Napoléon, le moine militaire

BaronFainMémoiresNapoléon fascine notamment par son génie militaire et l’empreinte qu’il a laissé dans l’histoire. Mais ce qui m’a toujours fasciné davantage, c’est l’homme et ses ressorts. Qu’est-ce qui le motivait, comment pensait-il et comment travaillait-il? Je piaffais donc d’impatience de plonger dans la récente édition des Mémoires du Baron Fain – qui fut l’un de ses plus proches collaborateurs – et qui viennent d’être éditées par l’historien et Napoléonologue Charles-Éloi Vial.

Dans un échange avec lui, l’auteur me précisait que Fain « fait partie de la « galaxie » napoléonienne, au même titre que Méneval, Duroc, Daru ou encore Bacler d’Albe ou Mounier. Ce sont les personnages qui se sont fait apprécier de l’Empereur pour leur ardeur au travail, leur efficacité et leur discrétion. Et comme Napoléon n’aime pas les nouvelles têtes, il les garde avec lui le plus longtemps possible. »

Outre l’admiration de Fain envers ce patron à qui il reconnaît des qualités de grande générosité, de méticulosité et de vaillance – l’expression « travailleur infatigable » revenant à quelques reprises – j’ai surtout été fasciné par les habitudes de lecture de celui que l’auteur compare à un « moine militaire » (j’adore l’expression), « gouvernant et administrant un empire immense du fond d’un cabinet secret, que cette retraite soit dérobée aux yeux par les lambris d’un palais ou par les rideaux d’une tente. » L’auteur l’évoque clairement et nous fait bien sentir au fil des pages que ce sanctuaire est l’endroit où Napoléon était le plus à l’aise pour travailler. Dans une dynamique régimentée dont les contours sont effectivement comparables à ceux de la vie monastique. Et c’est dans ce contexte qu’il l’a côtoyé.

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A new Cold War with China seems inevitable

Retired four-star Navy Admiral and acclaimed author James Stavridis (Source: UN Dispatch)

(version française)

Retired Four-Star Admiral James Stavridis served as the 16th NATO Supreme Allied Commander – a function once occupied by the legendary General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 2016, it was reported that he was vetted as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He recently published an excellent book Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character which I recently had the privilege – and tremendous pleasure – to review here on this blog.

Having always been attached to the Fourth of July celebrations because of my deep admiration for the United States, it was my intention of publishing a special interview for the occasion. Admiral Stavridis generously accepted to answer my questions and I’m profoundly grateful.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this book would be an excellent holiday read. Happy Fourth of July to all my American friends!

Here is the content of this insightful interview.

We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war. 

SailingTrueNorthIn Sailing True North, one of my favorite chapter (with the one devoted to Nelson) is the one about Zheng He. What do you think of the current tense situation with China and how do you think we should deal with that?

We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war. That will require a mix of diplomacy, military deterrence, tech savvy, economic tools (both in competition with China and in encouraging other nations to avoid Chinese “debt traps”). In essence, we should confront China where we must (cyber, trade, tariffs, their claims of “owning” the South China Sea) but cooperate where we can (environment, pandemics, arctic trade routes).  It will be a difficult and at times a dangerous passage. My next book, In Face, out in March 2021, is a novel about … a war with China! It is a cautionary tale, and let’s hope we don’t find it turning from fiction to fact before our eyes. Here’s a link to the Amazon page.

In the book, there are several references to religion, one to the Conclave, the other to John XXIII and Thomas Aquinas. I might be wrong, but I assume you are a Catholic and that faith seems to have had a significant impact on your journey. Am I wrong? Would you say that faith might also be an important buoy on the voyage of character?

I’m Greek Orthodox, and yes faith is vital for me personally – and for many others. Continue reading “A new Cold War with China seems inevitable”

Should We Fear Russia?

US soldiers in Afghanistan (Source: Newsweek)

“Russia has no serious reason to fear the West », writes Dmitri Trenin – Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center – in his insightful book Should We Fear Russia? But President Vladimir Putin is not shy to “punch above his weight” and “always testing and pushing one’s boundaries” to ensure that Russia’s place at the table of great powers is respected.

ShouldWeFearRussiaAs I read these words, the New York Times revealed last Sunday that “United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan.

Then, another quote from Dr. Trenin came to mind: “Forcing his way to the high table, and making others deal with him out of necessity if not of choice, has become Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic trademark in his relations with US leaders.”

There is always a murky zone around special ops and covert operations, which always offer “plausible deniability” for operations like what allegedly happened in Afghanistan. Conventional wisdom would suggest that targeting soldiers for assassination does not appear like a good way to make and keep friends. But Moscow might get away with murder, since “for all its military superiority that it has been using elsewhere quite liberally, the United States lacks serious military options vis-à-vis Russia.” In other words, Vladimir Putin can continue pushing his luck with impunity.

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Vladimir Putin, Defender of Russia’s Interests

President Vladimir Putin, participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, on June 22, 2020 (Source:

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In just a couple hours, the heart of Russia will vibrate to the sound of patriotic military music. People will celebrate Victory Day and the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany – a feat that would have been impossible without Soviet contribution. President Vladimir Putin will be the host of the ceremony that will unfold in Moscow. Since he has been at the helm of Russia for 20 years and because it is realistic to think that he will carry on beyond the end of his current mandate in March 2024, I thought it might be interesting to conduct an interview about the President of the Federation with a leading expert of this country. Dr. Dmitri Trenin, author of many insightful books on the subject (I recently reviewed his captivating book about the history of Russia) and Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has generously accepted to answer my questions. Here is the content of our exchange.

Putin has broken the American monopoly in world affairs.

Entire forests have been used to print analysis and op-eds condemning President Putin and portraying him as a threat to the world’s stability. On the other side, your book about the history of Russia presents him as a leader who wants his country to be respected. What is his worldview and agenda?

Dr. Dmitri Trenin

What you say depends on where you sit. For those defending the current – post-Cold War – order of unprecedented dominance of the United States and the liberal and democratic norms that the U.S. has established – upholds and polices, Vladimir Putin is a dangerous disruptor. Since his Munich speech of 2007, he has been publicly challenging U.S. global hegemony and since 2008 (pushing back against Georgia’s attempt to recover breakaway South Ossetia) and 2014 (intervening in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine) has been pushing back against Western geopolitical expansion. Putin has broken U.S. de facto monopoly on intervening in the Middle East by sending forces into Syria in 2015. The following year, Russia interfered with its information resources in U.S. domestic politics which stunned many Americans who are not used to foreigners seeking to influence them. Russia has also strengthened partnership with China, America’s principal challenger of the day. Moscow has energy assets in Venezuela, whose leadership Washington seeks to topple; it has a relationship with Iran and contacts with North Korea, two minor enemies of the United States. Above all, however, Russia, under Putin, has veered off the West’s political orbit; returned to the global scene as a great power; and rebuilt its military might. Russia, which had been relegated to yesterday’s news, an international has-been, a regional power at best (Obama) and a filling station masquerading as a country (McCain), made a stunning comeback.

Continue reading “Vladimir Putin, Defender of Russia’s Interests”

Wellington, seul vainqueur de Waterloo?

WaterlooThierryLentzL’été 2014 fut le plus beau de ma vie, en ce qu’il m’a offert le privilège de visiter une multitude de champs de bataille et lieux historiques sur le continent européen. De ceux-ci, Waterloo figurait en tête de liste. Ayant toujours nourri un vif intérêt envers le Duc de Wellington, j’étais fasciné de passer une bonne heure dans ce que fut son quartier général à l’époque (et qui porte maintenant le nom de Musée Wellington).

Ayant habité en Écosse pendant plusieurs mois suite à cette visite, j’avais accès à plusieurs livres publiés à propos de la légendaire bataille sur les mornes plaines – les Britanniques étant friands de commémorer leur contribution à la défaite de l’Aigle. Un bel après-midi d’hiver, alors que je me trouvais dans une librairie d’Édimbourg, mon regard se posa sur un petit livre de l’historien Brendan Simms portant sur la contribution des hommes de la King’s German Legion dans la défense de la ferme de la Haye Sainte – laquelle fut cruciale dans la victoire de Wellington et ses lieutenants.

Je me propose de rédiger quelques lignes bientôt à propos de cet ouvrage, mais je me limiterai ici à mentionner qu’il m’a ouvert les yeux sur le fait que Waterloo n’est pas exclusivement une victoire britannique, et ce, avec tout le respect que je dois à mes ancêtres écossais qui ont pris part à la bataille.

Cet état de fait est également soulevé de manière très éloquente par l’historien Thierry Lentz – qui est également directeur de la Fondation Napoléon – dans son excellent livre sur la bataille de Waterloo.

Après son retour aux Tuileries le 20 mars 1815, l’ancien Empereur déchu veut, selon les propos de l’auteur « convaincre l’Europe qu’il était décidé à vivre en paix avec elle, dans les frontières négociées en 1814 et sans velléité de reconquête d’aucune sorte. » Les participants du Congrès de Vienne refusent et « […] Napoléon devait en effet, une fois de plus, jouer son trône sur un coup de dés. »

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La définition du courage: Les soldats du Débarquement

SoldatsDDay_GilesMiltonJe me suis souvent posé la question à savoir comment se sentaient les soldats qui ont été parachutés et qui sont débarqués en Normandie dans le cadre de l’Opération Overlord. À la fin de l’été 2015, j’ai eu l’immense privilège de fouler le sable de Juno Beach, le secteur canadien du débarquement. Après la visite d’une position fortifiée, nous nous sommes dirigés sur la plage avec notre guide. J’ai alors été envahi d’un double sentiment. Je ressentais d’une part une très grande fierté de savoir que les bottes canadiennes ont traversé ce sol sacré pour libérer l’Europe de la horde brune. D’autre part, je ne pouvais m’empêcher de me demander comment ces hommes se sentaient au moment d’accomplir le destin auquel leur dévouement les appelait.

J’ai visionné la série Band of Brothers à d’innombrables reprises, ainsi que le film Saving Private Ryan avec l’incomparable Tom Hanks. Pour tout dire, l’épopée du débarquement en Normandie me fascine au plus haut point et j’ai lu quantité de livres sur le sujet. Mais aucun n’avait répondu à cette lancinante question qui m’habitait depuis des années.

Avant le début de la pandémie de la Covid-19, je me suis procuré un exemplaire du livre D-Day : Les soldats du Débarquement de l’historien écrivain britannique Giles Milton. D’abord à cause du sujet, mais aussi parce que j’apprécie particulièrement cet auteur qui donne toutes ses couleurs à la bravoure des hommes et des femmes en temps de guerre. Je vous parlerai un jour de son fameux Les saboteurs de l’ombre : Le guerre secrète de Churchill contre Hitler.

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The importance of “Soft Power”

President George H. W. Bush on Tiananman Square in Beijing (China), February 25, 1989 (Source: ChinaFile)

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Few years ago, I was captivated by Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. I recently approached the former Dean of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former Clinton administration official to submit him a few questions. He generously accepted to respond. Here is the content of our exchange.

You are the father of the term soft power. Just to make sure all my readers understand well, what would be the best short definition of this concept and why is it so important in international relations?

Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want and it is basic to international relations analysis.  You can affect others by coercion, payment, and attraction. Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than coercion or payment.

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FDR: The Fearless President

3DaysAtTheBrink_BretBaierI have always loved to read about FDR, one of my favorite Presidents. Being a fan of presidential libraries and having done some research in a few in the past, I have vivid memories of the time I spent at his inspiring Presidential Library at Hyde Park. I was therefore very interested in Bret Baier’s latest book, not only because it covers a period of contemporary history – World War II – for which I have an unquenchable intellectual thirst, but also because he dove into the presidential archives, a real treasure trove for anyone eager to fully understand the magnitude of the accomplishments of those larger than life Commanders in chief who lead America at crucial times.

The title of Bret Baier’s book Three Days at the Brink: FDR’s Daring Gamble to Win World War II refers to the Tehran Conference (1943), where the Big Three (FDR, Churchill and Stalin) agreed on the necessity to open a second front on the West – with Operation Overlord – to relieve some pressure on the Soviet troops, which occurred on June 6, 1944. But only a quarter of the book is devoted to the historic conference.

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The reading habits of Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (source: Alexei Druzhinin/ Pool Sputnik Kremlin/Associated Press)

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The blogosphere is a jungle in which the blogger has to make his or her way. We depend on the interest we generate, beneficiaries of our readership.

For my part, I am constantly looking for subjects to discuss, books to devour and review and authors or historical figures to interview.

Upon closer examination of this blog, you will notice I am very interested in Russia, its history and its political life, especially its president.

A few weeks ago, I made a crazy bet, arousing the doubtful gaze of my loved ones. I got in touch with the Kremlin Press Office, asking if they would be willing to answer a few questions for this blog. To my surprise and delight, this request was met favourably, a privilege bestowed on few people I am sure.

The importance of this interview is not so much based on its content – one would have to be disconnected from reality to think that the assistants of the Russian President who work behind the mythical walls of the Kremlin will entrust secrets to a modest blogger – but rather on the fact that I got a response.

I am therefor very grateful toward the Press and Information Office of the President of the Russian Federation. Here is the Q&A about President Putin, followed by the French version of this exchange.

Who are President Putin’s favorite historical figures and why?

Generally the President is seriously interested in Russian history, although he has deep knowledge in world history, especially the history of the European continent. Vladimir Putin has sympathy for many statesmen in the history of our country, but perhaps most often in this regard he mentions Peter I. The role of Peter the Great can hardly be overestimated, it was him who laid the foundation of Russian Eurasianism [Editor’s note: a political ideology positioning Russia’s re-emergence as a conservative world power in opposition to the hegemony of the west and its values], which became the forerunner of the modern Russian state.

What is or what are his favorite(s) books / biographies? Continue reading “The reading habits of Vladimir Putin”

Sailing True North: A character-building guide in these troubled times

SailingTrueNorthSea Power has always fascinated me. I will forever cherish the memories of walking in the footsteps of Admiral Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbor and Admiral Horatio Nelson at Gibraltar. Back in 2011, I spent a night on the Rock and had trouble sleeping. Heat certainly had something to do with it, but I was also pondering how the British legend spent his days here, defending the interests of King and Country at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. I like to think that I might have crossed his spirit while walking in the beautiful streets of this British Overseas Territory.

These men and women who ruled the waves were gifted with exceptional and inspirational values. And I’m very grateful to retired Admiral James Stavridis for writing Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, where he details how these larger than life figures not only mastered what are certainly some of the most demanding jobs in the world, but also their character in front of adversity, whether it is the threat of invasion, war, bureaucracy, sexism or racism just to quote these examples. The best lessons are seldom learnt in easy circumstances.

Naturally, I will not talk about each of the fascinating personas that are presented between the covers, but I will write a few words about my Top 3.

Continue reading “Sailing True North: A character-building guide in these troubled times”