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

26-07-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

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

  1. The winner is not clear but…

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pivotal new long-range US rockets, inflicting heavy damage to Russian supply lines, ammunition depots and massive but outdated artillery.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

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

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

  1. The West may also get tired but…

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

  1. Russia is delusional – no, but…

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

  1. Sanctions are a challenging tool – for all

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmest regards,

Serge

Better understanding the results of the French legislative elections

08-07-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmest regards,

Serge

Three key geopolitical points for the West going forward

14-06-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

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

  1. The Transatlantic Alliance is essential

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

  1. A stronger Europe is key

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

  1. A clear and strong approach to Putin is crucial

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

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

Warmest regards,

Serge

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

30-05-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmest regards,

Serge

Key remarks arising from the “return of history” in Europe after one month

23-3-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

Putting aside, however impossible it is, the daily tragedies experienced on the ground in Ukraine (also hoping they are not becoming gradually mundane), here are few remarks one month into the invasion and the reactions of the world:

Waging large scale war is different today. One cannot play the global game and follow old “history” ways like invading countries ¬– all the more so in Europe. Globalization has changed the nature of war, even if it did not stop it as was hoped. Sanctions hurt terribly, and even if non-lethal, are effectively another weapon of gradual mass destruction as Russia could well be about to experience. Similarly, Russia can squeeze its oil capacity to drive oil price upwards as a response to sanctions, while war is now also waged in cyberspace with expected cyberattacks using former ransomware teams arrested by – and now working for –Russia itself.

War in Europe has a global impact. The economic impact of the war, even without escalations, is huge worldwide, only given Ukraine’s key “bread basket” role as a leading wheat producer in the global food supply chain (incidentally like Russia). Such impact will also be felt, at least in the short term, by Europe given its energy links with a soon-to-be-totally isolated Russian pariah state. And Ukraine, with half of its businesses that have closed doors, and so much war destruction, will have to be rebuilt, likely involving the international community and, it is to be hoped eventually, justified reparations.

Democracies do not wage wars among themselves in Europe. Britain, France and Germany no longer fight each other or build aggressive military alliances to achieve their own strategic goals. Only autocracies start modern unprovoked wars of a WW2 scale in the old continent.

The greatest test for democracy for decades. Democracy is a blip in the scope of human history. Were Russia to prevail in Ukraine, and the West fail to stop it by whatever realistic means necessary, the lesson would embolden the aggressor and quickly be learned by other large powers like China, and possibly a fast-changing India – not to mention smaller actors in their own world regions. Democracy needs to be strong to survive and flourish globally.

This war is about far more than military operations and their aims. The invasion of Ukraine is not just an unprovoked war against a sovereign nation, to rebuild an empire or to stop a gradual decline, but it is a war of autocracy (Russia, likely Belarus and hopefully no more world actors) against the Free World, in what is a defining moment for democracy and liberalism – this exacerbated by the war crimes committed by the Russian leadership in Ukraine.

Liberal democracies need to be realistic. To win the contest with an autocratic Russia the democratic and liberal West may also have to adopt Realpolitik and work with countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey or China that do not share its ways of government, but know where their self-interest lies all the more in a globalized economy; the crisis also unexpectedly providing some often-challenged world actors a reshuffling of their own geopolitical cards.

Russia’s existential problem is rooted in its history. Russia has never been a “free” country in its history from the Czars to Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin (even if then in “transition” mode) and finally Putin who has morphed autocracy and kleptocracy together in what is de facto a mafia super-state with nuclear weapons. As such – and given its deep roots – Russia will always be more inclined to follow “old history” ways to achieve its objectives.

The defining traits of Russia today. The major historical deviation of the Putin regime for Russia has been an osmosis between an autocracy – strengthened to avoid the perceived post-Soviet democratic chaos in the 1990s – and a kleptocracy serving the faithful few, while ensuring Russians were still supportive of “Don Putin,” by selling them a mixed dream of grandeur and limited consumer society, peppered with some exposure to non-Kremlin-threatening modern freedoms.

Tech has weakened autocracy. Controlling access to information to any (large) population in the age of the internet is not possible over the long term, even among usually soft autocracies that revert to old ways to suppress access to fact-based information, and channel disinformation via state media. It will be increasingly hard to hide the nature of the war and its many losses from the Russian people, while sanctions will hurt in their daily lives. It will also be interesting to see how many pro-war Z t-shirts are still worn in Moscow stadiums by likely tech-friendly youngsters in the coming months and years. On a related aspect, Big Tech should actually do more to curb Russian state propaganda on its media, a matter dealing with contents control that is always sensitive among the tech giants.

The Ukraine invasion is a game changer for the West too… For the first time, former Cold War enemies in Central & Eastern Europe are in the same camp as the West in an actual conflict. The West has grown in its definition. From an alliance, these countries have now become truly existential partners. The Transatlantic Alliance embodied in NATO and the need for a stronger, independent but “additional” European defense commitment, now fully supported by a “new” Germany, has been made unequivocal by the Russian invasion.

…while it is also a wake-up call. As it focused for decades on economic growth via globalization, and individualism was the letter of the day, the West and especially its younger generations (not benefitting from direct living historical memory of the last world conflict) forgot that seismic events like wars were not confined to other distant parts of the world, and that preventing them proactively mattered existentially. This is now over for good.

The nuclear wild card. When reflecting on the sanctions and a new, stronger Iron Curtain to come, some Chinese analysts said as a matter of fact that Russia could not be excluded from the world as it had the largest nuclear arsenal among nations. Such a reading would de facto mean Russia can do what it wants, as it has the largest arsenal and the world cannot take any risks with it. This approach is wrong, and the West is far more powerful than Russia – also in a senseless nuclear sense – while history showed Russia could also be invaded and its army is actually weak, as has been seen in Ukraine.

Not a conflict of equals. The Chinese and some others, who would also like to benefit from a reshuffling of world trading cards (like possibly India), while stressing the need for diplomacy, still seem to be unable to see or likely refuse to state (for practical reasons) that there is one aggressor in the Ukraine invasion – as if both Russia and Ukraine and its allies were responsible for the war, and that such an approach could lead to a better compromise.

The Russian energy card is not as strong as it looked. While Russia is today a key provider of oil and gas, especially to Europe, the world is not a long-term hostage to Moscow, even if power rationing may happen in the short term. Saudi Aramco is going to boost oil production. Talks with Venezuela will likely continue, in spite of domestic political concerns from Hispanic US legislators across party lines. Iran may also export energy once the nuclear deal is agreed. France will renationalize EDF, its main energy company, and is likely to launch a new nuclear program. Spain is promoting the decoupling of European gas and electricity prices to lower energy costs. Even Germany has signed a long-term gas agreement with Qatar. In order to simply survive, Moscow one day may even have to offer incentives to the world to accept its oil and gas, as may be the case when dealing with many smaller import-dependent and/or militarily close (and thus largely “neutral”) African nations today.

The other real test for Europe. Beyond the military and economic impacts of this war, Europe, and especially the frontline states such as Poland or tiny Moldova, are faced with the largest refugee influx since WW2. Such a drastic development caused by Russia (and clearly also used by the Kremlin as a weapon mirroring sanctions) will have to be managed carefully over the long-term, requiring coordination and funding at EU and Western levels. While welcoming refugees and allowing them to work, the best plan to ensure the smoothest transition across Europe will have to ensure most refugees can return to their homeland, as and when possible, to participate in its rebuilding.

A quick lose-lose position for Russia. By breaking the norms of interactions between contemporary developed societies in Europe, and then (fortunately) not winning a more practical “blitzkrieg,” Russia cornered itself in a lose-lose position via a likely Syrian war-like stalemate, unprecedented world sanctions leading to a stronger Iron Curtain, and the only recourse to the nuclear option to desperately try to tactically prevail – if only in the messaging.

War developments seem unclear at this stage. While there are many speculations in the West as to why Putin started this war against “Nazis, drug addicts and to save brethren from a genocide” now, there is also no clear visibility as to what the next steps will be. It is hard to believe that Russia could withdraw from Ukraine without gaining “something” to save face, while the potential for escalation is high – also through accidents, including directly with NATO countries and former members of the former Soviet family in the region. A third world war is not impossible, though still an unlikely scenario, all the more given the irrationality shown by the Kremlin and its abysmal risk-reward analysis on display to date.

Russians will decide in the end what they want for Russia. Regardless of their historical subservience to autocracy, and even if there is a growing opposition at home, Russians will need today to make a choice as to what society they want to live in. They control their destiny and indirectly the fate of the world (if Putin went nuclear) far more than the West would. An estimated 200,000 Russians, most of them intellectuals and young professionals, left the country and “voted with their feet” in the first ten days of the invasion. However, the only definite solution to the Putin question is in Russian hands at home. Similarly, if the Russians did not interfere with a lost Kremlin, after a period of time – either via a coup or a revolution they could foment and/or support – they will ultimately also bear the responsibility for any adverse development going forward, making it harder for the West to forgive them.

The only way to deal with Russia now. European history has told us that placating dictators and hoping for the best only creates “Munich” and does not alleviate the road to disastrous war later. There is nothing to gain from showing understanding for the Russian moves or pseudo-cause which will only be seen as weakness, like excessive diplomacy would. The West is stronger than Russia and should make it clear in its resolve to both Russian leadership and people (also as change could be triggered from within) that it will stand firm, while not being bellicose. Fear of conflict will only create greater conflict, all the more so in the nuclear age. Bullies only understand superior strength, and that may have to be firmly displayed.

What to expect now? As stated it is hard to predict how the war in Ukraine will develop at this stage, now that the Russians have failed to win a quick victory, and the Ukrainians keep fighting hard to defend their sovereignty one month into the invasion. As the very perspicacious Gideon Rachman aptly wrote in the Financial Times this week, there are “three options: a prolonged war; a peace settlement; or a coup in Russia. Expect the first, work for the second and hope for the third”, while knowing that the latter is challenging, as even his closest aides no longer physically approach the Russian leader in a way that started with the pandemic era, and might explain his further isolation and strange decision-making. Regardless of the winning option in the making, the West should not become, one month into the conflict, sleepily accustomed to the daily continuous news flow and accept it as a normal fixture to live with.

Russia cannot be relied upon. In spite of Western intelligence reports to the contrary, Russia stated numerous times over two months that its large troop movements near the Ukrainian borders were only for exercises before finally invading. One month into the invasion, Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman (whose own daughter criticized the invasion on social media when she still could) explained that the Russian invasion had been to stop a Ukrainian one with its 120,000 troops ready on the “divide” and, in any case, were the last effort to respond to the West not addressing for 20 years the Russian concerns about a “militarized” and threatening Ukraine. The script of the reunification of the Russian people was abandoned while Peskov, the voice of Russia, was stressing the many Ukrainians wanting to work with the Russian army and making it clear that civilians had never been targeted as if in a parallel world and in spite of the numerous filmed proofs to the contrary. Confidently lying is now the official modus operandi of a Kremlin that is totally disconnected from world reality. This approach is also not conducive to producing any good faith diplomatic resolution to the conflict on the ground that would provide longer term guarantees to Ukraine and Europe.

What to do with Russia in the future? How to deal with Russia in a post-war scenario (putting aside the unavoidable subject of reparations – these not of the likes of returning Alaska) is going to be a major exercise for the West and the world that will require no Putin (in a Lindsey Graham scenario or not *) and a likely change in the autocratic and kleptocratic nature of Russia as we see it today. While it is likely, as the Russian opposition in exile states, that democracy would eventually happen in ways that would benefit the Russian population and indeed the world, this transition would require time and be likely more challenging in many aspects than the one experienced at the fall of the Soviet Union. The bleaker alternative for all parties, short of an always possible but still unlikely WW3, is a durable and worse Cold War than the one previously experienced though far more challenging for Russia itself.

Warmest regards,

Serge

*US Senator Lindsey Graham (a close friend of John McCain even if later too supportive of Donald Trump) vocally stressed the way out of the Ukraine-led world crisis would be to effectively assassinate Putin, this previously mentioned as likely the only way to stop the crisis quickly. While the US and Western governments do not officially and understandably support such a drastic development, the logic still holds. As the French saying goes, Lindsay Graham only said loudly what nearly everybody (in the West) thinks deeply and quietly.

The disgraceful Afghan withdrawal will alter America’s image and status forever

14-8-21

Dear Partners in thought,

My apologies for a long silence since April as I took a break from Desperate Measures feeling that its two drivers, Brexit and Trump, had finally been “done”, even if we feel in both cases that their presence is still vividly felt. If I may be uncharacteristically personal, I was also much affected by a very appalling start-up seed capital investment experience, involving people I respected, and that I am still in the process of digesting in the right way.

Post-Trump and Brexit, two of the most infamous developments of the 2010s that affected the US and Britain, as well as Europe and the world (in whichever order you prefer), I found it hard to focus on a return to more normal times, again as if still suffering from both sad events and also given our Covid “new normal” era. The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House (that hopefully and finally ran contrary, as wished for, to the Orwellian scenario of “2027”) brought with it a certain boredom that was so much needed at so many levels, even if it made reading my daily Financial Times less exciting and the jobs of its famed journalists more challenging. Biden also brought with him a great team of “professionals” and his share of grand projects that are so American in nature, as seen with his much-needed infrastructure and related bills. He markedly rebuilt the ties with Europe and NATO, a key area for me and others living in the Old World. Although he kept the Trump line against China, even becoming harder in many ways, Xi did his best to prevent a US refocus on a mutually productive re-engagement with the Red Dragon. And then came Afghanistan.

Based on a dubious peace agreement engineered last year by the Trump administration, Biden decided in April to leave Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9-11 in a way that was more akin to Hollywood than the White House. As the Taliban rapidly took advantage of a sudden departure embodied by the night-time exit from the Bagram air force base where tons of assets were left behind – as if fleeing from an imminent invasion, Biden stressed he had no regrets as it was up to the Afghan people to defend themselves and, de facto, decide for their future. Indeed, a new turn after 20 years. All at a time when US forces were fewer than 3,000 on the ground, and no casualty had been experienced in years, all the while USD 1 trillion had been spent without the benefit of a clear and decisive Nazi Berlin-like Taliban eradication. In actually no time, and likely to the surprise of the Pentagon and the CIA, the Taliban took over districts and cities on a daily basis, Kandahar being the last trophy, making Kabul a target for takeover. Now Kabul is under takeover threat. In a strange reversal, about 3,000 US troops (a sadly fitting number) were planned to be dispatched to Kabul in short order to avoid the dreadful 1975 pictures of Saigon embassy personnel barely fleeing from the roofs via helicopters.

I took part in a poll on the daily CNN’s Smerconish newsletter about whether the current Afghan departure was a good thing, only to see when I clicked that I was part of only 30% who felt it was not. Clearly that poll is essentially targeting Americans, many of whom have been tired by the “Long War” as it is often described, in a worse depiction than the old Vietnam equivalent. However short-sighted and, putting aside his historical aversion for nation-building abroad, Biden’s decision was of course eminently focused on domestic politics, at a time when he badly needed a bipartisan approach, like with his infrastructure bills. There was a need to find areas where domestic agreement would be reached, this at a low political cost. However, are Afghan women paying for better American roads and the need for post-Trump era solace? And in a political comedy act, the Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, who supported the Trump Treaty with the Taliban, now scream at the quick withdrawal humiliation for the US and the risk of another potential 9-11. The problem with this departure, putting aside the financial costs involved (and yes, in spite of the endemic local corruption that must exist), is its clear damage to what Americans and America stand for and what US leaders have always used as a natural and differentiating foreign policy tool. It is going to be hard for America to manage, when one looks at what happens to women and free thinking in a thuggishly and backwardly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – one that could have been relatively easily prevented. The financial cost is not an issue as allies could have contributed, including Afghanistan itself, but also allies and neighbouring countries in need of regional and indeed national stability (who indeed wants a next 9-11?). The human cost is no longer an issue, as winning stability and not war is the objective. The best likely scenario could be that the US, not wanting China, Russia and Pakistan to assert themselves, will keep sending US special forces and lead aerial attacks from abroad in a less efficient and practical way, rendering their departure only a tactical mistake. More would be better of course. At least NATO is now convening, given the rapidly unexpected adverse development on the ground. If they did nothing and kept hoping, fingers crossed, for the best, America will pay a serious price in terms of image and reputation globally, making them just another country, something they cannot afford in a climate of Cold Peace with a rising China. Let’s hope that egos do not prevent a change of mind and practical solutions where the US and its allies are back soon. The girls and women of Afghanistan would appreciate it. As would some of us who always believed in America and what it stood for – and remember D Day. If America is gone, who is left today?

Warmest regards,

Serge

Where we are in this challenging world

12-4-21

Dear Partners in thought,

I hope that you all enjoyed as good a start of 2021 as was possible considering the strange times we are still going through more than a year after the start of the dreadful pandemic. Having had both Brexit and Trump “done” and as they were the impetus for the start of this blog, it seemed like a pause was timely. It also felt wise to sit back and ponder as too many events were unfolding globally after the US presidential election. The world now is quite different from what it was only a few months ago, which warranted a review of where we are – or might be in terms of the state of international affairs.

The US has now gone back fairly quickly to being what we always knew with a more stable leadership under Joe Biden. The formerly normal presidential style has come back to what the world knew pre-Trump. Integrity in how things are said and done is finally back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The quality of Biden’s team is also markedly higher than that of his predecessor’s, party affilitation aside. Old alliances, upon which our world was built and worked well for decades, are being repaired, especially across the Atlantic. In a stark contrast to 2020, Covid is rationally managed and the vaccination drive is going well, even if the pandemic is still challenging. The current focus may be more domestic than international for now though the magnitude of the various programmes launched by Biden to deal with the Covid economic impact and the long overdue infrastructure revival are clearly FDR- and New Deal-flavoured, giving America back its old and decisive game-changing image.

And yet America is still dealing with a shift to the extremes, be it “hard populism” often tainted with white supremacy on the right (that some Republican officials and indeed Trump play with, often for electoral and/or funding reasons) or “cancel or woke culture” rooted in historical wrongs (that some Democrats and activists play with, often for electoral and/or career reasons). The extremes are forcefully vocal and while they “still” do not represent the majority of Americans, they can monopolise the headlines, this being exacerbated by the social and partisan news media. The middle ground seems a bit lost at times even if the likes of Joe Biden try their best to uphold it. Old heresies like the lack of gun control legislation while people get killed doing their grocery shopping or going to school still abound even if they are now finally addressed given the weekly atrocities at play. A majority of Republican voters, many of whom disliked Trump at the personal level but had only him to defend their conservative ethos, still seems to think that Biden and the “radicals” stole his election. BLM, regardless of its noble agenda and the need for policing change in US society, kept triggering demonstrations involving statue-defacing and urban looting, fuelling the anger of the other side in a mutually vicious circle. Enough lunatic individuals, some of them self-declared patriots though forgetting any sense of propriety, were ready to storm the seat of their legislative power and hang unfaithful Vice Presidents as seen on January 6. Facts do not matter much and even a much wider trade deficit increase under Trump did not seem to negate his much heralded and tactically inept anti-China trade war stance and related protectionism with most of his voters, many who actually directly suffered from them, like in the agriculural Midwest. Like in Europe in terms of sheer populism, more and more Americans, especially those lacking suitable reference points, are tempted by easy solutions to complex issues, indeed the key Western disease for which no vaccine has yet been found.

In the meantime, Europe is going through challenging times of its own which started with Brexit and Covid-19 enhanced. Unsurprisingly Britain is suffering on the trade front (having too easily forgotten the asymmetric relationship with the EU, its main partner) and from a gradual decline of its financial sector status (the latter that was surprisingly ignored by Number Ten in pushing for Leave) with Boris Johnson only saved by a timely successful vaccine roll-out (in spite of its ongoing Astra Zeneca issues) that was always easier to manage by one country than 27. The hollowness of sovereignty in name only has not yet sunk in in the “leaving” Midlands, the North of England and Wales while the consequence of Brexit may be a union in name only when and if Scotland goes away (not to mention now, Northern Ireland). Germany is going through a challenging un-German time with doubts about both its efficiency and political leadership as a result of surprising Covid mismanagement combined with the uncertain end of a long political era. France, the never happy country, is going through an incredible Trumpian scenario where an incompetent but masterly populist Marine le Pen is exploiting feelings of disgruntled “lost identity” voters, stressing that left and right no longer exist as she dares saying Boris Johnson aptly demonstrated in his own December 2019 elections. Le Pen, aware that skills and expertise are not on her side is even going as far as offering a government of national unity of sorts, well beyond the remit of her party (knowing that she would be hard pressed to find enough competent material there). And yet as the 2022 presidential race approaches, the current poll gap with Emmanuel Macron is only of six points (which for a Le Pen is an incredible achievement), people having forgotten that Giscard beat Mitterand with less than one in 1974 and led the country for seven years without any problems. Even the political scandal-adverse Netherlands is in trouble following its PM having wanted to appoint a problematic individual as minister, putting his longstanding leadership in jeopardy. While Spain is having minor coalition issues at the top, only and surprisingly Italy among leading EU member states seem to have found a new and unusual wind with former “safe pair of hands” ECB President Mario Dragghi at its helm (making even a colourful Northern Leaguer like Salvini becoming overnight almost a boring middle ground politician, if only for personal and partisan tactical reasons). So most leading countries in Europe are going through tough times due to to where they also are in their own calendars. However the EU itself has also mismanaged the Covid vaccination process, making all the Brexiters finding at last a good reason to rejoice – this even if the EU is a bloc, however worthy, of 27 different nations that will always be harder to manage than one, especially in times of crisis and still at its stage of “work in progress” development.

Following 9-11, the Middle East became the unstable region of the start of the millenium with its series of invasions, domestic unrest if not revolutions, civil wars and drastic leadership changes. Twenty years on, while Syria and Yemen still present their war-related challenges and Iran remains a sensitive question, the region is generally more stable, this even if Afghanistan, faithful to its historical tradition, remains a perenial problem area. Russia is still dangerous though foreign adventures like Crimea and Eastern Ukraine launched to divert domestic attention are a tired recipe for the Kremlin which will have to focus more at home on an ever-rising domestic urban and younger generations dissent. On the global stage, the steady rise of China has not been without its problems given the Hong Kong, Tibet, Uyghur camps, South China seas or Taiwan threat situations, not to mention the rather slow reaction to manage the then nascent epidemic in Wuhan even if it likely did not start in a lab and was a Beijing-led conspiracy. The words “New Cold War” are more frequent even if too easily mentioned. While it wants to assert its superpower status and is not a reflection of the Western age of enlightment, China is not keen on war at this stage (nor was it for decades), even if more aggressive. China needs the world if only as a market, which should dampen its fiercest ardours. In a mirror image, our economies and its consumers still need the world’s factory and the low pricing of its goods while the health of Western sectors like tech, automotive, banking or luxury goods rely partly upon China. A Beijing rapprochement with Moscow, that might seem mutually beneficial to face the West is also not the magic formula for any of them as both countries are fierce competitors in many areas and increasingly on an unequal footing in a reverse image of the old Cold War. It is to be hoped that, while engaging with China on key issues in a competitive manner, the US and the West but also the rest of Asia with the Quad (comprising Australia, Japan, South Korea and now, more firmly, India), will be able able to contain its worst features but will also work with it on key global issues like climate crisis management. While there was a need to make strong statements about values as in the first acerbic US-China post-Trump diplomatic meeting in Alaska in March, we may not change China and make it a Western-like democracy unless its people want it one day. However and while the West should not go into appeasement mode, we can hope that the more we engage with and integrate China into the world we can still shape, even as a competitive superpower, the more we will cement an inter-dependent ecosystem where it will get gradually closer to us if only by sheer necessity. One of the simplest ways to do so while fostering internal change is also to keep encouraging more of its citizens to travel the world and see for themselves the value of freedom as we know it in the West.

The timing of Covid, which may have cost Trump his reelection in an otherwise too forgiving or lost America under his presidency (as amazingly seen with 73 million voters), was the factor that upset the already fragile global apple cart. Nations, large and small, bloc or no bloc went through good to bad management of the pandemic crisis and vice-versa and back as mixing health and economic preservations was too arduous, all the more given the multiple pandemic waves. And individuals did not help in the West, this on the back of the defence of private liberties, sheer individualism or reject of thinking for the “other” or any sense of communautarism unlike in parts of Asia. The West, 75 years after a devastating world war, seemed to have lost any sense of community on the altar of social media-driven individualism to be able to manage the crisis efficiently. The lack of living memory and our self-centered times simply killed too many, even if only a minority of individuals did not care about sensible behaviour though efficiently helped the spread of Covid. To worsen the trend and in a sad and rarely-mentioned selfish aspect of vaccination, a huge number of individuals in some European countries even successfully sought by various expedient means to be vaccinated well before their turn that was normally based on age or medical conditions. With time and vaccine roll-outs (the latter still being an amazing tribute to human ingenuity, also in terms of speed of creativity) Covid will disappear gradually, even if its consequences in many walks of life and work might remain for some time. It is possible that years from now historians may write that such a disaster that killed so many and at times brought human stupidity to the fore had also positive indirect and overdue developments like better roads for America or a more sensible global corporate taxation system.

Following Nietzsche’s saying that the future is built on the basis of the longest memory, the West (and its allies globally) should pursue a dual policy of going back to its rationality roots and strengthening its own ties to act as a stronger bloc.

Today the biggest challenge for the West is the continuing rise of the extremes with populism being a key component, rightward but also leftward as seen in America. If only to preserve its democratic essence, the West needs to both address fairly these longstanding working class grievances often relating to identity (certainly in Europe) that were too often unwittingly neglected as being uncouth by the elites while ensuring that voters go back to wanting skilled and competent leaders, whatever their political affiliations, to run their countries. The West needs elites who are not ideologues whose only strength is to win elections on the back of simplistic programmes that appeal to feelings and not reason, this whatever the real frustrations at play with many voters. Similary these elites need to stay away from autistic behaviours as to what triggers populism lest they lose their traditional roles. It is often believed that the possible redeeming feature of our increasingly populist Western world is that when elected the incompetent leaders are often fast naked though it does not guarantee they cannot lead to disasters and or suppress democracy once in power. Hence the need to go back to basics and for the elites to better relate to voters while guiding them rationally for the benefits of all involved.

Another key feature for the West is to become “whole” anew so it can help shape world developments, this through a strengthening of the transatlantic relationship that both sides want, in spite of differences and a naturally heterogeneous bloc on many issues, but also a positive redefinition of a post-Brexit relationship between the EU and Britain (maybe by then England and Wales). In addition, a way to create a more balanced thus better Atlantic partnership would be for the EU to build the missing facet of its make-up in starting developing a defence platform and “strategic autonomy” (a tricky feature as not naturally welcome by the likes of traditionally US-reliant Poland or Baltic states) that could be spearheaded initially by France, the only serious military power in its midst that has already taken a home lead on this front. While these steps are taken, an innovative dimension of the rebuilding of the Western alliance could be to foster a productive dialogue with Russia aimed at encouraging the changes it should gradually know from within so one day it can finally rejoin the concert of Western nations after more than a century.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Understanding the “rationale” behind Donald Trump’s unusual refusal to concede

16-11-20

Dear Partners in thought,

Now that Georgia was finally won by Joe Biden (making the two January Senatorial run-off races in the state all the more exciting) and Donald Trump winning North Carolina as expected, the race should be over. 306 delegates for Biden against 232 for Trump and a 5.5 million popular vote gap between the two. It seems like a closed case even if the President has not conceded, alleging voter fraud in a few states while his groundless legal challenges are dismissed by the courts one after the other. Even if there had been a few rare cases of fraud, the result could never change in a million years, a point that many Republican officials and pundits now make, even publicly like Karl Rove, the election strategist for George W. Bush. State certification of results we know is all but assured in December.

Only a few Republican Senators congratulated Joe Biden for his victory, some supporting (now less and less strongly) the Trump fraud claims, following the President’s line that “time will tell” (I wonder what John McCain would think today of his friend Lindsey Graham though his wife Cindy gave us a likely take). A few White House hardliners like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Bob Barr, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and trade adviser Peter Navarro are clear that Donald Trump will be present on 21st January at his own inauguration ceremony for his second term. Most respectable US media now do not pay that much attention to Trump’s fraud claims and outlandish statements that he won the “legitimate” votes but are concerned, like most observers, about the current transition of executive power in America.

Putting aside the catastrophic multi-layered impact on transition (and the incoming administration) as stated by recent White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the problem caused by Trump dragging his feet in relinquishing power by accepting defeat, in ways that have been the norm in presidential elections throughout history, is causing harm to the American institutions and its democratic process. This has been widely reported already. Trump will eventually have to concede before January 21st and indeed “do the right thing” according to famed New York veteran sensational journalist Geraldo Rivera, an old neighbourhood and Republican friend of the President. It would now be interesting to try understanding the rationale (a strange word for it) behind the President’s unusual stance at this point and who will pay for it.

The main victim of Trump’s refusal to concede and the means behind it is squarely the American democratic system. Such a move will please the core base of Trump’s electors who like his unusual style and see himself in him, a key demographic being the non-college white male group, particularly located in rural states, this fuelling the American divide even further going forward. To be sure, most Trump voters who are not into conspiracy theories, but abide by conservative values and party affinity for their own reasons, will not be swayed long-term by Trump’s move. However, Trump’s approach could please and indeed enthuse a few million individuals, especially among those wearing the MAGA hats at political rallies, not to mention vocal hard right extremists. The other victim of the Trump shenanigans will be eventually the Republican Party itself, which is losing ground nationally (not a good omen for future presidential races, also with demographic changes) and was highjacked by Trump early on in his presidency, gradually losing its soul in the process and likely being reduced to the status of a strong minority party for a very long time, in search for a Reagan-like revolution decades from now. To be sure the GOP decline will not happen overnight, also at the congressional and especially Senate levels as we can see now. The third victim is America’s leadership and standing in the world. Looking abroad and in spite of the many congratulatory notes to Joe Biden, usually from the usual Western leaders, many autocrats the world over rejoice at the American tragicomedy pointing that the country is no beacon for anything and that democracy is indeed over-rated as all can see. As for China and Russia especially, it is hard not to think that Beijing and Moscow do not see reasons to celebrate strategically, even if for the latter a different outcome was likely tactically preferred.

In spite of his appalling style and ways, Trump is anything but stupid, even if primarily driven by instincts (often bad ones). It is unlikely that he would want to seed the grounds of a second civil war. However, the refusal to go through a smooth transition process, as long as he can and his claims hold water, is likely driven by the future – or his future. We hear that Trump simply wants to cement his hold on the Republican Party going forward. Trump is also possibly looking at what Nigel Farage has done in the UK with his new “Reform UK” (following UKIP and the Brexit Party) and is exploring what kind of popular, or more aptly, populist movement he could establish post-White House. Were a third “party” be created, such a move, that could arguably hurt the prospects of the traditional GOP, would benefit from an eager market looking for such a product, which could even have lucrative angles for Trump (he is a businessman after all), softening the blows to his ego and some say paving the way for a White House run in 2024, “Trump party” or not. One could even see a scenario where the GOP would live with a primary-based Trump nomination to preserve the “integrity” of its voting base, avoiding the start of a road to national oblivion. Even if by then, to borrow from his arsenal of campaign quips, Trump himself might be a bit “tired”. Another reason for his incredibly bold stance is that he would need a group of die-hard supporters as he goes into a likely series of lawsuits in relation to his fragile business empire and tax issues or perhaps a bargaining tool to negotiate a presidential pardon from Joe Biden in due course (that is when, in Trump style, he would have exhausted the paths for pardoning himself before January’s end). One could of course hope that one of his close and admittedly bold advisers could mention to him the many merits of a lower profile early on, playing the constitutional game and spending more time on the green at Mar-a-Lago while mentoring Ivanka for great future designs for the brand.

What we see with President Trump’s antics is sad and not surprising. Let us hope than American democracy and institutions are strong enough to put a stop to them and soon restore “decency”, a word that was largely absent from 1600 Pennsylvania avenue for four long years. However, such a step might not be immediate, listening to some enlightened views on social media that, if you excluded California, Trump indeed won the presidency.

Warmest regards,

Serge

The (long-awaited) morning after and the need to reflect

7-11-20

Dear Partners in thought,

Election Day was not as we all thought it would be. Trump did way better than all the polls had told us making those wide pre-election gaps a worse repeat of the 2016 experience, but for the final outcome. To be fair to the pollsters, it is clear that given “Trump, the man”, many of his future voters preferred not to state publicly they would support him even though they saw him as a tool for many of their core concerns, like the change of the Supreme Court for the evangelicals. In parallel, pollsters were often seen as tools of the elite, given their backgrounds, so to be distrusted by many non-college-educated and often rural Trump supporters who found “Trump, the man” actually very appealing in his crude, so real, style as well as his populist rejection of the whole American establishment and usual standards of about anything, strengthening the feeling that “he is one of us”.

Having fuelled the American divide, Trump went out of his way to stress with obvious success law and order, the generalisation of the looting and absurdly paint Biden as a “socialist” (apparently with some success in Florida with the Cuban- and Venezuelan-Americans). It is also possible that such poll gaps were an extra-mobilisation factor for those not liking the Democrats and some of their stances whatever they may be. On this last matter and while being a sensitive one, it is clear that the Democrats’ reliance on the traditional black vote and “racial injustice” all the more in active BLM times, combined with street unrest, may have mobilised many unsympathetic white voters in a country where the black vote actually only represents a small fraction of the white one. Having said this and oddly enough, Trump did quite well with some minority voters, many ethnic groups being no longer homogeneous (especially Latinos) or voting according to ethnic origin expectations, showing that stereotypes may no longer apply in the America of the 2020s. Whatever the reason, in the end the Trump campaign benefited from an unexpected mass-participation that would wipe out most of the eight to ten-point gap seen over weeks in the national polls – even if Biden always held a massive national vote support, reminiscent of Hillary Clinton in 2016, a day after the election took place. Clearly early results were very good for the Trump camp as mail in votes and urban centres, both favouring Biden, were to be counted later, thus creating unwitting suspense and disappointment on both sides at different times of the process. (For those who want to know more about what happens in a “neutral” and “calm” way, please go to the GZero newsletter SIGNAL dated 5th November and after from New-York based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group led-founded by Ian Bremmer).

As some of you who read “2027” know, I made the point in its last chapter (Lessons to be Learned) that the US Electoral College is no longer an expression of true democracy. The “one man-one vote” (and yes, “woman” too) is indeed distorted in today’s America as seen in the 2016 presidential elections where Hillary Clinton lost even as she had 2.9 million more votes nationally than Trump. Biden had more than 4 million more votes than Trump in the end and yet it was deemed to be officially a close race. It is not acceptable that a vote from America’s rural areas would command more weight than a vote from city dwelling areas – the reverse being also true. It is time for America to revisit this Electoral College, realising that the America of the 2020s is not the one the Founding Fathers lived in. America cannot just be a republic as some argue is what matters. This reliance on Founding Father holiness does not make any sense today and is a denial of democracy, which for the leading democracy in the world and the Leader of the Free World is no longer acceptable. America should wake up, regardless of vested interests which have served the Republican Party well in recent years (Note: I am a Rockefeller Republican, that is from when the party projected real American values, pre-Trump era).

He finally lost (even if no concession, recounts likely underway and a few overseas military votes still potentially coming in). He largely lost due to his personality and ways at a time when Republicans did well in congressional races, also providing some solace to their voters. It is hard to believe that Donald Trump will soon vanish from our daily lives, almost creating a psychological vacuum for many. Most if not all media and editorialists will vividly feel a void so much he was a boon in terms of reporting and analysis. Trump, if anything, had been responsible for a rebirth of newspapers like The New York Times and others which saw their subscriptions rise during his tenure. He also created Trumpism, markedly beyond his own hopes for it, which is a coalition of voters who are very different but are comprising the usual populist supporters feeling disenfranchised the Western world over (usually non-college -educated) and individuals that would never stand him as an individual but would back him to see some of their key political objectives realised, whatever the risk involved with an erratic and value-less TV reality-formatted President. One reason for hope was that the group from which Biden made gains (while not winning it) was that of non-college-educated whites, especially in Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, states that turned out for him unlike in 2016.

It is hard to believe that it almost took a deadly pandemic and its mismanagement for a majority of Americans to decide Trump’s time was up. And yet the pandemic was not a key factor in his voting booth demise, judging from his strong support from voters for whom the economy was more key (oddly as if Trump had been a creator of wealth for them). If not for Covid-19, which brought his incompetence and disastrous style to the fore even further, Trump could have been re-elected on the perception that the economy was doing fine as judged from the Dow Jones Index. Many Americans, faithful to their habits, would not have bothered to go to the polls as the customary low participation rate used to demonstrate. If not totally outrageous a statement, one could almost be forgiven to say that the Trump exit was the one positive aspect of this otherwise dreadful pandemic. It is nonetheless almost unbelievable that 70 million Americans (many of them decent individuals) – described as “patriots” by an otherwise graceful in defeat Fox News’s Laura Ingraham – supported such a flawed man and leader, vividly stressing the American divide and the renewed importance of revamping education in a general sense so people are better equipped to reach an independent judgment.

Many books will be written on his presidency and how such a flawed and incompetent individual (even in business, if looking at traditional standards of success) made it to the White House. Trump was a symptom of an America that lost itself, where individualism became exacerbated and the idea of nation had gradually been forgotten while capitalism rewarded mostly the wealthy. The social elevator (or lift) got broken in the last decades and the rise of tech and its amusement tools made many of the “have nots” and “have much less” think about other things than their true wellbeing, while empowering them to express vocally their disenfranchisements and target easy culprits via social media. America under Trump slid into the decadent Rome where “games of the circus” really mattered, founding values were for history books and perception mattered more than reality. One unwitting redeeming feature of this societal trap was that the usually low voting participation rose, even if for the wrong reasons and outcomes. While this assessment is largely based on feelings, all the much easier but perhaps more neutrally accurate as one is an observer from across the pond, the points should resonate among most decent Americans of good will across party affinities.

Joe Biden may not be the most fascinating politician but he was given a bad rap given his age and some of his more personal features, none of which rising to the bad level of a Trump. Even if having to work with a Red Senate (that to many Republican voters will provide some balance), Biden will get America back to where it was before in terms of presidential style and ways (even if we hear rightly this will not be really the same America policy-wise). Biden’s approach, unlike Trump’s, will also be a matter of traditional values that made America what it always was. Biden is likely to go back to a benevolent American leadership focused on win-win for Washington and its allies in the West and globally. This difference in style, combined with a different team around him where expertise and not only loyalty, will matter and have a deep impact on American policy-making. Results are likely to be affected positively by more sensible means that also reflect Western liberal values which have been the bedrock of America and the Western world since WW2. Dictators will no longer be supported on a misguided “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mantra even if realpolitik will understandably not disappear from American foreign policy. Rather than America on its own, the country will regain a welcome world leadership role of a Western block that needs to rise to the challenge presented by a more assertive and undemocratic China, with which a dialogue needs to be developed for the benefit of a more harmonious world. America, together with Europe, will face challenges like the India-China rivalry (that could lead to a new Cold War) or the disconnect between the West and countries directly or indirectly exploiting lone wolf Islamist terrorists that only multilateralism will help overcome through engaged and forceful dialogue.

In the short-term and while Trump lost, it is key that the transition period of the “lame duck” presidency not lead to decisions by his Administration leading to bad developments in the economic and foreign policy areas (besides the expected granting of pardons for all the individuals close to the President who were condemned by the courts). This transition period is always a murky era, all the more in the case of an unusual President whose values and style differed so greatly from his predecessors. One should hope that safeguards, institutional and otherwise, be put in place for the occasion. It is going to be interesting to hear from him over the next three months and likely thereafter (as he fights the many legal actions that will doubtless occur) about who was responsible for his demise. A good bet should be China that it might be said would have engineered Covid-19 in a lab or was purposefully slow to contain it earlier in the year when it could, this with a complicit Europe whose tourists flooded in New York City with a clear mission…It will be fascinating to hear the post-mortem offered by Trump on why he lost, all assuming he is leaving the scene gracefully and does not fight a trench war focused on the counting of “mail-in ballot frauds” and conspiracy theories.

On a personal note, this blog, which was started largely by the Trump ascent (and the self-wounding Brexit idiocy), as the President did not evolve in the role many of us had naively then hoped for, will keep focusing on who we are. Liberals in the classical political terminology (i.e. not radicals in the American sense) will need to keep developing a “muscled” message and prove great writer Adam Gopnik wrong in that “they cannot be found in bar fights”. Liberalism is not for the weak and the strong are not only found among populists. As populist movements and governments vividly show the limits of their abilities to govern sensibly, it is time for Western liberals to clearly make the points that were taken for granted for so long and that very few fought for in recent times. Desperate Measures, warts and all, will keep contributing to the decent fight.

Warmest regards,

Serge

When mutual respect and sovereignty both matter

31-10-20

Dear Partners in thought,

The beheading of Samuel Paty, a French history schoolteacher on 16th October in Greater Paris was horrible and cannot be excused by any religious belief whatever the offense felt by some extremists. This was an awful crime. Full stop.

The story was well reported given its dreadful features. A French history schoolteacher taught civics to his class that involved free speech, which is a tenet of French democracy. To make the point, Samuel Paty showed a couple of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that had been published in the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo before the well-known January 2015 terror attack, one of which was in poor taste while both not respecting the Muslim religion that forbids any picturing of its Prophet. In doing so, Samuel Paty made the point that pupils of the Muslim faith, who could be offended, could avert their eyes or, some said, leave the classroom. Following the teaching on free speech, some parents of Muslim pupils complained to the school while others posted strong messages on social media (one with the assistance of a radical Islamist known to French intelligence), calling for administrative and more drastic reprisals against the teacher. The school undertook a review of the case and cleared Samuel Paty of any wrongdoings based on the rules and regulations of the ministry of education and the laws of the French Republic. On 16th October, an 18-year old Chechen, who had lived for ten years in France and whose family had been granted political asylum, made an 80 km trip to the school where Paty taught. He found him, beheaded him and posted the severed head on social media before shooting at and being killed by police officers on the scene.

While some may think that some sensitive subjects should be avoided as they offend a minority of extremists who do disservice to their own faith and fellow believers, France is an independent country where laicity and free speech are all but enshrined. Societies based on freedom should allow matters to be discussed respectfully among all individuals, while naturally being sensitive to some offensive aspects of any debate. It is clear that it is not easy to define where freedom of speech ends (something that a Charlie Hebdo has arguably tested to its limits) so as not to offend religious belief so the manner freedom of speech is used and its objective, like in that classroom two weeks ago, is key. The fact that France is definitely ruled by its own laws and historical values and is not a theocracy is also obviously a key element to consider.

One could argue that freedom of speech does not provide a passport to offend, at times gratuitously, just because anything can be said and printed. Charlie Hebdo paid a very heavy price in 2015 for sticking to its trademark of shocking audiences on the altar of the freedom of speech. One could argue that anti-Semitic rants would not be allowed (actually in this case by French law) in spite of the freedom of speech rule so one could also be more measured about not offending the faith and principles of Muslim believers frontally. And if they did, which may be their legal right, they might face retributions as Charlie Hebdo did. It seems a very sad lose-lose game whereas sensible self-restraint on what could be said and printed without losing any freedom of expression on all matters could be achieved. One should not gratuitously and carelessly offend, paving the way for irrational violence while one should also respect freedom of expression while abiding by the laws and values of the countries where they reside. In the case of Samuel Paty, there was no intent to offend but only to sensibly educate, making any opposition to his actions, not to mention his gruesome murder, indefensible on any grounds. And again, murder cannot be condoned under any circumstances whatever the beliefs-based offence

The condemnations by Turkey, its “anti-UAE ally” Qatar, Kuwait and now Iran, the theocratic paragon, and Pakistan (and oddly some criticism in one of the New York Times’ editorials) of the strong French response to the murder, however measured and targeted, aimed at President Macron were ill-thought as France could never tolerate murder of that kind and indeed the potential rise of gradually accepted violent intolerance within its midst, regardless of offences felt by religious extremists. Taking Turkey and aside of the challenging relations with its otherwise French ally (like in the Mediterranean), it could be said that such condemnations and boycotts had a domestic angle to them so some citizens of these countries could think less about their own leaderships and living conditions (seeing the current cost of living problems created by the sliding Turkish Lira and a lesser domestic appeal for Erdogan in large cities). Criticizing an “uncivilized” Macron whom he argued targeted Muslims and Islam for the crime of “one angry individual”, recent former Malaysian PM, 95-year old Mahathir Mohamad, went as far as arguing that, even if they would not follow an eye for an eye approach, the Muslims technically “had the right” to kill millions of French as the French had killed millions, many of them Muslims, in the course of their history, a strange and irrational comment that was widely condemned on social media the world over (the man has an established reputation for outrageous rants against Jews and the LGBT community). One would also have thought that fighting murderous extremism, religious or otherwise, and fostering mutual respect in all key societal matters should ideally be the objective of all governments even if some are less democratic than others.

The Muslim religion or any religion is not targeted in France, indeed the country of “the rights of men” (“and women”). The strong decisions by President Macron are not to stigmatise the French Muslim population or Islam in general. Their laudable objective is to fight unacceptable terrorism whatever its roots. It should be clear that the large Muslim population living in France (many of them not practising) is also made up of citizens who have nothing to do with terrorists and should feel at home in the country that is fully theirs. It is in their interest that terrorism be targeted and local spots and sources of extreme radicalism leading to terror be eradicated. Otherwise the main beneficiaries will be the extreme right parties, such as the National Rallye, which may one day gain power at the voting booth and will not be measured and discriminate in their handling of the matter if unsolved.

It is key that any individuals living in France or any country abide by the laws and regulations of that country, which will supersede any religious beliefs and teachings unless that country is indeed a theocracy, this whatever the faith involved. While France is arguably a culturally Catholic country, the Pope and his edicts do not rule the day. The laws of the French Republic, ultimately based on the will of its people, do. This key aspect should not prevent mutual respect and ensuring that non-Muslims respect the faith of a minority of its own people and act with sensitivity when addressing matters of faith, though without curtailing their own identity and values that have made their nation what it is. A modus vivendi needs to be found.

To the risk of shocking, there seems to be an unwitting and contrarian alliance of circumstances today between Western populists and Islamists, the former using the political religious extremism of the latter, and indeed their unacceptably violent ways, to foster its messages aimed at lawfully gaining power. The combination is a win-win for obscurantism and desolation. As discussed in another Interlude about the enablers of populism, un-education and social media (the latter as seen in the Paty murder) are also not helping to elevate the debate and find common grounds, this again regardless of perfectly acceptable religious beliefs at hand. While making no concession on what France is as a country, one of the ways to help gradually killing that “unholy” alliance and indeed reduce overall extremism is to improve the conditions of French Muslims and to keep integrating them better into French society as a project law in mid-December on Islam and freedom and subsequent associated measures will be aimed at.

Macron is right in saying that the whole matter surrounding the Paty murder is an existential threat to what France is, something that most countries should realise for themselves too, even if not sharing the inner laicity of the old, sovereign and tolerant Gallic country. France needs to ensure its values and laws are respected and that no more abhorrent events keep happening, a step that needs to be taken strongly and swiftly if only witnessing the copycat multiple terrorist murders in Nice so as to stop a mindless cycle of violence with terrible long-term consequences. In parallel it would be wise to adopt of a saner and more respectful approach to the civil discourse and its objectives, this without infringing upon fundamental rights and values that make us who we are.

Warmest regards,

Serge