Questions on democracy
Oftentimes, in my successive Perspectives for Ramses, I have called attention to the problem raised by the heterogeneity of an international (or national) system, even when nearly in equilibrium, and the necessity for its components, if it is to be prevented from breaking down into hostile blocs, to come to an agreement on the rules of the game, with the proviso that each of the active units involved (in particular political) abides by them . While such rules are obviously not set out for eternity, the structural stability of the system requires that they be changeable only within the framework of jointly-agreed procedures. These principles form the foundation of international law, the effectivity of which is subject to its being globally viewed as legitimate by the respective populations.
The heterogeneity in question hereafter is that of political regimes. It proceeds from the above that no State, even one as powerful as the United States of America, has the right to unilaterally decide to overthrow the regime of another. Unfortunately, this principle has been violated many a time since the fall of the Soviet Union, by the members of the Atlantic Alliance themselves, and it is clear that Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, inspired by the Israeli right-wing and the American evangelists, stems from the ideology regime change.
Similarly, in 2004 and once again in 2014, countless well-meaning Western proponents of democracy wanted to promote the advent of “democracy” in Ukraine from outside by speculating on a domino effect in Russia. This, despite the fiasco of George W. Bush’s “Greater Middle East” ideology. The response was Russia’s intervention in Donbass, and the deftly pulled-off annexation of Crimea. Since this time, however, the authoritarian regimes have become even more so – in China, in Russia and in Turkey, for instance – and “liberal democracies” have been losing ground to “illiberal democracies”. “Populism” is developing in the Western world, itself not immune to other surges of sovereignism.
Some Asian intellectuals, such as the Singaporean Kishore Mahbubani, are noisily rejoicing over the superiority of “Asian values” and denouncing the decadence of an Atlantic civilisation, the ideological bearings of which are being smashed to bits.
Both in walk and talk, United States’ 45th President scorns “Western values” daily, without stirring any overly distraught reactions from the American population or even its institutions. Because he appreciates strong personalities like his own, he makes a show of his sympathy for leaders inspired by ideas sometimes far removed from what now goes by the name of “liberal democracy”. In Europe, he is overtly partial to the Poland of Jaroslaw Kaczynski rather than the Germany of Angela Merkel.
In the above lines, I have made use of quotation marks to denote a terminological wavering characteristic of current discussion on major international or even national issues. This indistinctness tells of an international system that is currently out of balance in a very fundamental sense, many of the active units that form it being themselves out of balance, and unable as yet to adapt to the shocks of poorly controlled globalisation.
To start with, the terms liberal or illiberal democracy need to be clarified. In Western tradition, democracy assumes, in law as in practice, a separation of powers (legislative, executive and judicial) and regular elections allowing an effective change in leadership. The term liberal expresses absolute primacy of the individual (natural person) over the group, whatever it may be. A democracy that does not comply with this ideology can be described as illiberal. In such a context, freedom of expression or association, for example, is limited by law. Naturally, reality never being more than a deteriorated version of the Idea – to speak in Plato’s terms – a real democracy, liberal or otherwise, is always imperfect when compared to its model. However, even subject to this reservation, it is clear that within today’s Europe, for example, there is a fundamental distinction to be made between Hungary and Poland. The former is not liberal in its formation, but democratic. The problem with the second is that it challenges the principle of separation of powers, while purporting to remain in the European Union (EU) and benefit from its advantages, such as access to European structural funds. These countries – and others along with them – play on the sovereignist chord to justify their right to be different. The sensitivity shown to such assertions can be ascribed to the trials experienced in the 20th century. In East Asia, the City-State of Singapore fully shoulders its status as an “illiberal democracy”, and would probably not survive importing the Western model of liberal democracy. This will incidentally be the central challenge in its relationship with China in the years and decades to come.
The question can be raised in all earnestness as to whether, in Europe, the liberal model would be able to survive the rise of communitarianism in all its forms, a rise that has continued to gain speed (in France, for instance, since the 1970s), and now magnitude, with the waves of immigration from the Middle East and Africa. This is where populism comes into the fray: the term is imprecise, but refers primarily to a rejection of the ruling classes, blamed not without reason for having failed to anticipate today’s problems, and all the more to resolve them. It is but a matter of time before anger and outraged accusations (calling the ruling classes “all rotten to the core”) follow, and in some cases, even challenges to democracy itself. Those leaders who have failed to deliver on their commitments can hardly condemn the voters whom they have disappointed. As to the intellectuals, they do not count as events unfold and when History is made, unless their words exalt the sentiments of the throbbing masses. The Czechoslovak Vaclav Havel or the Bulgarian Zhelyu Zhelev were Heads of State only by accident, as was de facto President of France Alphonse de Lamartine, who ruled for a few weeks in Spring 1848.
Beyond the failures of politicians as individuals, it is the effectiveness of the political regimes in which they have carved their action (or inaction!) that is being challenged today, whether – from the point of view of Europe – the rise of inequalities and unemployment, or, especially at present, the question of immigration. From the weakening of Chancellor Angela Merkel to the rise of the party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, and on to the victory of an extreme right-wing coalition in Italy, the same fundamental trigger is at work: poorly managed immigration. And there is nothing surprising in the fact that the people should show the same reprehension for the EU.
Though it may not be to the liking of ideologists in search of the ideal political regime, or those who wallow in such rhetoric as “democracy is the worst of all regimes except for all the others”, there always exists a connection between the legitimacy and effectiveness of a given political regime. I am referring here not to efficiency as defined by economists, though, for any active unit, it cannot go ignored. Overall, effectiveness is always judged within the prism of a culture, and cultures differ profoundly from one another, if only in the way they conceive of time and space. Take for instance Africa, or Russia and even more so China. Divided political units, the regimes of which are felt to be illegitimate by large swathes of the population, have a difficult time being effective, because they do not share the same criteria. Only culturally homogeneous political units, in principle, easily, can achieve this. Divisions can be overcome only when there is a common will to build together and to abide by a set of rules, as stated above. The ineffectiveness of a political regime always ends up eroding its legitimacy, as the fate of “popular democracies” illustrates in contemporary history. It can be said that the two criteria – legitimacy and effectiveness – meet over time.
The major powers and the legitimacy/effectiveness tandem
Let us now look, from this angle, at the two major world powers at the start of the 21st century. The United States’ tremendous achievement lies in having produced a Constitution which, despite all the unexpected turns which History may take, has to this day remained just as legitimate in the eyes of the vast majority of Americans, and embodies their identity. The Constitution is in every way congruent with a culture that has remained very much the same as that of the Founding Fathers: success by merit, the melting pot, etc. In particular, it remains aligned with an ideal of economic efficiency, despite the inequalities that result from this. The key question is how long this culture will continue to show those defining traits.
As for China, how can one question the legitimacy and effectiveness of a regime that, since the fall of the “Gang of Four” forty years ago, has achieved such an incredible tour de force in economic and social transformation, lifting the country to the second rank in the world? The Chinese regime is not democratic in that its electoral processes are highly regulated, and the separation of powers dubious. It is a kind of aristocracy of merit based on technical and political competence, nurtured within the Communist Party, which continues to proudly go by that name: technical competence with respect to the issues at hand, and political competence in the know-how it shows. In this regard, it is important to bear in mind that China has over twenty-five centuries of history behind it and as much experience in the exercise of power over an immense territory and population. Western ideologists who see the rare dissidents as the vanguard of the Chinese people are sorely mistaken.
Consequently, the United States and China are well equipped, as regards their respective governances, to go head to head in the race for primacy. The same cannot be said of most other States on the planet, first and foremost of the EU, which are suffering not so much from a “democratic deficit” as is being repeated to no end, as from a deficit in effectiveness, and thus in legitimacy.
After two world conflicts, the countries of Western Europe have turned away from the tragic theatre of History. They have chosen to make their horizon of the illusory reign of bourgeois comforts and protection from life’s twists and turns, as guaranteed by the State. The expression Welfare State, which has been poorly translated into French as the Etat-Providence, speaks volumes. It is a conception diametrically opposite to the American ideal neatly summed up by John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” For the fact that the individual is the culminating value in America’s democracy in no way comes into contradiction with the given that Americans must serve their nation. It is in this manner that, across the Atlantic, the dialectic between individual and the group is harmoniously resolved. In an increasingly bourgeois Western Europe, we expect the State to serve individuals without reciprocity, we speak of rights and not of responsibilities, forgetting that a nation is not solely the addition of all its citizens at a given point in time, but that it includes the dead and those who are yet to be born. It is to this that General de Gaulle referred when he carefully distinguished “eternal” France from the French people of the moment.
As to security and defence, from the foreign perspective, and with the exception, to a certain extent, of Great Britain and France, we have fallen into the sweet slumber of pacifism, leaving the United States to respond in the event of adversity. Yet, if we take a long-term view, the 44 years between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall are but a brief interlude in which Western Europe has, in a sense, adopted the policy of burying its head in the sand. The interlude has been long enough however, to dull its adaptation capacities in the face of peoples who have continued to live in tragedy and still have a sense of what it means to be part of a group, beyond the individual.
During those 44 years of introversion, however, Western Europe embarked on a completely original political construction by founding the European Economic Community, intended not as just another international institution, but a springboard for a new form of political unity in which, gradually, the abounding energies previously dedicated to waging war would be reoriented to become a force for prosperity and active peace on a world scale. Like any political unit, it has had to establish governance that is fundamentally respectful of the principles of liberal democracy, so to speak, to the second degree, thus raising questions about the legitimacy of the Brussels Commission. The most important point lies elsewhere, however. It is that the Community, re-anointed as the European Union, has structured itself from the start in the bourgeois image of its first members, away from the turbulences of the world and thus without preparing for a hypothetical return to the tragic.
That the EU today displays so many contradictions sapping its legitimacy is first and foremost because, psychologically as well as institutionally, it has not found the way to adapt quickly enough, whether to its enlargement to countries stricken for multiple generations by an entirely different history, or to the developments of the outside world and, first of all, to the emergence from under-development of a large part of what we had grown accustomed to calling the “Third World”. It is common knowledge that the survival of any species depends on its ability to adapt to its environment and to the threats to which it is directly exposed. Thus stands today the question as to the Union’s future and that of the nations that form it.
Donald Trump 18 months down the line
As I penned my last Perspectives (see footnote, reference Ramses 2018), Donald Trump’s presidency was only six months in. One year later, its main contours have emerged. All eyes are now riveted on the midterm elections, and speculation has already begun around the 2020 presidential election. I do not see any purpose in my dwelling here on the brutish, vulgar and contemptuous ways of the White House’s current occupant, nor in going over the values he flaunts, which are often very far removed from the idea that is perhaps wrongly held – from the outside – of democracy in America, and the expectations stemming from this.
Walter Bagehot, the 19th century British economist and constitutionalist, made the distinction between two main components in executive power, the dignified and the efficient. In England, the dignified is embodied by the Crown, and it can be said paradoxically that, taken to the extreme, the absolute power of the monarch lies in the fact that he has no power in the realm of practice. In contrast, the efficient is the responsibility of the government and first and foremost that of the Prime Minister. The Government is expected to correctly identify and solve the nation’s problems. Churchill was very attached to this distinction which Queen Elizabeth II made her own, to the point that her reign will have contributed to maintaining the image of a country whose successive governments, since the Second World War, have only rarely distinguished themselves for their efficiency.
In a presidential regime like that of the United States, or a semi-presidential one like that of France, the dignified and the efficient are more or less largely borne by the same person. It can already be stated that, where the dignified is concerned, Donald Trump’s presidency is a disaster for the “United States” as a brand. However, this is unlikely to play a part in the upcoming elections. I would note, in passing, that similar debate regularly emerges in France, stated in other terms. The French, too, have a liking for the dignified.
Let us return, however, to the United States and the question as to the efficiency of the action taken by the 45th President. The proponents of liberal democracy can hardly criticise him for having put America’s interests ahead of the rest (America First) and sought to preserve, or where possible, expand his voter base. That is how the game is played and only those who excel at it can win. In reality, as I write today, the US economy is in good shape and Trump appears to stand a serious chance of being elected for a second term. During the soft years of the Cold War, Europe’s people became accustomed to showing wariness at the concept of national interest, wrongly identifying it with that of Realpolitik . We preferred to use the term general interest, when the two concepts are flip sides of the same coin. In the first instance, the focus is more on the outside world, in the second, on the domestic. As it happens, I am referring here to international politics.
All the difficulty lies in the various magnitudes of the visual field adopted, to extend the metaphor of perspective further. The visual field of a politician is narrow when reduced to the conditions immediately needed to remain in power. It is broad when the politician addresses the future of the nation over the extended time period which is that of action. A politician is worthy of the term Statesman when he manages to convince voters that his action has relevance, beyond the demands of the immediate situation. From this standpoint, liberal democracies have admittedly not always come out on top. The notion of competence has minimal influence, if any, on election outcomes, which hinge on psychological mechanisms of an entirely different nature and which, in a sense, escape time. It is as though time is compressed. The referendum that determined Brexit, for instance, is an aberration that deviated History from its course. Trump was elected because he brought up real problems, without any qualms about doing so in a politically incorrect manner. Stepping out of the boudoir of the elite, who had become the scapegoats for every societal problem, he struck the right chord for the times. However, out of opportunism and narrow-sightedness (the two can go together), worthy populist that he is, he hammered out ill thought-out “solutions” capable of flattering his votership, but bore great dangers for the medium and long terms. Then, once elected, after floundering for months to put together a government – having failed to anticipate his victory – he set out to implement his programme.
A frontal attack on multilateralism
The central idea is as follows. Look at international trade, the future of alliances – in particular the Atlantic Alliance -, that of the EU, the functioning of coordination bodies such as the G7 or the G20, migratory movements, sanctions or even the July 2015 nuclear treaty with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA): this list is not exhaustive. In all the above cases, the dysfunctions or shortcomings are numerous and, setting aside the way in which they are formulated, Donald Trump’s criticisms are often valid. You have to give him credit for not blowing hot air. The rub lies, first, in the fact that he claims to remedy these difficulties by taking the bilateral route, without regard for the institutions gradually put in place since the Second World War, which form the framework of an international order that worked well during the Cold War and which, despite the unpreparedness for an event as unpredictable, at the time it occurred, as the collapse of the Soviet Union, considerably cushioned its immediate effects.
In other words, Trump is relentlessly undermining multilateralism, even though, to date, he has not put to death any of those institutions. Not even the World Trade Organisation (WTO), resulting from the transformation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1995. Nor the Atlantic Alliance, all the while taking malevolent delight in giving his European partners the shivers, as we saw again at the Alliance summit in July 2018. Experts have wondered again and again whether Trump’s policy is designed to topple the institutions, or only to thwart his counterparts and secure reforms on his terms. What is clear is that the White House incumbent is comfortable only in bilateral relations, that he, very early on, concluded that multilateral bodies are a waste of time, and decided to humiliate his counterparts, as he did at the woeful meeting of the G7 nations in Quebec, in June 2018.
But the list does not stop there. Most major international issues, whether relating to the economy or security, are complex. Correctly sizing up the possible options requires an adequate understanding of the interdependencies at various time scales and in-depth analysis. Let us look at the case of trade and economy. Trump condemns the trade deficit with China or Germany. He is correct, for instance, to raise questions about the market economy status granted to China in the WTO, and to worry about some of their foreign investments. The European nations are no less concerned. However, he has not taken the right tack in pointing the figure at specific sectors, i.e., the automotive industry. He does not take into account the services – which are increasingly important in today’s economy – nor the balance of capital and the privilege of the dollar as a reserve currency, which allows the United States to live beyond its means. He does not see that exports are the cost of imports. He focuses on bilateral balances, when in an open economy, the balance of payments must be considered as a whole.
By rushing like a bull at separately identified targets, without any attempt to anticipate the lasting consequences of his actions, he risks setting off a chain reaction which no mechanism could harness. A trade war (overbidding on tariffs and quotas) can lead to a capital war (for instance, China can stop buying US Treasury bonds) and a currency war (competitive devaluations). When it starts, such a process sooner or later causes a collapse of the financial markets and panic reactions. The Great Depression of the 1930s resulted from a similar loss of control, at a time when the United Kingdom, weakened by the Great War, had let go of its previous de facto leadership of the world economy, while the United States had become a rising power by behaving like a “stowaway” (or free-rider, to borrow a term from Anglo-American economic jargon or game theory).
Could it be that we have already entered an era in which the United States has given up showing concern for the world economic order, while China, like the US in a past life, is continuing to behave like a stowaway? In response to the American political scientist Graham Allison, who describes a war between the United States and China as highly likely, as a consequence of what he calls the “Thucydides trap” (Athens against Sparta or, from the end of the 19th century, France against Prussia), the no less estimable Joseph Nye is more immediately concerned about the “Kindleberger Trap”, named after an economist respected for his work on the Great Depression – without which the Second World War might not have taken place. As far as the current situation is concerned, we have not yet reached that point, and as the post-war institutions are still alive, the reset forces remain powerful. Moreover, President Trump is primarily interested in securing a good business climate and the health of the financial markets that condition the support of his votership. At the current time, the markets are still artificially boosted by the abundance of liquidity, due to Quantitative Easing policies adopted following the subprime crisis. It appears likely that Trump would not like to be accused one day of having caused a stock market crash. In any case, his understanding of the mechanisms of the economy is as narrow as that of many businessmen, and he has neither the humility nor the intelligence to try to make up for his shortcomings by calling on expertise. In reality, he has built his entourage in his image, and never have so many businessmen and so few think-tankers been found in the inner circles of Washingtonian power. This is true of the economy, as of many other areas.
Trump and his allies
The same kind of considerations also applies to the future of the Atlantic Alliance or the mutual security treaty with Japan, for example. Alliances rarely survive beyond the causes that gave rise to them. The Atlantic Alliance has already lived nearly 30 years beyond the fall of the Soviet Union because it was endowed with a powerful organisation (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO) which, like all organisations, tends to perpetuate itself; because beyond the threat assessment, this organisation has become the only one that specifically connects Europe with the United States; and lastly because the heralds of Atlanticism have done everything to keep alive the sense of a major threat that post-Soviet Russia would pose to Europe, even if it should become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
President Trump is correct to seek better “burden sharing” and for Europeans to take more direct responsibility for their own defence. The latter appear to have understood this, though this does not mean that they will easily take the according action. It will likely turn out necessary, in the future, to pay more attention to Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty. The first emphasises democracy and the rule of law. The second stipulates that each member state is responsible for building its own capacity to withstand any attack to which it may fall victim. Taken together, these two articles combine harmoniously with the idea of a European defence dedicated more to subjects such as cybersecurity or the fight against terrorism on the one hand, and on direct or indirect threats from Europe’s southern flank on the other. The Franco-German cooperation currently taking shape in the Sahel is a move in this direction. For the prospect to fully materialise, however, NATO as such will have to delineate its missions more precisely, while the United States will have to resist the attempt to dodge Article 5 of the Treaty, in its modern-day interpretation. It stipulates that an attack against one party to the Treaty is an attack against all, and therefore calls for a response from all. Another increasingly thorny issue, and which will become impossible to escape pertains to the place of Turkey in the NATO of the future.
Trump’s abrupt charge on the European members of NATO has the merit of forcing them to reconsider the situation in the face of today’s realities without getting bogged down in yesterday’s ideology. The necessary adjustments still need to be made with determination but in good cooperation and with a view to preserving the best of an alliance that has proved its effectiveness, particularly where military cooperation (integrated military command) is concerned. The institution of a European defence completely independent from the United States is unrealistic in the foreseeable future. Quite fortunately, President Trump’s entourage includes more military personnel than economists, and the risk of a sudden collapse of the European security system should not be exaggerated.
The fact remains that Americans and Europeans who are members of NATO will have to agree on Russia, when the confidence that prevailed in the 1990s has been destroyed. Some European countries, especially the former Communist nations, understandably so, but also the United Kingdom and Germany, still consider it a major or at least serious threat. Others, like France and more generally the countries of the South, take a more nuanced perspective. As to the United States, which is increasingly obsessed with China, it may be tempted to put an end to its mini-Cold War with Vladimir Putin. Trump definitely wishes to do so, but has had to rein in his initial impulse due to the investigations of which he is the focus. Whatever the situation may be at the present time, Putin clearly emerged very satisfied from his meeting with Trump on July 16, much to the dismay of most Western commentators. The future of the Atlantic Alliance will be impossible to clarify so long as relations with Eastern Europe have not been clarified.
On the Asian end, the White House’s current resident is also demanding greater financial contributions of America’s allies such as Japan and South Korea; however, the situation is less fluid as most of what is happening in this region is now measured in terms of China’s rise. It nonetheless remains that Donald Trump is not inclined to treat Tokyo or Seoul any better than Europe’s capitals, let alone Ottawa or Mexico City.
To conclude on the question of the forces endangering multilateralism, I will draw on the related examples of the nuclear treaty with Iran (JCPOA) and unilateral sanctions, both denounced, reserving for later discussion the question of their effects on the geopolitics of the Middle East. First of all, it should be reiterated that international law is the matrix of multilateralism. In an ideal world – similar to that of the pure and perfect competition in economic theory, in which no agent is powerful enough to manipulate the price system – the law would apply to all States in the same manner. In the real world, each State tries to use the law to its advantage, in accordance with the degree of power that it holds. At this level of generality, there is nothing new about Trump.
What has changed is that the technological revolution has given the United States unprecedented sources of leverage, and Obama’s successor has no qualms about using it to pressure current or potential adversaries, or even his allies. The denunciation of the JCPOA is in itself a serious act that further depletes the trust that the rest of the world once had in the United States. We can be assured that Kim Jong-Un will remember this when the time comes. What is even more serious is that this denunciation comes along with sanctions – effective thanks to technology – and that because of the increased interdependence that grew from globalisation, the United States is in a position to punish foreign companies wishing to work in Iran, if their business overlay the American territory. Allies and adversaries are treated on the same level.
Never, within NATO, have the superpower’s partners found themselves in such a situation of dependence, not to say submission. A photo that went around the world during the catastrophic G7 in Quebec, in June 2018, says more than a heavy-handed speech: it shows the potentate Trump seated, contemplating with a half-indifferent, half-contemptuous look the “colleagues” around him, standing, seemingly trying to convince him. General de Gaulle must be turning in his grave. From the political standpoint, as far as Iran is concerned, we are faced with a situation that is hard to believe: the so-called partners of the United States in the JCPOA are forced to bend de facto to a policy of which they disapprove, and in so doing weaken their own credibility. The Chinese themselves find themselves handicapped, as illustrated by the case of the company ZTE, threatened because of its dependence on American electronic components. This episode will leave lasting scars. Donald Trump misappropriates the national security argument to justify his own protectionist measures. But what is to be said of his partners, allies or otherwise, who do not intend to be reduced to vassals? So far, China has benefited enormously from the WTO system and hopes to still derive maximum benefit from it. However, there should be no doubt that, without making unnecessary noise, it will step up its policies of technological independence to gradually free itself from Washington’s diktats. Its system of government guarantees its success in principle. It will also attack the international payments system to free itself from the dollar. This will take time, but here again, the Chinese have the advantage of being able to unroll their action over the long term. There remains the question of the United States’ traditional allies, who for the moment seem helpless and paralysed with stupor.
The end of year 2017 was marked by the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its decision to lift the two-term limit on the President. The significance of this decision is global, because China’s fate is the most fundamental issue of the next three decades. The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and there can be no doubt that the Party’s will is to ensure that the Middle Empire be recognised by then as the world’s leading power. For anyone stirred by an interest in Chinese culture and objectively seeing the progress made over the last four decades, that is, since the advent of Deng Xiaoping, it is clear that this objective is attainable, though this does not mean that it will without a doubt be achieved. From the territorial standpoint, anyone who closely follows the situation in Hong Kong knows that its assimilation by Beijing is already almost complete. All the tycoons have pledged their allegiance to it. The stranglehold on Taiwan is tightening slowly but surely, and the PRC is already sophisticated enough to use technology (cyber attacks for example) for this purpose. There is already speculation about the day when the master of the Forbidden City will courteously request that the American President withdraw his fleet from the South China Sea, as when, in the early 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt invited the British Cabinet to evacuate the Caribbean Sea. The Cabinet vaguely considered responding with an expedition, but decided to quickly comply.
Furthermore, already, China’s expansion is unfolding all over the world, by land and by sea. Beijing’s language now more and more openly emphasises its strengths rather than its weaknesses, though the latter are real and not to be overlooked. Indeed, the Party aristocracy knows better than any outside commentator that plans can always go off-course. The remaining economic, environmental and social reforms are difficult and are coming up against strong resistance. Corruption is a very real problem.
The Chinese elites know their country’s history well. They know that no dynasty is eternal and that dynastic transitions have always been periods of war and misery. However, the current ruling dynasty is not a family. It is a Party that continues to call itself Communist, but which has adapted remarkably well since the death of Mao Zedong. The Emperor is not Xi Jinping. He is only the delegate of the Party. To achieve Objective 2049, China will need to consolidate the dynasty and strengthen its representative, which does not necessarily mean giving it an unconditional blank check. To refer to Xi as a new Mao is an inaccuracy, in my view. Quite to the contrary, the Party aristocracy criticises the founder of the dynasty also because he was the one who endangered it. That criticism can obviously only be levelled mezza voce. As Flaubert wrote in Madame Bovary: “We should not touch our idols: their gilding will remain on our hands.” By placing a limitation on the President’s powers over time, Deng wisely deemed that were it to not do so, the nascent dynasty would sign its own death sentence in the short term. Today, the situation is different. The aim is to delegate the appropriate level of power to the delegate of the Party, Emperor’s representative, i.e., the Party’s delegate, so that the objectives set out can be attained. That representative must have the sufficient leeway to carry out the necessary reforms. Failure to do so would result in his powers being withdrawn from him. This is how, in my view, the decisions of the 19th Congress should be interpreted.
The current Chinese regime is, as I see it, in harmony with the political culture of a State which, when Hugues Capet rose to the throne in France, had already largely 1,500 years of History still intensely experienced today. I see no term in Western political science vocabulary that can properly represent it. The CPC is a demanding school of power, and is home to or provides a framework for innumerable think-tanks where all foreign experiences, near or far, are plumbed for whatever lessons they may hold. Many of these think-tanks are in interaction with their foreign counterparts. Concretely, taking for instance the French motto, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – Chinese ideologists can easily subscribe to the ideas of equality and fraternity, but only to a certain extent to that of liberty. As I have already underscored, this is a culture in which individual affirmation is limited by the duties connected with belonging to the group, and first of all, the family or the State. Thus the freedoms of speech, writing and action are subject to constraints that are difficult for a Western intellectual to accept. And indeed, since Xi Jinping’s first election, Chinese intellectuals have been more restricted and their relations with the outside world subject to closer watch. This does not prevent a vibrant local democracy from thriving when it comes to cities’ practical affairs, however, nor has it hindered massive tourism from developing on an international scale. As the Singaporean Kishore Mahbubani, already referred to here, enjoys repeating, every year 120 million Chinese leave the country… and 120 million return. Such is not the primary characteristic of a dictatorship.
Some claim that a new cultural revolution is currently underway in the PRC. For anyone who remembers the real Cultural Revolution, such an assertion is rubbish. It should be said, moreover, that the young Chinese know almost nothing of this tragic episode in the political history of the Great Helmsman, due to censorship. What is true is that, in the face of the challenges to be overcome, the CPC has set itself back on track and is working to bring the entire population, which is culturally docile, into line. Moreover, the Party proceeds more by incitation than by brutality. Furthermore, this is happening in a phase that sees China opening up to the world, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s when the Middle Empire was locked down and the spirit of Maoism inflamed numerous blunted Western intellectuals who, even by the time of their mea culpa, rarely regained a sense of measure. To do so, as I have attempted to explain, implies judging others’ political regimes only with caution, and to refrain from claiming to change them as long as they do not pose a real and unbearable threat to the outside world.
Europeans (the EU Member States) must now organise their future in the face of the titanic competition for primacy kicked off between the US and China, with the symbolic finish line of 2049. To fare well, our first duty is to properly analyse the forces at play in these two giants, because there can be no good forecasting without good analysis, nor good policy without good forecasting.
The Korean peninsula
I come now to one of the main topics all over the front pages in 2017-2018: North Korea. The terms of the problem raised by the “Hermit State” have long been identified and I discussed them extensively in the successive editions of my Perspectives for Ramses. Let us review them briefly. First of all, each from its own point of view, the main stakeholders in the Korean peninsula problem do not want the collapse of the Pyongyang regime and hasty reunification, because of the largely unpredictable local and global consequences of such an upheaval. The parties directly involved are: the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, in addition to which come, much more indirectly, the two permanent European members of the United Nations Security Council, Great Britain and France. Secondly, the permanent members of this Security Council, who happen to be the main nuclear powers, are unanimous in refusing North Korea serious access to the club of nuclear States. Thirdly, the Pyongyang regime (Kim Jong-Un but also his father Kim Jong-II) knows that only the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal, even minimal, can enable it to undertake the reforms necessary for its long-term survival. This is because reforms imply a kind of liberalisation for the economy which, in the short term, would put the regime in a position of weakness. This “Tocqueville’s law”, which casts the spotlight on an arbitration between the short and the long term, has been constantly verified in history, in particular that of Russia, be it the fall of the Romanovs or that of the Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping showed he was familiar with this lesson, when he repressed the Tiananmen demonstrators in the spring of 1989, after the ten crazy years that followed the Cultural Revolution.
Yet these three points obviously form a contradictory whole. Hence the strategy of the young North Korean leader, gradually revealed by a series of actions that speak of unexpected rationality and control, when so many observers wanted to see him as a madman. He started out by mercilessly eliminating all those who showed any likelihood of overshadowing him or being manipulated by outside powers, in particular China, and who, if it came to that, might appear as potential replacements. Having thus consolidated his immediate power in the face of the aforementioned stunned nations, he embarked on repeated nuclear and ballistic tests, organising them without fearing Donald Trump’s ranting, Xi Jinping’s discontent or the indignation of any others. He had no hesitation about engaging in cliff-edge tactics with a White House resident known to enjoy poker shots, until, having deemed the nuclear tests sufficiently conclusive, decreed that his targets had been met (we can call this having achieved quasi nuclear power status), and that he was ready to negotiate the destruction of an arsenal so laboriously built. As a result, the American president’s immediate threats no longer had any meaning and, with the help of a South Korean government with a pacifist tendency, it became possible to embark on serious talks about a summit meeting between Trump and Kim, whose position then made him one of the great figures on the planet! However, such a meeting was and has long been the objective of Beijing, which did everything in its power to push the United States to the front lines, even if this meant pulling the strings in the shadows. That is exactly what Xi Jinping was doing when he welcomed Kim Jong-Un repeatedly, with all the honours. Without a doubt, that they took their talks very far, to the satisfaction of Seoul and Moscow – probably less so that of Tokyo – while Trump already saw himself being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And incidentally, had it been conferred upon him jointly with the master of Pyongyang, there would be no cause for surprise, judging by the list of past recipients…
This is where we stand today. What can we expect to see next? If Trump seriously thought that the June 12 meeting in Singapore would lead to a unilateral and quick dismantling of North Korea’s arsenal, he is already paying the price. No matter how loudly he clamours or how enraged his tweets become, he will have the other stakeholders against him. Japan itself will remain cautious in the short term.
In reality, one episode has come to a close, and the one starting can be expected to be far more traditional from the diplomatic point of view. Kim Jong-Un pulled off the feat of being admitted to the “international community”. North Korea is no longer a pariah State! The game will now be all about looking for formulas, applicable over the long term, and enabling Pyongyang to undertake economic reforms without anyone being able to threaten the regime, all the while reassuring the foreign powers where nuclear is concerned. Pyongyang will take care to show openness on the latter point, but will naturally demand that sanctions be lifted, as well lay claim to substantial and lasting aid from the “international community”. He will not let the bird in his hand go for a purported two in the bush.
One of the most difficult questions, of course, is that of financing, of which South Korea, China and perhaps Japan will have to bear a large share regardless. The main question point hangs over the United States. I would add, as I have emphasised previously, that the leader in Pyongyang, no matter what happens, will not fail to raise the question, when the time comes, about the credibility of America’s commitments. The negotiations can thus be expected to be lengthy. They will be full of pitfalls and surprises. Over the long term, China will expect reinforcement for its hold on the Korean peninsula, at the expense of the United States, thus possibly causing Seoul and Tokyo to draw closer together. In order not to end up gradually marginalised, the United States should commit to investing massively in North Korea’s development. This is not the most likely outcome.
It is likely that the new balance will, regardless, be shaped by the powers in the region, including Russia, which cannot allow itself to leave all the land to China, in a Far East emptied of its populations. In any case, there is no reason to believe in the hypothesis of rapid reunification. At most, we can speculate about a gradual “détente”, like the one experienced by Europe in the 1970s, but much more controlled in nature, and leading in the long term to a kind of confederation, the main lines of which have yet to be invented. These issues will keep geopoliticians, economists and diplomats busy for many years. China will be an essential player, and it cannot be stressed often enough that this country has equipped itself with institutions that enable it to think strategically over the very long term, in contrast to the West, ready to change its position according to which way the wind is blowing.
Up to this point, I have only alluded to Japan, the world’s third largest economy, and will not be able to remain downkey on it for long in the face of the tectonic movements underway. This great State, which can also lay claim to one of the major civilizations of humanity, is not completely spared by the weaknesses of the “liberal democracies” and their bias towards the short term. However, its culture also prompts it to pay greater attention over the long term. I wouldn’t be surprised if people soon came to notice this.
The Middle East
Outside East Asia, the Middle East remains the region of the world most exposed to major geopolitical risks. The main event in the first half of 2018 was the unilateral denunciation by the United States of the July 2015 Nuclear Treaty (JCPOA) with Iran, the external effects of which, considerable in my view, were discussed in the preceding pages. I will now approach the issue from a strictly regional perspective. For reasons of domestic policy, Donald Trump made the view of the Israeli right-wing and American neoconservatives his own, namely that the time has come to hasten a regime change in Tehran. In contrast to Iraq’s situation in 2003, there is no discussion in the immediate future of achieving this outcome through arms. The United States’ 45th President is content, if one may use such terms, to demand an unconditional capitulation of the mullahs’ regime, by calling on it to disarm. He is counting on the toughening of sanctions he is imposing on the rest of the world at the same time to bring the Supreme Leader and the government to their knees. As in 1989 when the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square brandished effigies of the Statue of Liberty, as in 2003 as well, when the crowds in Baghdad overturned Saddam’s statue, today’s American leaders appear convinced that the “liberated” people ask only to throw themselves into their arms.
In reality, Trump and his friends could well repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. First of all, as in the aforementioned cases, there is currently no credible alternative to the regime in place. It is true that the Revolutionary Guards and their supporters represent only a small minority of the population, but an organised and powerful one. It controls the key mechanisms of the economy and uses the sanctions to its advantage through smuggling and the black market. To which it should be added that the Iranians are proud and that pressure for unilateral disarmament can only stimulate patriotic reflexes for the benefit of the regime. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has always made his defiance towards the Americans and even the Europeans clear. Neither Trump’s “betrayal” nor the powerlessness of the European leaders forced to bow to the brutality of the US President have surprised him. He has not yet let go of President Rouhani, however, who is scurrying every which way to avoid having to denounce the treaty and thus open Pandora’s box. Rouhani hopes the Europeans will find a gambit to keep him from losing face. However, Europe’s nations do not have the means to prevent their companies from submitting to Donald Trump’s diktat and the Pasdarans are chomping at the bit.
In my view, the most likely scenario at the moment has the conservatives gaining strength, and their propaganda lending credit, in the eyes of the Iranian people, to the idea that Uncle Sam is responsible for their woes. Even if very weakened economically, Tehran would still have the means to ramp up the chaos in a region already severely battered since the disastrous “Arab springs”. It might also be that alliances of circumstance, some surprising, some less so, are formed. While Bashar Al-Assad is on track to regain control of his country, a rapprochement between Turkey, Iran and Syria is not implausible, given the de facto alliance that has been formed between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.
Many observers and experts are wondering about the risk of direct Israeli military intervention against Iran, should Tehran resume its nuclear activities, and believe that the United States would then have no choice but to follow suit. It is true that this is a possibility. However, it is not a certainty, at least not for the time being. This is because, for Israel, the most urgent matter is to prevent attack from Syria. Russia has an interest in facilitating guarantees in this regard. That being said, even in that case, the result would be an unstable situation, comparable to the one that prevailed before the JCPOA negotiations.
I come now to Saudi Arabia, which, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has embarked on a genuine revolution, taking considerable risks. Following the example of the United Arab Emirates and his friend Mohammed bin Zayed, he chose a moderate Islam, and had no qualms about violently attacking the conservative religious forces, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, in full agreement with Egyptian President Sisi. This is what caused the deepening of the rapprochement with Israel already underway. It is also in large part the explanation for the conflict with Qatar. The choice in favour of modernity also rang out in the authorisation given to women to drive cars, and by the decision to open – albeit cautiously – the door to leisure activities such as cinema, and to gender diversity in public places. Mohammed bin Salman also announced an extremely ambitious economic transformation plan building to 2030. This plan may leave some sceptical in that its development owes more to McKinsey than to the Saudi society, which has definitely not taken ownership of it yet. However, observers have noted real efforts to help the kingdom get organised and on its way.
Naturally, the young prince is coming up against resistance, which he has no hesitation about breaking, the hard way. The mass detainment of princes and senior officials at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh – they had to restore their ill-gotten gains – and that of some of the most influential religious in the country are just two examples illustrating this. Mohammed bin Salman’s enemy count has exploded as a result, especially as the foreign ventures on which he embarked did not turn as he wished. Nothing has been resolved in Yemen, and Qatar has settled into long-winded resistance, in the face of the joint will of the two Mohammeds. Admittedly, the problems are not of the same nature. On the one side, a genuine war on a terrain that is highly complex in its geography and politics. On the other, rather a family quarrel, which could end up settled at any time.
One key question for Saudi Arabia’s short-term future is the relationship between the Crown Prince and his father King Salman. It is of the essence because, to date, only the founder’s sons have reigned after his death. To successfully skip a generation appears all the more difficult as it will entail economic, social and political upheaval, both national and international. Those familiar with him know King Salman, former governor of Riyadh, to be a remarkable and most experienced figure. He knows his country and his who’s who to a tee. Mohammed bin Salman was raised around him, so discreetly that until recently it was believed that he did not know English, when he speaks it quite decently. The king is undoubtedly weaker physically, but his visible level of activity is sufficient to assume he still holds the balance of power.
The hypothesis most likely to be accurate is that father and son discuss together the kingdom’s strategy and important affairs, and that Mohammed bin Salman refrains from going out as a lone rider. How long can the two continue operating this way? Long enough, it is hoped, that when the time comes, a young monarch can indeed set about transforming kingdom, feel strong enough to undertake a policy of reconciliation, and contribute to bringing a stable balance back to the region.
The third major development in the region lies in Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was rewarded in spades for the wager he made in moving up the elections. He is now at the head of both the executive and the ruling party, holding de facto all the powers, his decisions requiring only a rubber stamp to become reality. He immediately took advantage of this victory to step up the repression and muzzle intellectuals even more tightly. His key challenge is now economic in nature. Just as Ali Khamenei’s Iran and Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia have social and geopolitical plans in the making, Erdogan’s Turkey nurtures ambitions in both those areas. While he does not wish to renounce economic modernity, when it comes to Kemalism, he intends to nurture his country in its Islamic roots. The endeavour starts with education. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular project is dead and Westerners will have to come to terms with that.
Nobody believes any longer that Turkey will join the EU in the foreseeable future. While the question remains as to whether it should remain in the Atlantic Alliance, it is in no one’s interest to raise it prematurely. In both cases, the respective parties have an interest for the time being in heeding the old adage that people only come out of ambiguity worse off. From the geopolitical standpoint, the great ambition of the new Sultan is that of the Ottoman Empire, that is, to assert itself as the leader of Sunni Islam. Erdogan’s dream would be to build a mosque and a university capable of superseding those of Al-Azhar, still considered today a Vatican of sorts for Sunni Islam. However, to achieve those aims, he must first counter the alternate project which some would build around Saudi Arabia and Egypt, engaged in a merciless struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood, for which Erdogan – like his Qatari friends – has every sympathy. In the face of Sunni Islam, Shia Islam is as vigorous as ever. Saudi Arabia is combating it mercilessly on its territory. Iran still clearly has the lead, spreading its tentacles wherever it can, in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in particular. However, the competition between the two Sunni projects can justify alliances that would otherwise be difficult to conceive. For instance, as I said earlier, between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Qatar, with a certain form of support from Russia. The Kurds are among the collateral victims of the situation. Until not too long ago, Turkey and Israel seemed natural allies. This is no longer the case. In the more remote past, prior to the Khomeini revolution, Iran too was a friend of the Hebrew state. In the “Arab Spring” era, the United States helped overthrow Hosni Mubarak and bring about the advent of Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi. Today, they support Al-Sisi and his battle. It is Turkey and Iran that now form the great resistance to the American empire, including by supporting the Palestinian cause. Russia is exploiting this situation, it might be added, more laterally than head-on. The result is, as I stress once again, an embarrassing situation for the Atlantic Alliance.
To bring in a further factor for complexity, it should be kept in mind that that China itself has great ambitions in its own imperial positioning, if only to guarantee and protect its access to energy resources. Consequently, it is moving its pawns forward in Iran, taking advantage for example of the withdrawal of European companies following the sanctions inflicted by Trump. However, like Russia, it is doing so with caution and discernment, having no interest in choosing sides precipitously. India, under the ambiguous Narendra Modi, also wants access to the Middle East.
Thus a new configuration is gradually taking shape in the Middle East. As the respective parties’ geopolitical designs are not compatible, however, the emergence of a new regional order, whatever that may be, appears highly unlikely. Israel finds advantage in a situation which it is facilitating in its own way in order to pursue a policy of expansion and ruthlessly quash any resistance on the Palestinian side. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever to be resolved, it will be the last on the list.
The future of the European Union
Before concluding, it remains for me to come back to the European Union (EU) and its crises. However, a problem is never properly set out until it is placed within its right context. How should today’s context be described? Too often, Europe’s citizens and their representatives lose sight of the European war that spanned three generations, from the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870 to the Second World War. A fortiori they see the continent’s earlier history as prehistory. Yet the chaos of the contemporary Middle East, or the potential instability of East Asia, two good examples of regions bereft of a system of collective security in the broad sense, offer the imagination a picture of what might happen in Europe if the Union were to splinter. The endeavour to build a political unit of a whole new kind – one capable of providing for the security and prosperity of its members without doing away with the identity of each, and what’s more, with the aspiration of playing an active and constructive role in the even wider project of consolidating a system of collective security on a global scale – is as relevant one century after the end of the First World War as it was in the wake of the Second. Today, it must find its bearings in a very different context, one of competition between the United States and China, zeroing in on the 2049 deadline, to which I referred earlier.
Thirty years is a significant time horizon for very important decisions, for example for the construction of defence and security systems or, in economic matters, to bring out an international currency fulfilling the three functions of any currency: as a standard of value, as an instrument for trade, and as a reserve instrument.
Without relinquishing the idea that over the very long term, it will continue, by vocation, to expand, the EU’s ambition over the next thirty years must be to strengthen its social and economic structures by considerably improving the methods of cooperation between the current Member States in order to harmonise their actions; to establish – without giving up the last-resort support of the Atlantic Alliance – a genuine common security policy directed inward, within its boundaries (internal aspects of anti-terrorism or cybersecurity, for example) as well as outward (threat prevention and deterrence, particularly from its southern and eastern flanks); to strengthen the euro zone (Monetary Union, European Monetary Fund, etc.) and beyond that, to effectively make the euro into an international currency, thereby also guaranteeing its independence from the political instrumentalisation of the dollar and no doubt tomorrow of the renminbi.
The Union will necessarily have to learn to work on how to agree on the essential aspects of a common foreign policy. Beyond immediate security issues such as the need to strengthen borders, it has, as such, an interest in heavily supporting Africa’s development, giving priority to the north of the equator, and working towards the establishment of a stable order in the Middle East. This is a necessary condition for any long-term migratory policy. It also has an interest in working, with Ukraine and Russia, to update and renew the collective security system that emerged from the 1975 Helsinki Agreements. It is vital that it define a framework for its members’ relations with China.
All this requires tremendous determination over the long term, something for which our political culture and existing institutions do not prepare us. While the EU’s Member States now seem more aware of the need to overcome the profound differences between Member States when it comes to their culture of defence, the difficulties are of the same magnitude as regards the economy, where a real north-south divide can be seen – the north around Germany, and the south around France or Italy.
Any great endeavour starts from a long-term vision, something sorely lacking in today’s Europe. I do not think that such a vision can emerge spontaneously from the governments, the Commission or from individual or associative initiatives alone. That being said, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Ifri, I have no hesitation about saying that Europe’s think-tanks could well take on this task and cooperate to bring about a text which, when the time is right, the leaders could take up.
Where there is a long-term vision, even embryonic and fuzzy at the start, medium-term problems become much easier to handle. And there is no shortage of such problems in the Union today: we need to succeed in crafting a Brexit that is – to paraphrase Jacques Bainville’s words, admittedly written in an entirely different context – neither too soft for all its hardness, nor too hard for all its softness; establish an immigration and refugee policy that does not risk playing into the hands of populists and causing even greater divides amongst us; fight to recover the countries that have vaulted populist parties to power; complete the monetary union, etc. In the coming years, the main risk is that, without formally breaking up, the Union will deteriorate into a vague confederation. In the aftermath of communism’s fall, debate arose as to whether the Community should be immediately enlarged to those countries still known as Eastern Europe, or whether the said Community should be kept as it was while establishing a larger and less ambitious Confederation. It was the former road that was chosen. A quarter of a century later, we are trying to avoid ending up in a more or less Roman or Germanic Holy Empire of sorts, where the Parliament of Strasbourg would stand in for the Diet of Regensburg. All with the knowledge that the said “Empire” has never been able to prevent warring between its members.
To change the course of events, the Union must now choose the efficient over the dignified. This will be possible only after an agreement is reached on a long-term project shared by the Member States. However, the efficient is difficult to attain in the presence of ineffective institutions. Hence the importance of the leadership, which Emmanuel Macron, on his end, is trying to exercise, unfortunately without the support he could have enjoyed had Angela Merkel come out with more freedom for action from the German elections of autumn 2017. I believe that the priority topping all priorities does not lie in institutional reform, or in the perennial ideological debate on whether they are more or less democratic in nature, but in the search for concrete solutions to the problems affecting the people, in all the Member States.
The time for action is all the more upon us as Europeans as the President of the United States, on his end, is displaying boundless complacency and a complete lack of long-term vision. Those who refer to him as tending toward isolationism are mistaken. Globalisation may prove broader or modest in its ambit, but as it is the result of waves of technological innovation, it is irreversible. America is not being isolationist. It is showing introversion. Trump is not a man in the image of Harvard, but rather one who takes after the American pioneers who set out to conquer the West, with hardly a care about great ideas and instead entirely driven by their own interests hic et nunc. Just like Margaret Thatcher wanted “her money back”, Donald Trump wants other people to foot the bill. For everything. Even if he were to vanish from the political scene today, he would have done the world the immense favour of showing that America can trample what would not have been able to exist without it: a system of institutions capable of policing interdependence. Europe now knows that Euro-Atlantic institutions are mortal, even in the short term. The principle of entropy tells us that the destruction of order leads to chaos. However, in human affairs as in the inanimate world, a new order eventually emerges from chaos, one that can be entirely unpredictable ex ante. If we are not careful, the world around the next bend could be more like the world between the two world wars than the world of the “end of History”. It is time that, unabashed, Europe’s people awaken.
17 July 2018