The President is Missing – James Patterson & Bill Clinton

15-6-18

Dear Partners in thought,

I was hesitant to comment on “The President is Missing” from James Patterson and Bill Clinton as I did not want to stray from my core initiative, not to say mission. However I thought that when a former American President and a leading thriller writer band together, there might be a message or two to be found, especially in our troubled times. The book is clearly a novel but the subject matter, the co-authorship and even the title led me to do a review of sorts, especially at the start of the summer in Prague when a dose of lightness (of being and this time very bearable) is always nice, whatever the prevailing times.

JP and Bill are both displayed as fully-fledged authors on the same cover type font (and unsurprisingly not this time with JP before his “co-author”). I will admit that, yes, I have liked JP’s books ever since “Jack and Jill”, especially those written in the late nineties-early noughts. And even if Anne-Sophie (my very educated and wise wife) takes JP’s books as not real literature as three page chapters in big print don’t pass the test, I always liked JP’s knack for good stories, including his choice of characters, like the famed Alex Cross, even if I tend to agree that he has found a peculiar way to bring the old industrial revolution to penmanship through the use of an ever larger team of writing partners, potentially dampening something on the way. What decided me was the title – “The President is Missing” – that could be taken literally (and indeed one should, while I will respect the plot’s fine prints for better beach times) – but that could also be a tongue in cheek one, probably never admitted (or admissible, though that sounds so much Mueller investigation-like) as it could be argued that the actual President is indeed missing, this in more ways than one. Or maybe is he too much around these days and we would like him to be missing? (but always in good health, in sunny Florida, that is, so there is no unfortunate confusion).

Bill seems to have had a good time working with JP, if we except the book tour when “Monicagate” was brought back unexpectedly to the fore in a TV interview (and JP was on-his-feet swift in his defence or that of the book focus which showed, regardless of any view on the 20 year old matter, some nice and true grit). As an aside, it is an interesting point that we call Bill Clinton Bill while we never call George W Bush (whom we miss too, especially now) George, though I digress. Bill brought in the experience, the kind of which you only get by walking the corridors of the West Wing and projecting that unique track record of having run the greatest show on earth. The book is definitely on top of JP’s writing quality, mixing a great plot with a level of authenticity that can only come from an insider like Bill. Chapters are no longer three pages and while the type font is the same, wording density and quality is way above the usual JP fare. The book at 500+ pages is also much longer than the usual JP productions. It would be interesting to know whether Bill actually did some of the writing though probably not, focusing on contents veracity (in chapter 4, there is an episode mentioning the political demise as a congresswoman of his chief of staff that will make readers knowingly smile at the likely self-deprecating wink).

The President is Jonathan Lincoln Duncan (note Dun-can rings like Clin-ton and the reference to Lincoln, Professor Gaddis’s hedgehog-fox supremo), a former Governor of North Carolina (and not Arkansas) and speaks in the first person, making us feel somehow that he will make it to page 513. The atmosphere feels real which is the least to expect but is especially well rendered in the painting of each scene and the delivery of the characters. There is an effort to depict those senior civil servants with humanity so we know where they come from, how they got there and what makes them tick. The President is very human, a recent widower with a relapsing illness fighting impeachment in his first term. Run of the mill stuff. There is a Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett’s “West Wing” feel to JLD up to the depiction of his personal assistant. We go from crisis to crisis to ceremonial events that shows us the daily life of Presidents with uprisings in Central America, followed by assassination attempts in the Gulf and memorials to fallen soldiers, going back to the Sit Room to oversee a drone strike against a terrorist cell in Yemen and finally night walks without Secret Service detail running into fellow Irak 1 war vets and ex-members of the Big Red One. (note that Hillary was quite supportive of the book as stated in the “thanks” and that JLD met also his wife at law school – UNC at Chapel Hill not Yale – though similarly in the library).

The President is taking the lead to thwart a massive viral cyber attack after his daughter, a grad student at La Sorbonne (excellent choice), is approached with information about the mother of all terrorist plots against the U.S. and a plan to meet her father in DC to tell more. A Turkish cyberterrorist boy wonder looks to be behind the threat though is saved by the President when a Ukrainian hit team targets him in Algeria for elimination, making us and a select congressional committee wonder. An attractive professional Serbian lady sniper in an early stage of pregnancy (very differentiated foe indeed) and her merc team get involved. Ensues a number of intense developments like a shooting at a baseball stadium, car chases along the Capitol area and more shooting, without us and the President still knowing what the threat really is. Then there is a Benedict Arnold in our midst, one of six tested senior officials in the know of the threat, who might have arranged the earlier hits, in cahoots with the terrorists. A foreign power is behind all this, which the ever friendly Mossad tells JLD could be Russia, which does not raise eyebrows. I will not spoil the story anymore, knowing you want me to stop.

The story is well crafted, if only a little bit convoluted. In any case the plot, which is very enjoyable, does not really matter. What does are the messages conveyed by JP & Bill as they are the reason why they banded together so they could stress a few key themes along the way and make them more easily absorbed in the novel format by the widest possible audience.

The main message is raising the awareness of the risk of cyberthreats to our way of life and the need for state of the art cybersecurity (I have to disclose my wife and I are lead investors in a great UK cybersecurity start-up before I go any further (*)). The book provides a crash course on what cyberthreats, phishing and other cyber warfare weapons, tactics and targets are and the nation states and their patriotic proxies that have used that new war tool (some far more than others offensively as is well known – my intent is not to conduct a seminar on cyber warfare – but basically all the leading powers). It is clear that recent years and all the hackings that took place during the last U.S. presidential campaign, posing a risk to the very democratic process, that have been attributed directly and indirectly to Russia, have led JP and Bill to stress the point, all the more as it was close to home for the latter. Richard C. Clarke, the cyber warfare Czar under four Presidents was consulted for insider accuracy (read his 2010 Cyber War, which is non-fiction but reads like a novel). The timing of the book ahead of critical November mid-term elections at a challenging time for America is no coincidence. Cyber warfare is a major and exponential threat to our societies as we rely increasingly on technology and thus make ourselves, our key infrastructures and our very democratic process unwittingly weaker and asymmetrical targets in the process.

The book has also other messages which are peppered along with quite a few depictions of emblematic scenes of daily American life (e.g. on one of his “nights out” in the Capitol area, JLD witnesses an African American teenager being forcibly arrested by two police officers and has a very balanced thought he shares with us) and sayings that warn of newer risks and stress these old Western liberal values:

  • “What happened to factual down-the-middle reporting?”
  • “We can’t survive without a free press.”
  • “We’re using modern technology to revert to primitive kinds of human relations. The media knows what sells – conflict and divisions. It’s all quick and easy. All too often anger works better than answers; resentment better than reason; emotion trumps (hm, hm – me here) evidence.”

There is a beautiful address to the joint session of Congress from JLD that encapsulates what America is and its values as we grew up to know them, that could have been given by Bill or by Ronald Reagan for that matter as it transcends partisanship and is the best summary of why Bill and JP became a band of brothers on this one occasion.

Going back to Western values, one of the common mistakes voters make when tempted by the sirens of populism is to forget the things that actually work in their lives. It is a case of taking things for granted and gradually forgetting about them, if only to regret them when the consequences of their action or inaction leads to the disappearance of key things and rights that seemed inalienable. What is key in a book like JP’s & Bill’s is also as much its messages as its sheer existence and the fact that we came to a point in our Western world when we can freely read a novel very close to the topic and actors of national leadership without suffering censorship. We actually do not think about it but that right was made possible because others fought for it, hence our duty to defend the values upon which that right was built. Nothing lasts forever if not protected and challenging times, like ours, should show that these rights and values are indeed eminently fragile.

One of the memorable quotes in the book, on its last page, comes from Ben Franklin when asked after the Constitutional Convention what kind of government the founders had given to the nascent America. His reply: “A republic, if you can keep it”.

Warmest regards,

Serge

(*): Just for fun, information and to inject some personal angle on the core topic of the novel: http://www.cyberessentialsdirect.com

Serge Desprat- 15th June, 2018 (Boston)

In Defense of a Liberal Education – Fareed Zakaria

14-6-18

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to tell you about a wonderful book published in 2015 as it directly and indirectly deals with many key subjects we regularly cover, which is the famed “In Defense of a Liberal Education” by Fareed Zakaria. This book and his author are actually emblematic of major issues facing us today such as immigration, globalisation, meritocracy and what – and implicitly where – we (well, mostly but not only, our kids) should study in an age focused on securing jobs and lives constantly redefined by the tech revolution.

Fareed Zakaria was born and raised in Mumbai in a Muslim family (a fact not so well-known – he is secular and non-practising), educated at the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai. Then he came to America in 1982, having been accepted at Yale (his older brother, Arshad, had gone to Harvard a few years earlier – they never played the Game). He was a President of the Yale Political Union and a member of Scroll & Keys society (He was actually quite politically conservative there while considering himself a centrist today). He went on to do a PhD in Government at Harvard (political sciences in the local lingo) studying under Samuel Huntington (well-known for “The Clash of Civilisations” in 1993) and Stanley Hoffman, the latter a great Vienna-born immigrant and European Affairs guru I mentioned in my brief 1982 dealings with. Interestingly Fareed eventually would help set up the Yale-NUS program (National University of Singapore) creating a strong Asian presence for Yale and mixing the best of both worlds (*). At age 28, he became the Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs, the Bible of the Council of Foreign Relations, which as you know, has been the NY-based establishment beacon of American foreign policy-makers for decades. Today, while being known for his CNN work (see below), he also has a weekly column in the Washington Post (Go see “The Post” with Streep and Hanks by the way) and has contributed to Newsweek, The Times and the Atlantic Monthly. Fareed is indeed a most accomplished chap and a very professional one too, also oozing balance and modesty. He is the embodiment of the American dream and why immigration, a pillar of American success, is key to the continued growth of the indispensable country.

Fareed is the “trailblazer” representative of the rising Asian-American class, many of whom, still very often not-American born, have excelled at integration and literally invaded Ivy League world and the likes (I was at the Yale Commencement Ceremony last May and had a feeling New Haven, CT was a suburbs of Singapore). Typically only 10-11% of college classes of Harvard, Yale and Princeton are comprising foreigners but the proportion of Asian-Americans far exceeds that number today, based obviously on merit that cannot be ignored by admission committees in spite of quota rumours and pressures often heard. In all fairness these Asian-Americans are culturally far more American than Asian, as I have noticed with my very interesting and enriching encounters and friendships – one in particular. What is key is their successful blending of the hard work ethics, often dismissed discipline and, to some extent, scientific approach provided by their Asian roots with the entrepreneurial freedom, conventional wisdom challenging and”sky is the limit” ethos traditionally breathed by their country of adoption. They simply have brains, work hard, are focused, want to succeed and benefit from the greatest learning environment. They also show immigration can be very successful for the host country as they will go on to expand the American (apple) pie. One could be forgiven to say that they are the very kind that Make America Great Again (with or or without the red cap). This is an interesting feature for us to realize during those times of immigration tragedies and debates even if the comparison could be simplistic as illegal immigrants may not all possess the same qualities or aspirations as they cross the border simply to escape strife, persecution and/or desire a better life. And they are illegal, which these Asian-American Ivy Leaguers are not, even if a tiny few may have been initially.

Another feature linked to topics often debated is Fareed’s first really widely recognised opus in 2003 which was “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad”. In this book he was the precursor, 12 years before the rise of Western populism, of the dangers that democracy itself (“democracy is the worst of all systems except for all the others” to quote Winston Churchill) could have hidden in its midst and was indeed hidden so far, especially in America, as voting participation was so low and considered the game of the “educated” or knowledgeable ones. In its aftermath came “The Post American World” published in 2008 which was also an extension of the message of “The Future of Freedom” as America, in the midst of the Iraq quagmire, was confronted with the demise of the unipolar world arisen from the ashes of the Berlin Wall (I found this book so good that when on holiday in Cambridge, Massachusetts I bought a few copies and sent it to mentors and friends – usually the same!). I also recommend their reading as they provide an unusual rear view mirror which Fareed did not think about then, so much his visions came true across the Western world (and elsewhere – Read the FT’s Gideon Rachman’s Tuesday 26th June excellent piece on “Trump Leads a Global Revivalism of Nationalism”).

Coming back to the current note on the book published in 2015 (his latest), Fareed stressed that liberal arts education was under attack as many states governors had then pledged not spending taxpayer money on subsidising them while he lamented that English and History majors were in decline. Fareed remembered the focus he had known in India for “skills-based” education so students could simply find good jobs. He explains his journey to the top of American learning, discovering literally a new world. He then goes on explaining why that skills-based approach is short- sighted and mistaken. He offers a brief history of liberal education and then expounds on the key virtues of a liberal arts education: How to write clearly, how to express yourself convincingly and how to think analytically. In fact he goes back to the roots of education which is not to focus on a job but to make one “thinks” so one can do whatever she wants, including finding a great job. This mission of education and universities in particular to shape thinking abilities is crucial and immemorial for many good reasons tested by history. Technology cannot replace this even if it can provide different tools and media to shape thinking as long as it does not replace it or individuals do use it as a mean instead of an end. Fareed takes engineering as an example stressing that this skills-based value-added profession is great but that it is strongly enhanced by creativity, lateral thinking, design, communication, storytelling and importantly learning and keeping at it – all gifts of a liberal education. A liberal education can also provide the tools to empower individuals to think for themselves and not be subjected by ready-made opinions that fit too nicely what one wants to hear – the problem of our times. Liberal education can be the guarantor of a working democracy as it usually comprises and therefore safeguards values that have defined our Western societies – those old Western liberal values (you see the full circle here).

The book is also a very enjoyable read as Fareed is very witty, starting on the very first page as what one should do when coming to America today (I will let you enjoy it). While focused on liberal education, he also goes through the key developments that led to the creation of an unparalleled meritocratic educational system, very much representing the views of the founding fathers, which perdures until today. To expand on his views, it is remarkable that in 2018 “everybody” can go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton if one has a great story to tell and achievements to show. While cultural background of course matters as well as, some would say, zip codes – as it gives those applicants a privileged environment to have grown into -, money is no object thanks to the massive endowment funds that will keep funding excellence: Harvard has a USD 35bn endowment while Yale and Princeton rely upon a USD 25 bn fund each that are run by dedicated asset managers and the highest level professionals in the trade (such as David Swansen for Yale) devoted to funding tuitions for students in need as well as research to keep these places of learning at the top of their leagues worldwide. Admissions Committees also want diversity as they value its benefits to all so not all NY Upper East Siders go enjoying the ivy. However it is true that there is a finite number of slots (1500 per class at Yale College) and admission committees need making choices among a pool of extremely highly talented applicants, not all of whom who will make it. Higher education, particularly at the top, still is a key American competitive advantage, an indispensable creator of leadership material and the perfect example of the symbiosis of business and society that has so well defined America. And many of them are focused on liberal education even if one should never forget the likes of MIT and the very suitably Valley-located Stanford (the latter, yes George, Nikos and Haitao, which I am told has a great business school 🙂 ).

I would also like to recommend you to join the Fareed Zakaria daily Global Briefing (Google and subscribe) which is a very quick summary of key issues you can get every day from main headlines selected by Fareed (it is enjoyable as it also takes one minute to read). I also recommend for those who do not fear weekly challenges (usually on Sunday) to take the Fareed quiz: ten questions on international relations news, some obvious, many trivial. It is a real test of ego as I do not know anyone who did 10/10 and most fall below 5 (my record is 8/10 but I was lucky on one or two questions) http://www.cnn/fareed.zakaria.com (If you do a ten please let me know). Lastly, I find his CNN GPS on Sunday very good (11 am EST/3 pm London/4 pm Paris/5 pm Athens) as he covers key topics of international relations with maestria, inviting key people and not just those easy to handle (he had a famous and quite friendly and civilised one hour exchange with Steve Bannon when the latter was holidaying with the Northern League recently).

So the word of the day is “Think” and the message is that society, whilst needing to protect its core identity, gets richer through diversity as America amply demonstrated thus far. Fear of the unknown can be helped through education, liberal of course, like our values.

This book note is dedicated to Qi, a close friend and mentee, but first and foremost a Yalie gentleman and scholar, who came from China age 6 and is ensuring the American dream goes on while quietly taking, during the storm, the leadership mantle that America and the world need.

I wish you a great summer. I am now off to Paris and then to Boston, where it all began.

Warmest regards,

Serge

 

(*) Back in 2013, my daughter mistakenly applied to Yale NUS thinking she was applying to Yale, making for some funny developments. It turned out she went to the main Yale, became a History major and now is going to work in Boston for a great strategy consulting boutique. And to think she did not have the benefit of reading Fareed’s book! (I assume too much maybe 🙂
And if I may, by the way, getting into the Ivy League is not about whom you know or you can bribe. It is about core values. It is about merit. Relentless hard work. Discipline over years. Abnegation. Dedication. As I am sure you know.
Last point on immigration, lest my message may be misconstrued. Recognizing immigration as a tested component of American excellence does not mean foregoing a regulated approach to it and the need to maintain “identity”. It means understanding American history and ethos, going away from bigotry and also ensuring through appropriate legislation that good women and men looking for a better life have a fair shot at contributing to building that unique American pie in all walks of life and, of course, not only via the hallowed grounds of Harvard and Yale.

 

Serge Desprat- June 2018 (Prague)

Why bookstores matter

10-6-18

Dear Partners in thought,
 
I wanted to make a point that is linked to the defence of our values today. Whilst we all love books as they convey our precious thoughts, make us escape and reflect, giving us as André Malraux, another annoying Frenchman (and a smuggler in his youth), called a sense of immortality, books for me are also intrinsically linked to bookstores. Bookstores are the receptacles of those wonderful media, amazing places, organised or not, at times shambolic, that have made us meander and, yes, browse, while looking for and discover that book that was eluding us. Bookstores have also made our cities, villages, neighbourhoods  and communities. Manhattan to me would be different if I could not lose myself in the alleys of Barnes & Nobles on Fifth and 45th. Bookstores, like our values, are also who we are. Whilst technological progress cannot and should not be fought, the sheer pleasure of ordering books on Amazon is not there, even if efficiency is clearly met. In addition, Amazon does not give us that thrill of browsing and discovery, just telling us to buy what we have already read and thus limiting our horizons. However the thought that my search for efficiency would drive to breaking up a key element of society and life that are bookstores is not acceptable. Bookstores are disappearing as they, like most retailers but a few, just cannot compete, which as a free market man I can understand. Having said that there is a duty and even more so a real pleasure in ensuring bookstores stay around so we also keep that element of humanity that is embedded in our values and who we are. It is up to each of us to build society as we see for ourselves based on our values.
 
Please, buy on Amazon (or Alibaba) but keep going to your bookstores. Go to Barnes. Go to Waterstones. Go to Luxor. Buy books. Touch them. Be human. Be who we are.
 
Warmest regards,
 
Serge
 
 

Serge Desprat- June 10, 2018 (Prague)

From Cold War to Hot Peace – Michael McFaul

7-6-18

Dear Partners in thought,

My new book note is not about a novel this time but given the backdrop Leo Tolstoy would have written one.

As Moscow is home to the current World Cup, it seemed only fair to look for a book about Russia today. With “From Cold War to Hot Peace” a catchy title that says it all, Michael McFaul, the 7th U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from a breezy January 2012 to February 2014 provided us with a great opportunity through his vivid account of the great relational shift between Moscow and the West that took place during his tenure. More than about MacFaul’s tenure this book is about the Russian Federation, the new Russia that had aspirations to be like us (or what we were) but gradually got back to its eternal roots as if the colour of the snow had never left it.

This book is not like any other for some of us, to paraphrase Dean Rusk for another time, who were “present at the creation” doing our bit to help change after seventy years of darkness but not really understanding what we were doing or actually not doing. Many of you will recognise themselves in this book and will wonder again at the speed of time. Thirty years already, a blip in history, a life for us.

Prior to his ambassadorship, McFaul worked in the Obama Administration for Tom Donilon in the U.S. National Security Council as Special Assistant to the President and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs. He was no Russian affairs novice and likely the best ever prepared U.S. Ambassador to Moscow as he has started promoting a rapprochement between Moscow and the West in his high school in native Montana in 1979 – quite a challenging proposition at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His direct exposure and involvement started in 1983 when as a sophomore at Stanford he went on to his first journey to Russia, discovering Leningrad and the Soviet Empire. He then later spent a semester abroad in Moscow, mingling with the Refuseniks and getting a first hand exposure to the system’s doomed features. He then witnessed Gorbachev’s rise, Glasnost and Perestroika and irreversibly the gradual country’s demise. Back as a Fulbright scholar and working with the National Democracy Institute, a pro-democracy promotion NGO, he celebrated the birth of new Russia that he wanted to help becoming like another country, espousing capitalism and the Western ways on the way. Following the Soviet Union’s chaotic collapse and the start of the bumpy Yeltsin era, McFaul helped found the Carnegie Moscow Center in 1994, today one of the best if not the best Moscow-based international relations think tank (now ran by the excellent Dmitri Trenin) that has maintained an invaluable conduit between two different worlds that have kept growing apart since 2012. Known to have been one of the artisans of the famed “reset” (even if it was once poorly translated when Hillary Clinton first gave her “box” to Sergei Lavrov in 2009), he saw his dreams as a young man coming true when both Russia and the U.S., putting behind thorny issues such as the Iraq war and NATO expansion, were increasingly working together on solving world issues, such as with the signing in Prague in 2010 of New START to limit nuclear weapons. These were the times of President Medvedev, who seemed like a pro-Western moderniser, even if a cautious one. There were solid majorities in both countries convinced that the possibilities for further cooperation were only the natural way forward. Russia was popular in America and America was popular in Russia. Such a description seems today hard to believe so the picture changed rapidly and deeply from a nascent partnership to a state of intense rivalry, even if Russia is not the Soviet Union of old. This book is about understanding the road traveled from the viewpoint of a man – a true believer – who had always believed in working with Russia and came to be thoroughly disheartened as he hoped to crown his long life passion and cement the reset process.

Before going into the Obama period and the “reset” and its subsequent setbacks, McFaul covers the 1991-2008 period so we get a refresher of the major events of the period. He first goes into the first elections in the late 1980s that changed the Soviet Union forever and introduced figures that became familiar such as Yeltsin, the boss of the Communist Party in Russia but also the soon to be known nationalist firebrand, Zhirinovsky and many others. We go rapidly through the August 1991 coup and the official and technical demise of the Soviet apparatus starting on December 31, 1991. Interestingly, he goes as an NDI representative into early exchanges with “our new Russian partners” that started revealing even then their frustrations with the U.S. focus on democratic consolidation or how the West, and not the Russians, knew what was best for them – a feature hat those of us who were in the trenches of transition (*) did not realise the impact then. He then goes on through Yegor Gaidar’s economic liberalisation reforms (known as sick therapy by his detractors) accompanied by voucher privatisations creating the most massive transfer of public wealth to individuals (a few it turned out, with the rise of the Oligarchs, underpinned by corrupted system that tainted Russia like an original sin). Then came the replacement of Gaidar by the more conservative Chernomyrdin, the December 2013 electoral backlash and the “fascist” threat embodied by the misnamed Liberal Democrats (LDRP) of Zhirinovsky, the elections of December 1995 and the rise of Genady Zyuganov’s Communist Party, the appearance of the nationalist General Lebed and resulting weakening of the Lib-Dems, the presidential elections of 1996 and rise of the top Oligarchs though the loan for “campaign funding programme” and their increasing control of Russian natural assets and media and then the deliquescence of the Yeltsin era, helped by the Russian financial crisis of August 1998 with more confrontational matters such as the bombing of Milosevic’s Serbia and the second “invasion” of Chechnya in 1999. In December 2000, Yeltsin resigned as President making McFaul struggling as to his reasons, most likely linked to cementing the future election of his unknown prime minister, Vladimir Putin, he’d oaf the Security Council, before being head of the KGB rising as a low level Kremlin bureaucrat who had been out of job following Sobchak’s reelection loss as Mayor of St Petersburg.

The nineties were an epic time for Russia, which McFaul describes well. There was a focus of form and not substance in the nascent democratic process and clearly the supporting West, while knowing that, wanted to preserve the gains of a Cold War victory and not let Russia slip into chaos, which was very possible, or an adversarial stance. This cautious Western approach, crafted on the way, allowed for side effects that with time became major events fraught with systemic corruption in reshaping a country like the transfer of Russian state assets to so-called oligarchs first though the voucher privatisation process, which they ended up managing artfully and then the 1996 loan for shares programme to allow a very embattled Yeltsin to be reelected. The West was not happy about these developments but made what it perceived to be the less bad choice, still supporting Russian authorities, in order to preserve stability at a time when the U.S. and the world were largely basking in a strong economic environment devoid of major political or military threats. It is therefore difficult, as McFaul points out, to take a view on whether Yeltsin had a positive or negative impact on its country depending on a number of features. Some of the constitutional changes that took place and strengthened the presidency, made for Yeltsin, certainly help Putin to keep strengthening executive power in Russia once President.

Putin’s era is seen by McFaul as Russia’s Thermidor (the French revolutionary month that put a decisive end to the era known as “the Terror” in the mid-1790s). He had been a carrer KGB professional with postings in East Germany, notably in Dresden where he saw first end of the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event that deeply marked him. He kept deepening market reforms with debt restructuring, a 13% flat tax rate on individual income (to make sure fraud was erased) and Andrei Illarionov, his chief economic adviser and his team were both pro-market and pro- Western liberals. He even considered the possibility of Russia joining NATO when asked by Western media, though this was never seriously tested. While pursuing reforms and staying nominally close to the West, Putin decided within year in office to control the media, forcing in exile moguls Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, the latter his godfather in Russian politics. He later arrested Russia’s richest man and owner of Yukos on fraud charges as he was getting into more support for NGOs and independent candidates in the Russia electoral process. While those developments took place, the focus of the U.S. was squarely on post-9- 11 matters and soon the Iraq war triggering a benign neglect for Russia which was not deemed to really matter anymore (Colin Power thought that Putin “had restored a sense of order in the country and moved in a democratic way” which surprised the expert McFaul). George W. Bush having met Putin early on in his presidency claimed he had been able to get a sense of his soul and that all was fine, making his own foreign policy team and Dick Cheney’s, as well as experts like McFaul, worry that he might have missed that Putin had been train to lie (after he expressed his doubts in the New York Times, McFaul was never reinvented by GW to provide his views on Russia). 9-11 definitely led to a warming up of the U.S.-Russia relationship as Putin was quick to support the U.S. and offered assistance in many areas such as the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, intelligence sharing on terrorist networks ad support opening U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In spite of some conflicts on missile defence and the ABM treaty, cooperation was deemed to at the level of WW2 by Igor Ivanov, Putin’s foreign minister. GW in turn was calling Putin an “ally”, a term not used for a Kremlin leader since FDR did. While the U.S. rejoiced about this new state of affairs, they still admitted Bulgaria, the three Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to join the alliance which they did formally in 2004. While the initial invitation did not break the relation (the Baltic states were a particular strain), the Iraq invasion broke the camel’s back as Russia was not consulted and Putin thought that such an initiative with likely drastic consequences on te stability of the Middle East would have been better handled (with hindsight he was right even if his motivations were Russian-focused). McFaul rightly states that this issue of not being involved in global affairs went back to the core of Putin’s grievances that Russia had been relegated to a secondary, if that, power which only mattered due to a remaining nuclear arsenal. This was all about regaining respect and been back at the table, which will explain other developments in later years. Then on top of Iraq occurred two revolutions, Pink in Georgia in November 2003 and Orange in Ukraine 2004, where the West, and the U.S. in particular, was seen as the winner behind the scenes while Russia was the loser given its proximity to those countries, former Soviet brethren, that went markedly closer to the other side. The Orange revolution made Putin more anti-American in his rhetorics and policies, marking a clear shift away from any cooperation with the West. While McFaul points out that the six-day war between Russia and Georgia (thankfully limited as Tbilissi was not seized) of August 2008 remains a point of contention as to who started it (not for him and most observers), it was clearly a way for Russia to reassert its power in the Near Abroad and restarts counting as a great power.

McFaul who joined the Obama campaign after Tony Lake and Stanford undergrad pal Susan Rice asked him to (the latter in typical campus mode: “Get your shit together”) started to organise Russian briefings for the campaign team on a subject that nobody cared about – until Georgia August 2008 came around. America started to react with more criticism to Putin’s Russia and allowed for a carefully crafted policy towards Russia. As Obama phrased it “Improved relations with Russia should not be the goal of U.S. policy but a possible strategy for achieving American security and economic objectives in dealing with Russia”. The multi-facetted reset button was on its way, ready to be pushed, though with awareness that Russia actually mattered and could be disruptive to world affairs (there is a long chapter about all the facets which make for good reading). MacFaul goes deeply on his constant fight for democratisation and struggle to push forward “universal values” in Russia as he was a member of the Obama Administration. We are taken to the first and last Moscow summit where New START, denying Iran the nom, missile defence cooperation, repealing of Jackson-Vanick…all of which are covered by a few chapters that sound a bit technical at times, if of course very key in terms of policy- making. One part “burgers and spies” depicts what could be an episode of the Americans with spies or “illegals” being posted in America.

In March 2012, Vladimir Putin came back as President, having taken a break as prime mister for four years and somehow adapting if not rewriting the constitution. McFaul had arrived in Moscow, taking his Ambassadorial post, two months before Putin’s return as President (even if it is argued that he never ceased been one). While McFaul’s version is extremely valuable, it should never be forgotten, as we in the West may have in the 1990s, the deep shock and humiliation represented by the loss of Empire and relegation of Russia as a secondary power, all while the West and particularly the U.S. likely lacked consideration for that traumatic experience and focused on teaching Russia how to be a market. I will let you enjoy the rest of the book, which I found a bit boring as McFaul was too much of an aunt and less of a principal, displaying too much of an NGO ethos in the job.

The rest and doubtless crux of McFaul’s book is about his ambassadorial travails in Moscow and his engaged and complex relationship with the Kremlin and the Putin Administration especially following the Crimean and Ukrainian developments of 2014. This is the climax of his enjoyable if at times slightly long and personal account-settling book of what could have been titled the right man at the wrong times and location which I will let you discover without letting the Siberian cat out of the bag of tricks.

Warmest Regards,

Serge


(*) I was at EBRD at the time – the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the public international financial development institution set up in early 1991 to facilitate “market transition” in the former Soviet sphere. While my Russian experience was limited to one investment due to most of my focus on Central Europe, my ultimate boss (and later unwitting mentor) and I concurred only a couple of months ago that we were very “naive” during those days and, I think, when it came to Russia, oblivious to the traumas of loss of empire and their impact to come, so much the world in the nineties seemed naturally rosy and can-do-no- wrong unipolar to us, leading to a benign and victory-based arrogance, devoid of understanding of local history, in terms of leading the way. While busy on ensuring that our Western model took roots, we were also oblivious to the rise of the oligarchic class in Russia and to some extent throughout the region and the rampant corruption and illicit control of assets that went with it (and is at times totally forgotten locally in some countries, even part of the EU, as now seen as “old money”).


Serge Desprat- June 2018 (Prague)

The Retreat of Western Liberalism – Edward Luce

7-6-18

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to talk to you about the importance of Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” that was published a year ago in the midst of the start of the Trump administration simply as it led me to wish to defend those very Western values however small, not to say ludicrous, my vantage point. I actually came to set up this initiative of book review and awareness because of Ed’s book in the fist place, so much it was a clarion call for the defence of “who we are”. As you know, Ed is the former Washington DC Bureau Chief of the FT and its current DC columnist and commentator – not a restful job these days – whom you can read every Thursday on the FT’s page 9 (I also recommend his early April “Lunch with the FT” with Anthony “The Smooch” Scaramucci which is simply the stuff of legend, as some of you may know). In many ways, Ed, with a few others, has been the keeper of the fire that still lets that city shining on the hill. I immediately felt close to him given our European roots transcended by our Transatlantic affinity and a certain belief that America is not a country but a state of mind.  As you know the whole FT team, with writers like Simon Kuper, Gideon Rachman and so many others, has been at the printed media’s forefront of maintaining sanity in our troubled world and times along with other publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker and The Economist, only to name a few. 

The Retreat of Western Liberalism is both the mother and the most important of all books dealing with the recent rise of populism. Rather than being academic, it is very lively and full of unusual and fascinating analysis and statistics as to why the Western world has gone into its most populist phase in the 21st Century, reaching a stage unseen since the 1930s. Ed’s book dissects the ways some political parties have repositioned themselves or set themselves up to seek disenfranchised voters and offering them simple answers to complex issues, stressing that the elites and the “system” have always failed them in a conspiracy in which traditional news media were always complicit. His book is divided in four parts: The first going through the integration of the global economy and the radical impact on our Western economies. The second detailing the resulting degeneration of Western politics and how scapegoats are targeted by the losers of the economic mutations, themselves led by a new form of untraditional politicians. The third part dealing with some of the key implications of the relatively declining U.S. and Western hegemony. The final section offering remedies all of us can provide if we value individual liberty and wish to preserve the kind of society that allows it to flourish. Clearly this book would not have seen the light if Donald Trump had not won the White House (even if Brexit was lurking around). While always written with great fairness it is amazing that everything that Ed covers is more than valid one year later so much real life has exceeded the worst fiction that could have been imagined. You will enjoy and value this book as it also offers hope that nothing is inevitable and that individuals can have an impact to correct wrongs and ensure that civilisational “building block” values perdure. It made me think that “we” indeed make our future as we do our bed and as my countryman, Jules Romains, would have said: We simply need “des hommes de bonne volonté” to do so (men of good will and, as he wrote in the early 1900s, I am sure he would have also said today women of good will).  

The book is clearly a first step. There are others, that have been explored and could make a difference, for those who would and could go from words to deeds. I will be happy to discuss this matter if and when, though for now I just want to recommend the enjoyable read of  “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” as a master game changer on understanding the topic of our times.  

Warmest regards,

Serge

 

Serge Desprat- June 6th, 2018 (Prague)

Political Risk – Condoleeza Rice & Amy B. Zegart

4-6-18

Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to tell you about political risk, an old interest of mine, and what is probably one of the most key issues in business today. Political risk is no longer just about managing the risk of the old coup or sudden nationalisation of your assets in some far out land. It can be something that was unplanned and dealing with a market or actor once deemed secure and reliable. Ask Daimler Benz, VW Group or Peugeot in relation to a key U.S. market for them following the tariffs considered by the Trump Administration. With this in mind, I would recommend “Political Risk – How businesses and organisations can anticipate global insecurity” from Stanford’s Condoleezza Rice and Amy B. Zegart. Condie is now the Denning Professor of Global Business and the Economy at Stanford Business School, professor of political sciences and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, having served as National Security Adviser from 2001 to 2005 and being the 69th U.S. Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009. Amy, a McKinsey strategy consultant alumnus (always a good thing) is co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a Senior Fellow at both the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Relations at Stanford. Clearly a very impressive team where joint business and world affairs acumen is strongly on display.

Condie and Amy (C&A*) cover a risk that is changing fast and is as always about the probability that a political risk could significantly affect a company’s business. In doing so they cover the evolution of the risk, going from a generation ago and the traditional threats posed to specific industries by acts of governments where they operated (think oil). Today political risk also involves non-state actors and new means including Facebook or Twitter users (beyond “him”), local officials, activists, terrorists and hackers while institutions and laws are often not equipped to deal with them given the fast pace of evolution. “Political Risk” is a description of what the new landscape for that specific risk looks like in 2018 and offers a framework for dealing with new threats. The book is peppered with recent examples of new political risk type of threats and ways they were managed, well or not. It also offers preemptive responses ensuring higher readiness.

C&A describe ten types of PR today: geopolitics, internal conflict, policy change, breaches of contract, corruption, extraterritorial reach, natural resources manipulation, social activism, terrorism and cyberthreats. Risk generators operate at five intersecting levels of action: individuals, local organisations and governments, national governments, transnational organisations and supranational and International institutions. Businesses face in a Tale of Two Cities kind of way, the best and the worst of times (Aesop, here we come again) with more global opportunities and indeed far more political risks. Supply chains are longer and leaner with margin-driven production sites set up in higher risk locations. The spread of technology via internet and mainly cell phones and social media empowers small groups with asymmetrical impact, lowering the cost of collective action and an ever expanding activist potentiality. C&A explain why PR is understood as essential by executives but also felt elusive due to the Five Hards: Hard to reward, understand, measure, update and communicate while nobody gets credit for fixing problems laying in the future. They stress the need for corporate leaderships to understand and know their risk appetite and for it to be shared with the corporate structure, reducing blind spots through creativity, understanding stakeholders perspectives and truth telling.

C&A offer a valuable framework that is a simple structure to deal with PR around key items like Understand, Analyse, Mitigate and Respond. They focus on PR management as being a job akin to that of a physicist: collect information from all stakeholders and answer the right questions; develop scenario-planning to combat mental mindsets and beat groupthink and integrate PR into business decisions. Prepare for the unexpected. Assess what is valuable and vulnerable. Reduce exposure by diversification. Develop tripwires ad protocols. Build teams that withstand damages. Develop contingency planning.

Examples provided include SeaWorld Entertainment and their stock market plunge following a low-cost documentary on the treatment of orcas that was relayed through social media via some celebrities and animal activists and causing many corporate sponsorship cancellations in spite of very old ties. Whatever the grounds for activist expression, “connectivity” and the spread of news, in this case bad for a company, exacerbated the harmful impact to its share price and corporate viability. Other examples include General Electric and their dealings with the EU or the lack of understanding early on of the great pitfalls that Brexit was bringing to the UK corporate world, and thus Britain itself, something that two years later became more vivid. C&A go through how Royal Caribbean dealt with PR in a far more effective way than SeaWorld did by moving beyond intuition and thus recovering far more quickly. There are many, many other examples all covering very relevant cases of PR and its ten new expressions – I will give you the pleasure of reading them afresh without my spoiling anything in the least (it does read like a novel at times) and ensuring writing efficiency.

Le mot de la fin for C&A in dealing with crises is not to have them (very business school speak), urging companies to capitalise on near misses by planning again for failure, looking for weak signals and rewarding courage within organisations. Their five golden rules being: 1) Assess the situation; 2) Activate the team; 3) Lead with values (don’t we like that?!); Tell your story and 5) Don’t fan the flames.

This book is great as it is a refresher of what PR always was (when at Thunderbird for my MBA, I was also teaching assistant in risk management and seeing their account of PR via Hugo Chavez brought “fond” memories) but also – and mainly – brings us very valuable insights into new threats and actors. It is a must read for those running businesses with a global reach and footprint. It is also a pleasure to read as it is told by authors who teach and want you to get the message in a practical and simple manner, with solutions, as leading American business schools, often easily decried today, have always been very good for.

On a related matter, I am thinking of setting up a blog, to be aptly named thanks to a great Prague man of superior wits: “Desperate Measures” (at SG Warburg, I was to some great colleagues “Desperate Serge” for reasons you will easily guess, showing yet again that inner British sense of humour – except for Brexit of course (with a wink to old friends who know who they are) – and this OxBridge je ne sais quoi which is so pleasant).

I wish you all a great weekend.

Warmest regards,

Serge

(*) Please forgive the pun, even if the Dutch retailer doubtless takes political risk very seriously.


Serge Desprat, June 2018 (Prague)


The Great Revolt – Salena Zito & Brad Todd

26-5-18

Dear Partners in thought,

following my note on “The Road to Unfreedom” I wanted to share my thoughts with you on another book I just read, this time about America today.

Putting aside the obvious vagaries of the U.S. electoral college system and related gerrymandering, it was challenging for me to fully grasp how Trump could attract so many voters to eventually give him the White House. Having always felt close to “America” and its values (even “seeing myself” as a moderate Republican), I was stunned to see someone like DT, given his profile and personality, winning the lead role in the U.S. with so much dramatic impact on the “indispensable” country and for the world at large. At the same time, I was not too happy about the easy (even if not wrong) explanation that he had made it thanks to enough “uninformed” voters in the right states, as Foreign Policy stated after the election. I wanted to know more and was looking for a book on this matter.


I found one in “The Great Revolt” by Zita Salerno and Brad Todd whose goal was to shed some light as to whom voted for DT and why. (she a New York Post staffer – I was a bit worried – and him the founder of a Republican ad and op research company – both not Trump aficionados, as I was fearing, and honest fact-based writers). I recommend this book, built on shoe-leather reporting, if you were interested in the topic, with the caveat that it really focuses on ten rural counties of five states of the Rust Belt.


By way of summary (if you would not read the book), and as we know, putting aside the well-reported general stories about the the vote of the white working class, the two coasts and the South, “Rural America” gave DT his victory (large cities and their suburbs having gone for Hillary), which can be explained through the emergence of a few groups, some that drastically changed the political landscape especially in the Rust Belt. It is notable that DT actually won 80%+ of all counties with a population under 50,000 across America and lost in most if not all of the mega-counties above 1 million. These broadly-defined DT voter groups, predominantly found in rural and smaller counties, were:


• The “red-blooded and blue-collared” who voted for Dems election after election since 1984 especially in the Rust Belt and the states where Hllary had taken for granted and not really campaigned (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio…). The shift to DT from the usual presidential Dem candidate was massive. The drive was job losses in those states and the perception that the Dems, Obama, and the Establishment did not care. There was no real shift to the Republicans but a reject of both parties and a focus on DT’s pragmatism and apparent care for their plights.


• The “Perotistas” or non-voters who usually stay at home and do not care for either party. Once again, DT’s style and being perceived as a free man, speaking his mind, however coarsely, won them over. He was simply able to motivate people who never vote (and given the low participation rate in U.S. elections, there is scope to do so if the right triggers can be found).

• “Girl Gun Power” or women who use guns to protect themselves (again more in rural areas). The number of concealed weapons permits given to women trebled under Obama II. These women (regardless of education/degrees) saw the right to “carry” as the most important demonstration of female empowerment. The NRA gave the largest donation (USD 30m) ever to a presidential candidate and launched a massive campaign targeted at women, not men, their traditional “hunting” ground.


• The “Rough Rebounders” or people who identified with DT and his down and “back up” (business) life style. Also, that Trump was flawed personally made him closer to these voters who could also see themselves in him. DT’s dislike by the Establishment and mainstream media were in fact strong positives – a badge of honour – for this group. There is indeed a lot of rough rebounders in rural America due to the drastic social and economic changes having taken place in these areas.


• The religious conservatives (as we knew) or evangelicals and conservative Catholics who were mostly focused on religious freedom and, key, making sure the new Supreme Court Justice post-Scalia would be the right one. That and their opposition to Obamacare’s features dealing with abortion and contraception as well as legalised Same Sex Marriage. Interestingly, DT’s “colourful” personality and behaviour were not the main issue for them – To sum up their views: “We do not share his values (and behaviour) but we share his concerns” (in the end while many in that group could have stayed home with the choice at hand, they went for a lesser evil but one that would have an impact on the Supreme Court. And Mike Pence helped).


• The “Rotary Reliables” or rural college grads who did not vote with their “class” nationally (of the college grads in the 44 mega counties, only 3 such county groups gave a majority to DT: in Ft Worth, Phoenix and Long Island). These college grads, who often are local community and business leaders, voted with their neighbours and staffs – also as they did not feel the same peer pressure to reject DT as in larger, more urban, communities.


• The “Silent Suburban Moms” who, against all odds, did not give the first woman presidential candidate a victory, this across the board in rural and urban America. Hillary had heavily focused on the woman’s vote making her bid to be the first woman President (while gradually stressing DT’s unsavoury approach to women) as the central plank of her campaign, which appeared to many women (though not a majority of white college degreed women) as self-centred rather than audience- centred, with her strong Establishment and dynastic entitlement status coming vividly across. Many women who felt “embarrassed” by DT held actually hidden mottos like “I did not vote for Trump. I voted against Hillary”, this mainly given her societal choices and personal style.
It is clear that a few themes and features appealed to DT’s voters, again especially in rural America:


1. “Draining the swamp”: Clear rejection of the two parties and lifelong politicians who do not care for the little or forgotten people, again outside the mega-cities. DT focused on this DC clean up need which resonated with disgruntled left-out voters in the heartland.

2. Pragmatism over ideology: DT, while nominally a Republican, did not project any of the traditional GOP themes (think Tea Party’s fiscal responsibility) and was also a Dem at some point, meaning he was seen as providing the right answers to the right times and issues, whatever the times. Also being “his own man” and not being afraid to speak his mind outside any party dogma was seen as a major asset. He was seen as an “exciting pragmatist” by his voters, even though many of them had not been convinced at the electoral outset.


3. No (apparent) allegiance to Big Business (and Big Money): Also why DT got many conservative Dem voters, even if the tax cuts which benefited a lot, short term, clearly favoured the top and business. His “billionaire” status and the fact he did not rely on business donations (initially?) also helped stress his ability to be his own man in the eyes of many (not to mention that he was “successful” to them in business given his “legend”).


4. Localism and not Globalism: Clearly globalisation in many rural states is seen as the main evil and is not much understood as to its ramifications explaining why trade wars and protectionism are seen as valid and needed policy tools from where DT voters live.


5. Craving for respect: Clear rejection of the bi-costal upper class elite that seemed (and was) detached from the lives of ordinary Americans while (being perceived as) telling them how to live and think. In many ways, Hillary’s Wellesley/Yale background, her roles of the last 25 years and her focus on “lofty” cosmopolitan concepts made her emblematic of that “global” (unpatriotic?) elite in rural America while the other choice, DT, did not, also as he was seen as a political outsider and a “disruptor” who could relate to, and came to visit, them where they lived. In DT they found a leader for whom they counted for something.


Now, if I may, my additional take:
I was puzzled by the fact that DT’s supporters did not mind at all his openly unsavoury character and the many sexual adventures that have kept cropping up from Stormy Daniels to the former Playmate of the Month. His core supporters stand by their man, come what may, and even like him more as a President than they did as a candidate, the feeling once again being strengthened by what they perceive as an onslaught against him from the mainstream media and the elite. Unanimously they will judge him on results, this being measured in economic terms, very locally. Even religious supporters do look the other way to focus on what matter most to them like the Supreme Court nominations and the economic recovery (it should be noted however that “most”, especially women, who backed him in large numbers, would also prefer if he were a tad more refined and Twitted less, though to give him credit he worked on the hair).


I noted that the “wall” or immigration were not mentioned much even if high on DT’s agenda. Perhaps as these were too negative and hard to defend as “good” proposals by many DT voters who see themselves as “good people”. The “wall” would have been more of an issue outside the Rust Belt like in Texas. Also China and other foreign nations were mentioned more than domestic Big Tech in terms of being factors for job losses, which fuelled major economic and social upheavals and its cohort of rising crime and opioids consumption. It is doubtful than Amazon and the likes are not responsible, certainly for high street changes and the disparition of many neighbourhoods everywhere in America. Similarly the Russian investigation (Mueller’s) does not register among DT’s core base, who finds him very patriotic and see that investigation as politically motivated to unsettle him and change the course of a democratically elected outcome (it is clear they do not dwell in details and turn off the news when they actually follow any, much preferring getting their news unfiltered).

One thing that struck me in the various testimonies of the people interviewed for the book was that they all conveyed good, traditional American values of hard work (stressing the desire for no handouts), patriotism and even optimism. In many respects they could have been Republican if born differently (on the right side of the track or even in a world that would not have evolved) and were backing Trump not out of despair but as they still believed in the future (in the American way) and saw him as one of them, who could deal with what they saw as the guilty Establishment and “DC swamp”. It is clear they did not value the traditional political process any longer (a key feature in itself), as it had not stopped what they felt, at times vividly, as economic and/or societal decay. I have the vivid feeling that one has to be in their shoes to fully understand the extent of their often desperate disgruntlement and why they would believe in someone like DT almost as last or new resort to correct their lives’ and society ‘s trajectories. It’s like they did not want for a DT but they had no choice left anymore to be heard as a group and he just came up with what they wanted to hear.


This book was helpful to refine my understanding of the DT success. Very personally (and admittedly from a non-U.S. European vantage point, however Transatlantic), I find DT in the White House to be one of the saddest and self-wounding developments in modern American History (akin to Britain’s Brexit) so much it destroys the values that American has put forward since its founding. DT, through his style and erratic decision-making, ill-judged policies, especially at the international level (Iran, Trade, NAFTA, Immigration…) and second rate advisers he does not even listen to, simply hurts the U.S. long-term interests and the world at large. DT has become the single most key destroyer of America’s real and soft powers globally. He is also working hard at destroying the very system put in place by Washington since WW2 which, while not being perfect, served the world rather well. However he was first rate in securing the votes of enough Americans in what was definitely an uphill challenge for him, given who he is, even if that was only a means (winning the election) and the end (governing) is and will likely keep being very dire.


I am sure that DT’s voters did not vote for all the negative developments that we see unfolding and that could easily keep happening globally. The saddest direct consequence is that those who voted for him will not only be disappointed but are likely to suffer the most, if only economically (like in the case of Brexit, say in Wales). In many ways – and that may be another key topic – this American “blip” (one would hope) also teaches us (as we knew) that while it is one thing to attract voters, often rightfully disgruntled, in our imperfect “will of the People” democratic process, it is another one to deliver on promises (all the more, populist ones – watch Italy) and more importantly to govern properly while upholding perennial values and ensuring sound economic and political sense, all the more when one wears a historical leadership mantle and has global responsibilities attached to it.


I think that one last aspect that made DT victorious is twofold:

1) the paucity of the choice in the Dem primary, largely the result of the dynastic and long time control over the party (even if Hillary was the best prepared candidate ever for the role) and

2) similarly the plethora of look-alike primary candidates on the GOP side, none of whom with much charisma or role readiness on offer, which made for a rather dull pack. DT also won as the others were not that “exciting”. I heard very few “Don’t ask what your country can do for you…” during that campaign. The TV star won as he was also entertaining.


The question now is “Where do we go from there?” in the mid-terms and 2020, assuming an impeachment is not to happen as being likely too challenging to effect given the probable remaining GOP control of at least the Senate post-2018 mid- terms. Both the U.S. and U.K. actually share the same political landscape with both main (and only) parties going gradually to the extreme right and left of the spectrum, leaving moderate wings disappearing from the current and possible future debate. In the U.S. the GOP has mutated into an opportunistic fusion of both conservatism and populism, both with some strong anti-Big Business and anti-trade agreement flavours (note Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s position on trade as an ex-U.S. Trade Representative under Bush II) while the Dems under a strong left wing leadership component (Warren, Sanders, Harris) have espoused a core electorally-driven agenda of multicultural and cosmopolitan values with their former main focus on the plight of the “American working man” (and its economic and strong union component) far less prevalent, this when Big Business CEOs from Buffett to the Tech giants are mostly leaning Democratic and veering also left, but again on a similar soft value agenda. This absence of a moderate counterweight in both parties might actually favour Trump and the GOP in 2020, even if the Dems are betting on the demographic joker of the “Ascending Majority” represented by the Millennials and their strong diverse minority component that would supplant any current Trump white majority coalition that may not survive its founder or simply die of attrition given the age of the members forming that coalition (very much a post-Brexit scenario too in that sheer demography, if not combined with a similarly rising diversity, may give rise to a pro-EU majority in the UK that would potentially lead to another Referendum in the 2020s if not before).


Going back to Rural America and the Rust Belt in particular, one wonders if any policy could restore over the long-term its pre-1980 status when past, now defunct, industries were booming. DT’s policies – based on campaign promises he is keeping, which will please his core base and cement their support – may provide some short term relief that the U.S. economy will pay dearly for elsewhere but it is hard to believe that desertification trends experienced across the Western world could be reversed through managed trade and the likes while it is clear that these policies will likely unsettle the world system and the very alliances the U.S. has relied upon to cement its world leadership at the hard and soft power levels.

Warmest regards,

Serge

 

Serge Desprat, May 2018 (Prague)

 

 

The Road to Unfreedom – Timothy Snyder

15-5-18

Dear Partners in thought,

Just a quick note to mention to you Yale’s Timothy Snyder’s excellent book “The Road to Unfreedom” whose title does not stress enough its contents focused on Putin’s Russia and the philosophical roots (White Russian and de facto early facist Ivan Ilyin) for his grand Eurasian plans and the incredible ways (including military, cyber and disinformation) he seems to have unleashed post-2012 going after the destruction of the West, both the U.S. and the EU (including CZ) being main targets of the divide/destroy and rule strategy. Lies don’t count, always deny, only the results matter and ensuring that the Russian people get it that it is a civilisational fight against Satan (literally), which also helps them along the way forgetting or digesting the Russian wealth hyper-concentration and their (average Russian’s) social stagnation.

The book includes a very detailed (for once) review of the “reality” of the true Ukraine conflict – a very real war, very much with Russian shock troops and not “little green men” – and how disinformation was played there and across the elector field in Europe and the U.S. later. Then there is also in the later part a very good part on Trump, which could be nicknamed “The Manchurian Candidate” (after the great movie(s) you will remember) and whose actually failed real estate career is vividly described…It appears quite obvious that Trump was de facto bailed out by quite a few Russian oligarchic buyers over recent years (looking at the owners of NY’s Trump Tower flats is edifying). The links keep going through the Russian connections with Manafort (who seemed to have followed for Trump what he applied in Kiev earlier on) and others, some of whom already indicted.

It is hard not to focus on the strange funding Trump got from Russian oligarchs over recent years for properties with widely overstated prices never ever occupied (explaining very likely also why he would unusually not release his tax returns in the 2016 race and why the Mueller investigation may ultimately be a killer, not mentioning what the Kremlin/Russian FSB may have on him and his probable late night pleasures while in Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant…). It is amazing to go through the various statements of the Russian elite calling Trump “our man” or “our candidate”. The links between Putin and Russia are too many and too murky for being nothing in the end. It is a question of time. Sadly one understands more why Trump acts so boldly on the trade war and Iranian nuke deal fronts to name just two to deviate in typical “traditional Russian fashion” the attention of the public…As you may know, Snyder is probably one of the leading U.S. historians today, well known for his scholarly and sober approach to historical events so his take looks very solid and is indeed well referenced. His book should be a must read.

All the best,

Serge

Serge Desprat- May, 2018 (Prague)

On Tyranny – Timothy Snyder

7-5-18

Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to come back to Yale’s Timothy Snyder who had written “On Tyranny”, again like Ed Luce and his famed “Retreat of Liberalism” in the aftermath of Trump’s election, in the face of the multiple rise of populism across the West. Snyder is the author of “The Road to Unfreedom” which he had written just before “On Tyranny” and that I already shared with you and has specialised on European history with a focus on central & eastern Europe, particularly known for its “Bloodlands” that won prizes worldwide. Snyder today, in his late 40s, is probably the leading rising historian at Yale.

I know it is the third book I tell you about coming from Yale. I want to stress that it is just because they tend to produce great books these days. Just to be clear, I like Yale and its prestigious history, Skull and Bones, the CIA’s cradle, Bill & Hillary’s nest, its beautiful colleges and campus, Papa John’s Pizza and my daughter’s alma mater but I remain a Harvard man as the young Frenchman who went there at 21 as an ESL student searching for a new life, drawn by a world with no limits, spending too much time at Yenching and going on to study history, economics and business (since 1981) even if never enrolling in any of the usual degrees in spite of once a very artful bid by the late and great Stanley Hoffman. I am actually looking forward to telling you about books coming from that other Cambridge on the Charles. And I am writing this so you all know where the historical roots of my fight and drive are located.

“On Tyranny”, which has a Clauzewitzian air, as John Lewis Gaddis, remarked too when he did his “On Grand Strategy”, that you know, is not a book in the strictest sens as it is more an essay of about 100 pages or, as a well-known thinker told me two weeks ago, a series of aphorisms that all of us should agree with. It is an enjoyable reading and is indeed short which also has its merits in today’s world. I actually think that, while everybody should read it, it is the perfect summer reading gift for your kids and/or grandkids from the time-, social media-, iPhone- and screen-constrained generations who may need some guidance on what actually matters. “On Tyranny” is a body of key precepts grounded in the history of the 20th century and addressing mostly but not only an American audience that are needed to maintain what we know as democracy and we should ensure does not lead to any perverted outcome resulting from the oft glorified will of the people, the latter who could so easily be led astray or lose their compass. Snyder offers 20 tips, guidances, tenets that we, as citizens should observe to ensure that (even if it does not say it as such) avoid the repeat of some of the key electoral outcomes we have seen, notably but not only in the U.S., since 2016. However more broadly the raison d’être of this set of aphorisms is so we avoid falling into what Madeleine Albright simply and rightly calls Fascism (a book I will come back to later and resonates to the Prague resident and lover of the Bohemian jewel I am.)
The 20 “lessons” (to take Snyder’s terminology) are:

1. Do not obey in advance (Most power of authoritarianism is freely given)

2. Defend institutions (as they are the guarantors of decency; select and defend one)

3. Beware the one party state (so support the multi-party system)

4. Take responsibility for the face of the world (Symbols do matter, notice the “swastikas”…)

5. Remember professional ethics (When political leaders set negative examples, professional commitments to just practice matter)

6. Be wary of paramilitaries (that intermingle with the official police and military)

7. Be reflective if you must be armed (If you carry a weapon in public service, be ready to say no to irregular things)

8. Stand out (Someone has to)

9. Be kind to our language (Think up your own way of speaking; make an effort to separate yourself from the Internet)

10. Believe in truth (To abandon facts is to abandon freedom)

11. Investigate (Figure things out for yourself)

12. Make eye contact and small talk (Stay in touch with your surroundings, know the psychological landscape of your daily life)

13. Practice corporeal politics (Get outside; make new friends and march with them)

14. Establish a private life (Use internet and emailing but have personal exchanges in person)

15. Contribute to good causes (Pick a charity or two and set up Autopay)

16. Learn from peers in other countries (Keep up friendship abroad and make new friends)

17. Listen for dangerous words (Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary; be alert to “extremism”, “emergency”…)

18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives (Modern tyranny is terror management with its resulting justified end of basic freedoms)

19. Be a patriot (Set a good example for generations to come)

20. Be as courageous as you can (If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny)

Some points hark back to the rise of Nazism while others, that we can relate perhaps more easily, are more preventive in nature and easily applicable in our daily life. I always like the eye contact (be careful though!) and small talk and of course my 21st tenet…read books and discuss them. Each point is beautifully argued with live cases very often taken during the rise of authoritarianism in the 1930s in Europe.
It is a great set of recipes and we can all be our own chefs, putting the emphasis where we feel best. The meal will always be delicious.
And when (and as) we live in times that are upside down, please remember Nassim Taleb:“Tough times don’t last. Tough people do”.

Warmest regards,
Serge

 

Serge Desprat, May 2018, (Prague)

On Grand Strategy – John Lewis Gaddis

2-5-18

Dear Partners in thought,

I first wanted to tell you that, contrary to well-founded opinion, I can in fact master things like Group Emails hence the group and name I chose to represent members of a special club of minds who are dear to me. I do this following the indirect suggestion from one of my role models, with whom I did not spent enough Friday OpsComs with years ago and who will recognise himself, that I should consider group emails, something I was not too keen on, preferring the direct and considerate touch. However following Diderot’s “spirit of the staircase” (where time helps ideas make their way, presumably when you climb up one, though it was more about after-wit in relation to what Necker had told him at a dinner party) and the (then) Bonapartist leader of my youth, Jacques Chirac,’s precept that “only fools do not change their minds” (well, he knew something about that as we later saw) that I decided to set up a group email address for what remains a tiny cluster of individuals who do matter to me. In doing so, I have tried to increase despatch efficiency while protecting the confidentiality of relationships though rest assured that I address you very personally.

I wanted to let you know about “On Grand Strategy” that is the latest book from Yale’s John Lewis Gaddis who co-led that eponymous Yale seminar for 20 years with Paul Kennedy (“The Rise and Fall of Nations” – yes time does fly) and Charles Hill. He is the author of the famed “Cold War”, a definite book on our recent era that marked those of us who worked in the trenches of its aftermath and it is said was on the nightstand of an American President who perhaps did not read it enough when he went into Iraq to reshape the Middle East and “export” democracy. This is a great book, even if strongly academic in nature. It is about “Grand Strategy” in the same vein as “On War” was from someone he coincidently much covers in the book. In fact it is about “hedgehogs and foxes”, an approach that follows the one from Sir Isaiah Berlin, the breaker of barriers at All Souls, who defined leaders of states as such, hedgehogs knowing one big thing and foxes knowing many (implicitly smaller ones). This covers the link and often the divide between “ends and means” and why some leaders who know the ends they wish and have the will and energy to reach them at times forget or do not want to hear about the means they would need to do so, so driven they are by their grand designs. JLG argues that the true great leaders can reconcile both approaches and like, Lincoln, be both hedgehogs and foxes, knowing where they go but being nimble and flexible enough to reach their objectives in the most practical manner (Lincoln being the greatest grand strategist as not blocked by concepts – or he says, education – but achieving his goal through many means at times objectionable but practical as one can see how he passed the 13th Amendment in Spielberg’s Lincoln). He takes us to ancient times, drawing parallels between Xerxes, Octavian, Augustine, Machiavelli, Elizabeth, Napoleon, Wilson, FDR and many others, bringing in Herodotus, Thucydides, Clausewitz (his favourite), Tolstoi (and his War and Peace that JLG finds notable in the study of grand strategy) and even Sun Tzu(s). He peppers his book with interesting examples found in history when great men of their times lost their ways and why, notably when Xerxes crossed the Hellespont, when Philip II sent his fleet on such a clear but ill prepared mission, when Napoleon crossed the Niemen and having reached Moscow was like the dog that does not know what to do once he catches up with the car it was running after (JLG’s paraphrased words, which of course, as a true Napoléonien, I object to, faithful to the myths that make nations). It is a great book as it brings you back to times and men that we know but have at times forgotten and goes into many lessons in what is and is not sound leadership, often in the context of wars when decisions have very definite outcomes. One would wish that “On Grand Strategy'” be required reading especially in this nice mansion located on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Warmest regards, 

Serge


Serge Desprat, May 2018 (Prague)