A new Cold War with China seems inevitable

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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”

The importance of “Soft Power”

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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.

Continue reading “The importance of “Soft Power””

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”

China’s Role and Image in the Era of Covid-19

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Professor Kerry Brown (source The Diplomat)

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In light of the current crisis about Covid-19, Professor Kerry Brown, one of the world’s most renowned specialist on China who is also a biographer of Xi Jinping and who serves as Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London has accepted to respond to a few questions. Here is the content of this written interview.

Professor Brown: many sincere thanks for accepting to receive the following questions for my blog.

 I’ve read the fascinating article you wrote with Ruby Congjiang Wang about China and the Coronavirus in Asian Affairs. This is an extremely timely topic these days.

One thing we have learned in this current chaotic situation: we all have to become much more attuned and knowledgeable about each other before we end up simply shouting past each other and making things even worse.  

In the article, you write that China’s image is damaged in the West. Just today (May 13th), a Canadian poll was released detailing that “More than four-in-five (85%) Canadians say the Chinese government has not been honest about what has happened in its own country.” Since China wants to be considered and respected as a world power, it cannot tolerate that its prestige be tarnished. What will Beijing do to correct that situation? Do you think they might try to mount a PR campaign or any sort of outreach operation to reverse that trend?

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (source: CNBC)

It was always going to be hard for a country with China’s political system, its cultural, social and historical differences with the outside world, and its quite specific world view informed by its own complex, often fragmented history to be able to speak easily to the world at a time when its economy is growing more and more important. COVID19 has just made this challenge even harder. It has deepened some of the issues that were already there, and showed that in the US, Canada, etc, a combination of unfamiliarity towards China along with the speed with which China has come to people’s attention has at the very least proved disorientating. This is exacerbated by the ways in which China itself undertakes messaging – something which is often heavy handed, and ill adapted to the sort of audiences in the West it is aimed at. Everyone has to have a rethink about where things are going. Beijing’s messaging needs to fundamentally change – probably the reason behind the government accepting an investigation at some point of the spread of the pandemic, and the stress at the late May National People’s Congress on the need for co-operation. But as the world moves into addressing the massive economic impact of the virus, rhetoric needs to move to actions, and to seeing what sort of collaboration and co-operation is going to be possible. One thing we have learned in this current chaotic situation: we all have to become much more attuned and knowledgeable about each other before we end up simply shouting past each other and making things even worse.

Continue reading “China’s Role and Image in the Era of Covid-19”

Fighting Covid-19 with “The Weapon Wizards”

WeaponWizards“The most important 6 inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” – James N. Mattis

Israeli soldiers have always impressed me. Because they know how to use their brains.

Few years ago, I was impressed to observe several young Israeli soldiers carrying their Tavor assault rifle – which was selected by the IDF to replace the M-16 – a weapon better adapted to urban warfare, which is a necessity for the Israel’s Defense Force (IDF).

In itself, the apparition of the Tavor is a vignette of Israel’s legendary capacity to find a solution to a challenging situation.

Few weeks ago, I reviewed Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power by Yaakov Katz. After finishing that excellent book, I decided to read the first book he wrote with Amir Bohbot, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower.

And that proved to be a delightful read.  

The authors recount how, in the days preceding the country’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, the leaders of the Yishuv understood that they could not only count on others to build up and develop their military and defense infrastructure. The kibbutzim who fabricated ammunition clandestinely paved the way to a country that is now the 8th largest arms exporter in the world and became “[…] the world’s largest exporter of drones”, while also developing discreet relations with China at the height of the Cold War.

Barack Obama is the godfather of the Iron Dome missile defense system.

It is therefore enthralling to learn how drones – a common feature in current military operations nowadays – were invented in the late 1960s by an Israeli innovator who had to surmount lots of opposition. Or how President Barack Obama’s intervention represented a lifesaver for the Iron Dome, after one of his advisors “[…] was struck by Israel’s lack of strategic depth and how close towns and cities were to the threats brewing in the North and South. When Kahl returned to Washington, he drafted a memo recommending that the White House immediately authorize $200 million in Iron Dome funding.”

I might ruffle a few feathers here, but I think that Barack Obama therefore became the godfather of a military invention that is “the world’s most deployed missile defense system, with more than 2000 interceptions and a success rate greater that 90%.

Autistic people serve in the IDF in a subunit of highly qualified people.

Thanks to Katz and Bohbot, the reader understands that, while Israel lacks geographical strategic depth, this feature is largely compensated by the resourcefulness of its people. The most interesting passage of the book is when the authors write about a special form of recruitment in Israel’s Armed Forces. “Gathering the intelligence is only half the job. The other half is analyzing the imagery. For that, the IDF created a subunit of highly qualified soldiers who have remarkable visual and analytical capabilities. The common denominator among its members is just as remarkable: they all have autism.”

I can think of no other country that does this.

In the IDF, a noncommissioned officer can argue with a general.

In terms of uniqueness, there is another aspect that struck me in the form of “[…] the country’s infamous casualness and informality.” They give the examples of a noncommissioned officer who argued with a general or the reservists who complained directly to the Prime Minister’s Office about a commander who lacked leadership, therefore blocking his promotion. In most of the military structures, an argument and / or a complaint represents the end of one’s advancement. Katz and Bohot write that “creativity can only happen when people come together and exchange ideas. To do that, they need to know each other and share the same language and culture. In Israel, they do that in the army.”

ChutzpahDefinitionAnyone who spent some time in Israel understands the notion that Israelis have no difficulties bending the rules. Oftentimes, the book refers to an occasion when an inventor or innovator used what we call “chutzpah” (a word that is often used between the covers) to progress, violating regulations or bypassing the chain of command to get in touch directly with the Minister of defense. These innovators know that the battlefield is only a few kilometers away and that “[…] if Israel is not creative in its thinking, there is a chance it will not survive.”

Israel’s military capabilities depend on its capacity to adapt and embrace technological and scientific innovation. Those who wear a lab coat and annoy the top brass with their disruptive ideas are responsible for giving the men and women in uniform the edge they need on the battleground to carry the day.

The brains of Israeli’s innovators represents the strategic depth of the country’s defense.

The Weapon Wizards is not only a brilliant exposé of Israel’s military technology. It’s also a colourful account of what makes the IDF so unique and forward-thinking, the brilliance of its people, which is the best possible insurance policy for the future.

All of this said, I have only one regret about The Weapon Wizards: not having read it before. And I’ll be very curious to read anything that I’ll be able to put my hands on about the Rafael defense technology company – a fascinating ambassador of Israel’s capacity to develop effective military solutions against all odds.

In this difficult period where many of us are called to stay home to better fight the Covid-19 pandemic, many are finding themselves with more time to read. All those who nourish an interest in military history will love this book. Trust me.

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Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower,New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 304 pages.

I would like to express special thanks to Mr. Joseph Rinaldi of St. Martin’s Press for his kind and precious assistance.

All roads lead to Beijing

9780525656401According to some news reports, Turkey seems inclined to go beyond the threats of potential American sanctions, choosing to equip itself with a Russian air-defense system over the US Patriot air-defense system. As mentioned by one source: “One can’t fall out with Putin but can fall out with Trump.”

America’s current foreign policy, “We’re America, bitch”, undoubtedly has something to do with it.

In his fascinating new book, The New Silk Roads, bestselling Oxford historian Peter Frankopan explores and details how China is taking advantage of the fact that the United States have become a vector of permanent destabilization – notably under the leadership of a president who has no qualms to toss away old friends – in order to make “friends in strategically important locations”, in the context of a very well-articulated good neighbor policy.

topThe new Silk Roads along which Beijing seeks to play an always greater role not only spans a determinant geographical area between China and the Eastern Mediterranean, but also encompasses 63% of the world’s population. Peter Frankopan nevertheless goes on to observe that “[…] it is striking then to see how few friends the US and the West have along the Silk Roads.”

Of course, one should not be naïve to the point of thinking that the descendants of the Middle Kingdom have no interest in articulating their friendly and constructive geopolitical posture. Domestic, economic and security needs are at the core of the rising power’s motivations.But that’s to be expected, for international relations are mainly about interests, not idealism. One cannot expect Xi Jinping to throw billions in Djibouti or Sri Lanka without expecting something in return.

The author opines that “All roads used to lead to Rome. Today, they lead to Beijing”. We should therefore be prepared or, at least, prepare ourselves to deal with the power shift that is slowly but surely developing under our eyes. Alas, in the words of Henry Kissinger, “[…] we don’t understand their history and culture.” I have said it often and I will keep on repeating it, more interest, much more interest, should be devoted to understanding what comes out the halls of power in Beijing and to those who are making the decisions.

Xi Jinping might not be a frequent user of Twitter or a master of the vitriolic formula, but he’s becoming a master at winning the hearts and mind of those he wants to be his allies. In that regard and since he’s at the helm of the decisions perpetrating the shift of gravity from the West to the East, he might be the most consequential current world leader.

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Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, New York, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.

Why Vladimir Putin came to occupy the driver’s seat

TheEdge2It is too easy, in the Western context, to perceive the armed forces as a ceremonial tool used during commemorations and the military sector as a greedy budgetary expenditure for governments. As Mark Urban writes in his recent and sublime book, The Edge: Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End?, “[…] most of the European public has been conditioned by education and popular culture to be repulsed by war, yet has little experience of it.” (p. 49).

Alas, this far too common perception and phenomenon associated with blind pacifism ignores the deep currents of history. Since time immemorial, armies have been used to conquer, defend, impress or intimidate. I know he’s been quoted already too many times for any reference to him to be original, but Clausewitz said it best when he said that: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.

Failure to take these factors into consideration will come to a price to those who are guilty of ignorance. The future of the world will not solely be influenced by the tectonic plates of the economy, but also by the capacity of the emerging power to promote and defend it with the bayonet and the fighter jet. China, for instance, has understood that lesson very well.

We can’t say the same about Western countries, the United States chief among them. Outside the high-flown discourse they articulate and promote, Washington’s capacities to implement it in a concrete military way are decreasing. “What seems clearer is that many in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have not yet registered how old much of the United States military equipment has become, how far its numbers have already fallen, and how projected cuts will make it impossible for America to have the kind of military reach it used to.” (p. 79-80). In other words, the Emperor is loosing his clothes.

Enter Russia. One of the main gaps in how the West perceives Vladimir Putin is the fact that the Russian president is a keen student of history. Incidentally, one of the only observers not to fall in the trap of assuming that Putin is a shallow brain is journalist Ben Judah – but that’s another story.

Mark Urban notes that Russia has “[…] the will to use its armed forces to re-draw the map and [is] also reaping the dividends of a long reinvestment in these capabilities.” (p. 86) Vladimir Putin knows that, on the ground, good and modern tanks are better than eloquent United Nations resolutions or huge vocal protests without consequences. As Field Marshal Erwin Rommel reportedly once said: “in a man-to-man fight, the winner is he who has one more round in his magazine.”

For Vladimir Putin, military power is not just a beautiful toy to be displayed on the parade square or during commemorations, but a powerful and meaningful political tool. They’ve been an essential part of history making for ages and the Russian president knows that more than many other statesmen. That’s why he will, most probably, remain in the driver’s seat for many years to come.

All in all, Mark Urban’s book is one of the very best I have had the pleasure of reading since a long time. To be honest, I was sad to finish it. Short, very well researched and thought provoking, it should have a place on the bookshelves of any policymaker or serious student of history.