One Term for Posterity: George H.W. Bush

George Bush François Mitterrand Helmut Kohl
American president George H.W. Bush, Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, French president François Mitterand and German chancellor Helmut Kohl attend the G7 summit in Munich, July 6, 1992 (Institut François Mitterand)

The history of America is not unlike that of any other nation: its most revered leaders are usually founders and war statesmen.

Historical figures emerging in a time of crisis are always important, but they remain men of their time. It is easy to be revered when the population rallies to the flag and there is no internal opposition. More difficult is to achieve a record of governing efficiency in a time of peace, yet this was exactly the triumph of George Herbert Walker Bush. Read more “One Term for Posterity: George H.W. Bush”

Putin at Ease in Asia’s Power Politics

There is an expression in Japan: kumo o tsukamuyou. It translates roughly into “like grasping a cloud.” We might call it “wishful thinking.” The proverb springs to mind when reading Japan’s former defense minister Yuriko Koike’s recent commentary.

In it, Koike presents her perspective of the challenges Japan has to face in East Asia. She believes these challenges are easy to enumerate for they all depend on one factor alone: liberal democracy. Those closest to it are under pressure by those farthest from it. China, Russia and North Korea are problems, Japan, the United States and their allies are the solution.

Koike’s is an ideal world in which the leader of the world’s biggest democracy could only possibly choose to ally with likeminded democratic powers and thus India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is dutifully expected by Koike to team up with the alliance being formed to contain China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.

Yuriko Koike, though, might have another thing coming. Not only is Modi not the obvious ally she believes him to be; the government in Tokyo itself may very well have other plans. Read more “Putin at Ease in Asia’s Power Politics”

Why Ukraine, Thailand Are Not Venezuela

After the “color revolutions,” the European “indignados,” “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Arab Spring,” pundits are again trying to make sense of a wave of public demonstrations around the world. Parallels have been drawn between the protests in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela but only a superficial analysis could conclude that these are equivalent.

The advent of new social media and the easier ability for unorganized demonstrators to mobilize themselves has facilitated the emergence of such phenomena. However, the lack of political coherence often implies an inherent anarchic and unsubstantial character to such demonstrations. If all these protests have something in common, it is that they largely failed to achieve any meaningful change. The Arab Spring did shake things up but it is difficult to see how overthrowing the old regimes has managed to improve living conditions in the Middle East and North Africa.

That said, in 2014, Venezuela’s is probably the most consistent and rational of the protests and it differs starkly from realities in Bangkok and Kiev when it comes to legitimate grievances as well as methodology. Read more “Why Ukraine, Thailand Are Not Venezuela”

New York and Cairo: Triumphs of Demagoguery

One of the fundamental qualities of a statesman is that of probity. Most oaths of office include the term for a very important reason: because popular support is but one of the standards for governance. Indeed, the public is fickle and its capricious whims can be easily verified by the recurring opinion polls which show that the masses’ defining characteristic is that they are inconstant.

Nowadays, many a democracy have been corrupted by populism and statesmen everywhere bow to public pressure when they should not. Instead of doing what they know is best, they rule cosmetically and simply do that which is popular. Read more “New York and Cairo: Triumphs of Demagoguery”

Populism Endangers Portugal’s Austerity Reforms

Portugal’s ruling liberal conservatives have, since they came to power in 2011, strived to balance incompatible pressure groups. Local elections in Portugal have precipitated tensions.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s Social Democrats and their conservative coalition partners came to power with a clear mandate: to do what the left could not and implement the painful but necessary economic and fiscal reforms prescribed by Portugal’s international creditors. The parties have carried out the task with some difficulty but for the most part the conditions set out by other European countries and the International Monetary Fund were met. Hikes in taxes, frozen salaries and incentives for civil servants to retire early have all slowed spending and eased the market pressure on Portuguese government bonds.

International demands for credible commitments to austerity, however, conflict with another influence that equally shapes the Portuguese government’s composition and policies: a populist party machine that propelled Passos Coelho into the leadership of his party and then of the government.

These influences are at odds as campaigning for the local elections that are due later this month is making clear. Read more “Populism Endangers Portugal’s Austerity Reforms”

Central Africa, Barometer of Multipolarity

There are a number of phenomena which currently define African politics and must be understood before commenting on the geopolitical evolution of today’s central Africa.

One is that of “extraversion.” Jean-François Bayart, a French professor in African politics, coined the phrase to describe the endemic and domestic subversion of the state apparatus in sub-Saharan Africa.

Inherited from the Europeans, the African state system is not adapted to the reality on the ground. Moreover, it exists within artificial borders. Therefore local elites quickly pervert the functions of the state with clientelistic behaviors and policies so as to protect first and foremost the interests of their respective clan, tribe, ethnic or religious group. Government agencies fall under the aegis of a specific group with the chief purpose of redistributing tax revenues among the most important political stakeholders in a certain territory. Liberal democratic values such as term of office, rule of law and public service rest in the minds of a few liberal and educated elites who rarely happen to lead a specific political faction. The direct consequence is an invariable degradation of democracy as well as a race for power. Ubiquitous corruption and civil strife follow. Read more “Central Africa, Barometer of Multipolarity”

Hollande Doctrine? France Leads from Behind in Mali

Paris’ gunships struck Islamist targets in the northern Malian town of Kona on Friday in support of a combined ground intervention by African troops from the Economic Community of West African States. French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reported that during the operation, the French military suffered one casualty.

On the works for months, the intervention mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 is meant to put an end to the swift takeover of northern Mali that Tuareg and Islamist groups undertook, in the process causing the political collapse of the central government through a military coup.

Instability in the Sahel has heightened since last year’s collapse of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in Libya during a popular uprising that was supported by NATO air and naval forces. The “Arab Spring” in Libya caused a considerable power vacuum which brought political disunity along that country’s Mediterranean coast, loss of control over southern Libya and significant advanced weaponry in the hands of smugglers who have been able to export it to such conflict areas as Gaza and Syria. Read more “Hollande Doctrine? France Leads from Behind in Mali”

Mediterranean Engenders Tyranny of the Majority

As predicted, the fate of the “Arab Spring” democracies is leaving much to be desired. Liberal societies can simply not arise from illiberalism and the alternative is, and has always been, to either have secular, authoritarian, pro-Western elites or Islamist, populist, unreliable governments. Between liberal dictatorship and Islamist democracy, the choice is a dilemma.

What makes the choice more difficult is that it is also one between civil rights and political freedoms. In all of last year’s Arab revolutions, the observed constant was ethnic or ideological majorities politicizing the Mediterranean spillover of the Western financial crisis in order to unseat minority regimes. In Tunisia, the Islamists removed the secularists. The same happened in Egypt. In Bahrain, the Shia majority tried to overthrow a Sunni regime; vice versa in Syria, and in Libya there was no majority to be had. Read more “Mediterranean Engenders Tyranny of the Majority”

For France, Gaddafi’s Demise Worth Mali’s

After the beginning of the War on Terror and the practical annihilation of Al Qaeda assets in Afghanistan, few expected militant Salafism to rise again. But simple ideas are the most resilient and Obama bin Laden’s legacy resurged in Yemen and the Maghreb. The locales are indicative of the most peripheral rural populations being the most vulnerable to extreme militancy.

With this in mind, the Americans devised the concept of “ungoverned spaces” and financed the Pan Sahel Initiative in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks aimed at training local regimes and their armed forces as well as installing surveillance mechanisms for the region. The aim was to prevent groups such as Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) from being allowed unchecked use of the Sahara and Sahel regions for sanctuary. This initiative was first and foremost prescient — the GSPC shifting into Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb in 2007 — but for the most part successful as no regime was ever subverted or threatened in a meaningful way by extremists. On the other hand, by no means was this initiative ambitious enough to eradicate the same groups.

The United States have seen its prerogatives being facilitated by essentially Morocco and Tunisia.

France, in its turn, exercises considerable influence in Burkina-Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Morocco and wields significant regional power through a network of interests inherited from the French colonial empire designated as Françafrique. Read more “For France, Gaddafi’s Demise Worth Mali’s”

Nicolas Sarkozy’s Foreign Policy Should Be Vindicated

George W. Bush and his acolytes are these days fond of claiming that history will eventually judge the administration of the former American president kindly. This is supposedly especially true of their foreign policy legacy: the “freedom agenda.” They went as far as to claim the “Arab Spring” as vindication.

Bush and the neoconservatives are unlikely to ever find their swan song adequately praised in history manuals but by no means is foreign policy out of fashion as far as swan songs go.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency for one was controversial enough but unlike Bush’s, his track record may yet be vindicated. Read more “Nicolas Sarkozy’s Foreign Policy Should Be Vindicated”