The Peasant Emperor

A few years ago, media outlets reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping dined on steamed buns in a Beijing restaurant. Whether this venue was an orchestrated photo opportunity or the instantaneous desire of a world leader searching for a whiff of normalcy in the sometime claustrophobic alleys of power doesn’t really matter. Its true purpose was revelatory of who Xi is; a leader who is and wants to be close to the people.

I was reminded of that outing while reading Kerry Brown’s book The World According to Xi: Everything You Need to Know About the New China (I.B. Tauris), a pertinent and still timely book (2018) on the actual leader of the second most important economy on the planet.

“Of the recent leaders of China since Deng [Xiaoping], in many ways Xi is the one with the most authentic, best-known links to the countryside, and his use of this set of experiences aims to convey this.” Furthermore, and probably because he was a victim of the Cultural Revolution himself, Xi had to make no less than 10 attempts to become a member of the Party. In a nutshell, the General Secretary of the Party didn’t get an easy pass to power. And I’m certain this resonates with many ordinary people.

Continue reading “The Peasant Emperor”

Xi Jinping: micro-manager

Deng Xiaoping (left) and Xi Jinping (right). (sources: Wikipedia and CNN)

I have always been fascinated with anything related to Deng Xiaoping. It is thus not surprising that an article from the Journal of Contemporary China caught my attention a few days ago.

In the scope of a few pages, the late Ezra Vogel compares the stewardship of Deng to the one of the current leader of China, Xi Jinping. The Harvard University academic, who passed away a few days before last Christmas, was also the acclaimed biographer of Deng, who was at the helm of the People’s Republic of China between 1978 and 1989.

Xiaoping, in the author’s words, established “[…] the foundations for the most successful four decades in China’s history”. He rose to power at the age of 74, cumulating decades of experience, notably collaborating with Zhou Enlai and 13 years spent in the inner sanctum of power. This enviable track record prepared him well for supreme responsibility. Well versed in the discipline of power and most probably surrounded by people who were well acquainted with his methods and thinking, Deng could afford to be a macro-manager. To that end, the following anecdote told by Ezra Vogel is illuminating:

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“Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China” – Exclusive interview with Prof. Kerry Brown

Dr. Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Studies (source: China Daily).

After the publication of my recent review of his insightful book about the history of China (Polity Books), Professor Kerry Brown kindly accepted to answer my questions about the relationship between the United States and China – an extremely timely subject. Without further introduction, here is the content of our exchange.

Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.

On page 71 of your compelling book, you write that President Nixon was impressed “[…] witnessing Zhou Enlai redo the front page of the People’s Daily.” I often ask myself if any figure has a comparable influence in Xi Jinping’s entourage?

I imagine the figures from the outside world that most impress Chinese leaders today are more our business or technology leaders than our political ones. The excitement of new acquaintance from the Nixon era has long gone. Now, figures like Warren Buffett probably arouse more interest in China, or Bill Gates. I guess this is simply a sign that Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.

I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around the issue of the relationship between China and the US.

In the case where there would be no such influential figure, do you think it would help, notably in the relations with the US, and why?

Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China, and indeed, till recently, went there. I don’t know however whether intermediary figures are of much help now. This is not an issue of individual people being able to sort this out – the disagreements between China and the US are structurally too deep. There are maybe groups of people who might, over time, help – academics, perhaps, in trying to at least maintain some middle space. But I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around this issue.

Continue reading ““Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China” – Exclusive interview with Prof. Kerry Brown”

How Deng Xiaoping shaped China

“Ideology doesn’t attract Chinese people – Marxism-Leninism barely registers with them”, writes Professor Kerry Brown in his succinct excellent new book whose title is soberly China (Polity Books). That notion comes as a surprise to anyone following international politics and assuming that communism is the glue of the régime. But the key to understand the rising superpower can rather be found in two other aspects. First, nationalism, which is frequently evoked between the covers.

And pragmatism. The author, who is also Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, credits Deng Xiaoping with ensuring the rise of his country on the world scene. “It was the less dramatic Deng who finally found a balance, trying to work with the world, gain from relations internationally, but always with an eye to China’s benefit.”

Those who assume that those who work at Zhongnanhai (the seat of Chinese power in the Forbidden City) are just a bunch of ideologues should think twice. Of course, the ruling party still advances under the red banner, but its strategists have a cunning vision of history. Hence, the shift from being simply concerned with influence on land to developing capacities to also emerge as a sea power.

While Mao Zedong is pictured as a vengeful and petty figure who encouraged open criticism to expose his enemies, Deng Xiaoping emerges as a more balanced personality and the real power broker behind the current positioning of China. The future leader of the country survived Maoist’s purges because of his “administrative abilities”. Along the way, he was also “[…] one of the many who had noticed that for all the rhetoric of Maoism, something was amiss.” His approach would not be about big speeches and slogans, but concrete actions.

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Biden cares about people other politicians would ignore

Evan Osnos besides a picture of his excellent biography of President Joe Biden (source: The Aspen Institute).

(version française)

Few days before the US presidential election of November 3rd, I reviewed the biography of then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden by acclaimed author and journalist Evan Osnos.

Those of you who watched CNN during the last couple of weeks have certainly seen him, since he notably commented the inauguration of the 46th President.

Despite a hectic schedule, Mr. Osnos kindly accepted to answer a few exclusive questions for this blog. I’m very happy to share this insightful interview which sheds light on the personality of the new resident of the White House.

Here is the content of our exchange.

I was amazed to see that President Biden installed a bust of President Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office. How does this former President inspire him? 

Biden has fond memories of Truman because of his grandfather’s political influence on him. He recalls visiting his “Grandpop” Ambrose Finnegan, in Scranton, and all the Irishmen in the neighborhood were blue-collar “Truman Democrats.” “That’s the thing they liked about Harry Truman: no artifice,” Biden wrote in his first memoir. “He knew where he stood, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.”

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How to Fail in Foreign Affairs

Upon his arrival at the presidency, any individual disposes of a considerable array of tools to influence foreign policy. The most important national security apparatus in the world is loyally at his disposal.

Since the title of President of the United States has been bestowed upon him, Donald Trump has taken great pains to devalue the work and impact of the men and women who give their best – and sometimes their lives – to protect their country.

In a brilliant and insightful exposé, CNN’s chief national security correspondent and former diplomat Jim Sciutto provides ample munitions to those who, like me, think that the 45th president is a threat for the future of the United States as a world leader. And the title of his book, The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s reckless tactics trying to bully his way to end the Vietnam War. As history recalls, his gambit failed.

One doesn’t need to spend an inordinate amount of time following international politics to understand how much Trump is in a league of his own. I was shocked to read the details about how the standard bearer of American values abandoned his Kurdish allies in the space of 2 phones calls with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – hardly the best ally of the US.

Lots of ink was spent during the current presidential campaign about Ukraine, the dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and the intervention of Trump towards the Ukrainians to seek an investigation – a move Richard Nixon probably would have approved when he was in the Oval Office. Doing so, the president tossed aside the duty of reserve any normal statesman would respect and functioned outside the established channels and methods. Jim Sciutto writes that this “[…] shadow foreign policy was so far outside the normal process that it ran contradictory to it—and that appeared to be the intention.”

Donald Trump does not respect his diplomats, his machinery of government, his allies and his counterparts.

And, to the chagrin of any James Bond enthusiast (RIP Sean Connery, who passed away just a few hours ago), Donald Trump hates spies.

Let me quote the author at length:

“In his view, foreign spies do more harm than good, in particular to his personal relationships with foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin. […]” He ““believes we shouldn’t be doing that to each other,” one former Trump administration official told me. In private conversations, President Trump has repeatedly expressed opposition to the use of foreign intelligence from covert sources, including overseas spies who provide the US government with crucial information about hostile countries.”

Let’s just say I’m happy Trump was not the leader of the free world during the Cold War. We probably would be living in a much different world, and probably not the best. I think Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush would agree with me.

Disliking spies who often helped prevent doomsday scenarios – as it often happened during history, but Trump doesn’t read, so how could he care – and lacking trust in his national security are alarming enough. But Trump goes even further in blindly accepting the rationale of Vladimir Putin (about Russia’s interference in US elections), not holding Kim Jong-un responsible for the death of American citizen Otto Warmbier (after his release from North Korea) or mentioning that Iran’s shooting of a US drone was probably a mistake made by a general. You can’t invent that. I could also mention how Trump capitulated to China in his trade deal with Beijing, highlighting the fact that this man is ill-equipped to occupy the function he does. But I think you get the point.

To his credit, Trump has brought NATO countries to invest more of their budget on defence, which is no small feat given the manifest abhorrence of Western countries to spend more in that domain. I would also be very curious to know what’s the author’s analysis about the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries in the Persian Gulf like the UAE and Bahrain. This major development will have lasting consequences in global geopolitics and the 45th president will have played a determining role at that level. It is still unclear why and how he did it, but I’m sure this would be an excellent sequel book for Jim Sciutto.

I have been devouring books about US presidents since childhood. My understanding is that each of them had a sense of history. That was until Donald Trump came to Washington. He seems consumed with the tyranny of short-term impact, a notion that is reflected in his anti-intellectualism.

Every president who took office at the White House became a consumer of intelligence reports and information. This is a vital aspect of commanding the number 1 power on the surface of the planet. But, once again, Donald Trump defies the norm. His national security can’t get him to even read “[…] the day’s topics into three simple bullet points on a single note card”, therefore generating the need to restrict the information submitted to the man sitting in the Oval Office and making him less aware of vital threats to the country – and there are not a few.

All of this would be entertaining if the consequences were not potentially tragic.

Apart from the troubling rationale documented by Jim Sciutto, The Madman Theory is an insightful and fast-paced book that should be mandatory reading for any student of international relations.

_______________

Jim Sciutto, The Madman Theory: Trump Takes On the World, New York, Harper, 2020, 320 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Jonathan Jao and Leslie Cohen of HarperCollins for providing me with a version of this book.

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.

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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?

XiJinping_SourceCNBC
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”