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)