“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”

“The CIA Director is ultimately the person we depend on to prevent another 9/11 or lethal pandemic.” – Exclusive interview with Chris Whipple

Chris Wh

In the aftermath of my review of The Spymasters, author Chris Whipple was very generous in accepting to respond to a few questions. If you have not read the book already, I trust this interview will provide you with an additional incentive to do so.

The content of our exchange follows.

Mr. Whipple, in light of the nomination of Ambassador William J. Burns as Director of the CIA (pending his confirmation), could you tell us in what direction the relationship between the President and the Director will lead things?

Given his breadth of knowledge in the national security field, and his hands-on experience with CIA operations when he was ambassador to Jordan, William Burns will have a short learning curve as CIA director. As an outsider, Ambassador Burns is very much in the Leon Panetta mold. And like Panetta, he is grounded and confident—essential qualities for a great CIA director. His congenial relationship with President Joe Biden is also a tremendous advantage.    

Continue reading ““The CIA Director is ultimately the person we depend on to prevent another 9/11 or lethal pandemic.” – Exclusive interview with Chris Whipple”

President-elect Joe Biden and the Return of Empathy

Like millions of people around the world, I’m impatient to see the results of Tuesday’s US presidential elections. Full disclosure, I ardently root for a Joe Biden victory. Not because I’m a traditional Democrat supporter (I am not, I canvassed in New Hampshire for my favorite contemporary president George W. Bush and I attended the 2004 and 2008 Republican National Conventions), but because of my profound lack of affinities for his opponent.

If you’re a Trump supporter, you can stop right here (and I suspect you will), because you won’t like the rest of this review.

When I read Bob Woodward’s latest book, Rage, a few weeks ago, I was struck by the following passage from one of his discussions with the current president of the United States:

“When’s the last time you apologized?”, asked Woodward. “Oh, I don’t know, but I think over a period – I would apologize. Here’s the thing: I’m never wrong.”

To me, that exchange encapsulates the Trump problem. Like kings of the Middle Ages, he thinks he can do no wrong. And he believes he can do or say whatever he wants, to hell with the consequences.

You don’t expect a head of state or government to be perfect. You want him or her to abide by certain standards but also to be human – like the rest of us. In this day and age, that’s precisely Joe Biden’s main quality in this race.

I was therefore curious to read Evan Osnos’ Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now, to see what more could I learn about the man who might be on his way to march on Pennsylvania street after his inauguration on January 20th, 2021. I did not seek a policy book. I wanted a full-rounded portrait of a man seeking the highest office in the US, detailing his qualities and shortcomings. By all means, the author did not disappoint. An avid reader, Biden is known for his loyalty and being humble, as well as being arrogant and sometimes sloppy. He’s human!

Evan Osnos writes that he is such a tactile politician that “When Biden and Obama worked a rope line, Biden sometimes took so long that aides had to restart the soundtrack.” Or when “Leon Panetta recalled listening to Biden work the phone at the White House: “You didn’t know whether he was talking to a world leader or the head of the political party in Delaware.””

In a nutshell, Biden is the kind of guy you’d like to sip a caramel macchiato with on a Saturday morning.

Thanks to the author, I learnt that Joe Biden – contrary to some political accusations – is not part of the establishment. He was, incidentally, “[…] among the least prosperous members of the United States Senate” and he planned to take a second mortgage to pay for his son’s cancer treatments (who passed away later). President Obama offered to help him financially, but his vice-president never came back to ask for it.

Biden suffered in his life. A lot. And one of his strongest traits (in my humble opinion) is that he is not afraid to share his humanity. A few days before Christmas 1972, he lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident. He went through serious health issues. The most touching part of the book for me is when the author writes about “Brayden Harrington, a thirteen-year-old from New Hampshire, [that] gave credit to Biden for telling him that they belonged to “the same club – we stutter.””

America is in a state of turmoil. Americans are suffering. Greatly. This mood won’t disappear at the touch of a magic wand nor at the turn of a blind eye. If he is elected this week, Joe Biden will probably never rank among the transformational presidents such as FDR, LBJ or Reagan. But he can be a gifted and consequential transitional one like Harry S. Truman or George H. W. Bush. The grandfather who looks like he’s just out of the gym (I borrow this formula from the author) would bring a healthy dose of much-needed humanity, sincerity, modesty, decency and, dare I say, sometimes vulnerability in the White House.

This electoral cycle, I suspect many people are voting against Donald Trump and not necessarily for Joe Biden. For those unfamiliar with who Joe Biden’s character, Evan Osnos opens a window on the personality of an attaching man whose challenges will be of Himalayan proportions depending on Tuesday’s electoral results.

Joe Biden most certainly won’t be able to transform US politics in a heartbeat, but at least Americans will have a good man at the helm of the ship of state.

Let us now hope that Evan Osnos will put his exceptional talents as a biographer at our service in writing about another political or historical figure in the near future. In his book about Joe Biden, he mentions the Democratic contender has read one of the tomes about LBJ by Robert A. Caro. Having myself tremendously enjoyed this four-volumes biography of JFK’s successor, I find Osnos talents to be comparable to those of the iconic writer.

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Evan Osnos, Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now, New York, Scribner, 2020, 192 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the always helpful Athena Reekers of Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy of this book.

President Without a Purpose

A few years ago, I gave lectures on the history of the US presidency. Back in those days, George W. Bush was the resident of the White House and was not a favorite among my students. At one point, I reminded the group that each of the 43 men who embodied the Executive Branch of the American government during their mandate needed special virtues to be elected.

George W. Bush was not very popular – mainly because of the military intervention in Iraq – but he had distinctive qualities of loyalty and determination, which, coupled with his principles and visible kindness, made him a great president (in my humble opinion). Never did I think I would be hard-pressed to find a notable quality to a sitting President. But that time has come.

I was impatient to put my hand on Rage by Bob Woodard. The legendary Washington Post journalist did not disappoint. His last book is one of his best, exposing a president that will certainly go down in history as one of the most polarizing.

When you think of the president of the United States, you do not necessarily expect an Ivy League scholar. But you can certainly hope the person will manifest some sort of intellectual curiosity and will be able to grasp essential nuances. Rage plainly demonstrates this is not the case with Donald Trump.

Among the many episodes evoked by the author, the following one is quite evocative of the man who is “impervious to facts”:

“Coats’s [Trump’s intelligence czar] relations with Trump soured quickly as the president persisted in asking Coats to stop or get control of the FBI’s Russian investigation. Trump wanted Coats to say there was no evidence of coordination or conspiracy with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Coats repeatedly tried to point out that the FBI had a criminal side and an intelligence side. He had oversight and a role in the intelligence side. But he has no role, zero, in the criminal investigations – including the Mueller probe of Russian interference.

Trump disagreed, or did not understand, and acted as if Coats was insubordinate.”

Bob Woodward paints the portrait of a small man who doesn’t like to read, takes credit for the work and ideas of others, lets himself be flattered by a murderous dictatorial madman who panders to his Himalayan ego by calling him “Your Excellency”, claims to never be in the wrong, has no idea of what a policy process is all about, needed his chief of staff [retired U.S. Marine Corps John Kelly] to brief him about what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and thinks that he genetically understands atomic weapons because his uncle taught “[…] at MIT for 42 years or something.” I have to admit I guffawed at that last one.

On COVID-19 specifically, Trump feels it’s unfair he has to deal with it – as if FDR was pleased to enter World War II, or GWB was content to respond to 9/11. Perhaps reading a few books on political history would have helped Kim Jong-un’s friend to understand that becoming president means sailing troubled waters.

The author confirms what many believe. It takes a certain ethos to become president of the United States, an ethos Donald Trump does not possess. Nor was he intellectually of emotionally fit either for office. In a passage, he quotes the president telling him: “Can you believe I’m here, president of the United States, and you’re here? Can you believe this shit? Isn’t it the greatest thing in the world?” This childish excitement could be forgiven if it was not accompanied by another psychological penchant that leads him to have disparaging comments regarding others. In the eyes of the New York real estate mogul, Barack Obama is not smart, George W. Bush is a moron (which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test) and members of the Intelligence establishment “should go back to school” – which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test.

Decency is a word that never found its way in Donald Trump’s persona and US politics is poorer because of it. After all, what would you make of a candidate who asks his campaign manager not to stand besides him on Election night because he is taller than him? Or when the same person who, upon becoming president, is not man enough to fire members of his team face to face, relying on Twitter to do so? I have never read such stories about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Because these three commanders in chief were emotionally stable. They acted like grown and mature men who did not need to trample on others to shine.

Truthfully, I never expected Bob Woodward to portray a likable, knowledgeable, intellectual and inspiring leader. After all, we’re talking of a president who thrives on hate and ignorance. Even though I thoroughly enjoy the “fly on Pence’s hair the wall” point of view – like future Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wearing tennis shoes when he met with future Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for dinner at the Jefferson Hotel – I did not expect to witness such chaos at the highest level of the American political life either.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law who serves as a valued advisor in his father-in-law administration is probably right on the mark when he recommends Alice in Wonderland to those who seek to better understand the current president. Paraphrasing the Cheshire Cat who says: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”

This is probably the best way to summarize the mandate of this president without a purpose.

Reading a new book by Bob Woodward is always a real treat. But I pray to God his next one will be about the 46th president that will move into the White House next January.

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Bob Woodward, Rage, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 480 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Athena Reekers, from Simon & Schuster Canada, who kindly provided me with a review copy of Rage and for her continued precious and generous assistance.

Should We Fear Russia?

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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.

Continue reading “Should We Fear Russia?”

Vladimir Putin, Defender of Russia’s Interests

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

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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?

DmitriTrenin
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”

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.

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Why Mattis didn’t survive in the Trump administration

HoldingTheLineReading memoirs of important players who worked during presidencies has always fascinated me. I notably cherish the moments spent reading Dick Morris, Ed Rollins, Peggy Noonan, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville’s books during my University years. Classics in my humble opinion.

I was therefore thrilled to dive into Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by Guy M. Snodgrass, former Chief Speechwriter and Communications Director for Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.

What strikes me upon finishing this book is how difficult it must have been to work for and with the 45th President. Picture this. You’ve prepared a briefing for the leader of the free world and this man is only fixated on organizing a big military parade in Washington, D.C., because he was impressed with the 14th of July celebrations in Paris. You therefore realize that, next time around, you will “[…] only use slides with pictures… no words.” You’re talking here about the individual who makes life-and-death decisions for 1.3 million members of the Armed Forces and can decide to start a war.

I could also mention the particular episode when Lockheed Martin’s executives decided to flatter Trump’s ego by pretending his involvement in the F-35 contributed to lower the cost. “The only problem? Those savings had been already planned for years in advance […].” That’s how insecure and immature the current resident of the White House is.

And then there’s the moment when people at the Pentagon – the Secretary of Defense at the top of the list – learnt, probably live on TV or over the Internet, during a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un that “war games” historically planned and organized between the US and South Korean armies would be suspended. Talk about respecting your allies. Much the same happened with the creation of the Space Force. Not to mention the NATO summit when POTUS went off message. In brief, “the administration wasn’t operating strategically, but rather looking for issues to provide immediate satisfaction.” The type of instant gratification you can expect from children.

To a certain extent, this portrait of the man was to be expected. Donald Trump has never been renowned for being a serious person, an avid reader or an intellectually curious politician. Chances are slim he will fall in love with a tome about General George Marshall or the minutiae of military affairs. I doubt we will see a pile of books set aside for him at the Barnes & Noble downtown D.C. (I once saw such a pile set aside for President George W. Bush during one of my visits in the US Capital).

I don’t know why, but what flabbergasted me the most was to read how Mattis reacted to Trump and the way he accepted to be treated. On one hand, he could have a phone conversation with the President, using a very ingratiating tone of voice and, on the other, he would lose control of a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and State Secretary Mike Pompeo, allowing them to interrupt him with impunity. Not the type of behavior you expect from a man who is compared to General George Patton and whose nickname is “Mad Dog”.

According to the author, James Mattis “[…] is actually conflict-adverse in dealing with people he sees on a regular basis.” Which could explain how a retired US Marines Corps General got trampled over by a real estate mogul and his minions. In other words, Mattis became a legend with men who served under him, but he was not necessarily cut to serve alongside a president who doesn’t believe in the tenets of diplomacy which are so important to Mattis and to Rex Tillerson who served as Secretary of State at the beginning of the current administration and was also fired by the Tweeter-in-Chief.

It goes without saying that Donald Trump could have benefited so much more from the talent, expertise and knowledge of a bookish military figure “[…] who at one point owned more than seven thousand books in his library […]” and who takes inspiration from the legendary Henry Kissinger, but these type of men need more than 180 characters to reflect and take action. In a sense, one wonders how is it that such a great man could stick around so long in an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of grace, diplomacy and vision.

Many books will be published in the future about the inside story of the Trump administration. But I’m certain Guy Snodgrass will be among the most interesting, because of his inspired style, but also his profound decency (between the lines, you can understand that this guy was way too kind for the treacherous world of politics). Like his former boss, he’s a warrior-scholar. And Lord knows we need such men more than trigger-happy provocateurs.

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.