Reflections on the amazingly unusual and disturbing American political process

13-10-19

Dear Partners in thought,

The Trump saga never ceases to amaze as there is never an end to what this unlikely President would do. “How low can one go” is the best way to describe his presidency at so many levels that we lose count – and get used to it, which is also very worrying. After having very clearly asked the Ukraine head of state to investigate Joe Biden’s son and very likely delaying military aid to Kiev pending his request being processed, Trump bluntly said publicly that China should investigate the Bidens, son and father. This latest development is clearly an effort to normalise unacceptable behaviour and making it seen as “business as usual” and not such big deal after all (so folks, really not impeachable). Trump just told us that the interference of foreign powers in electoral processes should be deemed “another day at the office” to borrow from his famous line about Boris Johnson’s parliament suspension rebuke by the British Supreme Court. The Anglo-saxon world is not doing well with the Australian PM and his assertions about the coal industry and climate change so he could be reelected, also knowing that his help was sought by Trump along the lines of China. And it would seem that Boris Johnson may have been asked to help his US counterpart too though in the blond brotherhood of “Twitterdum and Twaddledee”, to borrow from the Economist, this is once again quite “normal”.  

It is baffling to hear Republican-flavoured pundits and commentators trying hard to defend the President’s actions in total defiance to integrity and rationality. They know his actions were outlandish but will hold the partisan line before the national interest (as we see in the UK these days with the leading parties). It makes also one think about what would be “really” needed for Trump’s core base to realise that things should not be done by the US President however the populist and anti-elite message is pleasing to their ears. On that point I think we are coming to a point where we should all realise that “education” matters, not being afraid by that feeling and that perhaps people should after all pass a minimum test on key, basic democratic and constitutional matters before being able to vote. This might be an elitist take though the one man-one vote needs to be protected by ensuring that democracy is indeed strengthened and votes are more meaningful on our dark times. Food for thought, however delicate the recipe and even if the Founding Fathers would likely approve were they witnessing the current debasing saga.  

The Democrats finally went for an impeachment process even when House Leader Nancy Pelosi was very much against it on prior occasions, this to avoid the victimisation backlash of such a dire process. However there is a point when the number of “in your face” transgressions become too many and the basic principles upon which a country, which has been an opinion leader among nations, are trampled upon. There is a point where principles, unless they become lost, need to be upheld regardless of the political cost. It is right to impeach Trump after the latest blows to American identity and the Republicans (with which I identified for many years) should be ready to lose their souls forever (and likely their seats in the future, which in any case is not favouring them) or do the “right thing” and show the founding principles of their nation still matter. Mitt Romney is an example of that kind of Republican and someone who should actually run for the soul of his party in the GOP primary, which I always though he should.

It was interesting to see that it took Trump’s incredible backstabbing of an ally that went to war “also” to defend Western interests when he decided to drop his support for the Kurds as they were about to be assaulted by Turkey for senior Republican officials to raise strong concerns about core US foreign policy interests. Not only this move strengthened a dubious “partner”, formally a NATO member, but also an autocracy today but it showed that being an ally of the US like the Kurds were (actively when fighting the ISIS scourge) did not matter much in terms of being supported by Washington, all of this putting aside the likelihood that ISIS will be able to regroup, as if it was deprived of Califate land, it was never defeated, lurking below the radar in the region and continuing plotting cell-originated upheaval. If Trump thought that this move would take Erdogan away from Putin, he lost the big picture that mattered and endangered gravely US foreign policy interests, something even loyal Republicans, like Lindsey Graham (who was so much better a politician when his friend McCain was alive) could not stay silent about.   

One recent event on the primary trail may change the dynamics of the reckoning process for Trump. Bernie Sanders’s open heart surgery (not to mention his recent family loss that compounded a dreadful week) may not put him in good stead to continue the race with age and health being a very challenging duo now. If he leaves the race, his supporters will largely back Elizabeth Warren, which is closest to Sanders’s views. There is no doubt that this would help Warren win the nomination given the composition of primary voters and current polls where she already is taking a lead over Biden in early primaries. There is also no doubt that Trump would much prefer facing Warren than Biden so he could depict her as “a crazy old radical lady” which would play very well among his core male supporters. It is a fact that Warren, while beating Trump in run-off polls, fares far less well today than a Biden or even a Sanders. Food for thought, if the main goal is, as it should, to defeat Trump and get America and the world back to a real “normalcy”. However and having said all of this, even Warren would win against Trump today, which must make Mark Zuckerberg a bit worried given the Massachusetts’s senator plans for redefining a more “equitable” capitalism and breaking up Big Tech.    

Warmest regards,

Serge

When the UK’s commitment to democracy is restored and Brexit is not yet a “done deal”

26-9-19

Dear Partners in thought,

It is sad it had to take the Supreme Court in Britain to stress unequivocally that the PM had lied to the Queen, Parliament, the people and endangered British democracy, writing another abysmal chapter in the delusional and unhealthy Brexit saga. Who could believe that Boris Johnson had sound reasons for proroguing Parliament? While some thought that the end justified the means and that a small dent into British identity, the latter so dear to Brexiteers, would not matter, twelve judges unanimously declared to Britain and the world that values mattered and democracy should not be ignored. The irony, otherwise so British in nature, in that good episode of an otherwise deep tragedy was that Boris Johnson dared launching the most damning attack on British democracy while purporting to restore parliament’s sovereignty and escape the clutches of a supposedly “undemocratic EU” led by “unelected” bureaucrats. We should rejoice at the Supreme Court’s decision while worrying that we are more and more subjected to these kinds of attacks on our values, which we now take for granted so tired we become. The sight of Donald and Boris, quasi-partners in crime and strange lookalikes, in New York during the UN Annual Meeting, was very telling, especially when the US President simply said that the British PM’s unanimous Supreme Court rebuke was “another day at the office” – even if we should excuse him, his mind being lost amid the Ukrainian steppes this week. 

This turn of events may or may not trigger a change at Number Ten. It should, but adversity is a defining feature of the PM, who thrives on it like his role model though for vastly different reasons. Boris will fight if only to go down gloriously in flames. However this judicial decision has created once again another opportunity for Britain to reconsider Brexit and eventually, Article 50 extension permitting, have a direct say on what the people “really, really want” to borrow from the once popular Spice Girls.

Warmest regards,

Serge                 

Britain between a rock and a hard place…or not?

2-9-19

Dear Partners in thought,

Reading about the economic programme of a potential Labour Government, it is clear that Boris Johnson cannot believe his good fortune – at first glance. A Labor Government following a Labour win in a snap general election would confiscate GBP 300bn of shares in 7,000 large companies and give them to workers, while it would provide a “right to buy” scheme for private tenants and tax landlords more highly – all while creating the most leftwing economic approach (management would not apply) in modern Western history. When contemplating the two main parties and thinking about the demise of traditional Western parties (a previous Interlude) one might wonder what is happening to Britain between her rock and her hard place. On one hand splendid isolation, economic decline and reduced clout at all levels. On the other, probably the same (if Brexit, especially of the hard kind, goes ahead) and return to quasi-Marxist times led by the great leadership we know (covered in a previous Book Note). One may also wonder if Labour’s economic policy grandstanding does not hide a desire to stay in opposition so unlikely they would actually win any election on that extreme platform. Theirs is certainly not the best way to win a general election, even facing a Conservative Party led by zealots that lost its soul and moorings. 

Such a dismal choice for British voters makes us think about what happened in France in 2017. The two leading “government” parties that had commanded 80%+ of all votes for decades did not make it to the last round of the presidential elections and the unknown Macron was elected against all odds. Those two main centre-left and centre-right parties continued their journey to oblivion, gathering together 15% of the votes in the European parliamentary elections last May. Clearly there may not be an Emmanuel Macron in Britain yet. However the Lib-Dems, pro-EU (even if it might be too late), led by a woman (not only reflecting our times but going back to some good times for Britain), could become a Macron-like movement, seizing the opportunity presented by two abysmal parties that no longer represent the British people (“Extremist” BoJo “elected” PM by 90,000 party members and two-thirds of Labour voters being center left). Even if Brexit were to happen through the autocratic decision of a PM who played with core values that were Britain, a LibDem victory (with Green support) that would be backed by a moderate cross-old party drive could make a great difference on the future of Britain. And even if they would not win with an outright majority due to the tight schedule involved to get their message across, they could be a senior partner in a LibDem-Labor coalition with the junior partner having had to put some water in their Leninist vodka. 

The LibDems (with Green support), if given a chance and the great opportunity presented to them, could be the French Macron. 

Warmest regards,

Serge  

Occupation and resistance in Crete 1941-1945 – Georgios Papachristos

2-9-19

Dear Partners in thought,

Like the great Edward Luce, our top FT man in the US, you may be or had been holidaying in Crete (or in Greece) this summer and I thought I would tell about “Occupation and Resistance in Crete 1941-1945” by Georgios (George) Papachristos. George has been passionate about the history, tradition, culture, landscape and people of Crete given his family roots. George is an accomplished individual with three Masters degrees in history and political sciences, international relations and management (also the first Greek Sloan Fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, home of the tech entrepreneurs) and he also holds a PhD in international political economy. As he is also a leading young Greek entrepreneur with a global remit, George is what we used to call in my days  a “Renaissance man”. 

George has researched in his book the events that took place as of when German paratroopers landed in 1941 (something the “red berets” keep studying) and the resistance movement and guerrilla warfare that ensued. His book is a must read, especially when vacationing in Crete but also for some of us who read about the exploits of the dashing Patrick (Paddy) Leigh-Fermor, his famous abduction of General Kreipe (indeed the military commander of Crete), and his later years in his “salon” in Southern Peloponnesian  Kardamyli. Some of you may have read the book that made Sir Anthony Beevor famous in 1991 when he published his account of Crete during WW2, which George obviously refers to. In this book we discover the various groups, sometimes not on good natural terms who all joined forces to ultimately participate in the defeat of the Nazi war machine. We discover that the Cretans share some clear features with other islanders like my Corsicans if only through the acute sense of honour or the liking for revenge that they call vendetta in Ajaccio. We go through all the major events that took place chronologically and involved sabotage and reprisals in many of the locations where we now enjoy a very relaxing time. First and foremost George’s book shows us a lesson in resilience against all odds and sheer brutality and the proof that good men and women can win in the end. Nearly all Cretans resisted, working relentlessly with Britain. This is a very enjoyable and educational book that I hope you will be reading in the shade in this cradle of civilisation.   

So you know, George is also someone I have known as a seed investor in a start-up, Toorbee, that his brother Nikos and him set up a short few years ago. Toorbee is focused on outbound Chinese tourism in Europe, wanting to become the leading B2B global distribution system in its segment, and while the core team is based in Athens, works in ten different European countries today. Talking about resilience, George used his limited seed capital to build a team of 16 people (including now three in Shanghai) while building a solid network of partners in China and Europe. He now has two venture capital investors and is ready to secure a leading position in his travel and fintech segment. http://www.toorbee.com  It is aways great to see and feel success particularly in our old Europe which has been the theatre of so much unsettling developments, starting with Brexit and the rise of populism (look at poor Matteo Salvini and how he is good at “governing”). I was in Athens this past week with George and Nikos thinking on how we could develop Toorbee further. I had this feeling that we were all the same, men of good will, thriving to achieve something together. I felt we were Europeans. I felt we could achieve little on our own while we could win together, making me think of Europe and this old EU dream that goes beyond the essential bloc it needs being and reflects who we are and that we should keep building…like the Cretans of the early forties, relentlessly and against all odds.            

Warmest regards,

Serge      

The Queen must and will save British democracy

29-9-19

Dear Partners in thought,

The decision by Boris Johnson to suspend Parliament for five weeks at this juncture is clearly expedient in terms of getting his No Deal Brexit or whatever deal through. It also shows that Brexiteers, especially of the hard kind, who supposedly love “the will of the people” are ready to silence their representatives in what is an extreme populist, if not autocratic, move. Whatever we may think of the strange workings of the House of Commons, this decision sets a precedent not seen in modern British history and shows, in spite of some newspapers not wanting to see a tyrant, a move that, if it perdured, would blemish British democracy and its executive branch forever. Boris Johnson took a big gamble quite apart of a no confidence vote he will likely face. He has likely ensured that the Queen will stop that dangerous process and save democracy, strengthening one more time British monarchy and the Windsor family which often rise to be the best at the worst times in British history. The alliance of Buckingham Palace and the Mother of Parliaments will prevail and be an example, for Britain and the Western world not to mention the world at large.  

Warmest regards,

Serge        

Reflections on the Brexit folly, its losers and winners

24-8-19

Dear Partners in thought,

The Brexit saga may end in a No Deal as foolishly desired by the current British PM whose only ambition was to be PM for a party that put its interests well ahead of that of its nation (like the other party’s leader to be fair). It is time to reflect upon how Britain arrived at this dire state of affairs and identify the losers and the winners of what history will doubtless see as folly. 

Referenda are usually meant to be lost even if few would have thought the Leave vote would have prevailed in June 2016. Leave prevailed as Remain was a bad name, the benefits of EU membership were poorly articulated and the “fear” factor and campaign over-played to the extent it did not register with many voters. Leave made promises in the truest populist sense that were easy solutions to complex issues combined with superior marketing skills and slogans à la NHS. Leave voters transcended party politics largely with left-wingers, many short on facts and at times education, in depressed British areas, aiming at the EU capitalist plot while others wanted to keep the job-stealing foreigners out of areas where there were no longer jobs. At the same time well-off, right winger, tories, often retired but very vocal decided it was time to get British sovereignty back (however notional it was) from those folks who could not run a pub in Bruxelles. To be sure most of them were all good people, but they wanted to exist, be heard and either stop that dreadful, inhuman globalisation process or go back to Victorian times they read about as children. 

Once the smoke clears and assuming Brexit is enacted, Britain, if it has not really felt much economic pain yet (as many Brexiters point out rightly even if recent signs are not good) will gradually feel the blow in terms of jobs shifted to mainland Europe (finance, services), a much lower level of foreign investment (quite a few foreign multinationals cancelled their investments like Toyota or BMW) and a British pound declining further, all of which will have dire consequences on the financial standing of the UK, not to mention the City of London, once a preeminent world financial centre and of course all households. As Bill Clinton’s chief campaign strategist’s James Carville  famously said once “It’s the economy, stupid”. Dreams of glory or revenge do not make up for a lower GDP and fewer jobs being created as Brexiters, once they have what they wanted, will soon realise, many of whom wondering what they did to themselves and their country. So Britain is a sure loser at all levels, not to mention that the young who did not vote much will bear the brunt of the decision of their elders who will gradually disappear in the sunset haven enjoyed a rather good life. However Europe is also the loser as it was stronger with Britain in a world of blocs. Europe’s preeminence as the leading trading bloc in the world will be seriously affected while Britain will have to deal with its largest trading partner and live with rules and regulations it will no longer participate in shaping. Brexit is a lose-lose game for both Britain and the European Union – and the Western world generally all the more as America is led by an erratic, ignorant and dangerous President. 

In fact the real winner of Brexit is Russia, which may have helped the Leave outcome and will surely benefit from it as the European bloc and the West are weakened. Macron’s decision to engage with Russia this past week to solve the Ukrainian situation is a preemptive move that says that Brexit will happen. The other winner of Brexit, albeit to a lesser and indirect degree, is China, which also has to deal with the trade war follies unleashed by President Trump who is now wondering whether America’s worst enemy is China or the Fed’s Chairman, just if we needed to assess his level of sanity. One thing is sure, to paraphrase Lenin, is that the Leave voters, regardless of whom they were and what they thought they thought in June 2016, were by and large “the useful idiots” of Vladimir Putin and to some extent, quite indirectly, China. 

Warmest regards,

Serge                 

The New Girl – Daniel Silva

24-8-19

Dear Partners in thought, 

You will remember that I wrote a Book Note last summer about the works of Daniel Silva, the great spy and thrill novelist whose main character is Gabriel Allon, now head of “The Office” (or Mossad for the outsiders). DS struck again precisely, as he does every year, on July 15 (one day I will ask him why that very date) with a new novel. After “The Other Woman” who was an old flame of disreputable MI6 Kim Philby, we now have “The New Girl” which makes for an interesting evolution in titles. As I promised I will not reveal too much so you fully enjoy the book – especially a spy novel from the new and more muscular John le Carré – and will simply set the stage for you.  

“The New Girl” is about MBS – sorry not Mohammed bin Salman – but Khalid bin Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud or KBM, who is the new early thirties ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He is a reformer, gives women the right to drive cars and attend sports events, jails his family members at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton before extracting from them USD 100bn and making them understand who rules and even gets implicated in killing Omar Nawwaf, a Saudi journalist, critical of the regime and of KBM (on this latter, tragic aspect DS has a pre-book note about the 54 journalists, including Jamal Khashoggi, killed in 2018). While his “Way Forward” had received much support in the West, Nawwaf’s killing, in which he seems to have been implicated even if he did not give direct orders, makes Western leaders and populations cringe. In spite of his drive for reform, KBM may after all be an old style autocrat who simply found a smart way to sell sell himself better in changing his country and its oil-dependant economy. This story set-up looks of course more than vaguely familiar. I was actually surprised that DS would stick to a storyline that was so close to reality, even using the well known acronym approach. However this is also why DS stands apart from the spy novelist crowd today as the line between fiction and reality is constantly and artfully blurred. 

“The New Girl” is a twelve year old who studies in a top international school in Geneva, who lives in a castle in nearby France, is surrounded by bodyguards and whom nobody knows who she really is. She is of course KBM’s only child. And she will be kidnapped by an unknown party whose only demand to KBM is that he abdicates if he wants to see his daughter alive. KBM surprisingly turns to his art adviser, Sarah Bancroft (ex-CIA, see my Book Note of last summer – DS’s novels always bring back the same characters) who is tasked (even though she had cut ties post Nawwaf’s horrific killing) to approach Gabriel Allon on behalf of KBM. The two men will meet in Riyhad, which for the head of The Office is a premiere and Allon will agree to help KBM recover his daughter. He does it not not out of love for the House of Saud but in the knowledge that KBM in spite of his serious shortcomings is a better and more stable player for the region than a more radical Whhahabi ruler, also as tensions with Iran are at an all time high with Yemen and other hot spots where the two countries fight against each other. The two men will go to Paris (DS has considerably warmed to the French in recent years – I recall an exchange some ten years ago when I wrote to him and Jamie, his wife, that he was taking too harsh an approach on France) to meet with the couter-intelligence folks at DGSI. They then go to London to meet with Graham Seymour still running MI6 who gives them some useful intelligence on some individuals who have been spotted in Geneva the day of the abduction. In a return match of sort, it is a disguised KBM’s turn to go to Israel by way of the embassy in London. Little by little they get closer to the group of abductors still not knowing who they are but ending up identifying a close relative, more radical, of KBM who is quickly and rashly despatched by the Saudi ruler with Allon being present. They get very close to freeing Reema, his daughter, and all congregate to an agreed rendez vous point. We are at half of the book. Things will evolve in a unexpected DS way which I will let you enjoy even if the ride will be very tough indeed. 

Warmest regards,

Serge