Understanding the French Enigma

7-7-20

Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to touch on a point that baffles many outside France about how the French irrationally behave in relation to their leaders throughout history but even more so today. 

We hear today that President Macron is unpopular unlike his departing prime minister Edouard Philippe, who saw his beard turning white in the midst of the Covid-19 fight and would enjoy an Himalayan popularity rating by Gallic standards of 57%. All while Jean Castex, his successor known for his technocratic competence at Matignon, home of the French premiers, is un-liked as he would be a “non-entity”, read not from the top of his class of the best schools like ENA and then the “grand corps” of the French state and thus the subject of a status-focused elitist rant from those who are but would never get the job as well as from those who hate those elite institutions in the first place but require leaders with top credentials. And at the same time, two health ministers are under investigation and some popular ire for what would be a less than stellar early management of the pandemic, in what would clearly have already sent Donald Trump to Alcatraz and Boris Johnson to the Tower of London in another age. Getting rid of politicians close to Macron in the latest municipal elections this past week, while the President has been struggling to find any rival that could replace him at the Elysée Palace in 2022, is so French, that there is a name  for it: “dégagisme” or “throwing out” which is a national pastime akin to eating croissants at the Paris cafés.  

The French are simply impossible people (I know being one of them). They are never happy, especially with those who govern them who are easy venting targets. The French like to rant, to demonstrate, to march and to scream as it is such a great feeling, especially post lockdown these days. The “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) of the recent past were also a great example of people not liking their deal (some of them with some reason) in one of the most redistributive societies in Western history as if they did not want to look abroad. The French cut off the head of Louis XVI only as they could not bear an absolute king only to pave the way for an emperor who then wrote in a few years some of the glorious and bloody pages of French history and giving so many names of boulevards and avenues in Paris. Macron was elected as the French were fed up of what was a “normal president” as he liked to call himself. Who remembers François Hollande three years later? However when Macron invited Putin at Versailles and brought back the presidential pomp, critics started to rise as if the French live for picking fights with the established order in what they see as a rightful legacy of 1789. This is all irrational which is all the more disturbing for the country of Descartes. However this is France and the way it works. And it works well in the end when you look at where the country is in absolute and relative terms. 

The situation of that “condition”, akin to a sickness at times, worsened when France lost the battle of France (it should have easily won for those who have studied it) in a matter of weeks in May 1940. The stigma of the defeat and its underlying wound, in spite of the unlikely return to the tables of winners in 1945 due to Charles de Gaulle’s sleight of hand, would never disappear and keep shaping the relationship between the French and their leadership in modern times. Macron, who could be the son of Giscard d’Estaing, a premature leader for France given its times then, in the way he positioned himself at the centre and reshaped the French political spectrum, is the first leader who can change the country in spite of and for the French and their natural and angry, at times guilt-rooted, opposition. Macron is the only leader today who has had the courage in a humane manner to reform the jobs market while he will attack in the same way the multiple 1945 pension systems that need to live with their 21st century times. Macron is the first leader in modern times at a time of German transition, that can lead France to take the mantle of reforming the EU to make it stronger, more defence-focused and closer to its populations, a project that is key at a time of uncertain American leadership and aggressive Chinese rise. And yet, while history books years from now will stress Macron’s and France’s achievements in the 2020s, (some of) the French will have been in the street as it is what they do.  

Warmest regards,

Serge    

Beware of the “trump” card

4-6-20

Dear Partners in thought,

The recent and now universally-known wrongful chokehold death or indeed murder by a police officer of African-American George Floyd is adding another element, that was always if not historically societally simmering, to the challenges facing America in its pandemic and reelection times. It is a highly sensitive subject and I beg your forgiveness not simply for addressing it but for looking at it unemotionally, which is of course very hard when dealing with such a horrible death regardless of the potential chain reaction I would like to relay.

America was in the throes of one of its worst crises, like the world at large, likely since WW2 even with the Great Depression being also often mentioned as a good comparison as to its economic and financial impact. Then came unexpectedly the murder by police of George Floyd, a black man, in the midst of the great pandemic that had been incidentally very hard on the African-American community. This murder is one of a few cases involving black men having died in “police custody” or through police interaction (or even involving former officers) in the U.S. over the last ten years and are known for the names of their victims, like Trayvon Martin or very recently Ahmaud Arbery. These are terrible events that have to be condemned and may or do reflect the weight of history, also pinning a tiny minority of white men, usually feeling left out, not wanting to deal with black men, possibly rejecting the affirmative acton drive of these few decades or simply being racist. It is also possible that the death of George Floyd was triggered by the pandemic lockdown constraints and frustrations that saw a clear rise in mental illness and domestic violence and took its toll on an already unstable police officer, likely with racist tendancies. Whatever the reasons behind the act of knee-chocking somone’s throat for nine minutes, there is no defense and the crime is unspeakable, whether Mr. Floyd was a white, black or Asian American. The fact he was black added a dimension that led to race riots, sadly associated with looting and violence (the latter at times from all sides) while the protests may at times have been hijacked by extremist groups from both far-left and far-right, as well as professional knuckleheads” with their own political and/or looting agendas.

That the Floyd murder and ensuing riots took place in the great pandemic period was reminiscent of April 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and massive riots erupted across American cities all in a context of a pandemic-like Vietnam war with its rising death toll and questionable management, if not rationale then. The similarities did not escape Donald Trump as his polls started falling due to his unusual leadership style and management of the national Covid-19 containment not to mention his approach to pandemic geopolitics tainted by the November rendezvous. Donald Trump is undoubtedly aware that Richard Nixon was also elected in November 1968 on a law and order programme that was directly linked to the racial riots of 1968, admittedly while he was also claiming that he would put an honourable end to the pandemic of the time. Having lost the opportunity to face a Bernie Sanders and not counting on a great economy (even though we will hear about the V curve for 2021), there is little doubt that he will use this card to win in November and inverse the Covid 19-induced poll trends.

There is a fair chance that the many white voters, certainly older, male and female, could opt for societal safety in November regardless of their dislike for Trump as a person and a President if the riots kept degenerating and shops burning to the ground. Faced with this Trump 2 eventuality the black community leaders should be very careful unless they would existentially thrive on shouting only, to focus on “what matters” and the big picture in the current American context. It would be strange as America has lost in excess of 100,000 lives to Covid-19, for one death however horrible, to set the easy stage for a Trump re-election and four more years of instability for America and the world, with unforeseen negative consequences for all, not to mention the African-American community.

One of the first steps for the black community leaders should be to ensure a proper security approach to protests so extremists and looters are not allowed to highjack them and give a very bad name to a rightful expression of anger. The other step should be to listen more to Barack Obama, indeed showing the presidential leadership that America misses today, and follow his focus on actual programmes that make a difference like those he lauched un 2013 to ensure police officers were better trained. The need to be both careful and productive in the rightful expression of the anger and demands of the African-American community falls within their leaders today. Otherwise the death of George Floyd would have served the wrong agenda, not to say those that believe in a bygone age and like things as they were.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Some frank thoughts on the pandemic

2-4-20

Dear Partners in thought,

We are already reading – as it should be – a lot about the pandemic and I was hesitant to add to the flood of news and thoughts on the dire matter. However, if I may and if you could indulge me, I would like to take the liberty of expressing some very frank thoughts about the pandemic we are all going through, this in full respect of those who have suffered and will suffer directly and indirectly from this very tragic event.

These thoughts, while frank in nature, do not cover all key aspects of the pandemic but only some coming to mind now. There is no doubt we could add to the sad pile. In sharing these thoughts, I will stay away (if only for one or two aspects) from those macro-developments triggered now or later in the economic sphere, the latter which has already been the theater of unprecedented and massive financial assistance packages from most leading governments in the world.

The virus did not come from nowhere and its roots require fixing. We hear that it is a “natural” development and it happened through the virus passing from animals to humans. Fine but this passing process happened due to “unsafe practices” in wild animal markets in Wuhan, China. The point here is not to blame China and call Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” as did President Trump for his own reasons, but to make sure that the Beijing authorities drastically change these unsafe practices in their wild animal markets so we avoid a repeat.

Good Chinese behavior now should not excuse lack of timely response earlier. The Beijing and Wuhan authorities knew of the virus outbreak in December and did nothing, likely out of worries about local and national responsibilities or blame, thus delaying early responses that might have prevented the pandemic we know today. The fact that China helps countries in need is very good, but showing their superior skillset astutely compared with substandard American crisis management should not make us forget that geopolitics never catches viruses.

Crises of that nature may show that the emperor has few clothes. The White House reaction throughout the crisis was staggeringly inept, with Trump going from denial to gradual crisis recognition and now dire death toll prospects all the while finger pointing and offering false hopes of crisis resolution in terms of means or timing. To be fair, the very set-up of America with its 50 states and mutually arduous relation with their federal government could never produce time-efficient and practical nation-wide solutions to crises like the pandemic. America simply cannot manage the pandemic like the Czech Republic or Taiwan.

Rallying around the flag is a default mechanism in times of crises. While both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have been less than stellar in the way they slowly reacted to the crisis and prepared their countries to manage it, their popularity ratings have risen. The same happened to most leaders across the world (not sure about Brazil or Mexico as apparently there is no pandemic in the minds of their leaders). While this is surprising – especially in the blatant American case – this reaction is normal as people do not focus on facts and want comfort and solace from whomever leads them formally. However, it is likely that such over-reactions will not translate well in an electoral context, like in November in the U.S., if the crisis has passed by then and the economy has markedly declined.

Many people are often stupid, at times greedy or even prisoners of cultural habits, worsening the onslaught. While we can understand why traditional family gatherings and masses in Northern Italian villages went on initially as people did not seize the extent of the threat, then why did these mass evangelical gatherings take place like in Florida over the weekend? What about righteous Liberty University and its come-back to campus approach? What about letting Mardi Gras go on in New Orleans? What about Madrid being fine with the International Women’s Day march of hundreds of thousands on…8th March? All these events have worsened the rate of local infections with additional secondary effects. What did they think? Why did they think a God or more people in restaurants and cafés could help them, assuming they were not in total denial? It is also hard to think that the now lonely Swedish bet on its population being asocial and well behaved is a sound one.

Big Tech may again win in the end. As the “office” concept may be reconsidered as we go through the pandemic and many will work from home, remote working or home-working may become the way of the future for many. This new era will be facilitated by Big Tech which will provide the tools for people to go through this redefinition of what work may mean. Better be prepared to upgrade your skills as Skype, Zoom or Huddle will soon be obsolete!

What do we do with those small jobs that may not come back? Many companies have gone under and will keep going under triggering mass unemployment among low-paid workers as already seen by U.S. job market figures. Many of these jobs will not come back any time soon and will create social upheaval in terms of livelihood as well as simply paying the rent. The concept of Universal Basic Income, be it temporary or not, that was heralded by people as different as Jeff Bezos, Andrew Yang or Rutger Bregman may be the only solution going forward that governments will institute out of sheer necessity while forgetting whether they like its philosophical foundations.

Do not make globalization the culprit. Globalization that gives trendy Nike sneakers or dazzling Apple phones to many may indeed retreat but not forever and completely. Travel and its airlines, the latter which had to be a pandemic vector and will suffer (not from that sin), will keep bringing people all over the world for business and pleasure. The world, even if it changes in some aspects post-pandemic, will not go to where it was one hundred years from now. Solutions will be found and globalization will adjust as will we. Globalization as it adjusts and learns lessons from this pandemic will be ready for the challenges of the future, this likely through an increased focus on multilateralism, reflecting a multipolar world that will keep moving forward as we will want it to do so.

Beware the creeping dictator supposedly acting for your own good. The extraordinary measures that are taken to fight the pandemic have to be temporary and with a good parliamentary-like oversight. Civil liberties are at stake and some governments, however democratic in name only would be too happy to seize the opportunity for a permanent or, supposedly on health grounds, long-lasting state of emergency. Such an approach would give rise to another pandemic, this time of a political nature.

In the end, three things seem to matter in winning the war against this pandemic:

  1. Adopting tough temporary lockdown and physical distancing measures at country level.
  2. Cooperating among nation-states against a borderless evil.
  3. Behaving individually with common sense and not falling for any easy superstition.

Stay safe and well, do not watch CNN (or Fox News, mind you!) all day, read and watch more great movies at home and do not forget to Pence-elbow ☺.

To borrow from a great man: “We shall overcome”.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Coronavirus in the age of Trump or a case study in stable genius crisis mismanagement

13-3-20

Dear Partners in thought,

We are all living through an unexpected and rare pandemic which has required challenging decisions taken by many if not all countries, starting with China and then Italy but now involving the globe. Some countries have declared regional or national quarantines, others closed down schools and universities. Many countries like in the Czech Republic, where I live, have closed borders for now 30 days to incoming visitors while their schools, cinemas and shops are closed or can only accommodate no more than 30 people while cafés and restaurants also have to close after 8 pm. These measures are not nice but are probably the only ones to stop the spread of the virus together with following common sensical hygiene like washing one’s hands.

Without dwelling on the particulars of the Coronavirus and whether it is only a super-flu and whom it affects most, it is fair to say that the measures taken are the best to stop the spread of the virus. Most if not all these decisions, which are hurting the economy and social lives, are not taken with a political agenda in mind. Well unless in the U.S. where President Trump, having initially played down the threat and clearly distanced himself from medical experts (too elite no doubt), has given us a series of reminders as to the excellence of his leadership and sanity not to mention the competence of his advisers who should have done their jobs better and contain the natural presidential impulse to try taking political advantage of any situation including pandemics. However, this time Trump showed even more clearly his lack of fit for the top American job not to mention that of world leader, stressing all his inadequacies, so much so that even Republicans and the markets seemed to worry for once.

The European travel ban was the cherry on the Trumpian cake. As the FT’s Edward Luce rightly wrote “On Wednesday night the global pandemic met US nationalism”. After criminalizing Europeans for having unleashed the virus (I did not know Wuhan was in Europe) Trump decided to impose the ban to “Schengen” EU countries from having its nationals travelling to America. The Schengen zone that allows free circulation and travel includes most of the EU member states today. In declaring the ban, Trump excluded Britain and Ireland as well as Malta, Bulgaria and Romania which was odd as I really thought there had been virus cases in Britain already (more than in the U.S. in relative terms). Then this travel ban did not apply to U.S. citizens or Green Card holders as if that kind of status prevented individuals from virus infection. While Trump pointed the finger at Europeans and the EU, the latter that he clearly sees as the enemy, he did so and imposed the ban without consulting EU leaders, this on the basis that “I didn’t want to take time” as “it takes time to make individual calls” and “when they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us”. Putting aside the amateurish approach and basis for the travel ban which is in line with many of Trump’s initiatives even though this one topped the lot, it is now clear that the stock market, and the Dow Jones Index, did not enjoy the move sending shares to their lowest levels in years and entering the dreaded bear market territory which is only a prelude to economic decline, something Trump strangely had not expected and does not need in November. Putting aside the criminalization and inequity of the move, not to mention the impact on the world economy which requires a very sensitive approach (America is not the Czech Republic), it might have been sounder to first focus on mitigation efforts at home with thousands of likely cases already there. It would be better for Trump and his administration to focus on testing with only 6,000 tests done to date out of a population of 327 million. And stay away from the inefficient and useless finger pointing, domestic base-aimed, rhetoric.

It is clear that many if not all of Trump’s statements are made with November in mind and strengthening his core electoral base. While Trump’s base will always rejoice at his simple attacks to solve complex issues, they are simply not numerous enough to reelect him in November if the markets keep tanking and the economy falters, this for all to see. Every serious U.S. media, including the Republican-leaning Wall Street Journal, have been baffled by Trump’s latest decisions to handle the Coronavirus outbreak. His response is now judged as inept across the board to the point that former White House Republican speechwriters have dared saying that it would be better if he shut up and especially stop referring to the outbreak as a “foreign virus”. For the first time, critics from across the aisles, pointed to factual errors in Trump’s latest address to the nation, underlining the poor quality of his circle of advisers (not news I would say) who produced a speech that was apparently vetted by senior staff and agencies. This development causes concerns as to who is at the driving wheel in DC, even beyond the usual worries about Trump as a President. One could be forgiven for wondering more than ever if the American executive is not looking like an imperfect version of the extended Corleone family. In a more serious note, the Wall Street Journal rightly stressed as an omen coming from friends that “disasters and crises can make or break presidencies – not from the event itself but from how the public judges a President’s response”.

One could be forgiven for wondering if Trump in a twisted case that psychoanalysts should devote some time on is not systematically driven to decisions that will meet strong opposition as if the latter helped him existentially. Food for thought. In an almost amusing twist of fate, we have now learned that both Trump and Pence have met at the White House with an infected Brazilian official…Not being Trump I sincerely wish him the best in any adverse development that could ensue. On a more serious note and as expected, Joe Biden’s approach to the crisis shows all of us why, in spite of some of his weaker features, that it is ample time for America and the world to restore “decency” – a word we almost forgot for more than three years and that should be a key electoral driver – in that House that is on the shining city on the hill.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Why Joe is the only choice for America and for the world

5-3-20

Dear Partners in thought,

You know I always thought Joe Biden was the only choice to go and beat Donald Trump in November, this against many pundits. I even wrote back last June that it ought to be a Biden-Harris ticket.

Sometimes good fortune strikes and Super Tuesday gave the once perceived tired candidate, who did not seem to come through, a resounding victory. This did not come out of nowhere. He had what it took and the center finally woke up realizing that these primary processes may please extremes, but are bound to fail in terms of the end game. America, if anything, is highly practical and also cares about values.

Now that the primary contest is down to two candidates, it is very likely that Joe will prevail. It should not be a surprise. And yes he will likely select Kamala Harris, an amazing woman with the right credentials who will create a balanced ticket in terms of geography, gender, age and style.

However what matters – and his key strength – is indeed decency. With Joe, we get back the values that have made America and that we all grew up with. America should be a fairer society, led by a man who cares for the working man and woman. The world will be a safer place, without the unnecessary fights with powers that will be, dealt the old style way with the same and more efficient resolve.

Go America. Go Joe.

Warmest regards,

Serge

When democratic processes may destroy the essence of democracy

26-2-20

Dear Partners in thought,

Looking back at the two major break points in recent history, which were Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, also points to electoral systemic issues that helped these outcomes. In both cases, these were linked to electoral processes that were perfectly legal and enshrined though markedly less than suitable in the way they led to the final outcome of these historical turns. We are actually witnessing a third development that, if not a denial of democracy, carries some serious problems like with the current Democratic Party’s presidential primary process.  

In the case of Brexit and while “the will of the people had been heard in June 2016 (as we rightly heard from Brexiters), the final outcome was only made possible after three and half years of a divisive process. Brexit finally happened strangely through a general election, this mainly as a result of an enshrined inept and unsuitable technical “first pass the post“ one single round process favouring a de facto abysmal two party system choice that for tactical reasons mainly benefitted the pro-Brexit Tories. Adding insult to injury, this general election that was set up to find an outcome for Brexit took place in lieu of a second referendum where the focus would have been clearer. Putting aside that opinion polls for two years had shown a majority at 52-54% for Remain, it is a fact that 53% of the voters in the December 2019 general election voted for parties that were in favour of a second referendum but the unsuitable and arcane electoral system on offer nullified their wishes. Based on all those facts why did Britain, however tired, let itself be convinced that such a convoluted and unfair decision process was suitable to decide finally on its future in Europe? Where is the debate on this key question? Nowhere.

In the case of the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, he was amazingly elected with a popular vote of less than three million votes thanks to the way state delegates are allocated, this by narrowly winning less populated, rural states though getting in many cases all of their delegates. This relatively over-weighted representation of some “lower profile“ states originates from a system that was enshrined by the principles behind the thinking of the Founding Fathers who wanted then to build a nation and were aiming at what they strongly perceived as fairness among diverse states. It is likely that Donald Trump will not win the popular vote in 2020, this with an even wider gap than in 2016, all the more with the mobilisation of the bi-costal states like New York and California. However this massive bi-coastal influx of votes for the Democratic candidate will not change the 2016 picture those states will give in terms of impact via delegates. In the end and quite aside from the identity of his Democratic opponent, Donald Trump may be reelected by winning, even by small margins the rural and “lower profile“ states that already gave him the White House in 2016 and get most if not all of their delegates. By how many millions of popular votes less than his or her opponent can a presidential candidate seize the White House, making a joke of the “one man one vote“ principle, hiding behind out-dated historical reasons? Today nobody in America, even among well-balanced individuals, dares speaking about this denial of democracy given the enshrined roots of the electoral system.

In both cases of the British referendum and the last U.S. Presidential election the “majority“ lost or could not express itself fairly this due to technicalities and sheer politics. And yet no real debate has taken place as some matters are too sacred or sensitive to even be discussed. There is a need for the spirit of democracy to supersede its tools when those become unsuitable or obsolete, also as a way to save democracy from itself.

Similarly, the primary system of selecting a candidate for the presidential contest that allows “only party members”, many of whom have “strong” and not moderate views, to vote enables a radicalization process that favors the selection of a nominee who while being fairly selected, may not represent the average voter of the party concerned and stands a high likelihood of losing the eventual presidential election. A case in point is the current Democratic primary process where a motivated radical base is driving Bernie Sanders to eventually become the nominee, while standing little chance of winning the presidential race even against an incumbent like Donald Trump, this with far reaching consequences for America and the world. It is clear that the current primary outcome is helped by the highly differentiated style of Mike Bloomberg and his fragmentation of the moderate vote, this regardless of the many qualities the three times Mayor of New York may have. It is also clear that the choice of candidates, none of whom seem to have attracted primary voters like an Obama did in 2008, is also the cause of the potential disaster to come.    So while this third case may be less blatant a problem and likely not a denial of democratic essence there might be some merits for U.S. political parties to review how they select their presidential nominees. Food for thought.

Warmest regards, Serge

On the need to understand the “rationale” for the impeachment process

Dear Partners in thought,

As we are in the midst of the Trump impeachment process and what looks like a comedy combined with a partisan fight, it is important to see through the sound and the fury and try to understand its rationale, the latter word which is almost a trespasser in the current American climate. 

Many high level witnesses who have played a role in the “Ukrainian story” behind which was launched the impeachment process (I will not restate it so well-known it is) have clearly and unequivocally stressed that there was indeed a “Quid Pro Quo”. The general view that the request to obtain information from a foreign ally on domestic political opponents in the context of a looming presidential election was made against military and financial aid is clear and not even any longer much disputed by the President himself. A few key additional witnesses such as former National Security Adviser John Bolton could confirm the point further and new evidence could also be heard at the trial if made available by the Senators (something 69% of Americans in a recent poll would want, so cross-party voter affiliation). The point of contention is more about the criminal aspect of the “Quid Pro Quo” which would lead to an impeachment (putting aside politics and which party controls the Senate) even if constitutional legal scholars (including the law professor arguing for the Republicans at the House) were clear in stressing that impeachment could be triggered even if no crime per say was committed. Putting fine constitutional legal matters and partisan politics aside, the common sense question should be whether a sitting President should withhold aid to an ally until he gets the information he would need for his reelection. Even if Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” (of which I have a first edition) would not concur, the answer is probably not.

It is clear that the impeachment process has been politically partisan since the beginning. It is clear that the Democrats or some of them among the radical wing of the party have wanted to impeach President Trump since he was in office and more so after the Mueller Report (some of us now forget) came to the fore. It is also clear that the Republicans in both houses have given little thought to the actual matter at hand, not seeing any problem with the “trifle” accusation and wanting to defend the President come what may. It is also clear that the outcome of the trial in the Senate was always  a forgone conclusion, making some wonder why there was any need for the Democrats to bother with such an acrimonious process, all the more near and in a reelection year,  the latter which should provide for a national forum to take a definite view on the President. However and putting omnipresent politics and motivations aside, the common sense question should be whether an impeachment process, however partisan in nature,  should simply be forgone due to its likely outcome while the behaviour of a sitting President has (once more) broken the tradition of the American presidency and put his country’s national security and the world stability at risk? The answer is certainly not.

The impeachment process of President Trump is not about partisanship even if it will be partisan by nature, it is about upholding now and for generations to come the core values that made America, this being said by someone who would have been a Rockefeller Republican had he been born in the once land of the free. 

Warmest regards,

Serge

What after striking Soleimani or carefully weighing the risk of creating chain reactions

6-1-20

Dear Partners in thought, 

I would like to wish all of you and yours a glorious New Year 2020 full of great achievements and of course a health of iron.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for your readership and support understandably if not for all I write certainly the possibility to share thoughts with you and defend the Western liberal values that made whom we are.

Without wanting to using poor words the New Year started with a big bang though not one we would have expected in this period of revelling. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces for twenty years, lead engineer of Iranian expansion in the Middle East and de facto number two of the theocratic regime was eliminated by a surgical drone strike near Baghdad airport on 3rd January. According to Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, this strike took place to prevent imminent strikes in the Middle East that could have cost “hundreds” if not “thousands” of American lives over the near term. 

The decision to eliminate General Soleimani was taken as former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama chose not to do so given the high risk of a chain reaction with events that would rapidly be out of control and could lead to a disastrous upheaval in the Middle East and beyond. While it is clear that some decisions have to be taken regardless of the high risks associated with their potential consequences, it is important to take them at the right time, for the right reasons and understanding, in order to manage them, the dynamics of chain reactions.

It is a fact that few in the West and many other parts of the world would miss General Soleimani who, as the mastermind behind Iran’s muscular regional foreign policy, was behind the losses of many American but also Iraqi lives while saving the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. However it is not yet clear that the stated Iranian attacks were imminent and justified a drone strike when it took place. It is a reflection of the personality of President Trump that it is hard not to be skeptical about his motivations to strike right in the middle of an impeachment process and the context of a presidential election so as to create elements of diversions and an environment when America needs to be eventually “together” if next steps go awry . It is also also hard not to find a degree of recklessness in a strike of that nature, however its supposed preemptive nature, targeting the number two of an already hostile and aggressive power, thus actually making more American lives and others at risk.  

At this point Iran has made it clear that they will retaliate as they have to, seeing the strike as an act of war, which was to be expected. President Trump replied that 52 Iranian sites were earmarked for attack in case an Iranian reprisal, this oddly including cultural sites (while spontaneous and local responses, a U.S. military base was already attacked in Kenya by Al-Shabaab terrorists and a couple of rockets have landed into Baghdad’s Green Zone). A few thousands American troops are now shipped back to the Middle East at a time when the Trump administration’s long-stated goal was to decisively (and riskily for many) disengage America from the region as seen with recent Syrian developments and the last tragic Kurdish episode. One of the initial reactions to the strike in Iran was to largely mobilise a mourning and wounded nation (even if also orchestrated to some degree), many of whom were actually demonstrating in the streets against the mollahs’ regime a few weeks before. If anything the strike has given another life to the Teheran’s regime, which probably did not believe its good fortune, allowing to deflect popular discontent about the sad state of the economy, not to mention basic freedom rights. In another positive development for Teheran, the Shia-majority and Teheran-friendly Iraq has quickly reacted through his Prime Minister in asking its parliament to vote on requiring U.S. forces to leave Iraq, long a priority strategic goal of Iran in the region. And in a bad turn for the whole world, Iran now decided to roll back on the 2015 nuclear deal, something the Europeans and others were trying hard to preserve. The strategic gains of the Soleimani strike do not look very clear for America or the stability of the region and that of the world.      

To be sure, Iran has been a destabilising factor across the Middle East as seen in Yemen but also in its dealings with regional nemesis Saudi Arabia, though has also worsened its approach following the American withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal while getting more involved, together with Russia, in ensuring that Bashar al-Assad regime perdured in Damas. There is little doubt that Iran’s foreign policy and its overtly aggressive approach to Middle eastern affairs led largely by General Soleimani’s Quds Forces have been against the interests of creating a more stable world especially one closer to Western liberal values. Very few in the Western capitals will moan the demise of General Soleimani. However the action such as the one taken on 3rd January needs to have been taken at the right time, for the right reasons and understanding its consequences given the whole play at stake.

While it is too late to avoid an Iranian retaliation, it is still time to try avoiding a worse chain reaction or limiting its damages. It is thus key to go deeper into why such an initial strike decision was taken given its likely consequences. As a first step, the Trump administration, while explaining its strategic rationale in relation to Teheran, also needs to offer Congress and the world – as none of us will be bystanders in what could take a much worse turn – the irrefutable evidence that a strike against this target was all but inevitable in order to prevent a far more destructive outcome. Based on past experience gained over the last three years, such a development is very unlikely but judgement should be reserved.

Warmest regards,

Serge

What the historians may write about this 12th December General Election and its Brexit subtext years from now

13-12-19

Dear Partners in thought,

When writing about the 12th December election years from now, historians may tell future generations a few things that are worth saying even today.

This election was to be about Brexit even though the matter was surprisingly little mentioned besides catchy slogans and involved two political parties with equally abysmal leaderships that no moderate voter, still representing a majority of Britons, could support so extreme the two parties had become. As if “entryism” had become a national political sport.

The Tory leadership wanted to win so Brexit could “get done” while the Labour leadership by refusing to back a clear Remain position and offering a radical “manifesto” guaranteed its loss and automatically ensured Britain left.

One leader, Boris Johnson focused on winning but had no program to govern. The other Jeremy Corbyn, had a program to govern (few wanted) and did all he could not to win, which should also seal his fate, not that many would mind, especially in the Remain camp, for he he had been the true Brexit-enabler. 

To be fair, while many moderate conservatives switched to the Liberal Democrats with little success given the “first pass the post” system eternally favouring the two main parties, Boris Johnson, a great campaigner, successfully convinced otherwise solid Labour voters in the impoverished Leave constituencies of the North of England and the Midlands to back him so Brexit could indeed “get done”, which explains his strong majority and will be a headache in future governing given the steep disparity with his traditionally Tory base. I am not sure these Labour voters will be happy either by the Brexot outcome or what they will end up receiving from this “One Nation” Tory government.  

A likely majority of Britons were Remainers, this for more than two years, but party affiliation and the greater repelling factor of the opposition party leader still prevailed, all facilitated by the “first pass the post” electoral process that already favoured the now “dreadful twos” in the first place. 

In the end, the British voted to prevent a radical and questionable Corbyn to enter Number Ten even at the cost for many Remain voters of seeing Britain leaving the EU. That the future of Britain in Europe was decided by such a low quality and devious electoral offering will be sadly remembered in British history.    

The Liberal Democrats who were the key to trying to stop Brexit acted strangely autistically by backing “revoke Article 50” in spite of the fair option of a second referendum that was even put forward by the lukewarm Corbyn. Their fate was sealed. 

The road to the a second referendum, this one on Scotland as part of Union, was now open, with an expected outcome at this point given where they stood on Brexit.  

So Brexit “got done” (how, we still don’t know) mainly as the British electorate grew tired, to be fair, also of the dire process and preferred to put it behind them even at the cost of leaving, hence the apt Tory campaign slogan choice. In the end a strange election took place where voters went for the least hatable leader to decide the future of Britain in Europe while they were not even asked to confirm if their views of June 2016 were still the same three and half years and more facts at hand later. Even more sadly, the 18-29 age group (not to mention those we were 15, 16 and 17 then and would now be electors) that had a participation rate of 26% in June 2016 – definitely their mistake – would not be able to redeem themselves and vote for the future they of all people would fully live through. 

Delusion is still running high in the rejoicing Leave camp following this electoral outcome, some dreaming about the return of the Victorian era or the advent of a national “Singapore-on-Thames” and others simply about jobs in “left out” areas of Britain. In the end none will likely come but the tears associated with the realisation of what is “notional” sovereignty, the steep decline in foreign investment, less plumbers as the Poles are now going back to a thriving Poland, and the continued deindustrialisation desolation of the Midlands and Northern England. The Special Relationship has already taken a beating lastly with the US forcing Turkey to not buy British military aircraft, this one day before the General Election. Listening to Donald Trump congratulating Boris Johnson, one could only worry about the hidden assymetry when he added that he looked forward to a great trade deal “that they so desperately want” I could go on with such developments but, if I may say, will keep this for a book of “alternative future history fiction” (for a lack of better words) – not focused on Britain but spanning the world – that I am finalising and hopefully should be published in early 2020. 

While as a true Anglophile I “feel” for all my Remainer friends (probably on the true majority side of things if not for their political party system) and really only wish for Europe and Britain to work together as well as they can even as no longer fellow club members, one should honestly wonder, even within the Leave camp, whether that terrible question that never needed to be asked and ensuing process that benefited only an awful political class and a dubious cast of characters, was really necessary…The sober answer being no unless the goal was to be poorer and alone. 

The only question now is: When will Britain apply to rejoin the EU, this time without the nice rebate?  

Warmest regards,

Serge 

Hong Kong and the Western conundrum

20-11-19

Dear Partners in thought,

The unrest in Hong Kong (HK) started about a proposed law pushed by HK’s Chief executive, Carrie Lam, to extradite criminals to the mainland. Incidentally Carrie Lam, may be remembered, as David Cameron always will be for Brexit, for a proposal that was not really needed and created havoc. Like with the Yellow Vests in France and while that proposed law was shelved, unrest continued to focus on more fundamental issues centred around freedom and the very future of HK. Demonstrations became increasingly violent, like now at HK Polytechnic University, as months went by, opposing two sides that could no longer relate to each other.

Premier Xi Jinping likely looks at the HK situation with incredulity so much he has been focused on restoring power and dignity to his country as if it had been held under servitude since the Boxers’ revolt of 1900 (the restoration of national pride is in effect very similar to what has happened in Russia under Putin). To Xi, HK is a spanner thrown in all his good works and a very untimely one too. It is clear that the hopes that HK would have a gradual liberal impact on the mainland ahead of the 2047 full integration is as justified as the belief that economic liberalism would bring personal freedom to the mainland Chinese. If anything it shows that the seven years of Xi have been a focus on world power rise and national economic improvement combined with an increased dose of unsurprising authoritarianism in line with the early credos of Mao’s Little Red Book.

It is clear that Xi and his team are lost and do not know how to manage the HK crisis as the Chinese leadership was never faced with such a massive series of events if we exclude Tiananmen Square in 1989 at a time when news travelled less fast and fluidly. They believe in “One China” and do not know to deal with the singular Hong Kong leadership whom they find inefficient while not being sure how to quell the riots, mostly in terms of image impact globally and the likely cost to the Belt and Road Initiative. China reiterated that it would use military force if it needed to so as to assist local police forces and restore order in HK, a division of the PLA being already on site and using the old Gurkhas’s barracks.    

We got used to the demonstrations and the tear gas as a daily dose of news on the major media outlets but see not much reaction from the West, especially its leading governments beyond the mild protests from some, the UK in the lead for obvious historical  reasons. The European Commission stressed that the response to the protest had to be “strictly proportionate” and that violence was “unacceptable” all with good intent and little weight (again stressing the power void of EU foreign policy beyond trade and why Macron is right in wanting to change it). As for the US, it has kept relatively silent on the whole matter, being busy trying hard to disentangle itself from an ill-fated trade war with potential electoral consequences. 

The West experiences a very strong conundrum. Human rights and freedoms of all sorts, that are part and parcel (in theory at times) of our Western existence are not a daily feature of Chinese life, including now in once differentiated HK that gets daily reminders that it is de facto part of the Popular Republic of China. The West does not know yet how to express views on what is happening in what it also sees as a sovereign country entitled to manage its own affairs without interference, which is another respected Western tenet called sovereignty. 

Values face realpolitik for the West with HK today. The problem obviously is that Hong Kong is not ruled ultimately by a non-relevant country in world affairs but by a rising world power if not already by many standards the leading world power. There is a pervasive and unsaid Dantzig feeling (like in the “not wanting to die for Dantzig” of 80 years ago)  about the HK events as many in the West would not want to upset a key trading partner (already destabilised by trade wars with America) not least going to war so Hong Kongers could feel more free. We see every day a descent into more serious and ultimately lethal confrontations between the HK police and demonstrators with no end in sight as Beijing will never soften its approach to ruling its people, all the more in HK whose value to the mainland is far less than it used to be in today’s economic context and given its ability borne out of sheer power not to bother with how the West would perceive its ruling ways. 

While Xi is unlikely to display “humility, open-mindedness and tolerance” in thriving to find a peaceful and well-balanced resolution to the HK “conflict”, the West should press more forcefully Beijing, though in a cooperative manner, focusing on mutual interests, on finding ways to find a way forward to go back to a peaceful environment. Hong Kongers should also realise that their protests have indirectly endangered the high status enjoyed by HK as a business and financial center the world over, with one of the most desirable environments to do business, itself a factor of prosperity and a barrier to authoritarianism from the mainland. There is a point when protests will create chaos that will only bring in the PLA and condemn HK to economic oblivion, with possibly an earlier and more challenging full integration into the mainland.

We cannot – the West – go and fight with China on a matter that may be close to our values but which is also deeply “Chinese”. It is not as if China invaded Japan or indeed Taiwan (which they would if the latter declared independence). We need to soberly engage with China (as we need to engage with Russia) making them make progress on fronts we deem important, including HK, but we need to be realistic and cautious in doing so as we first and foremost need them to be a key part of the community of leading nations. 

Warmest regards, 

Serge