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.