Category Archives: Europe

Trump’s surprisingly positive foreign policy–and some unanswered questions

Despite a surprisingly upbeat and coherent first address to Congress on February 28th, given these polarised times it is highly unlikely Donald Trump changed anyone’s mind. Those who rather fanatically support him will have found nothing particularly objectionable with what he said. Those who rather fanatically oppose him will have heard nothing to alter their opinion, either. This is both the political strength and the weakness of the man who first sensed—and then supremely capitalised on—the canyon-like divisions lying submerged just beneath the surface of American life.

The speech isn’t the problem

The power of persuasion–already dying when the supposedly great orator Barack Obama failed to bring a single congressional Republican with him over his signature Health Care initiative—is dangerously just not a part of American politics anymore. Battle lines are drawn and compromise in any form is out, a dolorous development which would have horrified the country’s founders, wise men who crafted a wondrously enduring system based precisely on the notion of political give and take.

This is perhaps America’s great secret to success, constitutional stability (having one republic to France’s five) allowing for the great economic prosperity that has followed. Watching the Democrats studiously not clap for a trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative that the left of their party has been calling for over many years is a striking example of the death of policy discourse in American life, and the dangerous rise of tribalism. It simply does not matter what Trump says; the Democrats will fanatically oppose it (and vice-versa). This is the whirlwind Trump’s revolution is reaping.

People are foreign policy

However, contrary to all our fears, there has been a lot to commend the first moves of the Trump White House over foreign policy. As I know well from my many days in Washington, actual people make policy and to some extent are policy. In selecting the highly-capable General James Mattis to run the Defence Department and in picking the innovative General H.R. McMaster to run the National Security Council (after the brief, but disastrous General Michael Flynn detour), President Trump has put in place a creative, realist national security team that George H.W. Bush would be comfortable with. The huge question remains whether the highly mercurial and intellectually unformed president will actually heed their advice.

Worse, he might actually grow weary of the real-world restraints they make clear to him in conducting American foreign policy and fire them. There is no better analytical canary in the coal mine for the future of American foreign policy than this; what is the bureaucratic fate of the undeniably able national security team Trump has assembled? Following their personal fates will go a long way in tracing the new trajectory of American foreign policy itself.

So far, so good

Yet on his own over this past month, President Trump has managed to succeed in doing two seemingly contradictorily but useful big things; he has questioned the tired, old shibboleths of American foreign policy, even as he re-affirmed of number of their basic precepts. This has finally moved the intellectual clock, as it has been stuck for two decades, a desperately needed innovation, as the Cold War has long been over and it is well past time for intellectual thinking over foreign policy to catch up.

For whatever the policy conclusions, it is well past time both foreign policy opinion-formers and decision-makers treat their craft as more than a dreary recitation of a policy catechism that made great sense in the far-away Cold War, but—following the elite being discredited over both Iraq and the Lehman global recession—makes far less natural sense now.

Does the One-China policy actually serve American interests today? Is NATO obsolete, and what can possibly explain the European allies’ shameful strategic free riding to the detriment of the hard-pressed American public? Does the two-state solution, after all these many years of failure, actually stand any hope at all of success? I must admit (and I am no friend of the president) that before Donald Trump came on the scene, when I raised these very points I was rather arrogantly waived away by a sclerotic, discredited (though amazingly they don’t seem to know it) foreign policy elite in favour of the received wisdom of a bygone age. To put it mildly, that is no longer the case.

Yet the new foreign policy team also seems to have so far constrained the mercurial president from throwing the policy baby out with the bathwater. During his speech to Congress (and in earlier addresses to European leaders by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defence Mattis) Trump made it clear he still is committed to NATO, but it is past time the allies meet the long-agreed two percent of GDP spending target for the common defence.

Trump and Mattis are merely repeating the truism I have long argued for, that continued failure to do so is a European choice, which will ultimately signal the end of the most successful military alliance in history. Trump is not wrong to bring this up; it is the European allies who are wrong to continue to free-ride on the backs of the American people.

Likewise, in his call to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Trump reaffirmed the American commitment to the One China policy, which he had previously flirted with doing away with. But while the American horse is back in the stable, in questioning this long-held shibboleth, Trump has made it crystal clear to a surging Beijing that a tougher, less predictable America awaits it.

Given the advances in Chinese adventurism during the time of Barack Obama, in constructing and militarising islands in the South China Sea, such an approach has a lot to commend it, perhaps leading to Beijing’s resumption of its earlier, less reckless foreign policy, inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping.

And finally, if ever there was a policy that needed a creative update it must be efforts to successfully conclude the endless Palestinian-Israeli standoff. By calling the never-achieved two-state solution into question, the Trump White House makes is clear that in terms of geo-strategy this stalemate has eaten up vast amounts of American time and effort over the past decades, while frankly more important issues (such as the rise of China and India and the advent of the multipolar world itself) have been fecklessly neglected.

And yet….

And yet for all this good news, there remains deep unease for many of us who have been pleasantly surprised in terms of foreign policy by the first month of the new, startling era of Donald Trump. First, there is the grave damage he may still do domestically and to the American constitutional system more broadly. Second, as a man who seems to decide things more by untutored instinct than deep thought, even when President Trump is right, there should be deep concern about how set in stone his new foreign policy actually is.

It is this fear of the erratic behaviour of the United States, that the world’s ordering power will lapse into incoherence, that rightly worries all those of us who wish America well. In both his opening speech to Congress and in his first month in office over foreign policy, President Trump has surprised for the better. But there remains an awfully long way to go.

Published in Aspenia online, March 1, 2017.

Blame France’s incompetent and corrupt elite for the rise of Marine Le Pen

“Apres moi, le deluge.” (After me comes the flood)

–Louis XV

Say what you will, Francois Fillon, the disgraced former frontrunner in the upcoming French presidential elections, is no Professor Moriarty. As the investigative journal Canard Enchaine reports, Fillon paid his wife Penelope over 800,000 euros for work as a political assistant it is unclear whether she preformed. Far from being a master criminal, it seems he gave two of his children legal jobs despite the highly relevant fact that they were not yet lawyers. France is ripe for another revolution to rectify such excesses.

This is the problem with the rise of populism in Europe. The demagogues—horribly wrong as they are in policy terms over peddling impossible dreams as solutions–have all the best lines. And they are entirely correct in that Europe’s lazily corrupt, highly incompetent elite have driven the people they represent into a ditch.

There is no doubting that Marine Le Pen, the charismatic, firebrand leader of the xenophobic Front National (FN) has a great story to tell about both French elite corruption and incompetence.

The corruption portion of the populist narrative is beyond dispute. Beyond Fillon, former President Jacques Chirac and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe were given suspended sentences for corruption. Former Finance Minister and current IMF chief Christine Lagarde was found guilty of negligence for approving a massive payout of taxpayer money to a controversial French businessman. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is presently under investigation for alleged illegal campaign funding. In reading this doleful list, sometimes I truly wonder if there is anyone left in power in France who has behaved honourably.

The other side of the coin, incompetence, is epitomised by hapless outgoing current President Francois Hollande, a leader so gormless that in November 2016 he had a personal approval rating of just 4%, a subterranean low unequalled in the history of the Fifth Republic. Bowing to electoral reality, in December 2016 Hollande surrendered, not even bothering to try to run for a re-election he stood absolutely no chance of winning.

The main reason for this was his pathetic failure to even begin to substantially reform the sclerotic French economy. During his tenure, France has lost a further 600,000 jobs. In 2016, France grew at an anaemic 1.1% of GDP, in line with its lacklustre 1.2% in 2015. Stunningly, as of January 2017, more than one in four workers under 25 is jobless. The world is simply passing the French economy by.

As a result of this dual headed monster of corruption and incompetence, Fillon has fallen in the polls, making maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron the new frontrunner to be President of France. The latest early February 2017 polls have Le Pen at 25%, Macron at 22%, and Fillon at 19% in the first round of voting. In a second round, Macron would win decisively over Le Pen with a 66-34% advantage. But while the competent Macron is now likely to win, such a victory should not be seen as a repudiation of Le Pen. Rather it is part of her long-term game plan.

For Macron is France’s last, best chance to save itself in its present form. However, if he cannot reform the heretofore unreformable French economy, France as we know it is on its last legs. Le Pen is set to take one third of the vote in the second round of this year’s presidential elections on May 7th, almost double her father’s total of 18% as the FN candidate in the second presidential round of voting in 2002. So the flood waters for the French elite are definitely rising.

All Le Pen needs are five more years of economic failure, and then she has all the chance in the world to win the presidency next time, especially as her narrative of elite incompetence and corruption hardens into certainty for the French electorate. Le Pen is merely betting on is things staying as they are, with the talented, youthful Macron (he is only 39) unable to drag his country into the twenty-first century. Given France’s recent past history, that is more than a reasonable bet to make.

And yet in Macron there is hope. A former Rothschild banker, he comes from the real world pro-business wing of the Socialist Party, serving as a marginally successful economy minister under Hollande, after the French president made his belated policy pivot back to economic reality. If anyone can reform France, Macron is the man.

However, Le Pen’s long-term bet on French elite incompetence and corruption has so far been borne out by the historical facts. It will take real French reform to stave off the terribly destructive prospect of French populism. For the main problem in French politics at present is that only Le Pen seems to have a real long-term political game plan.

Published in City AM London, February 13, 2017.

Germany is not the answer to any serious strategic question

Given the nervous breakdown of America, epitomised by the election of know-nothing Donald Trump as President, it is altogether understandable and human that elites are desperately casting about for a new champion of western stability. There are precious few other candidates for the job, so largely by the process of elimination analysts (particularly on the left) have hit upon Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany as the last, best hope for the western order.

This would be a laughable thesis if people were not taking it seriously. For in truth, Germany cannot save either the wider world or Europe. In fact, it is an open question as to whether Germany can even save itself.

In her endless intellectual confusion over the basic fact that caution is not the same thing as wisdom, it is all too easy to point the finger of blame at Merkel for this. Yet Germany’s problems, and the weaknesses that spring from them, are far more systemic and deep-rooted. A simple look at the unholy trinity of crises facing Berlin—the endless euro crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the refugee crisis—makes it clear that Germany is more supplicant than driving force on the world stage.

More than the others, it is euro crisis that provides the analytical key to understanding overall German weakness. The basic problem is psychological and moral. In Europe, what is truly going on is the end of economic life as it has been known. Europeans simply can no longer afford the serene, cosseted, not overly strenuous and very attractive way of life they have grown used to; government in European countries has simply grown unaffordable.

Having bought into the cult of endless leisure time as an inalienable right, it is devilishly hard to row back from this primary sign of decadence. But almost no-one wants to hear this, much less do anything about it. To do so would require a very painful, immediate retrenchment for millions. That is human and understandable, but it is also fatal. For it means that at present democratic politics in Europe is being conducted based on lies.

And lying—beyond the immorality of it–is a very poor basis for making sustainable policy, at least in any open society. With its wilfully ignorant populace, Germany is the primary example of how stubborn self-delusion fuels member states’ approach to Europe.

In essence, to survive, the euro-zone will either move towards a true federation, becoming a debt union complete with fiscal transfers (all done on largely German terms) or the euro will cease to exist. As such, Berlin will be the primary paymaster for such a new political constellation. As none of this appeals to much of anyone in Germany, best not to talk about it. And so Chancellor Merkel does not.

It is at this point that even the sleepiest German citizen will wake up, howling. It is also here that not levelling with one’s own people becomes as poor a strategy as it is immoral. By not making clear what is really going on, Merkel has been able for quite a long while to put off an awful lot of unpleasantness. But to imagine for a moment that the German people won’t feel fundamentally lied to once the check for this Kafkaesque party comes due, is not to be Machiavellian. Rather, it is to be hopelessly naïve.

Whatever Germany ultimately decides to do, there will have to be sacrifices. And any policy requiring those sacrifices that is not buttressed by public support stands no chance of success. Lying as a way to avoid the democratic deficit over the European crisis is not clever.

Meanwhile, Germany, like doomed passengers on the Titanic, has spotted the economic iceberg dead ahead, but made precious little effort to right the ship of state’s course. The demographic problem is especially stark. The old age dependency ratio—which evaluates the number of pensioners in a society versus the working age population—simply cannot be wished away. The German ratio was 34% in 2013, rising to an economically crippling 52% by 2030. Over this period of time, the number of pensioners in Germany will skyrocket by 5 million, even as the number of workers declines by 6 million. Who is going to pay for those endless vacations and for the overly generous social safety net?

The inconvenient truth about Germany is that it is strategically pacifist (with laughable defence capabilities for a serious power), politically ostrich-like in its stubborn refusal to even attempt to master Europe’s many policy crises, and—worst of all—economically very much living on borrowed time.

For all these reasons, Germany is simply not the answer to any serious strategic question there is.

Published in City AM London, January 16, 2017