The Age of the Strongman (Gideon Rachman)

19-8-22

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,

Serge

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

04-08-22

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,

Serge

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

26-07-22

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,

Serge

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

17.07.22

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,

Serge

Better understanding the results of the French legislative elections

08-07-22

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,

Serge

Three key geopolitical points for the West going forward

14-06-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

As the world hears from a leader who thinks that one can rationalize the Ukraine invasion by stressing that it is business as usual in 2022 Europe, and that like Peter the Great it is not about conquest but returning lands to Russia, three key geopolitical points should come to the European and indeed Western minds.

  1. The Transatlantic Alliance is essential

Since the beginning of what was now the first Cold War, the stability of Europe was based on the cultural and ideological bond between the US and European countries which, through NATO, guaranteed the future of the old continent. Today, and while years went by (and the last thirty were focused on global trade), Europe was suddenly thrown back to a forgotten era where the worst can happen – all the more as the Kremlin may be even less rational in its behavior than during the Soviet days. The West and Europe are facing a Russian existential crisis at multiple levels. The current perception of decline and under-achievement experienced at the top of Russia can only be relieved by the triggering of once-forsaken tools – like the invasions of European neighbors, regardless of their justifications – so leadership and domestic order are also preserved at all costs. The only way forward for Europe and the West is to fall back to a tried-and-tested approach, embodied by the Transatlantic Alliance and NATO reflecting values that bind the two sides of the Atlantic pond – regardless of all the societal challenges we know on each side today. There is no other way to uphold what we call the Western way of life, and indeed civilization.

  1. A stronger Europe is key

While Europe needs a strong American leadership, and would hope for a more united America at home, the West (and indeed America and NATO) need a stronger Europe. This means a Europe that spends more on its defense, and a European Union that focuses on this existential feature – in a non-fragmented way, beyond trade and other key matters. The recent moves by Germany to allocate EUR 100bn in a cross-party way to its defense – in a rupture to decades of post-war challenges to deal with anything military on a grand scale – is an essential component of this change. The drive by France to have the EU focus more on defense and security, even before the Ukraine invasion, was prescient and is now required at all costs. Europe needs to think in terms of defending its very existence before factors such as inflationary pressures or costs related to energy and food shortages – even if it needs to find ways to work on new and efficient supply chains in this respect. Denmark, Finland and Sweden – all historically the opposite of defense-focused countries – have already changed their ways very rapidly. The stronger Europe – and indeed the EU – focus on defense and security (Britain may or may not rejoin the EU at some point, with polls increasingly showing the strategic mistake of leaving its “club”), the more they will naturally work closely with the US, which will welcome the change, via NATO and associated channels. Ideally (and for the West’s and America’s benefits), NATO should gradually be more of a partnership of “relative equals”.

  1. A clear and strong approach to Putin is crucial

While we hear that it would be better not to humiliate or corner a Russia (the first point relating to the revanchist consequences of Versailles 1919, though also implying the Kremlin’s defeat) that has demonstrated both a return to the ways of early 20th century Europe, and a clear strategic and military ineptitude, it is essential not to forget all the lessons of history. Accommodating dictators only works for a short time while they continue unfolding their grand strategy, all the more if they control their own country and there is no local opposition to stop them. Munich in 1938 showed the world that appeasement does not work and leads to far worse developments. While not humiliating Putin would make rational sense as President Macron said, Cartesian thinking is absent from the Kremlin’s mind – assuming it was ever there. Only determination, even at high Western financial and other costs, can ensure that Russia is stopped, and that change can happen for the benefit of all parties – including Russia in the long term. Western “war fatigue” is neither acceptable nor desirable. This avenue is not without pains and sacrifices for the West, but would ensure that Europe stays Europe. By assisting Ukraine, even if never a role model for Western values and principles, and winning the war, we would guarantee that Europe and the West (and what they stand for) will prevail in the end. There should be no other choice for a Western strategy that should not be weakened by nuclear deterrence, all the more so as Russia would also lose in that context.

Both a historically-strong America, and a newly-stronger Europe are needed in a renewed and essential transatlantic partnership that stands tough to Russia, and can fully express its common values-based identity. Lastly the West cannot let the Ukraine invasion become an example to be followed in other parts of the world, which goes beyond Europe’s remit but would have similar negative global impacts.

Warmest regards,

Serge

America’s worst enemy and the West’s main concern may be America itself

30-05-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

Today the world sees great geopolitical rivalries developing, notably pitting Russia, China and their partners against the US and the West in ways not seen since the heights of the Cold War. The invasion of Ukraine and the latent threats to Taiwan are vivid examples of such a new geopolitical landscape. The West always stood for democracy and the liberal order, naturally led by America which unequivocally assumed its clear and natural role since WW2. However, today something does not feel completely right, in that the leader of the aptly-named Free World has gradually changed its essence, at times without noticing it – this with an impact on itself and its key leadership of the West. America today may be its own worst enemy as well as a key concern for the West in what it (the West) projects and stands for, bringing to the fore personal experiences and an assessment of what is not right and should be fixed for the benefits of all.

Born in July 1960 in Paris, I grew up thinking that, without question, America was the world’s savior. I grew up remembering this young and inspiring President whose life was cut short (indeed my first memory as a child was when I heard the Dallas news at the dinner table) and who, in my mind, represented so well this huge country with limitless means and ambitions, whose sons had landed in Normandy to free us in June 1944. My father once took me to our “cinéma” in Paris to see a rerun of “The Alamo” by and with John Wayne-Davy Crockett assisted by Richard Widmark-Jim Bowie and Laurence Harvey-William Barrett Travis. This movie and its story of courage, abnegation and sacrifice shaped the young man I was to be. When finding the otherwise great France too much of a “closed shop” in my early twenties, I decided to go for the “American Dream” where anything was possible as long as you worked hard and wanted to succeed. I met extraordinary people of all ages there, graduated from a great school (having borrowed left and right and becoming a teaching assistant on campus – in the American way) and secured my first job in New York. Based on this unusual route for a young Frenchman, I was then able to go back to Europe, joining the leading investment bank in the City of London, something my American Dream had made possible. I had been driven by those natural American values that were hard at times to define, and carried an Hollywoodian flavor of old, but which you felt what they were. They made you strong, they made you proud. They made you good. America then was defined by its “exceptional” idealism. Today I try searching for “my” America and cannot find it at times.

So, what happened to America? And why should we all worry? America is showing signs of inner decay at many levels today, especially identity – which is awful for Americans, but also for the West and the world at large, as we all need a stronger America at its core. The examples of decline will reflect many of the themes I already stressed for us all in general, like the negative aspects of tech and social media and the slippery slopes taken at times by the business and finance sectors (gambling cryptocurrency, senseless tech valuations of profitless companies at listing, oversized pay packages of CEOs feeling left out when seeing Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg – all areas actually experiencing a backlash recently). These negative issues were often born in America and quickly globalized, but they were not hitting at the core of the country itself with all the related damage we see today. There are three core US features of decay that need to be stressed, as they are eating at the democratic nature of the indispensable country, and because we need a strong democratic America in the global context – as we see with both Russia and China, not to mention tactical sideliners and rogue actors globally.

The three deep American issues today are: mass shootings and gun control – clearly at the forefront of all issues today, an unrepresentative supreme court and the irrational electoral system, all of which destroy the democratic tissue of America, and thus its standing as a leader of a democratic free world. All three problems are connected by the misuse of the American constitution in order to defend the indefensible, protect vested interests and eventually lethally harm America and thus the West.

When thinking about Alamo it is not hard for me not to compare it with Uvalde, given the mass shooting tragedy that happened in Texas where local law enforcement should be ashamed of its mismanagement of the crisis. However, and while knowing the tragedy could have resulted in fewer deaths of children and teachers, and there are many unbelievable features to it (like listening to the mother’s shooter asking for forgiveness for her son but adding that he “must have had his reasons” being a top one), the real issue going forward is with the misuse of the second amendment of the constitution and its projected holy flavor. Using the right to bear arms that the Founding Fathers thought to be right to protect freedom should never be used to sell arms without mental health and background checks or even selling military type assault rifles to civilians (how could an 18-year old buy two “ARs” without raising concerns?). Guns are now – incredibly – the first cause of death for Americans under 19. Gun control today is only a bipartisan issue in Washington while most Americans are clearly for sensible gun control regulations, as if the country was experiencing a strange parallel world and democracy was denied on the altar of business interests hiding behind perceived fundamental rights. This Uvalde tragedy should once again drive legislators to action, but some on the NRA side hope for collective memory to be short as in the past. Chris Murphy, Senator of Connecticut, was right in taking the floor and stressing loudly that this was enough, something the NRA did not acknowledge by keeping to its annual conference in…Texas. America today is the only country where these mass shootings in malls and schools take place almost making a bad joke of “American exceptionalism.” We have reached a point where the Republican Party will pay a very deep electoral price as Americans, be they parents or grocery shoppers, will have had enough.

There may also be deep economic consequences for those who benefit from the sale of arms we see today, from manufacturers to retailers. It was amazing to listen to comments about the Buffalo mass shooting two weeks before and seeing the only media focus rightly put on the African-American targeted victims, though with literally zero mention of how this deranged 19-year old white supremacist had been able to secure his weapon. A former Philadelphia Police Commissioner made the point following Uvalde, that it was clear that the Founding Fathers would not support selling assault rifles indiscriminately, so that America would have more mass shootings than days in the year to May end 2022. On a related note, the role of extremist social media, as with the Sandy Hook Connecticut school massacre (still holding the lead event position with 20 children killed), was shown in Uvalde like with the fake message (later deleted) from some Republican congressman that the shooter was a transvestite– as if to make the act understandable (some corrupt social media showed him with the LGBT flag in background again preying on strangely-used unacceptable discrimination). The solution is not with arming teachers – a great NRA and Trump way forward – but preventing the sale of arms to unqualified individuals, while banning assault weapons as in the past. It is time for genuine bipartisanship, however hard it may be for some politicians relying on the NRA’s political contributions, unless they wish to keep their self-benefiting contribution to the American decline going and – if I may be jokingly bold – their children learning Russian or Chinese mandatorily one or two generations from now. There is a need for common sense in the US Congress and especially on the Senate floor. Maybe there is hope as even actor Jon Voight, a well-known Republican and former Trump supporter, has now emotionally called for gun control. Governor Abbott should make a trip to the Alamo in San Antonio, not far from Uvalde, and reflect on what Texas should be, this also for the standing of America as a true democracy and the benefit of the West.

The likely US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) reversal of 1973 Roe v. Wade decision can be discussed in detail (for instance, addressing the number of weeks before an abortion is legally allowed), but the crucial matter is that of “SCOTUS v. America” today. When more than 70% of the American population wants Roe v. Wade to be preserved, how is it possible for a court, whatever its status, to reverse it? It is, again, a key matter for American democracy ¬– and thus the West – where politics and the set-up of a court, be it the highest in the land, collide with common sense. Three of the judges, appointed by President Trump, seem to be willing to vote for a reversal, this on mainly political grounds, hidden behind so-called human and likely religious values; this in spite of their having stated they did not believe in a reversal at their Senate confirmation hearings. SCOTUS should not be a politically-motivated game of who appoints whom and when. It is actually inconceivable for conservatives to support a Roe v. Wade reversal while forgetting they go against individual freedom, which is a major tenet of their core beliefs. Similarly, minority religious beliefs should not lead to a reversal, as if America were a theocracy of the Taliban kind. Once again, the Republican party and elected officials may pay dearly at some point for their mistaken fight, which combined with NRA support in the wake of all the mass shootings on schools and grocery stores, is unacceptable. It would be far better if SCOTUS actually looked more closely at gun control.

The American constitution led the way for the country to be a federation of states which today number 50. The problem that America lives with now is that some states are vastly underpopulated (compare California to Wyoming) but all benefit from two Senators in the US Congress. This set-up, which made sense at some point on political-philosophical grounds and history, over-represents small states, while potentially giving the victory to presidential candidates based on more numerous electors even if not benefitting from a majority of the backing of voters nationally. While small states, usually heavily rural ones, with decreasing populations as some of their residents move to urban centers, at times to other states, will naturally fight to preserve their rights, the future of America cannot be decided by a minority – all the more so if unrepresentative of the national mood. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that these small states are heavily Republican, making the party take irrational positions on purely political grounds, and indeed hurting the democratic essence of their country. The issue goes well beyond the traditional American sport of gerrymandering or legal manipulations of electoral constituencies’ boundaries and goes to the core of American democracy. It is, of course, a sensitive subject that even Democrats are afraid of tackling – even if it would make sense for the ultimate well-being of their country, and indeed the West.

I hate criticizing America, as I still love it and know its capacity to evolve for the better, as shown in its history. My points are also not meant to be anti-GOP. I always felt like a Reagan Republican at heart, and am not at all impressed with the extremism we see with the peripheral wings of the Democratic party with its Woke movement and the throwing down of statues– even if I realize the historical, racial and social problems that America knows and which need to be addressed. I am worried about the American decline (which even the new Top Gun movie would appear to indirectly refer to if comparing its 1986 version when America was flying high) that also has an impact on the West as we all need, as the situation in Ukraine and elsewhere shows, a strong leader of what we still want to call the Free World. The American decline in values and standing started when George W Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on groundless weapons-of-mass-destruction reasons, even if Saddam Hussein was clearly a regional evil incarnate, and the memory of 9-11 was raw. Donald Trump was culpable – even if his administration also pursued sensible policies, and many of his senior staff were responsible and honorable individuals – for an America less concerned with its founding values, given his appalling presidential style and modus operandi. Even Joe Biden was surprisingly led to an unconscionable exit from Afghanistan on practical grounds, leaving its women and girls at the mercy of backward extremists in spite of the West’s earlier promises of a better world (even if the challenges of this were many). Today America is divided like at no other time since the Civil War, which should drive people of good will from across the aisle to get together and finally realize the deep damage to America and the Western world. One clear lesson for Europe of the Ukraine war, and the American societal struggles, is that it needs to develop an autonomous defense capability long-heralded by President Macron. Such a European move would strengthen the West as we started seeing with Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO, and Germany finally confronting its past and realizing the need to step up militarily. However, we also need a clear and strong leader with the values that make us truly different and indeed great.

At a time of our support for Ukraine and with a major indirect conflict with Russia, if not yet and hopefully never a war for the West, it is key not to forget the values that separate us – and thus the US as our leader – from countries like Russia and others. As many now say, America needs to live up to its ideas – or we will all pay the price. The disconnect we see must stop as the future of the Free World is simply at stake.

Warmest regards,

Serge

“Freezing Order” – Bill Browder

19-05-2022

Dear Partners in Thought,

Bill Browder’s new book “Freezing Order – A True Story of Russian Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath” is a great thriller (as noted even by Stephen Fry), except that it is sadly not a work of fiction. It is also especially timely and more potent as the true nature of Putin’s Russia is more transparent to the world (even if some countries would debate the point on their own strategic and tactical grounds).

As Moscow is the focus of the Western world today, it was all the more important to stress the kleptocratic nature of this autocracy. Bill Browder is one of the Western investment professionals who started operating in Russia in the post-Soviet Yeltsin 1990s through Hermitage Capital, his pioneering platform. He did not know Russia, did not speak the language and had not managed an investment fund. Nevertheless, he established what was to be a leading investment company with assets under management once valued at USD 4.5bn, in what was literally a new market. Browder was smart in using strong local talent to identify undervalued companies in Yeltsin’s Russia, when the country was open for the first time to Western-like investment activities. He was supportive of Putin’s fight to control the Yeltsin oligarchs, though in doing so he did not focus as much on weak governance and legislative and enforcement processes. His story then was one of great business success, until the latter became too blatant and he was faced with an increasingly authoritarian Russia that led him to stop his operations and leave the country for his personal safety in 2005. The Browder story is particularly telling for me as when he was starting to invest In Russia, I was leaving SG Warburg, the leading City of London investment bank to join the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) which had been established in 1991 to facilitate the market transition in the former Soviet empire, thus combining my interest in finance and international affairs. On a related personal note, as I was joining the EBRD in early 1993, I crossed paths with Mike Calvey, who was about to leave the multilateral bank to start Baring Vostok, another one of the most successful private equity firms in the then-new Russia. Like Browder, although later on, he would run into serious legal wrangles with the Russian authorities – as if success was possible, but only if strictly obedient and “flexible” enough.

“Freezing order” is about the process and travails of tracing and seeking to freeze laundered money from Russia, and is a follow-up to “Red Notice” published in 2015 that went into how Browder built Hermitage Capital and then lost it. It is much centered on Browder as stressed by himself, and may be seen by some readers as less independent that it could have been, while at times going through events that were not directly related to him – like the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015 (even if the liberal politician was an ally of Browder in relation to what became the well-known Magnistky case that defined Browder post-Hermitage Capital.) This is definitely a story of dogged persistence and personal courage in dealing with the Russia which the West sees more clearly today. It is also a very personal story involving the theft of USD1bn from Hermitage Capital combined with Kafka-like punitive Russian legal action, misappropriation and laundering of funds and murders along the way. As Browder withdrew from Russia, his main lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who stayed behind as he wanted to fight the misappropriation of funds, was eventually murdered in jail. This tragedy, which the perpetrators thought would stay local and low-key, led to the money laundering-focused Magnitsky Act in the US in December 2012 and later its extension, the human rights-focused US Global Magnitsky Act of December 2016, with an impact on 33 other countries that passed similar legislation, including eventually the EU. Browder had attended many conferences involving security and money-laundering experts at Cambridge University, Monte Carlo and other places across the Western world while participating in shows with leading TV stations worldwide, trying to successfully generate support for his case. Meanwhile Russia was fighting back, trying to criminalize him as if he were the culprit and they the victim. Russia pursued Browder in Russian and US courts, using the latter system to their advantage, including Interpol to issue local arrest warrants like in Spain in 2018 when such warrants had been deemed illegal. While he would eventually succeed in US courts, Browder eventually received two sentences in the Russian courts totaling 18 years, which put him at great risk of being extradited or “forcibly taken” there by Russian agents abroad.

Russia initially wanted to stop Browder from investigating some fraud involving a theft of USD 230m linked to Hermitage Capital – engineered by criminals with the support of security officers and the Russian government – a matter that had some New York connections as some of the money had been used by Prevezon Holding, a Cyprus company controlled by a Russian close to the Kremlin, to purchase real estate in Manhattan, and would thus involve US jurisdiction. Eventually, and due to the Magnitsky Act that put much of the wealth of the Russian oligarchs at risk, this as a ten-year prelude to the Ukraine war sanctions, Browder became the main target of Putin himself (Putin’s wealth was likely one of the highest, if the not the highest in Russia, well beyond his USD 300,000 annual salary). In a meeting with Trump in Helsinki in 2018 Putin, who appeared much in command, floated the idea that Russia and the US could both extradite in what was deemed a fair deal some indicted individuals to the US and Russia, while mentioning the name of Browder and former Ambassador to Russia McFaul (Trump did not seem to object then and after the Helsinki meeting which created a furor back in America with a Senate vote of 98-0 to condemn such a crazy and baseless path).

The book is also an amazing story of how Russian interests in the Prevezon Holding case used the US legal system, hiring a top US law firm, Baker Hostetler, to fight Bill Browder and make him appear as if “he” had stolen the USD 230m from the Russian Treasury – all while the law firm was conflicted as they had represented Hermitage Capital a few years earlier (they had conveniently, though irrationally, argued that there was no conflict as now they were going against Browder himself and not Hermitage Capital, their former client and then plaintiff, even if broadly dealing with highly similar money laundering matters). A top US law firm was by then acting indirectly on behalf of the Russian Treasury – that was de facto the offending party in a money laundering case against the owner of a former corporate client whom they had advised on a similar case and had access to confidential information from – which was to a great extent rather unbelievably reversing the previous roles of plaintiff and defendant. The case took years to be dismissed as Baker Hostetler and the top lawyer (the aptly-named John Moscow), a former US District Attorney, who had personally advised Browder when he started his Russian money laundering-focused Magnitsky case lobbying, were finally disqualified in court (the process to reach that outcome being a story in itself).

At the same time, that same law firm had hired a Washington DC investigative firm, Fusion GPS, to find “dirt” on Browder and his associates and help serve subpoenas in remote locations so they would appear in US courts. The same firm, that was de facto working for the Russians in Browder’s case, was also broadly at the same time famously involved (via an ex-MI6 agent, Christopher Steele) in conducting opposition research on Trump in 2016 (on a funny note the “Steele Dossier” was later seen by some, but not all, as a way to create such a gross and salacious case that it would not be credible, which might have been the astute end game of the mandate, while actually helping hide some close Trump links to the Kremlin). The review of these activities performed by many high profile and highly paid American firms stressed a modus operandi that was well-known in places like London – or indeed “Londongrad” – where many Western enablers from real estate agents, accountants to bankers (without forgetting high end prostitutes) were working for a large array of Russian oligarchs and their families and friends who had elected the English capital city, and especially Mayfair, as their second, if not first home (the book is sadly a bit too silent on that London post-Soviet feature that one could hope was not due to Browder’s often forgotten British citizenship and many links there). Browder had a few easy but well-known jokes about oligarch enablers and especially lawyers stressing that for many the words “lawyers” and “ethics” were mutually exclusive and why won’t sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy. As for some well-known investigative or “strategic intelligence” firms, fees are often the main if not sole drivers and the only advice in terms of probity check for potential clients should be to closely review their board and especially advisory boards where the quality of their members should naturally speak for itself and separate the good from the potentially less so.

The Browder story is not just about court battles, and direct oligarch and indirect Western Kremlin enablers, but also involve very dire developments involving murder and murder attempts – like with the principled Browder lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky and a few others. As the Putin regime gradually evolved, such murders of dissidents or “defectors” carried out by Russian agents like that of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 had become commonplace in central London (as also seen with oligarch Boris Berezovky in 2013), Canterbury or across Europe like Germany, even if these would happen also in Russia like with the high-profile unsolved assassinations of Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, journalist Anna Politovskaya and politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2006, 2007 (the first two marking a turn in Russian affairs) and 2015 respectively. It is actually amazing that after escaping a poisoning attempt, leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, having courageously but strangely, not following Browder’s approach, returned to Russia to continue his fight, was arrested and now serving a combined 11-and-a-half-year sentence on what the West would call dubious charges (CNN released a recent “Navalny Documentary” that received two key awards at the Sundance Film Festival, in which he had participated just before returning to Russia post-poisoning in January 2021). A few aides of Browder in his fight against Russia also ended up being poisoned or even killed as the book tells in great detail, while some Russian security services and surprisingly known mafia leaders were at the forefront of the actions taken against Browder and his friends, some very openly like at conferences which Browder was attending in his lobbying efforts. It is actually a miracle that Browder or his family members survived unscathed while being harassed at many border crossings, like we read at Geneva airport in 2018, through the powerful reach of Russian operatives, again taking advantage of Western rules and regulations to carry out their missions.

In one last feature of Browder’s story (which will never know any ending until Putin and his system eventually lose power in Russia – indeed a timely topic with the multi-layered Ukraine developments), he discovers via an audit of Danske Bank, another Russian money laundering fraud of a USD 234bn magnitude. While this number is staggering, Browder estimates that the amount of Kremlin-backed and oligarch-laundered money would stand at or beyond USD 1tn (1,000 bn) since Vladimir Putin came to power around 2000, not a small chunk to be his, if not in name. While an estimate, and knowing too many vested interests including in the West are involved to make it smaller or simply not quantify it, the statement is clear.

Browder’s book reflects, through a highly-personal account, the gradual slide experienced by Russia in relation to the rule of law and business ethics that the Ukraine invasion finally made impossible for the West to ignore. At the forefront of this reckoning is the Western business community and its many companies across sectors that for years developed a presence in Russia and brought the local population a vivid example of globalization away from the Faulknerian “sound and the fury” of 20th century history. A great majority of these Western companies have now decided to withdraw from Russia, which for some has been heavily loss-making while not easy in terms of speed and ways (some had to sell quickly their Russian operations on the cheap to local oligarchs like Société Générale to Vladimir Potanin or Renault its controlling stake in Lada-maker Avtovaz for a token 2 roubles) as they also try to stay in Eastern Europe, this leading to many strategic reviews ahead of relocations and business redeployments throughout the region, also making an eventually post-war Ukraine market another focus as the country would go through its reconstruction phase.

“Freezing Order” is another detailed example of what Putin’s Russia always was while the West was sleeping and never wanted to see it that way on the altar of hopefully ensuring a mutually-beneficial and peaceful relationship. Today Russia, through its insane invasion of Ukraine, stresses how blind the West (and the world even if partly ambiguous today) was but now the curtain has fallen. Bill Browder, not himself a saint, and initially driven by sheer money-making, helped us see Russia for what it was for years, and successfully contributed in a small but impactful extent to a saner world, via meaningful anti-money laundering and human rights-focused legislations and their applications in many countries across the world.

Warmest regards,

Serge

“Twilight of Democracy” – Anne Applebaum

02-05-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

After a long lull in Book Notes, and to create a possibly unsuitable (though related) break from the tragic invasion of Ukraine, it seemed a good idea to go back to this genre and mention “Twilight of Democracy.” Its author, Anne Applebaum, now writing for The Atlantic, is well-known for her liberal outlook and excellent books on the Communist era in Central & Eastern Europe, notably the highly recommended “Iron Curtain – The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956” (one of my favorites on the topic), and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag: A History.”

Twilight of Democracy (2021) addresses the rise of populist parties in the West, which is a very timely topic as Viktor Orban was reconducted as Hungarian leader in April while Marine Le Pen failed but came closer to be the next French President and upend the future of France, NATO, possibly the EU and the Euro – and clearly the world as we know it, even if clearly already being altered by Putin’s Russia. In many ways, this book is why this blog exists as it was started by the rise of both populist-flavored Brexit and then Trump, rightfully two of the six chapters of Twilight of Democracy – also a good fit given Applebaum’s roots in both Britain and the US, not to mention Poland, one of the two current populist hotspots of Europe. Twilight of Democracy projects very strong views on populism, some of which covering Brexit or Central Europe, may possibly be seen as extreme or one sided by some readers.

A very personal history of broken friendships. The subtitle of her book is “The failure of politics and the parting of friends”, the latter is very fitting as she recalls the New Year’s Eve party in their Chobielin home in Northern Poland that she and her husband, former minister Radek Sikorski, had held to celebrate the passage to the new millennium. It was a time of joy, a decade or so after Poland had made the transition to both democracy and market economy. They had a lot of friends joining them, many no longer speaking to them twenty years later as they gradually espoused the nationalist and undemocratic views that prevail among the Law & Justice party members that has been fully in power in Warsaw since 2015. She has great stories to tell about two well-known Polish brothers with different career success, which describe how the challenged one used his old association to deceased Polish President Lech Kaczynski to get the top job at the leading Polish TV operator and totally changed it as if it were an official conduit for the ruling Law and Justice Party. In this telling example of how populists operate when in power, Applebaum also stresses how the under-achievers in our modern democracies can use politics and indeed populism to get to prominence, all the more when what matters to elected autocratically-flavored rulers in a European context is obedience and not skills, as also seen in Russia today. She then recalls the tragic crash of the Polish presidential plane in 2010 on its way to a commemoration of the Soviet Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers that was then gradually used as a conspiracy theory to put the blame on political opponents without any rationale (the President had forced the plane to land totally unsafely in atrocious weather conditions). Applebaum, borrowing from Yale historian Timothy Snyder, introduces us not to the Big Lie of the Soviet days but to the Medium-sized Lies used by current European autocrats to weaken democracy and liberalism when elected to public office, like today in Poland or Hungary and for a while Italy during the Salvini days. She goes into another old friendship that had turned sour with Maria Schmidt, the curator of Terror Haza, the Budapest museum focused on the dreadful aspects of the Communist area. Her lost friend being a typical example of an anti-communist individual espousing autocratic features, tainted of anti-Americanism and (unlike in Poland for obvious historical reasons) benign admiration for Putin’s Russia. Such individuals, who battled communism, formed part over the last decade of the corps of self-serving (also financially) “clercs” (she uses the French word for clerks) who made possible for leaders like Viktor Orban, another liberal 25 years ago, to succeed in governing while suppressing many individual and constitutional rights gained in the post-Communist era. These examples are very interesting for readers not living in Poland or Hungary, two countries which benefitted from huge EU subsidies (especially Poland, the perennial top financial assistance receiver from Brussels), who can also see their leaderships struggling with the EU in terms of fights over judicial appointments if not court structures. As Applebaum stresses, these should not be dismissed as “regional stories” involving “hard to pronounce names.”

Going back to the roots of populism. Applebaum notes there was no anti-democratic wave after the Communist transition in Central Europe, while populist leaders and ideas strongly emerged only in the last decade also as a link to the refugee crisis of 2015-16. She stresses rightly that the “Eastern European problems” we see now, also through the disputes with the EU, are not unique to former Communist countries experiencing a long hangover from 1989. She notes from her discussions with a Greek sociologist that polarization is normal in our Western societies and that history in our times is circular with its liberal and more autocratic phases. Angry, resentful and vengeful are the characteristics of the populist leaders and movements that are “against elites,” have dreams of “cleansing violence” and support an apocalyptic cultural clash, altogether with attacks on the rule of law, free press and academia. There is a commonality of image between the Marxist-Leninist states of old and the new nationalist regimes or parties, from the Polish Law & Justice party or the Hungarian Fidesz to the Venezuelan Chavistas or the French Lepenistes and even some hardline Brexiters. In many ways the Western world of today increasingly represents, via its growing extremist parties in their modus operandi, the Eastern Europe of the past. This is perhaps the key lesson of her book, which may not have been clear to many of us.

Brexit as the great populist success. Applebaum spends a chapter on Britain – or more exactly England – and the nostalgia of when it made the rules, which she says drove Brexit. England wanted to make things happen in a Thatcherite way when she played with her bag in Brussels and got the famed EC rebate, or when she sent a task force to the now totally forgotten and irrelevant Falklands 40 years ago. This approach was epitomized by a younger Boris Johnson (an Oxford Bullingdon Club fellow member of her husband Radek) who, when at the Daily Telegraph, would publish numerous half-lies or tall tales that his ardent Tory readership enjoyed, such as those about the EC or EU that would cancel London “double decker buses” or prawn cocktail-flavored crisps, giving the younger editor a “weird sense of power.” The Single Market, that Britain had helped build, was a great Thatcherite achievement for the country and its entrepreneurial class, but also a major source of annoyance and embarrassment in having to lower itself to negotiate with a lesser Brussels – even if the later was always very commercial and flexible in its approach. Britain, on the other hand, was always keener on its “Special Relationship” with the US as the latter was, according to Prime Minister Harold McMillan in his half-disguised exceptionalism “the Romans to us Greeks.” Not totally wrongly, Britain would not forget that they were the only European country to have from the start won WW2, which put it in a category of its own among nations, all the more so in Europe. Sadly, restorative nostalgia usually goes hand in hand with mild conspiracy theories and medium-sized lies, which the Tories started to spread gradually about Europe for electoral and existential purposes stressing that the EU had perverted the course of history. The phenomenon was aggravated with the fall of the Berlin wall, which vindicated the often-left wing criticized Tory cold warriors, but created a vacuum after the great fight had been won – this enhanced by post-Thatcher leaders who fitted a calmer new normal. John Major was snubbed by many Tories as a leader without a fight, also due to his lack of charisma and moreover university degree (something top PE firm Carlyle later never minded) together with his pragmatic focus on reuniting Europe, while Tony Blair brought a non-exceptional Britain or an England that would see devolution all in a way that recalled the radical 1960s in Tory eyes. To the Tories, many of whom were slowly shifting toward the more extreme regarding the EU, as it provided a program to sell voters, Brussels had become the embodiment of everything that had gone wrong in British life – leadership, culture, capitalism and national vigor with on top all the Polish plumbers and Spanish data analysts threatening the national identity. In an almost funny list of medium-sized lies perpetrated by the Leave camp were Johnson claiming that Brexit would bring in GBP 350m a week to the National Health Service, that if Britain stayed it would be forced to accept Turkey as a member all with Nigel Farage’s UKIP posters showing him with trails of Syrian refugees reaching the English shores. Dominic Cummings, the sadly bright Brexit architect later compared their messages to Soviet propaganda, some of his videos having been seen by at times in excess of 500,000 viewers. The Vote Leave camp also cheated and broke electoral laws to advertise more on Facebook or used data famously stolen by the company Cambridge Analytica, all while benefitting from Russian trolling operations that served the ultimate goal of the Kremlin to weaken both the EU and Britain (to his credit Boris Johnson has led a “good war” against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine). Joe Cox, a Labour MP and Remainer, was murdered during the referendum campaign by an unsettled fake news-radicalized man who thought Brexit meant “liberation” for Britain. Many Leave leaders and opinion makers thought that only a radical change such as Brexit could save Britain, that they perceived as once a leading nation now terminally lost. The Brexiteers became immune to facts and means as long as the victory was reachable, and when it was in sight, the harder the Brexit the better so a healthy shock would wake Britain up, whatever the costs including economic – this leading to what was to be known as a hard Brexit. Chaos was seen as good, including perversely by many in the Labour Party’s Corbyn leadership who believed that it would eventually bring voters to the radical left while others on the free market front thought it would bring an end to burdensome regulations. The majority of the country had not voted for this type of disruption but the extremists, going beyond any mandate, had produced it. Applebaum generously stressed that Boris Johnson had not ideologically loved autocracy but was simply about winning, which drove him to use and pursue whatever means and avenues were available – with clear success. There were talks among hard Brexiteers after the December 2019 elections of altering the funding of the BBC, curtailing or limiting the courts or purging civil servants with obedient individuals, as if London had changed to Budapest-on-Thames (with all due respect to Budapest whose mayor is actually a liberal like in Warsaw). It is clear that all is not yet well with Britain today, and that Brexit has not yet been digested – notably with job shortages from the trucking industry to the famed NHS. However, as in Fawlty Towers the official populist line in a rather unnatural mode is “don’t mention Brexit” or more aptly, destroy agreements that were in place, like dealing with trade and Northern Ireland.

Hard-line Tories liked undemocratic polities in other countries, especially Poland and Hungary, while they were becoming more authoritarian and attacked their judicial systems, prompting a stark condemnation from the EU. At that time, according to Applebaum, the British government, consumed with how Brexit would unfold, had dropped any pretense of standing for democracy around the world, which admittedly can be viewed rightly by many as too strong a statement. Tory MEPs and Law & Justice MEPs were part of the same caucus in the European Parliament, leading the Tories to defend Law & Justice when under EU attack. Formerly well-known anti-Communist MPs became friends of Law & Justice officials, which the anti-Russia stance may have helped. Tory and UKIP MEPs voted to protect Orban from being censured by the EU, in a way to assert the right of a democratic nation, however in name only and de facto authoritarian, to defy Brussels’s “interference”. To some of her British friends and former colleagues at The Spectator, Applebaum was now part of a “liberal, judicial, bureaucratic, international elite” opposed to “democratically elected parliaments”. One of them now a resident scholar at The Danube Institute founded and funded by Orban supporters, who made the remark about her “elite belonging” would have only dreamed to be part of it in London but simply could not, underlining Appelbaum’s point about underachievers usually joining the ranks of less-traditional achievement-demanding populists at home or abroad to access better jobs and roles, whatever the cost to their image and probity.

How the populists operate and why they get an audience. Applebaum makes the point that authoritarian predisposition is not the same thing as closed-mindedness but is closer to simple-mindedness. People are attracted to authoritarian ideas as they are simple and, unlike the democratic debate, not cacophonic. This blog always stressed the damage done by easy and indeed simple solutions to complex issues that populists love, as allowing to sell extremist ideas to voters who feel more at home with a lack of diversity of opinions and experiences and react aggressively against the complexity of drastic changes like the refugee crisis of 2015-2016. Applebaum goes into the role of social media in shaping the minds of voters, and more generally users, as many people in our age like to click on the news they want to hear, even if they may be false stories based on incorrect facts and disseminated by able spin doctors also using algorithms that radicalize their audiences, leading to hyper-partisanship. This hyper-partisan mode results in a rejection of normal politics, establishment politicians, the so-called elite, derided “experts” and mainstream institutions. No neutrality is acceptable in a polarized world as non-partisan or apolitical institutions are not desired. Reddit, Twitter and Facebook have unwittingly become the perfect media for irony, parody and cynical memes, creating a generation of young people who either vote for extreme parties or show a disdain for democracy that does not work for them. While being clear about the role of tech-enabled social media, Applebaum is also acknowledging their good aspects and not advising a return to an analog past when all was indeed not perfect. She just stresses that the new information world provides a new set of tools and tactics that populist leaders can use to reach people who want a simple language, powerful symbols and clear identities as if searching for an elusive unity.

Going into less well-known cases of European populism. Applebaum goes into a less well-known story about European politics that starts with the post-Francoist transition that led to the new Spanish political landscape post-1975. The new Spain eventually showed the center right Popular Party with names like Aznar (time indeed flies) and the center left Socialist Party, in a mirror image of many of its neighboring countries like France with its Socialist and Gaullist parties, the latter under many different names over the years (the two, as a sign of the times, having garnered less than 7% of the votes against 58% for all radical or extremist candidates and their parties in the first round of the presidential election in April 2022). As the 2010s started, the traditional parties got weaker as everywhere in Europe and new movements like populist-nationalist party Vox led by Santiago Abascal took more of a center stage as radical left Podemos and liberal Ciudadanos also appeared. Applebaum tells us about the trail of an ex-Aznar center right politician, Rafael Bardaji, who had disappeared for a decade, was forgotten and engineered a re-emergence away from its center-right roots with a “Make Spain Great Again” that had some Transatlantic Trumpian feel to it. Vox, which represented Francoism’s de-hibernation, became stronger in its opposition to the Catalonian referendum of 2017, that unlike the British one failed, and increasingly attracted more younger voters than their more liberal elders. Vox wanted to bring back the feeling of unity of the old “Arriba Espana” with leaders now using YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram and WhatsApp to channel their easy solutions to complex issues. Vox, not unlike other populist extreme right parties, took ownership of a mixed bag of resentment-filled issues for a large group of Spanish voters: opposition to Catalan and Basque separatism, same sex marriage, feminism, immigration of a Muslim kind (even if very low in Spain unlike historically France), and corruption, while supporting hunting and handgun ownership and showing boredom with mainstream politics that destroyed Spanish unity, all with a talent for mockery and a huge dose of restorative Franco nostalgia. NATO was deemed only useful for Eastern European countries bordering Russia (indeed) though Trump’s radical Islam fight was seen as a good one and more generally his governing style a fit for Vox. This foray into Spain was useful as not a country where populism comes immediately to mind, showing the extent of the problem across Europe.

And of course, focusing on Trump, the most successful populist of our times. Appelbaum had to spend some pages on the advent of the Trump presidency that was a high point of the rise of populism globally, and shattered for many the previously immovable image of the American liberal democracy. As Lincoln spoke of America as “the last best hope on earth” and Reagan’s 1989 speech of “the shining city on a hill”, both wanting to stress American exceptionalism and greatness, many extremists disagreed or wanted to go back to its perceived roots ranging from the radical left in the early 20th century to the Christian right more recently – as well as the great history of the KKK or even the noble rise of domestic terrorists like Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, who had plotted mass murder in order to rescue a nation. Trump’s inaugural address marked a turning point for modern America, as it contained left and right strands of anti-Americanism combining a rejection of the self-serving “Establishment” and the evangelical despair about the moral decay of the country delivered time and time again by someone who was the son of a multi-millionaire, himself a powerful elite businessman and a draft dodger. Trump, who had little or no knowledge of and thus no faith in the American story, added the deep cynicism of a man who ran unsavory business schemes globally (some now under scrutiny even in the US) while appealing to the millenarianism of the far right and the revolutionary nihilism of the hard left. He had no interest in America being a model among nations, indeed crudely rejecting its exceptionalism, and thus its role in the world, leading to a contempt for American international engagement and thus NATO, a well-known admiration for Putin he saw as a true leader and an isolationism characterized by “America First” as the only way to make it great again. American ideals would be false and its institutions fraudulent – the latter as when he described the FBI and its “corrupt and disgraceful leadership” two years into his mandate. As Trump would state it clearly in 2020, two years before the invasion of Ukraine, America would have no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in eastern Europe. There should be no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship. For the party of Reagan to become that of Trump and abandon American idealism and adopt the rhetoric of despair was a sea change. In a return to 1995 Applebaum recalls a gathering of Republican thinkers and writers which, like in a prelude of her own Polish New Year 2000 party, would see attendants not speaking to each other years later with David Brooks, David Frum or Irving Kristol (and indeed others like Max Boot even if not invited then) going away from the party happy to be taken over by the populist Trump on the altar of winning elections.

In looking back at history, Appelbaum tells in her last chapter about the famous Dreyfus affair in 1894 France, which targeted an innocent Jewish French officer accused of treason, in what was a fight between the ancestors of today’s national-populists and the democratic liberals of the day and with hindsight a prelude to the 1930s in Europe. The societal shock of the Dreyfus affair – that almost destroyed the tissue of France – was very reminiscent of Appelbaum’s vivid experience of those lost friendships of the new millennium. In a fascinating and rarely-expressed comparison, Appelbaum notes that those who maintained Dreyfus’s guilt against all evidence were the American alt-right, or the Polish Law and Justice Party, or the French National Rally of the day, knowingly pushing a conspiracy theory, the means justifying the ends. This fascinating story resonates at a time when Marine Le Pen, supposedly being the voice of the traditional France and the left-outs, in a classical, modern day contest against elitism, was losing for the second time in the final round of the presidential race to technocratic, democratic, liberal and pro-EU Emmanuel Macron. As Trump was born with a golden spoon in his mouth, and went on to be a populist politician and President, we too often forget that Marine Le Pen is also the rich daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen – making her indeed an aristocrat of sorts both financially and politically – who has nothing in common with the voters she is targeting with her appealing vote-buying messages. As her more clearly extremist and Vichy-flavored father scored 17.8% in 2002 against Jacques Chirac and she scored 33.9% against Macron in 2017, her score of 41.4% in 2022, even if much lower than anticipated (whilst some would also see her potentially win based on first round vote make-up), shows a trend where democracy and liberalism are gradually losing voting ground against populism and its easy answers to complex issues. Will a populist finally take over the Elysée Palace in 2027 and start dismantling the democracy of a G7 country and key historical player? And what about Donald 2.0 in 2024, all the more so,following a likely control of Congress in November by the Republicans who will be focused on revenge, even for some if losing their souls?

As Applebaum says at the end of her book, her title “Twilight of Democracy” was not a prediction but a warning. Anti-democratic forces using and abusing the democratic electoral process have won many followers in the past, especially in the last decade, building on distrust on the back of apparently noble (for some) but fallacious themes, and they actually will in the future too. It was interesting to note in the recent French election that polls showed that well besides and beyond electoral programs, 71% of Macron voters considered themselves “happy” in life while 80% of Le Pen’s felt unhappy, thus more prone to resentment and following extreme, if unrealistic and dangerous, political solutions for France. Winning elections will be the key driver for populist leaders for whom messages will be secondary and remain tools of the end game. And if they succeed, democracies will be gradually altered, as already seen in parts of Europe, and elections might eventually vanish as an unnecessary process.

Warmest regards,

Serge

On seizing the Russian invasion to stop the Western decline and grow strong again

20-4-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

The Russian invasion was a wake-up call for the West, or the “Western liberal order” (as it is no longer a geographic concept), and especially the younger generations for whom war in Europe was only seen in movies and, if they still read them, history books. While collective historical memory of WW2 died away as those who fought or lived through it passed away and their children became grandparents, the people of the West woke up to a reality long-forgotten that unprovoked wars from another age can also arise in otherwise peaceful Europe. Most observers stressed the strong unity of the West in responding to Russia, which was all the more surprising considering its current station in history. For decades the West focused on the economy, leading to a point where money-making became naturally the prime objective of a business ecosystem – all while rising inequalities gradually became secondary, as the masses were gradually served for the last 15-20 years a power-grabbing populist menu of grievances, making them also forget what was going on in their daily lives. Not only this, but the Russian invasion happened just as the West had weakened itself in recent years. And while the West – and indeed the US – still have tremendous assets and power, it may not be premature to disagree with “Paris 1919” historian Margaret McMillan, in seeing the signs of a gradual decline and then fix it once and for all at this tragic but timely juncture of history.

While technology or “tech” has changed our lives for the better, and sadly also for the worse, we additionally see today many examples in the world of business and finance of grievous developments that have slowly helped destroy Western society and hurt the many for the benefit of the few, all while forgetting the core values that made the West what it once was. The combination of technology, business and finance has led many times to adverse societal change in the West and also the world. The behaviors of many Western leaders in the political and business worlds, at times mixing both, has also added to the debasement of the societal values upon which the West was once built.

A few developments seen in the last decade underline the weakening of the West into a new version of an Ancient Rome declining through “games and circus” – but also now greed. This Ancient Rome-like decline has been unwittingly encouraged by tech, small or Big, and the financial and business worlds on the altar of profit, and while finding all the justifications needed on the way – like job creation or customer satisfaction. Having said all that, it is clear that Winston Churchill’s legendary quote in 1947 should always apply to the West, in that it is also another word for “democracy”: it is indeed the worst form of government except for all the others. This admittedly long note is not only about the key problems facing the West but also and crucially the ways to fix them – so it should be read until its end with an open mind.

The key examples of Western demise stated below may be seen by many, who still wish to hope that thinigs are just fine, as unfairly stated. These are only inter-related features of a darkening trend. In 2022, the few key features of what has promoted the de-strengthening of the West over the last 20 years with marked acceleration over the past decade, especially in Europe and the US, are as follows:

Tech and the damaging loss of critical thinking. Tech, like Aesop’s tongues, is the best and the worst of things. While tech undoubtedly brought many societal advancements in the way we live – be it in science, medicine, telecommunication and many other key areas – it also lavished the world with tools that strengthened isolation, fixations and behaviors leading to natural selfishness that was not planned and happened unnoticed by users. This damaging tech user behavior is seen with video games, social media and people walking down the street while watching their phone. Tech unwittingly shaped a world where increasingly self-centered users started to think less for themselves while relying on ready-made tools not devoid of agendas (indeed like this blog) though increasingly extremist in their message to shape their views. It should be no surprise that the younger digital generations, as seen in France in the current presidential election, espouse more extremist views and candidates than their markedly more liberal elders. In other cases, now known as “predatory”, the likes of TikTok and Instagram would encourage teens and young adults to self-diagnose with mental conditions with expensive solutions being provided by their sponsors whose business ran unchecked. One of the latest developments allowing to escape the real world well beyond its virtual aspects is now the selling of the metaverse providing users with a parallel world and existence, sheltering them away from the reality that real shells would now destroy. It is clear that many tech creators and users would not know who Aesop is today, but they would also benefit from taking a back step while enjoying their tools. The Chinese leadership, while seeing the damage that tech selfishness could do to its overall system (and likely not only key autocratic feature) decided to control access to and usage of video games and the internet – drastic measures that are obviously not fitting the West and its values. There is a need for a collective wake-up call regarding tech behavior, which is indeed challenging to make happen – if not at the core family and school level for a start. One can argue ad nauseam about the part of the responsibility of tech in a Western decline, though critical thinking looks to be gradually on its way out.

The foolish valuations of profitless tech companies. While tech (and not only Big Tech) rose to new heights in the last decade, a huge number of tech start-ups were created worldwide. While the venture capital industry was long known to be an area of finance where fund platforms were as a whole struggling to make any returns, as in private equity and its larger, more mature deals, the times suddenly changed. The new Thomas Edison times were born when venture capital firms focused on selling dreams and the motto that “profits will come” was heard again after a 20-year lull since the dotcom Bubble. The new Edison times reached incredible heights and indeed status when in 2019 a famous company called Uber was listed on the New York Stock Exchange at a market valuation of USD 90bn – without having made any profits in its ten years of existence. Based on its name, Uber, while being a simple car ride hailing company, had attracted the dynamics of offer and demand (often the key issue in a world with too much money) while subsequently losing USD 30bn in market value over 12 months. Venture capital, belonging to an ecosystem of “supportive” investment bankers and lawyers earning huge fees, went through a new age when anything was possible. This new era – sold as one of “progress” – was emblematic of money-losing start-ups active in attractive fields like an AI start-up being listed in 2021 at USD 35bn, only to lose half of its value in nine months – all while the ecosystem was becoming very wealthy if only for venture capitalists via the carried interest rewards of venture capital firms and involving minimal financial investment and risk-taking. Tech venture capital today is driven by a numbers game and is akin to gambling, where the key skill is to know when to leave the table, which invariably is very early post-listing and when legally allowed to do so for the principals behind the scheme. At least the real value is there in identifying early tech start-ups that will make investors dream. However, the lack of link between the results and the market value of these tech firms is a direct attack on rationality and reflects the declining Ancient Rome aspect of our current Western world. Investing in tech companies and promoting them to listed stock exchange status should not be about “when to leave the casino table” to cash in before the expected fall.

The advent of the cryptocurrency gamble. Cryptocurrency, started with the now-famed Bitcoin twelve years or so ago as an experiment based on fashionably libertarian-put “decentralization” (read: that no entity controls or indeed “unregulated”) and was emulated by many crypto-firms and now exchanges. “Crypto”, that is gradually becoming a poster child for “innovation is not always good”, is another example of the Western demise and is likely a worse example than the profitless tech start-up market valuations (which at least reflect real companies and their strategies). The basis for the value of cryptocurrencies is non-existent, while the “market” is being fed tech stories that it is to be found in what is known as “mining” in caves walled with computers like in Kazakhstan. Crypto is not only valueless and driven by irrational offer and demand, with huge daily price gyrations – but is also a terrible blow to the green world given its abysmal electricity consumption. Crypto, which has been largely unregulated thus far, is the favorite financial transaction means of the criminal world, which has found a tech way to shelter its activities, while Russian oligarchs have tried going crypto to evade sanctions and saving some of their kleptocratic assets. Young people, including teenagers, are known to buy fractions of cryptos to fund their lifestyle, seeing it as easy money until they lose it. Turkish citizens facing a declining Lira at home buy fractions of cryptos just hoping to get by. The problem with crypto and its often-huge daily value gyrations is that its time is already probably behind passed, even if there was a peak during the Covid years due to too much time “at-home”. Making real fortunes, however temporary, unless again bold enough by leaving the table early enough (usually too hard a move), implied more of a buy in the mid-1990s when crypto was still a relatively low-key “tool”. While initially cautious for a decade, many western financial institutions and well-known investment banks have jumped carefully on the crypto bandwagon not to let the “techies” be the sole winners of the fashion that became more popular under the pandemic. In one of his outbursts, libertarian tech investor Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, early discoverer of Facebook and early 2016 Trump supporter, recently attacked Warren Buffett as the “sociopathic grandpa of Omaha” while similarly describing JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and Blackrock’s Larry Fink as “finance gerontocrats” for locking cryptos out. On the free market libertarian side, some US legislators comprising pro-business advocates and leftwing technology utopians would have started to create a “crypto caucus” in Congress, where ideology takes over business sanity. However, and in spite of what appeared as an upward trend, while crypto would apparently follow the stock market recently, the values of most cryptos has taken a dive over the last nine months. While a strangely slow process, crypto is also getting more under regulatory scrutiny in most of the Western markets while China has expediently banned it (perhaps to launch its national version) and Russia had taken a rare sane move in recent times against it too. Only El Salvador – under the aegis of its young reverse cap-wearing President – has decided to make crypto a national treasure and role model for the world. In spite of the founder of Binance, a leading crypto exchange, claiming it, crypto is not an asset class (while amusingly, as if a great admission, recognizing it is not a currency as it was initially promoted). Crypto is not about investing and is totally about gambling, which should be regulated as such. In the meantime, cryptos and Non-Fungible Tokens or NFTs (or virtual art, such as the famed drawing of the “bored monkey” strangely valued at exorbitant amounts) hurt Western society and gradually the world by debasing the notion of sheer financial value while perverting the mind of too many people, all the more among the younger digital generations given their fittingly innovative tech flavor.

The rapid rise of easy money financial structures like SPACs. One of the recent developments to raise capital and do big deals has been the development of SPACs or Special Purpose Acquisition Companies. More than 1,000 such SPACs were set up since the beginning of the pandemic in a times-fashionable “SPAC mania”. They each floated on stock exchanges worldwide, promising to merge with an amazing private company to make their investors very wealthy. The SPAC fashion was promoted by financially illiterate celebrities in exchange for SPAC shares in the same way Kanye West and other luminaries promoted new cryptos and received free ones in exchange in a no-lose and win-win potential upside game. Politicians, sports stars and even Wall Street greats joined in the game. After two years, in the midst of Covid, 600 SPACs are still looking for a partner while some of the latter have been known to make incredibly false claims as to their potential achievements (a segment being electric car-making where incidentally revenue-inexistent Rivian, heralded as a rival of Tesla, was listed at a market valuation of USD 100bn in late 2021). The shares in the USD 40bn merger or de-SPACing Grab, the largest tech SPAC in Singapore, saw their value going down by 70% in three months while other de-SPACing entities showed revenues at 20% of what they were forecast. Only 63 SPACs were listed on stock exchanges in the first quarter of 2022, an 80% decline on 2021. SPACs are now under heavy scrutiny as if regulators had learned from their clear ineptitude in dealing early enough with the vagaries of tech market listings or cryptocurrencies. Regulators like the SEC have now decided, faster than with crypto, though they look at it now too, to stop the abusive schemes and make the sponsors and their bankers more accountable on the promises of future SPAC successes as well as disclosing fees and other costs. Finally, an 18-month deadline would be set up for SPACs to merge to avoid the current stagnant situation. In the meantime, a large number of class action lawsuits (admittedly also benefitting lawyers in the contemporary American fashion) have been launched in the US. SPACs exemplified the desperate need from investors to buy growth stocks in an indiscriminate manner led by the dream driver not dissimilar to that found with profitless growth stocks or easy-money crypto. At least this nightmare seems to be on its way out and may seem with hindsight like a very bad hiccup.

The amazing payouts and non-role model of corporate leaders and their related matters. In 2021 the median annual salary of US CEOs for more than half of the S&P 500 that had reported results by March-end was USD 14.2m. This staggering figure even created a huge gap with their highly-paid senior staff, this reflecting a world driven by greed where rewards have become out of proportion, while some regular people, often consumers of the goods and services of those business leaders, cannot make ends meet. The CEOs of Discovery, Intel and Amazon each made annual salaries between USD 178m and USD 247m. Even the CEO of Carnival Cruises operating in a badly pandemic-hurt sector, made USD 15m including a USD 6m bonus in 2021. This situation is not American-only, as seen with the furor arising from the EUR 19.1m payout of the CEO of Peugeot-maker PSA following its merger with Fiat, creating a major issue in the French presidential campaign with both Macron and Le Pen in a rare if tactically timed agreement to condemn it and what it means for the French workplace, this even if the CEO led a strong recovery for an ailing well-known automaker. One sign of hope and potential turning point on such matters was shown when only 64% of Apple shareholders endorsed CEO Tim Cook’s 2021 pay, the Norwegian oil fund voting no. Leading corporate billionaires now comprise figures like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg whose human values and charitable contributions are not what define them most – if at all. Times when Bill Gates (even if he had a few shortcomings the world did not know then) or a Warren Buffett (his hidden no-green side aside when it was not an issue) representing successful corporate and investment leadership are gradually gone, also from the very top of the Forbes billionaire ranking list. Again, our times would seem to show that the objective of entrepreneurs and business leaders is to achieve quick wealth and fame in the shortest time possible (for the former) or when the window of opportunity allows them to get away with it (for the latter), with not much consideration of such an impact to Western society. While many corporations still behave as they should, in too many instances basic morals no longer matter much any more, and rewards can never be excessive as long as they can be received – this creating a great disconnect with our Western world and its roots, not to mention common decency.

This unacceptable trend in corporate payouts has also been linked to and indeed reflects the financialization of most key sectors such as healthcare in the US which has affected a large number of families and as always and naturally gradually found “export markets” via the globalization of the major players in the healthcare industry. Another unacceptable slide into the maximization of profits is the rising cost of higher education in many Western countries, the US being again a market leader in the problem with the UK following suit. Such educational financialization ensures that meritocracy fails and that students face crippling debt that then becomes a political issue in terms of forgiveness. Sadly, the list of such slides is long and always efficiently rationalized by corporations or institutions and their leaders.

The bad behavior of former mainstream politicians. When Gerhard Schroeder left his position as German Prime Minister in 2005, he was known to have said that “it was now time to make money”. He then joined the Board of Russian energy company Rosneft, finding himself in the middle of the Ukraine invasion sanctions, not reacting swiftly to them and losing his reputation. Politicians, often with little added value but their public past to offer in business set-ups, find themselves able to maximize unduly the returns that past high public office can produce. David Cameron, an otherwise very acceptable (if not very competent regarding Brexit) British Prime Minister, and even a former minister from across the bench were caught unawares in the well-documented Greensill Capital scandal, trying to keep a very low but challenging profile. Many members of the House of Lords in the UK find themselves often in trouble having monetized their status through large numbers of board directorships and senior advisory roles for companies wanting to benefit primarily from their names and public image to legitimize their own operations. While many provide useful advice and guidance, quite a few do not provide adequate advice or governance, and at times put their own name at great reputational risk. Similar examples can be found through the Western democratic world. Once again, the driving factor in these poor developments is personal greed that affects the Western values that made a world as we knew it. Reforms are hugely and quickly needed to restore integrity in the way democratic leaders behave following their public roles and life. It is also a question of restoring confidence in the Western system and its leadership.

The rise of a new class of populist autocrats. The last twenty years have seen the rise of populist autocrats with their easy solutions to complex issues (leading to this blog birth) and whose main objective was to seize power in a democratic context, often to weaken the latter if the goal was achieved. The list of these personalities, not all evil, is long from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Nigel Farage or Viktor Orban or newcomers like the French media star Eric Zemmour with similar party leaders and personalities across the West. Some were once mainstream politicians having shifted to authoritarianism in style and deeds over the years like Orban. Others, like Boris Johnson, are also gradually adopting a tactical and expedient populist style to achieve their goals (like Brexit or redefining his Tory Party) while staying within democratic confines – if not always abiding by the rules. A tiny few were indeed elected to the top role in their country (Hungary and Poland or even Italy pre-Draghi coming to mind) this with diverse results and usually not staying more than one term (except for Orban as recently seen) or remembering history or basic funding gradually going back to more sensible approaches (the Polish government when now dealing with the EU Commission, this further helped by the war in Ukraine and its consequences). With the natural history-based exception of Poland, these leaders and parties were usually warm to or liked Putin (which for Orban and those who voted again for him is puzzling considering 1956, though knowing collective living history is gone, clearly in some of parts of Hungary unlike the Czech Republic for which 1968 may be closer). Those populist leaders strongly played the immigration card, especially when it was coming from Africa or the Middle East (apparently Ukrainian refugees are no problem so far for the Polish Law and Justice Party, unlike those from Afghanistan at the Belarus border two months before). Issues linked to crime rise-flavored identity politics, which is an easy and sadly also understandable tool to now convince unsophisticated even if average voters, has grown to be critical for many Europeans also, as a result of being long-neglected by mainstream parties as too uncouth or below what reasonable people should focus on – especially when those leaders were living in very upstanding neighborhoods in the quiet and uniform centers of their capitals. Those mainstream leaders, waking up too late, never saw the populist rise coming, allowing for new faces with simple programs to challenge and potentially or eventually ejecting them from power. Clearly the major test in the West will shortly be French when Marine Le Pen, who tried hard to soften her extremist image and is relatively unskilled at leading a G7 country, could surprisingly if still theoretically defeat Emmanuel Macron, a President molded in the elitist ENA technocratic fashion, who is competent but can irritate many as representing the ever-leading elite. Such a victory, while being worse than a Brexit for the West, given her issues with NATO (if probably no longer – in theory so far – with the EU and Euro) could also give an unexpected victory to the Kremlin given Le Pen’s historical admiration for Putin, even if she tried to distance herself from him recently, though hedging her bets later by stating that sanctions could one day be lifted and Russia be a natural ally of France (curiously the war in Ukraine that took Macron’s focus away from the campaign would appear to have affected only very few French voters in their voting intentions, which were more driven by domestic matters relating to cost of living – even if linked to the war -, security, immigration and retirement schemes, all points Le Pen tactically capitalized upon).

Where we are today:

One could be forgiven for seeing the West living in a culture of money, where existence is linked to it, and citizens are de facto thoughtless consumers being taken advantage of as they can no longer think for themselves in a traditional way. The West is felt to be going through its declining Ancient Rome phase, which Putin’s Russia took advantage of (though also might stop through the great wake-up call on what really matters). This is a unique opportunity in an ideal world for parents to lead their children to read history, stay away more from video games and social media and start re-developing an individual and autonomous thought process in a return to the roots that made the West.

There is a need to have the younger Western – and especially European – generations who now face the return of history very directly, and may live with it as they grow old if Russia stays the same, to go back to the values that make the West thrive ¬¬– this also away from a tech-enabled selfish and isolated existence. There is a need to restore Western value-based integrity all the more as the societal tech-driven developments (and admittedly also advancements) experienced over the last thirty years will be trivial in comparison to the ones we will know in the next thirty.

Unrelenting value-less greed, too often seen at the top of what was a largely sound capitalist society and permeating it gradually, has weakened the West, even if unwittingly, which tech, while also bringing great advancements, has helped fostering through its many applications. While tech has been about tools, its many users are building on a daily basis a societal decline, even if they were unknowingly led to forget basic values by powerful business and political forces which wanted them first as a mix of consumers and voters. Democracy, through its many tech tools of our times that symbolized freedom and made people exist more may have heralded its own decline. In all fairness the good political side of tech is obviously also seen as a game-changer – from the Soviet days for those in Russia wanting to receive information not from the Kremlin, even if through challenging VPN set-ups in the current internet clampdown. Citizens of the West, and indeed the world, should welcome and enjoy the advancements that the tech tools have provided but not let themselves be taken over by them and change who they really are as a civilization.

It is possible that the Covid era worsened the Western decline, as it may not have helped in the rise of shiny cryptos as retail buyers, often unskilled at sheer investing, had too much time to spend at home while financial engineers could also focus on new breathtakingly get-rich adverse developments like SPACs. Such a Western decline may also explain why Putin may have seized the time he did for an opportunity to purify and expand Russia, however ill-thought, continent-destroying and self-devastating in the process. Putin may have felt the weakness of the West derived from its new Ancient Rome declinist habits would make it a sheer observer of his grand scheme as the music kept going and the bell had not rung.

What to do going forward:

How to fix the decline of the West can be expressed in four words: GOING BACK TO BASICS. This approach would entail both a review of who we are and have become and help refining the system that has defined the West for so long and until 20 years ago quite successfully.

Remaking ourselves: Remaking ourselves in the West is not about sheer politics or related to the old and moving left and right divide landscape that is so often no longer relevant. Remaking ourselves is about refocusing on what matters and linked to education which is where efforts should start, primarily at school so the young generations benefit from it but also, whenever possible, at family level. Things the West took for granted need to be seriously refocused on and strengthened. Education is key.

Key areas of focus should involve: i) multi-disciplinary education comprising old and new key themes and fields focused not just on job-getting but on mind-shaping; ii) reading books by authors who shaped Western roots, including ancient philosophers; iii) developing critical thinking to ensure tech tools and their derived products like social media are adequately managed; iv) understanding history so it does not repeat itself too often; v) learning the basics of economics so later individual decisions are wiser and; vi) receiving civic instruction so the workings of society are clearer, including in the EU member states the workings of the EU so its benefits are also known and rug salesmen do not cheaply prevail. These should be accompanied by seeing the elite for what it should be – as projecting skills and competence – and not only one created by privilege, but fostered by renewed meritocracy, however always imperfect, and aspiring to joining it through once-old fashioned hard work and achievements. These few focus areas would help going back to successful cultural roots and combining them with what tech can offer, without compromising the values and ultimate outcomes that made the democratic West. These few changes in attitude would greatly help remaking who Westerners were and should be – this leading to a stronger, more independent and healthier West.

Remaking capitalism: The Western liberal order is about democracy but is also about capitalism. Democracy and capitalism were indeed the two pillars upon which the modern West was built. The West was capitalism with its rules and ethos while capitalism was also the West. It is time now to go back to basics and take utter greed out of the capitalistic equation to make it more attractive to all anew. Capitalism is also a Western role model to promote globally as true capitalism is not at home with autocracy and can be a useful weapon, if deployed with integrity (indeed a far too often forgotten word), to promote global change. Capitalism finally fosters globalization which itself fosters peace as partners (and all the more, democracies) do not go to war against each other or launch unprovoked military tragedies.

The wealthy of previous generations are the well-offs of today while inequalities have grown and billionaires, having taken advantage of market developments, have benefited from a tax regime that is not relevant to our times and is also self-hurting image-wise. Billionaires should not be victimized, but they should contribute more of their wealth to the common well-being of Western societies. President Biden was right to decide for billionaires to pay more taxes so they can contribute more to – and be part of – society and more accepted. Higher taxes will not affect their wealth, while they will be a meaningful message about their contribution to society and the well-being of their fellow citizens. The West as a whole should once more follow the American lead.

While venture capital is absolutely essential to society, and indeed brings in innovation often linked to tech, it would be wise and productive for our financial sector to launch a reality check on the way tech start-ups are valued, so sanity comes back in their initial investment rounds and later on the stock market. Venture capital, while keeping on selling dreams, should go back to a more rational valuation approach that is linked to the private equity and M&A sectors where companies are indeed valued at a multiple of earnings, this even if there could be a huge premium, even large but not in ephemeral and self-serving billion dollars, for the start-up dream. It is key for venture capital and associated parties like investment banks and law firms to redefine what this investment segment is about if they do not want regulators to step in and drastically overly-interfere with market dynamics. However, if no action is taken, regulators should step in to stop the casino from staying open as it is now.

Another area would be for the West to ensure that key areas such as healthcare and education – which are key to the good functioning of a fair and happy society – are not considered excessive profit areas for all business stakeholders, but are run at reasonable cost within a capitalist framework, and might even possibly imply state subsidies when necessary. The list of sectors needing a corrective approach is obviously longer than those two. Institutional shareholders, like large public pension funds, should take the lead in bringing sanity to what companies in which they are invested do, and how their top executives reward themselves, also as a self-preservation move, as increasingly seen recently for the latter.

This re-making of capitalism would also mean an efficient, rigorous and still fair regulation of the finance and tech sectors, which is in theory already done – this without fostering a police state hurting entrepreneurship, but to also ensure and trigger a change of behavior at the level of consumers dealing with tools they often did not fully understand in the past. Capitalism cannot be left unbridled on the altar of creativity and innovation as would be defended by too many in the current Western business leadership ranks, who are mainly focused on payouts for shareholders but also themselves. There is also a need for sanity, not only in terms of the fair functioning of the markets, but also of society, to avoid the adverse impact on individual consumers of such gambling slides as crypto and the like or the predatory methods used on social media, the latter that should also be more scrutinized by social media themselves as to contents, including fake news and hate speech. This regulatory drive, which is needed at government level to be impactful, while preempted by corporations themselves, would need to go in parallel with a realization at the individual and for the young at the family level that “remaking ourselves” is key to making us stronger and happier as a society and indeed civilization.

Remaking alliances: While the West should always focus on preserving peace and fostering a productive globalization that underpins the former, it should focus on building military strength in both Europe and this time also Asia. NATO should be the natural focus of European military strengthening with the EU taking a more committed role as proposed by Macron and now unequivocally supported by a new Germany. NATO’s new motto should be the tried and tested Latin “si vis pacem para bellum” so as the latter never happens (if you want peace, prepare for war) so as to keep an isolated and likely dangerous Russia in clear check, if it has not reformed in the distant future. In Asia, the times have come to build a NATO-like defensive-focused organization to make sure that China will be naturally inclined to focus on trade and globalization, not tempted by military adventures as seen with Russia in Ukraine. Such an organization could be WAPO (or the Western Asian Partnership Organization), a name that jokingly would be well received in DC due to the Washington Post, and could include on the same lines as NATO, the US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia (perhaps a different India, even if part of the smaller anti-China Quad and in spite of its “practical” trade-related neutrality on Ukraine) as key members. Such organization could supersede existing ones, like the recent AUKUS that combines the US, Britain and Australia through an Anglo-Saxon only club following the sudden French nuclear submarine sale cancellation. As both alliances would evolve, there would be merits in allowing WAPO members such as Japan to be involved in NATO operations and vice versa, like with large EU member states, the objective being to build a stronger and truly global Western alliance that would be the ultimate deterrent to any hostile power in both key world theaters.

Putin may have unwittingly helped the West wake up at a critical time in its history, including its younger digital generations who one day will run it, or for the most part live through it, when seeing what happens when basic freedom is violently stolen and war crimes happen in otherwise peaceful villages. Putin has given the West a unique opportunity to change its gradual and still comfortable southern course to oblivion and offer once again hope to those who want a better world. However, he will not be thanked.

Warmest regards,

Serge