Top Gun Maverick and the Taiwanese flag – Exclusive interview with Chris Fenton

Chris Fenton (source: Variety.com)

With the release of Top Gun Maverick and all the buzz surrounding the issue of the Taiwan flag on Maverick’s leather jacket, Hollywood former movie executive and author Chris Fenton kindly accepted to answer a few questions for this blog. Needless to say, I was extremely happy to be exchanging with the producer of one of my favorite movies, Iron Man 3.

Here is the content of our exchange.

Mr. Fenton, the last couple of years have been difficult for the United States on the world scene and many observers are pontificating about its supposed loss of power. Do you think Top Gun Maverick is a good shot in the arm of American patriotism?

100% yes. Hollywood content can be an extremely effective tool for soft power. Top Gun is the best example of that.

What is the recipe for the success of that iconic movie?

The star power of Tom Cruise and the brand awareness among global consumers of the original Top Gun film.

The Taiwan flag was not supposed to appear on Maverick’s jacket – from what I remember of the 2019 trailer. Could you tell us why the situation has changed?

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Heeding Wellington’s Advice

Dr. Seth G. Jones (source: CSIS)

In the aftermath of my review of his excellent book, Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare, its author Dr. Seth G. Jones accepted to answer my questions. Our exchange occurred before the start of the invasion of Ukraine. With cyber warfare at the disposal of current armies – like the crashing of the Kremlin website today – the content of this insightful book is ever more pertinent. And Dr. Jones is the best specialist to better understand this new way of conducting war.

Here is the content of this fascinating exchange.

Valery Gerasimov has been an avid student of U.S. military campaigns.

Dr. Jones, in Three Dangerous Men, one of the things I found most interesting was the reading habits of Russian General Valery Gerasimov. Apart from devouring tomes about Russian military doctrine and history, do you know if he is also interested in learning about Western figures and military episodes?

Valery Gerasimov has been an avid student of U.S. military campaigns. He closely studied U.S. operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and other countries. Gerasimov concluded that the United States had moved away from what he called the “traditional” approach to warfare and toward a “new,” more clandestine approach, which he termed a “concealed use of force.” Gerasimov’s study of the United States was instrumental in evolving Russia’s own military doctrine, strategy, and tactics—including its use of irregular warfare.

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The bookworm, the martyr, and Xi’s longtime friend

War adapts itself and evolves. While some may take comfort in the fact that conventional battles are most likely a phenomenon of the past, the wisdom that guided those who won them is crucial to inform us about how to efficiently carry the fight from now on.

I recently reviewed the insightful novel 2034 by Admiral James Stavridis about a potential future war between China and the United States, during which China’s People’s Liberation Army takes advantage of technology to defeat the US Navy. Anyone watching the news can grasp that the rivalry between Beijing and Washington could lead to a hot war in the future, even if the author of the novel – a man who forgot more about polemology than any of us will ever learn – evaluates that the risks are feeble, the need to be prepared is nevertheless crucial.

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“Overall, 2021 has been a difficult year for the Biden team” – Admiral James Stavridis

Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.) (source: US Naval Institute)

Before the Holidays, Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.), one of my favorite authors, granted me an end of year interview about issues related to his amazing novel 2034 about a war between China and the United States. These geopolitical issues are unlikely to disappear from the radar in the coming months and years. The Admiral’s insights are therefore not only very informative, but also crucial to grasp the state of the world.

Admiral Stavridis, I’ve read and reviewed 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (Penguin Random House) with tremendous interest. Before we head into more serious stuff, a question burns my tongue. Since there are lots of mention of the delicious M&Ms throughout the novel, I was wondering if you are a fan of that candy yourself and if that’s the reason why it is mentioned in the book?

While I am not personally a fan of M&M candies, I have known many sea-going naval officers who are. I liked the idea of Lin Bao [one of the main characters of 2034] enjoying an American candy, essentially a nod to the duality of his upbringing.

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2034: The War With China?

I am not a person who enjoys novels. My youngest daughter was therefore astonished when she saw me reading 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. “Yes, but it’s about a potential war between the United States and China. Plus, it’s written by an author I really like and admire, Admiral Stavridis [and Elliot Ackerman]”, I said. I admit that this was an exceptional experience and not only because of the genre, but mainly because this is one of the most thoughtful books anyone interested in geopolitics and the fate of the world should read now.

2034. About 12 years from now. Might as well say tomorrow. Russian President Vladimir Putin still occupies the highest office in the Kremlin – a scenario that made me smile – and the Israelis have lost the Golan after a military confrontation with Syria – an outcome that makes me cringe, since I have seen with my own eyes how vital this territory is to Israel’s security. The Chinese are still vying for “[…] uncontested control of the South China Sea.” Equipped with superior cyber capabilities, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army neutralizes the weapons and communications system of a flotilla of three American warships. Only one of them will remain afloat at the end of the confrontation. A military operation that was supposed to serve as a message turned into a World War.

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The General who Prevented a Fascist Takeover of America

Few journalists and observers are more versed in US presidential history than Bob Woodward. In his latest book, Peril, written with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, they write that “Most [presidential] candidates struggle with the message. In his case [Joe Biden], he was the message.” The former Vice-President was the best positioned to carry the day in front of President Donald Trump, a man who didn’t and probably couldn’t grasp the magnitude of Covid-19 (“I wanted to always play it down”, he said to Bob Woodward in March 2020), or the basic tenets of politics. About the latter aspect, “[Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s campaign manager in 2016] was surprised that Trump, of all people, did not seem to get that Republican leaders were self-interested.”

In a nutshell, Trump – who did not have a story to tell – couldn’t possibly compete with a man whose own life was and is the story – Joe Biden. “There is no news I can walk in and give him in the morning that is worse than the news he’s been given many other times in his life”, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told the authors about President Biden in what is probably the best book published about US politics this year.

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“Good strategy might just be staying out of trouble” – Exclusive interview with Sir Lawrence Freedman

Sir Lawrence Freedman (credit: Boston Consulting Group)

Sir Lawrence Freedman is not only an internationally acclaimed author, but he is also the dean of British strategic studies and Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. I have a boundless admiration for this institution and I hope to enlist in the near future to the online Master’s Degree in War Studies it offers.

Sir Lawrence generously accepted to answer a few questions for this blog and I am extremely grateful for that. Here is the content of our exchange.

Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess.

My point was then that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, chaotic though it was, was unfortunately expected and the lesson (not to put substantial ground forces into a civil war) had been learned a decade earlier. Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess, especially as it plays a disruptive role in European affairs. It poses a challenge that is serious but should be manageable as its underlying position if weak. China has been getting stronger for the past three decades year on year, although that growth may be stuttering now. It has turned itself into a great power, militarily as well as economically, and under Xi has taken a much more assertive stance on a whole range of issues. I believe this stance will turn out to be counter-productive, but it creates a risky and dynamic situation which could spark a wider confrontation (see answer to next question).

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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.

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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.

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