we also face rising catastrophes in a context where world leaders fail to work together on common threats. Bremmer advocates “practical cooperation” among democracies and dictatorships, rich and poor countries that share common aspirations like security, dignity and prosperity, and need to work together on managing global threats. Bremmer offers several paths forward (ideally combined) like a “Global Covax”, a “Green Marshall Plan” and a “World Data Organization” all with roots in the then post-1945 UN-driven “new world in the making,” and based on the concept of international cooperation. Bremmer is also keen on not only outsourcing human crisis management to the private sector and ensuring governments also directly help those less fortunate in their countries, with the likes of strengthened social safety nets and guaranteed basic income.

In his short Addendum at publishing time, Bremmer touches upon the Russian “imperial” invasion of Ukraine in the context of the three threats and feels that, in spite of tragedies on the battlefield, and harm globally due to sanctions, and food and energy shortages, it helped unify the West, without creating too strong a Russia-China axis—whatever tactical approach is taken by the latter. Bremmer even thinks that Xi might restrain Putin’s imperial efforts and globalization destroying features, as not being to the advantage of a China that still needs clear borders, a behaving neighbor, and even more so globalization. This new cold war is also not like the old one, as Russia does not have the clout of the Soviet Union globally, even if the nuclear factor saving it from military irrelevance, in case of a wider conflict, is real. Bremmer, admittedly optimistic, feels that this type of conflict from another age, while “complicating things” and disrupting a world with less efficiency and more impunity at play, should not substantially derail the collective ability to manage global responses to the three key global threats he focused on —assuming the right steps are taken. He may indeed be too optimistic.

While “The Power of Crisis” is focused on key issues, threats and solutions, it is also a book full of details and nuances as to what is happening today and why, as well as how the world could fix problems that a Book Note could not give credit for. “The Power of Crisis” is certainly a book looking forward with hope, that is worth reading and reflecting upon.

Warmest regards,


Six months into the Russian invasion and delusion – Key facts and considerations


Dear Partners in Thought,

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its sixth month, it is worth stressing a few facts and considerations in the midst of a still regular, but now reduced, news flow. As time goes by and the new normal sets in, the Western media are also now more focused on the issues of the day such as climate change-related heat or other daily concerns—rising inflation, energy prices and food scarcity as if the latter three are somehow rootless.

  1. The winner is not clear but…

By not winning outright, Russia has already “lost.” However, the fight is going on and may be a long game in the making. While the protracted and exhausting game may at first glance seem to favor Russia—having made a few wins in the East and now wanting to annex more territories in the South to link Crimea to the Donbas—its military resources are depleted both in terms of manpower and equipment. At the same time, Ukraine, having suffered a few setbacks in the Donbas, is now using pivotal new long-range US rockets, inflicting heavy damage to Russian supply lines, ammunition depots and massive but outdated artillery. At this stage it is hard to predict how the war will unfold, while more analysts are betting on an embattled and theoretically weaker Ukraine eventually winning, given the deep systemic Russian flaws at play, and the natural advantage given to the defenders of their land—all borne out by facts on the ground. However, in order to win, Ukraine will have to get not only more efficient weapons, but also more troops trained (the West, like Britain. being key now) and start launching large scale counter-offensives in such areas near strategic Kherson.

  1. The West’s resolve is not the strongest but…

The West wants to support Ukraine and the rule of international law, but is not keen on waging a war against Russia—despite effectively doing so by sending weapons and ammunitions (albeit in a way that seems at times reserved). The West therefore does not know where it stands, and is still somewhat afraid of eventually facing Russia militarily (even if the latter proved to be very inadequate, though very nuclear strong) while struggling with the impact of their own sanctions and trying to keep some gas (and grain) flowing. The West is still digesting the failure of peace through trade, exemplified by Angela Merkel, and now paying for it by having trusted and allowed an always undemocratic and unpredictable Russia control its energy future. However, while the West could be much stronger and stress the direct military option more (predictably unpopular at home), it has still managed to strengthen itself in rallying together—as seen with a stronger NATO welcoming former, traditionally neutral, now new-cold-war frontline countries, like Sweden and Finland. The EU green parties have also shown resolve, notably in Germany, to sacrifice temporarily both of their coal and nuclear energy policies on the altar of support of Ukraine and what it stands for – all while an EU-level energy transition should take place in order to break the costly dependence on Russia and also in the context of the now unavoidable fight against climate change. However, such a resolve is also dependent upon political leadership at the country level, especially among leading Western countries—domestic events like the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Draghi following the “betrayal” of his Five Stars and League coalition partners (incidentally Putin’s Russia’s old friends), may have an adverse strategic impact.

  1. The West may also get tired but…

The West may get tired, over time, in its support of Ukraine, even if it could always be more decisive, while the long game may favor Putin (or not according to Richard Moore, the head of MI6). The streets of the West will gradually focus more on the long-forgotten rising inflation, and the price of petrol/gas at the pump, than what is happening in Ukraine—as seen in parts of America—regardless of the values, principles and geopolitics at play. Communication from Western governments, to explain the rationality of unwavering support of Ukraine to their own populations, will be key. There is also a need to reconcile the gap between promises and action on financial aid to Ukraine made by the EU, which has only disbursed EUR 1bn out of the EUR 9bn pledged in April, while the US has already disbursed USD 4bn to Kyiv, and plans to send another USD 6.2bn in September. The European gap is also linked to domestic reactions to rising inflation (directly attributable to Putin’s energy and grain blockage backlash) even if some of it is naturally Covid era-related. And Putin is obviously betting on the populations of the West to put pressures on their governments to focus on the economy, away from the geopolitics and moral principles, reflecting in some ways what the recent Biden trip to Saudi Arabia has been—even if linked to the Russian invasion. It is also key for Ukraine to ensure that side problems, like arms smuggling, are properly and publicly managed, as it would be a trigger or an easier excuse for reduced Western support, on the back of a challenging but practical admission that Ukraine had always been a very corrupt “environment,” and new cold war borders have now been redrawn and should be lived with.

  1. Russia is delusional – no, but…

The Kremlin is living in a parallel world in 2022. It behaves as if nothing abnormal had really happened in its forcefully returning territories à la Peter the Great. Bravado is back center stage at the Kremlin, which is re-stressing the initial invasion “rationale” that Russia is fighting to remove the Ukraine leadership, so as to “de-Nazify the state;” as if the first initial statements had not been crazy enough at all levels— including when dealing with President Zelensky who is notoriously Jewish. When all is said and done, Putin’s move made Russia i) a war crime-ridden pariah state for at least one generation, and certainly until he is gone from the Kremlin; ii) a perceived much weaker military power with command issues, troop deficiencies at many levels, and obsolete equipment on display and iii) a gradually-isolated and economically-suffering country with ties to shaky democracies and dictatorships, that will also suffer from their indirect support of Russia. Peter the Great would not be too happy about these developments, not to mention seeing the new Czar needing Iran for drones. Moscow today also benefits more from anti-Western rather than pro-Russian support, with China being the lead example of an early fair-weather friend caught—if not trapped—by the surprise invasion, but which still needs globalization, and claims that national sovereignty matters (except naturally for Taiwan, which explains the enduring “friendship” in the east China seas that currently annoys Japan). Putin today is facing the key challenge of maintaining the integrity of the Russian army, and wants to stay away from what would be a deeply unpopular—but required—mobilization, that would also stress nation-wide the collapse of his “limited special operation.” The most militarily cost-effective option for Putin, while maintaining ongoing economic pressures and cyberattacks on the West, would be to declare victory when and if Russia controls the Donbas (so forgetting the South and its “link rationale”), and start multilateral negotiations to end the war just as the West is pressured on the energy front as Winter comes.

  1. Sanctions are a challenging tool – for all

Sanctions—which made sense for the West and the world, in order to punish unacceptable old geopolitical ways, all the more so in Europe—may also hurt the West, without impacting Russia, as the Kremlin does not really care about what is happening to its own population in the way that Western governments would need to. As shown in the domestic support for Putin, the Stockholm syndrome is powerful, and what matters to the Russian people, all the more in non-urban areas and with few connections to the world, is national pride (however flawed), rather than the quality of daily life. The Russian people, however, also live in the 21st century and may grow tired—by the combination of an ever-going war and, indeed sanctions—though they seem ill-equipped for societal change-making from the grassroots, in the controlled environment that always was Russia. It is clear that Putin is betting on the economic pain resulting from food and energy shortage, and rising inflation to force the West, especially the EU that is also more on the frontlines, to advise Kyiv to negotiate an end of the war on good terms for Moscow—so far without results, though it is early days, and recession and shortages are only starting (even if a “complex” geopolitical actor like Turkey just led Moscow to soften the blockade imposed on Ukrainian Black Sea ports grain exports, via a UN-sponsored agreement in Istanbul).

  1. The neutral developing world is suffering – and may further do so

Apart from India, that still benefits from its high-wire exercise between the West and Russia, the less wealthy world, which did not initially condemn Russia at the UN for many different reasons, is hit very hard by food shortages—especially on the African continent. Many countries, having perennially suffered from war and civil strife, are clearly not interested in the multiple political aspects of an unusual large-scale war in Europe. One of the unexpected developments of the conflict may be a Western handling of the neutral developing world in a more tactical way than it has done so far, even if a new cold war with China, if it developed further, may soften the process. The recent collapse of the Sri Lankan government, with all its violent features, illustrates what could be a wider crisis among developing countries that suffer from the rising energy prices, food shortages and costs, and much stronger US dollar—all by-products of an invasion from another time in the heart of far-away Europe. It is, however, also possible that many of these developing countries and their peoples gradually feel that the roots of their problems lie with Russia’s initial war move, which may not create the best of future relationships with an ever-isolated and less-appealing Russian partner. The recent UN deal, brokered by Turkey, to reopen the exports of Ukrainian grain doubtless results from Moscow’s realization, that many of these “neutral” countries (and even partners) were deeply suffering from its war blockades globally. And, of course, some countries may welcome the start of a new cold war, that brings more geopolitical clarity—like Iran supplying Russia with drones; the latter example not being a strong point for the Kremlin and its military wherewithal.

  1. Russia may not be as tough as it shows (with history eventually repeating itself)

While many Russians suffer from historical and enhanced Stockholm Syndrome, it is still not clear that a long war would not create conditions for domestic reactions at some point. It is, however, an increasingly-challenging (if not impossible) scenario, as many of the urban, educated Russians have fled Russia (especially academics and tech specialists)—no longer wanting to stay in such an autocratic environment, thus indirectly helping Putin deal with reduced natural opposition, but also hurting Russia at its value creative core. While Putin and his self-centered inner circle seem to control Russia, and bet on its ancestral resilience, the latter—possibly not oblivious to popular sentiment—may at some point find the costs of Putin’s new cold war strategy no longer acceptable. Some of the key oligarchs, who may seem obedient so far, but have likely suffered greatly financially and leisurely globally, may start plotting, even if the Kremlin risk-management measures are likely in full force. On a closer look, time may not actually be on Putin’s side, as he finds himself increasingly alone in the Kremlin. Back in 1917 another war helped bring down another Czar.

The situation is Ukraine is unclear, and the above facts show a disconnected—and at times incoherent—picture. The outcome of the war could go anywhere. Resolve is still the key ingredient to beating Russia, or bringing it to the negotiating table on acceptable terms.

Warmest regards,


“Hearts Touched with Fire” (David Gergen) – How Great Leaders Are Made


Dear Partners in Thought,

As we live again in challenging geopolitical and economic times, where people cross-generations now seem lost in a compass-less world, led by too many social media that changed their minds, I thought it was useful to go back to basics and review what was and should be a key matter for us: Leadership.

“Hearts touched with fire” is the new book by David Gergen who deals with the many aspects of the making of leadership across the ages. The author, now 80, known for his gentle demeanor and crisp insights, has been a key fixture of CNN, where he has commented on political matters, notably American elections, for the last 20 years. Before this, he was a seasoned public official having served as a White House advisor to four American Presidents including Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, and is still leading the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. The “Hearts touched with fire” quote was borrowed from Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the most memorable US Supreme Court Justices, from his 1884 Memorial Day speech referring to the civil war that had shaped him into the man and indeed, while he did not stress it then, the leader he would become. While this book is focused on the American experience of leadership, it borrows from other leading examples in the world as well. It also brings us back to an America we thoroughly miss today, as David Gergen would agree. If there is one possible reservation, the book, while very rich, may also be very dense with at times too many great features to absorb, though it should be read as a novel, depicting a multi-facetted journey into history as a guide to a better future, and perhaps not just as a mere leadership guide.

Gergen makes some useful preliminaries about the “three pillars” of leadership, notably leaders, followers and context, using interesting examples to illustrate them. As Ronald Reagan defined it “a great leader is one that gets people to do the greatest things.” As such, for leaders to achieve their goals, they need followers. While the American revolution was a success and led to greater things, the French revolution died early simply as the French were not ready for it at the time as they had been living under monarchic rule for too long and did not make an effective revolutionary transition (even if some would dare to say that Napoleon brought many advancements to French society, and not only on the battlefield). Context is also key regardless of the leader: In 1939 Winston Churchill was a washed-up politician whom the war two years later transformed into the essential leader—not only for Britain but for Western democracy. Gergen offers a fourth natural pillar of leadership with “goals,” quoting the very able Reagan closest adviser, James A. Baker III, who had defined a hierarchy of goals for his President to ensure that the main ones were reached.

Gergen selects three charismatic leadership figures coming from very different walks of life — with different upbringings, politics, backgrounds and goals — indeed as leading examples at the start of his book: John Lewis, the impoverished young leader of the Civil Rights movement, Selma Bridge hero of the 1960s and Democratic leader in Congress for 33 years; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the societal record-breaking individual with a deeply struggling childhood, who then became the Supreme Court Justice known for always fighting for women’s rights; and John McCain, the son of a top naval Admiral, rebellious character, who became a military hero in Vietnam and could have been American president in 2008. He finds common features in their intersecting journeys as: i) each felt called to the public arena; ii) each began their leadership journey early; iii) each had to summon inner courage; iv) each stumbled but came back stronger; v) each began sorting out and embracing core values early on and ; vi) each found a true north; and vii) each was an idealist to their core.

David Gergen then takes us into his own journey when he interns for a North Carolinian politician in civil rights times, trying to bridge the white and African American communities in the South. One of his memorable experiences will be to go to a Ku Klux Klan meeting with two friends and barely escape, at a time when other young people following the same track would be caught, tortured and die. His early involvement in these society-changing events will teach him that he wanted to act in the public arena. In his own words, he did not know what he wanted to be but he knew where he wanted to be. Borrowing from Peter Drucker’s 1999 essay on “Managing oneself,” he stresses self-awareness as a key element of leadership creation. The main facets of self-awareness according to Drucker are i) knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses; ii) knowing how to learn by reading or listening; iii) knowing one’s place on the introvert/extrovert scale; iv) knowing how to respond to stress; and v) defining if one is a good number one or a better number two. We learn about Jefferson, Lincoln and notably Theodore Roosevelt having been avid book readers in order to shape their thinking — TR read one book a day — while Reagan (as I remember too) would not deal with briefing notes beyond one page — all while all of them were great leaders in their own times. We learn great stories about Michael Jordan who had not been selected in his high school basketball team, Winston Churchill’s dedication in his speech rehearsals or Bill Bradley, the basketball star who became US Senator. We learn about General Marshall who had decided that General Patton was at his best commanding an army but not the Army. Then, beyond self-awareness, comes self-mastery, via focusing on one’s strengths, improving constantly one’s performance, eventually leading to game-changing events like the miraculous landing of his plane on the Hudson by captain “Sully” Sullenberger, or the instant shooting by three Navy Seals of three Somali pirates as they were about to execute Captain Richard Phillips (incidentally two stories Hollywood made into movies with Tom Hanks).

David Gergen, applying a chronological approach to this main theme, focuses on the “gathering years,” when young leaders-to-be launch their careers. He has again a structured way to stress what matters at that stage: i) take time-outs; ii) choose jobs that align your passion and values; iii) perform every task — no matter how small — with excellence; iv) look for stretch jobs; v) understand your value to an organization; vi) spot those with high promises and join forces; vii) accept that you will make big mistakes early on; and viii) keep a parachute in the closet. He then goes on with the crucial necessity of finding mentors, coaches and role models. We learn how diverse personalities like Eisenhower, Henry David Thoreau and Alexandra Ocasio Cortes were mentored. We also learn about the role of sponsors in the making of future leaders. We then cover the importance of pinning down core values and principles and constructing a moral compass, all with examples of people who left their mark in American history, the latter being the author’s natural focus.

In the “Surviving the Flaming Crucible” chapter, Gergen gives us more in-depth illustrations of extraordinary leadership roads taken with FDR, a once 39-year old who could not walk one morning, having been struck by polio, but would become a game-changing American President. Another example is Malala, the young Afghan girl who was shot three times in the head by the Taliban, survived, led the fight for girls’ education around the world and, at 17, became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In “The Keys to Resilience” chapter, Gergen goes though the reasons why some crumble at times of crucibles while others come successfully to grips and grow. He stresses the importance of a sunny temperament, adaptability, hardiness and stoicism as the four qualities needed to conquer crucibles with inner resilience. Turning adversity into purpose is also a recipe that was taught to John Quincy Adams, the future President, by his mother during the darkest days of the American Revolution. In focusing on this key feature, Gergen provides the fighting examples of the stories of Harvey Milk, the champion of the gay cause and Katherine Graham, who would end up leading The Washington Post, both illustrating the necessity of moral purpose, a key leadership ingredient.

David Gergen then focuses on “Learning to Lead Up,” something we should do in our twenties and thirties, having gone through the “gathering years.” One of the funny aspects of this learning curve is to know how to “manage your boss” so you know them and play to their strengths. All while keeping one eye on today and the other on tomorrow. Speaking conscience to power, while arguing your case, and then getting on board and being emotionally supportive. One of his personal examples of having “an iron fist in a velvet glove” is again James Baker, the close adviser to President Reagan whom David Gergen actually worked with in the White House. Those who know of James Baker, still with us at 92, will remember a highly decent and professional individual focused on public service.

“Leading your Team” is a natural chapter so often addressed by leadership experts (read the game-changing “Team of Teams” by General Stanley McChrystal and also his most recent “Leaders”) driving David Gergen to tell us about the key basics of building a good team, well-defining mutually acceptable responsibilities, and building strong enabling structures and a compelling direction. The key thing would then be to turn a good team into a great one with getting the right individuals on the bus, while getting the wrong ones off it. David Gergen offers us a roll calls of great coups in team-building from different spheres of society such as Steve Jobs at Apple, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center; Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” team or the Bauhaus Movement. In doing so he helps us understand what distinguishes great teams. He finally covers the legacy of croup-centered leaderships, notably seen in the civil rights movements and its organizations.

One key tool of leadership for Gergen is the art of public persuasion. Leaders need to be heard to have an impact, and he lists a few requirements, such as finding your own voice and ensuring the basics of public speaking are well covered. Key tools should be: i) know your purpose; ii) have a clear message; iii) pay attention to the key elements of a speech; iv) have great stories to tell; and v) master the elements of eloquence. Very usefully, and showing he is aware of a changing world, Gergen goes through these pre-requisites in our digital world, stressing both its good and bad aspects, as eloquence may be used and perceived differently in our times.

As David Gergen addressed the inner and outer journeys into leadership-making, he then goes into the convergence of these two or their integration in ways that also turned into serving others. In doing so, he goes into the existential journey of Robert Kennedy after his brother was assassinated, the assent and transformational impact of Susan Berresford as the first female CEO of the Ford foundation (today the second largest foundation in America) and the national rise, through her elector registration work in Georgia, of Stacey Abrams, an obscure Democratic State House Representative back in 2010. In a personal touch, Gergen then gives us his own experience in the White House with four Presidents, stressing what he felt had been especially key, like hitting the ground running (due to the usual “first hundred days”), keeping an eye out for young talents among the staff (telling us about a young Nixon intern, John, who became a partner and then a friend of 50 years) and, first and foremost, not surprisingly, remembering common sense. On the latter, we learn that while Reagan had not read the briefing note for a G8 meeting he was hosting in colonial Williamsburg in 1985, as he had watched instead The Sound of Music, a favorite movie of his, he was still able the following day to rise above all the details and spend time with each leader on the big picture issues.

Leaders are not without failure and may also lose their way. The common failures and their antidotes are provided starting with i) hubris vs. humility, ii) narcissism vs. empathy; iii) greed vs. modesty; iv) obstinacy vs. resolution; v) imprudence vs. wise judgment; vi) basic dishonesty vs. straight shooting; and vii) distrust vs. openness. Many examples are provided, like for basic dishonesty the chronic lies of President Trump — 30, 753 cases even before the astounding findings of the January 6 House committee hearings. David Gergen also tells us about the self-derailment of Rajat Gupta, a former CEO and partner of strategy consultancy McKinsey until 2008. Gupta, closely associated with the Harvard Business School and a role model for business leadership, was charged with three counts of insider trading having benefited Raj Rajaratnam, following instant disclosure by Gupta of a USD 5bn investment Warren Buffett was making in Goldman Sachs, on which board the ex-McKinsey CEO was a member. He spent 19 months in jail. Gergen’s view, corroborated by his friends at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, was that while Gupta was dealing with his top corporate CEO clients as equals, he could not stand in retirement that they had billions and he merely tens of millions, hence the self-derailment. Other examples abound with Elisabeth Holmes and Jeremy Falwell Jr. (both hubris “victims” one of investor fraud and the other of sexual predatory practices) or Don Regan (a former Merrill Lynch CEO, Reagan’s chief of staff in his second term, and a clear narcissist who finally got fired as Nancy had had enough).

Leadership is often best seen at times of crises. In a rare departure from leading American examples, David Gergen tells us about Nelson Mandela and his fight in South Africa in the 1960s and later when all seemed lost for his cause. He then stresses qualities leaders should deploy at crisis times, such as a great carelessness of self, prudent judgment, instinctive feeling or intuitive flair and coolness under fire. Leaders often better revealed at times of crisis should heed the following advice: i) head off crises that are preventable; ii) prepare for the worst; iii) when it hits, reassure the public and then solve the problem; and iv) when it subsides, write an after-action report.

David Gergen finally mentions additional traits that leaders should have to be full, such as having a good reading of history, humor (that can create the best environment for any team) and naturally, an integrated life, as leaders are also men and women usually with families. On the humorous point, Gergen gives the story of JFK and Pierre Salinger, his press secretary (incidentally I met once on a flight 30 years ago — a good man) asking him if he could secure 1,000 Havana cigars by 11:00 am the following morning. A perplexed but cigar-loving Salinger did his best to accomplish the somewhat challenging mission only to discover that JFK announced a trade embargo against Cuba at 11:00 that following day. Similarly, when Reagan got shot two months after he took office, by a Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley, and while going into surgery at Walter Reed Hospital, he turned around in his gurney, looked at his doctors and said: “I hope you’re all Republicans.”

David Gergen rightly reminds us of WW2 being the defining experience in shaping leadership for a generation. All Presidents, from JFK to George H.W. Bush, fought in it (incidentally one having his famed “PT 109” boat sliced by a Japanese destroyer, while the other’s Avenger aircraft got shot down over the South Pacific) — but for Jimmy Carter who was at the Naval Academy when the war ended — making what television anchor Tom Brokaw famously nicknamed “the greatest generation.” The war created leaders especially in America that was left as the strongest country in the world — economically, militarily, scientifically and culturally. While born in 1960, I felt this hard-to-describe reality which made so many of us worldwide want to be part of the story. This greatest generation wanted also to “serve,” creating a noble basis for the deployment of their hard-won leadership. While America was far from being perfect and racism, sexism and other forces were eating away at its undergirding, most Americans were proud of their democracy and whom they were, also as a result of WW2 and its societal impacts. These leaders sent America to the moon, created many international institutions, passed many legislations to advance the causes of women and communities of color, enhanced social security, developed world-class higher education and pushed science and technology further. This was made through collective and individual leadership often born in the ashes of a world war. As America is now faced with threats to its republic in forgotten ways since 1865, David Gergen wonders if new leaders will rise to the challenges and answer “the clarion call for unity and action.” He still bets on the young — the millennials and Gen Zers with a focus on both progressives and mainstream moderates — to lead the fight in an environment marked by rising global temperature and the insanity of those who refuse the Covid vaccine, putting their own families at risk. He could have added the insanity of mass shootings like recently at Uvalde and in suburban Chicago, not to mention the astounding US Supreme Court decisions we saw last June.

It is worth noting David Gergen, in spite of his advanced age, is definitely in touch with our times and often very vocal in his defense of movements that he sees as expressions of leadership, but which some would find controversial — if not in their essence, at least in the exercise of their agendas, such as BLM or Black Lives Matter that, while grounded in well-known tragedies, also led at times to violent demonstrations triggering destruction and property theft in recent years. He also found leadership in footballer Colin Kaepernick disrespectfully kneeling down at the time of the national anthem, as a sign of protest and demand for racial justice, that indeed became followed by many. Personally, while I can understand the historical roots and current societal triggers of such activism, I am equally not keen on statues brutally going down — not a sign of great leadership in action — as I believe that we should live with and learn from our history, trying to improve the future without erasing the past, which is also who we are, or allowing uncontrolled violence on the altar of demand for any type of justice. However, he also stresses similar milestones that most, if not all, would welcome, such as the election of Michelle Wu, the first Asian American female mayor of Boston. It is clear that he sees the rise of movements like BLM and others as a response to the toxic atmosphere created by the presidency (leadership?) of Donald Trump, a man who paradoxically may have unwittingly “woken up” activism. He also sees the current nature of those movements, not all aggressive in their expressions but certainly forceful, as reflecting the current times we know and the engagement of the younger generations. Some of the new and very young leaders, like the often odd, but powerful, Greta Thunberg or the figureheads of the Parkland School student survivors, while determined in their message, be it on climate change or mass shootings — both sadly ever topical matters — fight the good fights also in remarkable ways that go beyond their years. He sees them, borrowing from Steve Jobs, making “a dent in the universe” in five ways: leading social movements; becoming elected officials; being social entrepreneurs; joining the national service; and/or simply but crucially being voices of change. His main advice is to start “now” and “throw yourself in the arena,” an expression he borrows from Theodore Roosevelt’s memorable speech, often referred to these days, on “Citizenship in a Republic” at the Sorbonne after his presidency in April 1910.

One theme David Gergen does not address in his book is that there can also be bad leaders, as history showed with Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, who caused massive death and misery to millions in Europe, including in their own countries. While they led their countries to their massive losses, or eventually later disappearance, were they “leaders” according to David Gergen’s rule book? Can leadership be achieved for the wrong reasons and against most of the values and principles shown in his book? Are the leaders of China and especially Russia today to be considered leaders according to David Gergen? All while Vladimir Putin benefits — as far as we know — from the support of a majority of Russians, his “followers,” in a strange “Stockholm syndrome” way, even after the unprecedented and tragic Ukraine invasion that must be hard to conceal or show in the best light, even if the Kremlin is the greatest domestic sales organization and controller of news on earth. And would President Trump, while having achieved the top role in the land, be considered a true leader knowing the blows, at times of a long-term nature, he delivered to America leading to the state of quasi-civil war and institutional demise seen across its entire society? Some of the greatest examples of the Trump legacy can be seen today in the US Supreme Court, now time and time again politicizing its decisions — overturning 49-year old Roe V. Wade, 100-year old New York gun concealment legislation, EPA’s ability to curb carbon emissions — under the veneer of legal review, or an overstated focus on historical and legal form over substance — all against a clear and massive majority opinion of Americans against these court moves, and the pleasure of some largely unrepresentative political, religious and business lobbies.

In his Executive Summary, David Gergen gives us a nine page “20 key takeaways,” perhaps as a recognition that in 2022 the attention span has been reduced via current means like social media and our tech world, resulting in people reading far fewer books (a sad thought that hopefully is still unproven). Again, his main audience is American, explaining his natural focus, though his takeaways are rather universal. Each would deserve to be read in full.

  1. Our country needs a serious course correction
  2. Prepare now to pass the torch to new generations
  3. Leadership, always hard, has become harder
  4. Leadership comes from within
  5. Have three objectives early
  6. Find your true north
  7. Focus on your strengths
  8. Extend your leadership journey outside yourself
  9. Try hard things, fail, move on
  10. You are never too young to lead
  11. Devote a year to national service
  12. Secure your finance
  13. Embrace crucible moments
  14. Learn to manage your boss
  15. Mobilize others through persuasion
  16. Your greatest enemy might be you
  17. Learn from new models of leadership
  18. Seek guidance from the past and present
  19. Friends and networks still matter
  20. Maintain a celestial spark

“Hearts touched with fire” is a great book of the journey type into the soul of people who have made a difference around them, while usually impacting society. It is definitely a summer read for those who may want to go back to basics and seek more sanity in our challenging world.

On a personal note, it might be a sign of wise and forward-thinking leadership for David Gergen to send a copy of his book to Vladimir Putin (as long as sanctions are not infringed of course).

Warmest regards,


Better understanding the results of the French legislative elections


Dear Partners in Thought,

Most commentators of the results of the last French legislative elections seemed to point to an ungovernable France and a President Macron lost at sea, while Europe and the world are in the midst of a dual economic and geopolitical crisis. It is time for more clarity.

While President Macron lost his parliamentary majority (as was expected) and it may not be business as usual in terms of his legislative agenda, France will remain a “governed” country and Macron’s agenda will go forward – even if not in full.

Macron’s mistake, which he may not see as one, was to neglect his party or, more correctly, opportunistic movement of five years ago known as La République en Marche (the republic going forward), this also reflecting the fact that since 2017 France went from party politics to personality politics, as Marine Le Pen would agree. It is symptomatic to notice that the two emanations of the parties that governed France on the left and the right, for nearly sixty years with an aggregate of 80-90% of the votes, only gathered less than 7% at the first round of the most recent presidential election last May.

As such, Macron will still govern France, even if more arduously. There are many reasons for this:

  1. While the left wing opposition, created in no time as a coalition of four different parties (the radical left La France Insoumise (Rebellious or usually Unbowed France) led by the radical leftist Jean-Luc Mélanchon, the Socialist Party, once ruler of France, the dwarfed Communist Party and the popular Greens) gathered 131 MPs (députés in French) they are unlikely to act as one parliamentary group, as each of the three partners of Rebellious France would prefer having their own group. They also do not share the same political agenda – short of defeating Macron at the last election.

The chair of the crucial National Assembly’s finance committee being given to a radical leftist, opponent of capitalism and neoliberalism, is a mere technical step. Such a committee chairmanship is traditionally given to the opposition, admittedly usually so far sharing the same values as to the prevailing world economic system. This step will not prevent the government from controlling the budgetary process and passing legislation, even if requiring working with other, mostly centrist and centre right, individual parliamentarians or their formations.

  1. The Rassemblement National or RN (National Rally), that was created by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the early 1970s as the Front National and was reset as a less racist (though Islamophobic, immigration hostile) and anti-EU extreme right party, created the surprise in multiplying by ten the number of its MPs (all while giving the short-lived extreme right disrupter Eric Zemmour, even more radical than Le Pen, the image of a forgotten soufflé). It was a great feat, but 89 MPs do not make law, even if the RN will be the leading single opposition party in the French Assembly.

So, there will be no really strongly-structured parliamentary opposition to Macron, even if he has no absolute majority and the passing of laws will no longer technically and superficially be “business as usual”. Offers of a national unity government initially made by Macron, while showing a willingness to cooperate, will not go far with opposition parties naturally wanting to oppose. As such, the French President will rely on the Les Républicains party (LR), the neo-Gaullist party of the day, that has been in deep existential crisis having been squeezed for five years between Macron and the RN, while at the same time losing its identity as a centre right “government party”, to act as its right wing in passing many laws. LR will do so, as they wish to survive and not be seen as blocking the constitutional process. And when Macron seeks to lead the EU in five years, when he can no longer run for the French Presidency, LR will likely then try reappearing again as the party of the moderate and sensible right that should naturally take over the affairs of France – all the more if the Socialist Party keeps vanishing due to its dearth of talents, and RN shows its ineptitude to play a constructive legislative role as extremist parties often do when its members are elected.

In the meantime, Macron will ensure that the foreign and defence policies of France stay as they have been so far, as he will remain in sole charge of this presidential domain under the constitution of the Vth Republic made for Charles de Gaulle. Ukraine, the EU and the West should not lose any sleep.

Two points should be noted when reviewing the last election outcome: the high abstention level and the very young age of some of the new MPs. The first point should be seen in the context of the view that, having ensured that Le Pen did not go to the Elysée Palace, voters might have decided not to give full power to a “distant” President by weakening his legislative agenda. However, it is not sure that the outcome of the National Assembly election was so well crafted. Abstention was at 54% which is high for any European parliamentary election though not so uncommon after a presidential election that focused more minds two months earlier. It should be stressed that the “young” (the 18-26 age group) – not unlike for the Brexit referendum – abstained at a high 70% level putting into question whether they are interested in their future or trusting the traditional electoral and political processes. It is also clear that such a high general and “young generation” abstention rate favoured extremist parties, left and right, as their followers tend to go voting – resulting in a poor, but officially valid, reflection of actual public opinion and an over-representation of extremist parties, e.g. Rebellious France (via NUPES this time) or Marine Le Pen’s extreme right party. The second point stressed by commentators, many times as a good feature, is the much younger age of some the MPs, at times being elected in their early to mid-twenties (like for the RN as Marine Le Pen worked hard to sway the few very young talents who wanted to be engaged politically), or the unusual background of some (a cleaning lady known for having organised a strike against hotel group Accor was elected as a Rebellious France-NUPES MP). While the average MP age of 48.5 does not change from 2017 (it was 55 in 2007) this last development should also be assessed against experience and indeed competence for the tasks required from an MP in an advanced democracy. Being young is great and can usefully bring another key societal input to the National Assembly. However, sheer youth does not usually yield tested expertise, while France is also known for the expertise and management skills, at times called and criticised as “technocracy”, of its political leaders who often went through the well-known elitist (though meritocratic) ENA school. And if looking at similar themes of our days alongside age (actually while ageism should be fought against fashionably in today’s times), like gender, the new National Assembly may be less representative of French society as it has fewer women than in 2017, when many new MPs in the Macron movement were indeed women, a feature that Macron’s opponents understandably kept low key.

So, going back to an “ungovernable France” and as the French saying goes if applied to the outcome of the latest French elections “a lot of noise for not much or indeed nothing”. As always, the real opposition to Macron, as he has known it since 2017, will be in the street.

Warmest regards,