The end of ideology and the (ir)relevance of NATO

Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, the US-led alliance of nations that is known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pushed the eastern borders of its territory all the way up to what are now the western borders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. [Instead of NATO, I could have referred to ‘the West’ as a whole, but it is better to be precise when writing about these things.] It is a rather moot point whether or not such expansion was tacitly agreed with the leaders of what was then a rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union. In 2014, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said that NATO’s enlargement was, quite simply, “not discussed at all” at the time, so we should probably leave the historical discussion at that.

One thing is quite clear, however: no one in Europe thought Ukraine was part of Europe until Mr. Putin decided to invade it. That is the number one reason why NATO refused to get involved in it: the ‘in’ or ‘out’ of area distinction is just a legal nicety which NATO (the US, I should say) uses as it pleases. Indeed, NATO went to Afghanistan so there is no reason why they should not go to some other area if NATO member countries would agree on going there. Personally, I think it is a very wise decision for NATO members to leave NATO out of the war between Ukraine and Russia. Furthermore, from the historical record, it may not be very clear that NATO would be pushing east, but one thing that is very clear is that NATO would not turn against Russia. So what is it that I want to say here?

I just want to illustrate such things are a matter of choice and, at the same time, question the relevance of NATO: if NATO is not there to defend us against potential Russian aggression, then what is its use? The only reasonable answer is: NATO is there to do whatever the US wants its European partners to do with it, and they can decide to go along with it or not to go along with it. If Europe is serious about European defense integration, then we should cut the umbilical cord with the US.

Think of it. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, political philosophers (read: ideologues) like Fukuyama mourned or, more likely, celebrated the ‘end of ideology’. Fukuyama, for example, wrote this: humanity has reached “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Thirty years later, history proved him wrong: unlike the Soviet Union, China did not disintegrate. It successfully suppressed the Tiananmen protests and it restructured its economic and political system, in a very unique model which you may or, more probably, may not want to qualify as liberal. I think of this as follows:

1. From an economic point of view, it is probably more liberal than any other system (just care about money, business and wealth production).

2. From a political point of view, the system is not what many casual observers think it is: China’s one-party system clearly allows for different opinions being expressed internally and fierce competition from within the system. Otherwise China would not be where it is now. Also, I have had the pleasure to interact with Chinese diplomats in Asia (12 years of diplomacy, which ended in Afghanistan) and I found they suffered less from the typical ‘groupthink’ problem that marks some other diplomatic corpses.

In any case, what is obvious is that its system is, by far, more successful than the Anglo-Saxon (US or UK) or European system, as evidenced by the fact that China, over the past decades, grew to become the largest economy in the world. Indeed, China’s GDP is now commensurate with its population: measured in purchasing power parity terms, it is the largest in the world. Back in 1989, China’s GDP was only ninth in the rankings. So are we or are we not witnessing the end of ideology or – worse – the end of history, or not?

The answer is rather obvious to me: history never ends (it was so foolish to write something like that) and, therefore, our views on how to manage our societies will also continue to conflict. In that sense, we are surely not witnessing any end to ideology. If anything, that is what the recent clash around the US and China is all about. Truly wise political philosophers should just observe current international realities: the world has, de facto, become multipolar. It is one interconnected world indeed, but it is comprised of many cultures and very different political and economic systems. Such diversity is good.

So, yes, while we are not seeing the end of ideology, we should move beyond ideology and focus on peaceful coexistence and finally be very serious about working towards “the greatest good for the greatest number”, as Jeremy Bentham – the father of liberalism, utilitarianism and pragmatism – said we should aim at above anything else. That means, among other things, working with rather than against China. And it surely means refraining from any aggression or interference in the internal matters of other countries – especially those countries that, through sheer hard work, have seen their wealth growth to levels that are at par of the wealth of the West.

Also, when war is inevitable – as it was between Ukraine and Russia this year – then one should respond firmly (as Europe and the US did) but one should also prepare for armistice and peace as soon as possible. That is not happening now: shipping US$40b arms packages to Ukraine is not what is needed now. For those who are not familiar with such numbers: the annual defense budget of Russia is about US$65b and most of that is spent on salaries: not on highly lethal offensive equipment. So, yes, such interventions totally reversed the initial perception of a David versus Goliath relation between Russia and Ukraine: Ukraine is now, by far, the most powerful army in Europe, and it is not because of NATO or European support. It is because the US took over. That is a fact. Do we want that? Possibly. We just need to be aware of it.

The frontlines are all but frozen now, and the US and Europe need to work with China to end the war. Through hard-nosed diplomacy rather than more sabre-rattling. More sanctions do not only hurt ourselves but – more importantly – risk alienating Russia (not only its leaders but – much more importantly – their citizens) to a point of no return. That is not what we want: Russia is and remains our neighbor, and – just like individuals – countries need to learn how to live with their neighbors. :-/

Post scriptum: When you are a European or an American reading this, you may be irked and think that I think of the Chinese way of living as, somehow, being superior to ours. I do not. I lived in Asia for a long time (20+ years), and I also lived in the US (Washington DC) for a couple of years (I was married to an American woman). Now I live in Brussels. In the country where I was born and grew up: Flanders, Belgium, Europe (Europeans have multi-layered identities, don’t they?). I think of it as the best place in the world, but that is probably because, yes, I was born and grew up here. There is no place like home and, yes, ‘home’ is, of course, a very different place for all of us – just like family is different for all of us. That is good. That is how it should be. That is why the world is such fun place and why wars should be avoided at all costs: war destroys homes and families. I have witnessed that in Afghanistan and in Ukraine. I have seen enough of it.

Just for the record, I add a personal note on why I think I should speak up in regard to the need to seek peace with Russia. I left for Ukraine as soon as President Zelensky made his appeal to European and other international volunteers to join the fight. I would have stayed on (many left after the terrifying strike on the Yavoriv base, but I did not) but, sadly, when seeing lots of idiot volunteers and private companies and militias from the US swamping in about a month after we had arrived, I thought it was no longer worth it: we are all ready to die for the right cause but if, I use Sun Tzu’s words here, you no longer find yourself on the right side of the Moral Law, then it is better to go home. From a practical point of view, the Ukraine-Russia war is now a war between Russia on one side, and Ukraine and the US on the other. It is no longer the war between Russia and Europe that our media pretend it to be. Here too, I do not mince my words: Yankee, go home. Please. We Europeans can and will deal with Russia. They are our neighbor. We will find a way. How?

Well, for starters, the EU’s relationship with the country that now has the most leverage on Russia (yes, China) has remained relatively unaffected. Let us bank on that to begin with. I also think Europe’s diplomats do not have the kind of ‘with or against us’ attitude that is so harmful in such situations. Let me be blunt here: European diplomats do not display arrogance and are not complacent. That is why Chinese and Russian diplomats will probably find it easier to talk to them. If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. So, if your only tool is a gun, then… Well… Then everyone looks like your enemy, right? Europeans do not think like that. Why? History: this continent remembers its wars and has learnt from them. Unlike the US, Europe did not go to war again after WW II (except for the Korean war, perhaps, as part of the United Nations). The US has fought many wars in foreign lands since then, and participated in even more proxy wars during the Cold War. These wars have been everything but successful, and I see little or no learning from them at all. :-/

The old new world order

The current Taiwan Street crisis is not the first tense moment in the history of China’s difficult relations with the US. However, previous crises were triggered by China: this is is the first time that such crisis was triggered by the US. That is a fact, and it is what leaves observers like me totally baffled. Why? Why now? Regardless of whether or not Ms. Pelosi’s visit was coordinated with Mr. Biden and the US foreign affairs and security establishment, it is a fact that it trashed all credibility of the United States as a predictable and reliable partner for peace and stability in Asia.

With a war against Russia in our backyard (I am a Belgian living and working in Brussels) and the US acting irresponsibly in Asia (barely recovering from its disastrous 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and plenty of lesser adventures in Africa and elsewhere in their self-declared war on terrorism), Europeans are left wondering what will be next. Optimist hawks point to the new relevance of NATO with the joining of previously neutral Sweden and Finland. I am not so optimistic. Two points may be made here:

1. Such NATO expansion confirms Russia’s worst existential fears: NATO is not about coexistence with Russia (or China) but about further expansion of a US-led block that refuses to accept the fact that the world has, de facto, become multipolar: one world, many cultures, different political systems. Unlike China, the West refuses to move beyond ideology and focus on peaceful coexistence and work towards “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I am quoting the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham here. I am doing so very consciously: when talking liberal ideologies or democratic values and all that, it is always useful to go back to the original liberal and utilitarian views that inspired our societies rather than refer to some kind of new variant of it (think of the American Dream or other modern rephrasing of the values of democracy and freedom).

2. Ukraine no longer needs NATO. NATO is irrelevant: it is mainly the US that is providing the sophisticated multi-billion dollar weapon systems that Ukraine has been asking for. The Ukrainian Army is now one of the most powerful armies in the world (much behind the US but probably at par with European countries such as Germany, France and the UK). That is not because of European support, which is counted not in billions but in millions. That is also not because of NATO support (there is none). It is because the US decided to just take over. After its pull-out from Afghanistan, it is rather convenient to have the old enemy back again: Russia.

And now China is back as the number one enemy well. Good old bad China. And good old bad Russia. The war on terror became a bit difficult to defend domestically anyway. So we are back to the future. Or back to the past: a new Cold War with supposedly communist and dictatorial regimes that supposedly threaten our lifestyle, culture and freedom.

There are a few differences, however. Back in 1989, when the Tiananmen protests were suppressed and led to a profound restructuring of China’s economic and political system, China’s population was the largest in the world (as it is now, even if India, which did not manage to make the demographic transition, will soon have even more people to feed than China), but its gross domestic product (GDP) was only the world’s ninth largest. China’s GDP is now commensurate with its population: measured in purchasing power parity terms, it is now the largest economy in the world.  

A somewhat more relevant difference is that trust in the US acting as a benevolent protector of world peace and stability has been eroded. I do not have any statistics on this but I would not be surprised if confidence levels would now resemble those of Americans themselves: a 2021 Reuters-Oxford study shows less than 30% of US citizens trust what they are being told by their own media outlets. I quote: “The United States ranks last in media trust — at 29% — among 92,000 news consumers surveyed in 46 countries, a report released [last year] found. That’s worse than Poland, worse than the Philippines, worse than Peru. Finland leads at 65%.” Now that I look at it again, I see that the 2022 report is out. There is no improvement: “Only 26% of Americans trust news generally.” That is a 3-point decrease and still the lowest figure in the sample. If US citizens do not trust their own government and/or media, why would we?

I am not a China expert but, from what I read and know about the political system in China (and from discussions with Chinese friends here in Brussels), I have more trust in China’s one-party democracy than in the two-party cut-throat system in the US. Just for the record and to be clear on where I stand here: I do not have such trust in Russia’s political system: President Putin must end the war and Russia’s political system will have to change and evolve with the times. I am not talking regime change here: I am just talking plain sensible domestic reforms, just like what China does. Putin has got what he wanted: a large land corridor to the Black Sea which, yes, is vital to Russia’s interests (historically speaking, the Crimea is Russian). So, yes, now it is time for Mr. Putin to back off and for both sides to cut a painful but acceptable deal ending the killing and suffering.

I had hoped Mr. Biden and Mr. Jinpeng would have worked together to jointly convince Mr. Putin of such point of view, broker some armistice and freeze the conflict so as to stabilize Russia’s economy and stop hurting citizens on either side, but Ms. Pelosi’s unannounced and totally random visit to Taipei dashed all hopes in that regard. One can only conclude that Uncle Sam loves and hates the good old bad Russians so much that he is happy to be at war with them again. So where are we headed, then?

1. As mentioned above, as a European, you may think that NATO is relevant again and that our governments doubling defense spending will make things better but that is a mirage (meaning: an optical illusion). NATO is irrelevant. Us buying more guns or having more nuclear-tipped missiles on our soil makes zero difference in terms of posture or possible deterrence of any security threat that may or may not be out there.

2. The largest threats to world peace and security now are, without doubt, flashpoints in Asia. Such threats range from Iran over Pakistan and India (tensions between those two countries can also not be analyzed without taking China into account) all the way to the Pacific Ocean with, yes, the Taiwan Strait and North Korea as the most ‘clear and present danger’ to peace and stability in Asia.

I am not worried about these threats. To be blunt: they are none of our business. They may have been our business 30 years ago, back in the old days of this Cold War between East and West. Today, we are well into the 21st century and that is a entirely new era in which we should just tag along with whatever happens around us. To be extremely blunt and very clear on where I stand on this: there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why we Europeans would want to be dragged into the next war which, as outlined above, is likely to be in Asia. For example, why would we or our sons want to get killed in the defense of, say, Taiwan against a Chinese invasion? We only need Taiwan’s microchips, right? Why would we care if those are produced in China or in Taiwan or in some kind of new Greater China? Also, South Korea is well equipped to deal with a conventional challenge from the North. No reason for us to get involved.

Having said that, wars always have a tendency of spiralling out of control and that is why we should be worried. We can, therefore, only hope that China will effectively maintain the status quo and continue its long-held goals of peaceful coexistence – as it did when Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony and went back to the mainland as per the terms of the 1898 lease agreement between what was then Qing China and the United Kingdom (one country, two systems).

So what role is there for Europe and the US then? There is none. In my previous post, I wrote this: “It is about time that China, Korea and Japan find the peace they never had – still mourning the injustices of the second world war – a war that was not theirs to choose. This Taiwan crisis makes it clear that the US has outplayed its role in the East. The Europeans remain powerless in the middle (but Europe has plenty of brains and true multiculturality to offer). Peace in Asia will be peace for the world – and the only nations that can bring it to Asia are Asian countries.”

Two friends of mine (one Korean, one Belgian) told me such view is naive. So be it. I tell my kids not to worry about war in Africa or Asia. In contrast, war in Europe – as we have now – is an obvious worry, but dropping more and more multi-billion arms packages in there and refusing to talk to Russia (and China) – as the US Secretary of State did when he had a golden chance to talk to his Russian and Chinese counterparts but did not grasp it two days ago (at the occasion of the East Asia Summit) – is not a great way of starting to deal with it.

[I am polite and phrasing this very euphemistically. Think about it honestly: who was/is not talking to whom here? Also, if Ms. Pelosi would be serious about peace and democracy in Asia and, perhaps, want to talk about things she does not like about China, then why did she not want to see Xi Jinpeng himself and/or his much beloved (in China, that is) wife Peng Liyuan while flying around in the region there? Knowing a thing or two about protocol and hospitality in Asia, I am sure she would have been well received. Anyone who knows Asia, knows how important it is to respect protocol and, surely, how to avoid a loss of face, which is exactly what she caused: a loss of face for China. This is not going to be fixed or pardoned any time soon. Diplomacy is wasted now.]

In short, yes, it is back to the future, with one big difference: we should not trust the US to defend our interests anymore. We should do that ourselves. And we can do that by staying clear from irking large and powerful nations such as China and Russia: let them run their country the way they see fit. Let us accept to live in this multipolar but largely peaceful world and accept diversity: many cultures, different systems of governance, and all the richness that comes with it. We do not need a global cop. Especially not a global cop that keeps repeating the same line over and over again: “You are either with us or against us.” It may be a military principle (not part of Sun Tzu’s rather successful Art of War principles, however), but politics – national or international – simply do not work that way. We can self-regulate based on well-established international rules: territorial integrity, non-interference in domestic affairs, no extrajudicial killings in foreign lands, etcetera. Global cowboys have no place in such system. If the US would want to be constructive, it could, possibly, lead the way if it wants to by, for example, bringing its own defense budget closer to the NATO average rather than us ramping it up.

[…] Hey ! I like that idea ! That is a nice compromise to offer to the US telling us to arm up, isn’t it? We go up if you come down ! I really like that idea. It would make us feel safer. It would also make NATO look more like a true alliance. Consider this: when the US went to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, they just dragged all NATO countries with them. It was qualified and justified as an ‘out of area’ NATO operation with, of course, most of the command and control done by the US. The NATO Council members were bullied into it and justified it legally to the taxpayers and other audiences by a reference to the war on terrorism which, as far as I know, has no real legal basis from an international law point of view. But that was it. I was there too for my own country (Belgium) and it was all very interesting. But so now we have a real war much closer to Brussels or Berlin or Paris and London but NATO shits in its pants and leaves the war to international volunteers and, yes, the US.

I went to Ukraine too, by the way. Unofficially, this time around. And only very briefly, back in March. As a volunteer fighter. Yes. Watch this newsreel if you do not believe me: I am featured in it, shortly after we went underground after a Russian missile strike on our training basis. I could see all those guns coming in after a month or so, plus a lot of other people who were either more naive or – the opposite – much more useful than me, and so I decided to come back home. Not because I got scared (I stayed much longer than others) but because I was not needed: there were enough guns coming in and, yes, more than enough other volunteers who, unlike me (I was just a diplomat in Afghanistan doing civ-mil cooperation as Belgium’s chargé d’affaires), had real combat experience and better reasons to not like the Russians. I think of the many Georgians joining the Legion, for example. And, yes, many crazy Americans with no knowledge of the law of war and no respect whatsoever for the enemy (they found it strange, for example, when I would remind them of the fact that Russian soldiers were also fathers or sons and were not at the front because they wanted to be at the front – unlike them trigger-happy American volunteers). :-/

OK. Let me get back to the point instead of talking personal stories. The point is this: if the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a clear and present danger but NATO does not want to get involved because it got cold feet after the failure of the Afghanistan operation (what were we doing there, anyway?), then what is the use of NATO? It is a bit hard to not conclude that it currently just serves as some kind of collective market for buying US defense equipment, right? That is another reason why I am against a rise in defense spending:

1. It does not make us safer (see above).

2. I do not think European taxpayer money should be used to enrich the shareholders of US defense companies and further strengthen what the great American general Eisenhower and then US President warned his own countrymen for back in 1961: the growing military-industrial complex and its influence on politics.

It is now clear that Eisenhower’s nightmare has become true: the US military-industrial complex is now a fully-fledged military-industrial-political complex. Democrats or Republicans make no difference any more, as evidenced from the GOP praise for Ms. Pelosi’s brinkmanship. All leading US politicians are anti-China and, therefore, there is little hope either of the two parties will contribute much to peace and stability in Asia. If, as is very likely judging from the polls, we will see a lame duck government in the US after the November elections (when Republicans are likely to take over US Congress), Republicans and Democrats are likely to agree on the following: keep increasing the already enormous US Defense budget, keep pestering China, keep the war in Ukraine going and, possibly, send troops to other flashpoints (there is plenty of choice in Africa, and no one really cares about that continent anyway – except for China, perhaps).

Does this sound arrogant? Probably. Most probably. Plain arrogant. You are right. However, having survived a suicide attack, multiple RPG barrages, cross-fire, and other hazards in Afghanistan as well as, more recently, a missile strike in Ukraine as part of the volunteer International Legion in Ukraine (that strike made hundreds of casualties but I was lucky, again), I think I have the right to speak up and repeat the core message of my previous post: Yankee, please go home. You are not helpful when it comes to avoiding, preventing, or mitigating conflicts, and you are surely not very helpful when it comes to trying to broker compromise and end conflict.

Yes, your army is more powerful than all other armies combined and does easily ‘win’ wars in true Blitzkrieg style (‘shock and awe’ tactics as you call it). However, you have demonstrated that you never ever win the peace that should necessarily follow. The Cold War was followed by a very cold peace, and now you have turned back into another Cold War. Worse, proxy wars have given way to a real war with Russia. Its start was Russia’s mistake, for sure. But the multi-billion dollar equipment packages and the trainers that come with it do not help in bringing it to an end. That requires hard-nosed diplomacy, and the Pelosi visit shows you do not want to use that. So please stay away then and stop fueling fires. Surely avoid starting new fires. It is simply too hot right now. Also, one of the many Afghan sayings I learned from my 12 years there (7 years permanently and 5 years on and off) is this: jangal ke dar gereft, khushk o tar mesoza. Literally translated it means this: “If a forest catches fire, both the dry and the wet will burn up.” We Europeans really do not want any forest to burn. Forest fires are hard to control. :-/

Yankee, go home!

I find China’s official statement on Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the comments of the Chinese Ambassador to the US reasonable and well-founded. There can be no excuse or reference to the separation of executive and representative branches (President versus Speaker of the House) within the US system of governance: Mr. Biden and Ms. Pelosi are jointly leading the governing political party in the United States of America and, hence, one cannot believe that these two leaders were not agreed on the visit.

Of course, you may have this rather obvious but totally irrelevant question: Ms. Pelosi should be able to visit Taiwan just like any other political leader, from the US or not – right? No. Wrong. Why now? What purpose did it serve? What issue or problem did it solve? None. This is not like you and me going wherever we would like to go. It was an official trip. You need an invitation, and it had better serve a purpose. What was the purpose here? What need was there to antagonize China – especially in light of the dreadful war with Russia that is currently harming the whole world, and in which China could possibly mediate?

Also, think practical here: if you must go somewhere – in person – but you need to take three warships and an aircraft carrier along to protect you (plus travel in a military plane with more military planes as escort), then it is pretty obvious that you are not very welcome and that you should send someone else (someone who does not need all that armor – a trusted representative, for example) to deliver whatever message you felt you had to deliver there. Right? I do not go to places where I would need a gun to feel safe. So why did Pelosi take so many guns with her? She now says she did not want to change the status quo? What a blatant lie! Her visit tried to do just that – change the status quo – just like Newt Gingrich’s visit back in 1997 tried to do!

The facts are the facts, and they are crystal clear to me: this visit was an American provocation on China. It was a very raw and very blatant intrusion into China’s national security sphere – if not physically (it was physical in terms of America’s ‘One China’ policy, right?) then – at the very least – it was a psychological and diplomatic intrusion. There are no other words that can possibly start to describe such foolish international brinkmanship. Ms. Pelosi literally behaved like a mad cowboy: shoot first, think later.

The only reasonable explanation for this visit – which, despite its obvious sensitivity and the potential for rapidly escalating conflict, was kept unannounced till it happened – are the polls in the runup to the US elections in November (all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate are up for grabs). The US Democratic Party is not doing well in these polls (see an overview of them here) and, therefore, thinks it is wise to amplify Trump’s anti-China rhetoric or – an event that got less attention – fire missiles into the heart of Kabul to kill a US-listed terrorist (which is sure to be replaced and will only breed more terrorism). Mr. Biden can now also claim that he is not shy of personally authorizing the extrajudicial killing of a criminal, just like Mr. Donald Trump. One of the basic principles for justice – enshrined in both national as well as international law is this: the end (bringing a criminal to justice) does not justify the means (firing missiles into a country that you are not at war with, in this particular case).

Mimicking Trump’s anti-China talk and foreign policy is a poor idea, if only because the original in politics is always more convincing. It is an easy game, of course: China’s reaction is as predictable as Russia’s (predictability is at least one advantage of the leadership of these large powers). Fortunately, China and Taiwan (and Japan and Korea and other Asian countries as well) need each other more than they need the US. That is the only reason why I am confident the Taiwan crisis will not trigger yet another war.

The damage that has been done is of a totally different order: it has hurt US credibility as a predictable and constructive partner in a world that – since the restructuring of international politics when the Berlin Wall came down, followed by the Tiananmen protests and the subsequent restructuring of the Chinese political and economic system in the 1990s – has become truly multipolar. Most countries – more importantly, most of their citizens – accepted this: multiple political and economic systems coexisting peacefully alongside and accepting each other’s diversity. There is no place for ideology or senseless defence of meaningless ideals in this brave new modern world. [I always disagreed with the take of Fukuyama and other intellectuals on this: liberalism is, clearly, far from being the only viable or even most preferred system for organizing society. In addition, if liberalism is what the US stands for, I do not want it: it justifies gun ownership and other illiberal things threatening the freedom and safety of individual citizens there.]

Ms. Pelosi had a very distinguished career and has done a lot of good. I have always admired her – but now I find it sad she has become the person who delivered the final blow to US credibility as the wannabe Global Policeman in this new world. Such policeman is needed, but it cannot be the US. Not after this display of international brinkmanship and erratic behavior. I have worked on US contracts and with the best of US diplomats and military in Afghanistan, but now I must say: “Yankee, it is time to go home. Please take your nuclear weapons on Belgian soil with you.” [If you find the latter remark offensive, it may help to know that I briefly made myself a member of the Green Party in Belgium when I was young (so that was in the 1980s). Not because I am anti-nuclear (on the contrary: I am a firm believer in peaceful nuclear energy) but because their anti-nuclear position was rooted in the peace movement. It find it strange how the Left and green activists, de facto, moved away from their belief in a just international peace based on coexistence and global disarmament over the past decades – but that is a different story which is of no relevance here.]

So, the question is this: now that Biden and Pelosi look like old (possibly dementing?) but very dangerous random leaders fueling all flames they can possibly fuel, what non-American leader(s) – or what nations – can fill the gap? As for leaders, I honestly think that Xi Jinping has shown more leadership and wisdom over the past ten years than any other world leader. China fueled growth in the world over the past decades. China now plays a moderating role in the war with Russia. China engaged in climate talks – since a decade – and is serious about its green revolution. China invests more in infrastructure in poor African countries – still reeling from Europe’s colonial adventures – than any other country does. China engages seriously in international disarmament talks and nuclear safety. China shares technology. I can mention many more examples of constructive and predictable behavior. Chinese people abroad are generally proud and happy (I know quite a few here in Brussels). More than the typical American or European. Mr Biden and Ms Pelosi: can you please explain what it is that China is not doing right according to you? To my European friends: what exactly are you afraid of when you think of China? Frankly, I have no idea. You tell me. I lived in Asia and I also spent a few years in the US before coming back home here in Brussels. I might go back to Asia but I will never ever use my green card again.

As for countries, it cannot be China alone. For my Asian friends who are reading this: it is about time that China, Korea and Japan find the peace they never had – still mourning the injustices of the second world war – a war that was not theirs to choose. This Taiwan crisis makes it clear that the US has outplayed its role in the East. The Europeans remain powerless in the middle (but Europe has plenty of brains and true multiculturality to offer). Peace in Asia will be peace for the world – and the only nations that can bring it to Asia are Asian countries. You will say: what about North Korea and other political headaches? I personally think North Korea is as big a headache for China as it is for Korea (and other Asian countries). What can Xi Jinping do about it? Kill its leaders (like the Americans killing Al Qaeda leaders with missiles in the heart of Kabul – after their shameful withdrawal)? No. That is not an option. That is not how things should be done. Those are terror tactics and terrorism breeds terrorism. I know those are bold words but I am not mincing them. Asia’s leaders need to sit together and lead – not only to safeguard Asia’s future but the future of the world as a whole. And even if they can only safeguard Asia’s future, that will already be good: when everything is said and done, that is 60% of the world population already. 🙂

I am confident that Asian political leaders can sit together and jointly decide to accelerate the pace of growth in a better integrated Asia (and the world as a whole) by acknowledging the scars from past wars that were not theirs to fight and focus on economic, cultural and societal commonalities rather than political divisions. The graph below shows the lead of Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese firms in the 5G revolution that is driving Web 3.0 platforms – the current engine of growth in the world economy. [By the way, Qualcomm and Intel are listed as US companies but – just like Nokia and Ericsson – most of their factories are in China or Taiwan.]

The graph also shows why keeping Huawei (or other Chinese companies) out of European 5G and high tech markets is a bad idea. US tech is losing out. China has become so much more than just the ‘factory of the world’: China’s companies (and – yes – Taiwan’s hubs in nanometer tech manufacturing) are currently driving innovation in this brave new world. Starting a tech, trade or business war with China is probably the worst American idea ever, but then the US seems to be racking up patents on stupid ideas now: antagonizing China and dropping more and more multi-billion arms packages in Ukraine is not a great way to start dealing with the many crises that this world faces.

One last remark: I do not agree with Blinken’s remarks on China’s reaction to Pelosi’s visit being disproportionate. Anyone who lived or lives in Asia knows how important face is in Asia. Pelosi’s visit made China lose face. Diplomacy now is wasted. I do not justify the behavior from either side here, but I do understand how poor action can trigger even worse reaction. I hope the European Union will act wiser and work towards peace both with Russia and China. When everything is said and done, these two countries are neighbors and we have to live with them. The US, in contrast, is a long flight across the ocean.

[…] So, what is next? China’s military exercises are scheduled to end tomorrow, Sunday 7 August. It may or may not be the end of Chinese retaliatory action. That is up for Xi Jinpeng to decide. Some more practice may be needed. Mr. Jinpeng faces reelection himself and – just like Mr. Biden and Ms. Pelosi – he should do what he thinks his people want him to do as their leader. If that is to make the US or Taiwan pay some prize for the humiliation, then that is what it is. In fact, it is rather ironic but, if the US wanted change in Beijing, then this visit backfired on this front as well: Ms. Pelosi’s visit has strongly bolstered Mr. Jinpeng’s chances of an easy reelection to a third term as President of China. Just go on TikTok and look at the discussion threads there on the topic, and you will see that (lots of great cartoons there, by the way). When everything is said and done, not all is perfect in China, and Mr. Jinpeng’s handling of the COVID crisis in China had led to resentment. Now he is the Paramount Leader again, and rightly so: unlike Ms. Pelosi, he acted statesmanlike.

So, yes, Ms. Pelosi’s visit has offered Mr. Jinpeng a chance to demonstrate true leadership in difficult times, and he is doing that very well: he could have easily taken the Kinmen Islands, for example. He did not. That is wise. It is another reason why her Taiwan visit may well be qualified as the dumbest diplomatic idea and the worst international blunder of the US in the 21st century so far. Although it is hard to compare, of course: the illegal and unilateral US invasion of Iraq and the dragging of all NATO countries into Afghanistan (even if that was borderline legal) must rank pretty high on the list of America’s 21st century failures as well. :-/

Post scriptum: I do recognize a generation of American soldiers that is now gone paid a heavy prize for our European freedom, but my father and grandfather (both of whom are long dead now but would often talk about the sufferings of the world war) would always remind me of the prize which other countries paid when telling their stories about it. This is the ranking: the Soviet Union comes first (20 to 27 million dead), and then it is… […] China ! 15 to 20 million dead. Both China and the Soviet Union were wracked by famine and disease during the war, so some experts believe the countries’ civilian casualty numbers may actually be significantly underestimated. And yes, third is Germany itself, of course (6 to 7.4 million), followed by Poland (5.9 to 6 million), the Dutch East Indies – now Indonesia (3 to 4 million), Japan (2.5 to 3.1 million), India (2.2 to 3 million), Yugoslavia (1 to 1.7 million), French Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, (part of) Vietnam) (1 to 2.2 million) and, finally, France (600,000), the UK and the US (both lost well over 400,000 people in that war). It is an interesting historical perspective. In any case, the idea that we should trust the US to defend our freedom is totally gone now for me. I have seen them win wars – in Blitzkrieg style or, as the US military calls it, ‘shock and awe‘ tactics – but where did they ever win the peace that one would expect to follow? The world does not want the US to play the global cop. Come to think of it: did we ever? The title of this post refers to an immediate post-war sentiment: American soldiers were welcome but we did not ask them to stay on.

So, yes, yankee: please stay at home and let other countries and people get on with it. Also, if possible, please also refrain from firing missiles from ‘beyond the horizon’ into lands and territories that are not yours. What if China or Russia would start doing that? It is worse than some secret service poisoning someone, right? Start applying internationally lawful principles to try to get things done. Start respecting Sun Tzu’s very first principle of the Art of War: stay on the right side of the Moral Law, and that moral law has nothing to do with the American Dream or way of living. The method matters more than the goal now. Violence is not the way to go: any gunman knows that a gun draws a gun, so please stop using big guns to try to solve your problems – because you will draw other big guns. To put it differently: if your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. So, if your only tool is a gun, then… Well… Then everyone looks like your enemy, right? So, dear Uncle Sam, just stop thinking like that, please ! :-/ European soldiers fought alongside Americans in wars like the Korean one (1950-1953) and, recently, in Afghanistan. I doubt any European would want to fight another war in Asia now.

As for advice on how to possibly mend relations, I can only quote another simple truth: if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Stop adding insult to injury. Perhaps Ms. Pelosi could plan a trip to Beijing next time? If she is serious about democracy and peace in Asia, she should fly back to Asia and talk to Mr. Jinpeng too. Would he receive her now? I am not sure but – knowing a few things about Asia and China from my time spent there – I think he would. 🙂 They could exchange some presents like sashes and other decorative items and do some speeches too. Ms. Pelosi could also meet Mr. Jinpeng’s wife Peng Liyuan. She is a powerful woman too, perhaps even more powerful than Ms. Pelosi (I am not sure where both are on the rankings of powerful women but they should be pretty close). 🙂

Afghanistan

The news and images from Afghanistan recently have been painful to watch. I have been in and out of the country for about 15 years now. First time in 2007, as the Belgian head of mission. Pol-mil work, as they call it in diplomatic jargon. I was exhausted after two years and took a career break, which never happened because the country had drawn me in. The UN offered me a consultancy contract to help them spin off all of their information technology projects: I transformed Afghanistan Information Management Services from a UN project into a national NGO. Then I moved on to the Asia Foundation, resourcing and leading programmes such as the Performance-Based Governors Fund. Around 2011-2012, I was probably exhausted, although I did not feel that way. I just thought it was time for me to try to settle somewhere else. I fell in love with an American USAID worker, who had worked in Afghanistan but moved to Nepal. Hence, I went to Nepal and settled there, but still went to Afghanistan for shorter or longer jobs (see my LinkedIn profile for the detail of my career).

About four years back, I divorced my American lady. She went to Africa. I went back to Belgium and reintegrated. New job. Re-connecting with friends and family and, first and foremost, my two wonderful children who had then started university. My daughter is a full medical doctor now, and my son is in his last year of engineering studies. I still need to find a woman here to make my reintegration complete, but that will come when I am ready for it (I had not one but two divorces in my life – expat life is nice, but it does come with unanticipated family sacrifices).

I continued doing consultancies, though. My last consultancy job was a three-month stint – yes, in Afghanistan. It was just before C19 outbreak (end of 2019 and beginning of 2020). I worked with the EU and the Ministry of Finance on a direct budget support program, evaluating whether the criteria for releasing a few hundred million Euro were met. I was invited to the Palace by high officials. There is no way you can just walk in there, like the Taliban did. When I was there, even tanks would not have been able to break through the defenses. I was, therefore, utterly shocked to see the Taliban were able to walk into the Palace just days after they had reached the outskirts of Kabul.

Now I am watching the news and images from Afghanistan. I thought I had no tears left inside of me, but it is not true. My heart bleeds. I think many people like me went to these far-flung places more because of a desire for adventure. Because you want to be some kind of hero doing good. A great professional. You think you want to get involved but, deep inside, that is not what it is about. But Afghanistan is a special country: even if you are not involved, it drags you in. Its sad history but, more importantly, its people. I will not be emotional. This blog is not about emotions, but I do want to share what I have to say about, which I summed up in a brief LinkedIn post on the events. I write this:

“It is tough to watch what is happening in Afghanistan. All people who have worked there probably feel betrayed. Not by Americans. Not by Afghans. But by their leadership and governments. It did not have to be a worse repeat of Vietnam. It is a dishonor to the US veterans and those who have died or were injured there, the very ones Biden talks about in his press briefings.

Those 400,000+ of internally displaced since the fighting started this year, the distress, thousands of Afghans climbing the walls to get on the tarmac of Kabul Airport, and – worst of all – the total dashing of any spark of hope that was left (many Afghans honestly did believe in some kind of national reconciliation). That could have been avoided. That should have been avoided. It will stick with Mr. Biden as his single biggest foreign policy failure forever. And it will stick with worldwide sentiment about the intentions and capabilities of the US Government for decades longer.

US force (tested shock and awe tactics) always wins the war, but is uncapable of winning the peace that should come afterwards. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, just to name a few everyone knows. But there are also smaller troublesome interventions which led to nothing: Uganda, Somalia, Lebanon, etcetera. Perhaps I should label the invasions of Panama and Grenada as successes – just to make it look somewhat more balanced? And the Kosovo wars, of course. There were a few stalemates and returns to the status quo ex ante too. But – when looking at the investment, in terms of casualties and money – the record is all but but impressive.”

I will not say anything more about it (the words do not come easy, this time) except, perhaps, one thing. The longest war that the US has been fighting is the Cold War. And it won that too. But it is very clear it is not winning the Cold Peace that ensued. Further antagonizing China, Russia, Iran, etcetera seems to be both Republican and Democrat long-term policy. There is no difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden there. The US Government is making yet another big long-term mistake here.

Post scriptum: For the fleeing ex-President Ashraf Ghani (whom I met personally only once, but that meeting did reinforce my earlier impressions: he was/is too arrogant to lead a country), I have only these words: “Not only were you an inept leader, but you turned out to be a coward as well!”

Former President Karzai had the decency to stay behind – now, when a heroic President is needed – and, when thinking a bit further back in Afghan history, when Russian forces were rapidly leaving the country (in 1996), President Najibullah also stayed in Kabul – till the (bitter) end (unfortunately, he was effectively killed by the then-equivalent of the Taliban but, while that may have led to Ghani’s flight, Karzai at least shows real courage and ancestry now).

The latest news (Al Jazeera, 18 August, 09:41 GMT) has it that Anas Haqqani, one of the leaders of one of the hard-core factions of the Taliban, has met the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for talks, together with Abdullah Abdullah, who would probably have been a better President than Ghani (but the 2019 presidential elections did not allow to declare who of the two (Ghani or Abdullah Abdullah) actually won those). This is promising, or something that might be promising. Or, at least, we may think the next Taliban regime may actually be some kind of true national reconciliation government.

Finally, I should also encourage you to read alternative narratives, like this editorial article on Al Jazeera. It does help to, perhaps, think somewhat more positively about the turn of events.

Cold and hot fusion: just hot air?

I just finished a very short paper recapping the basics of my model of the nuclear force. I wrote it a bit as a reaction to a rather disappointing exchange that is still going on between a few researchers who seem to firmly believe some crook who claims he can produce smaller hydrogen atoms (hydrinos) and get energy out of them. I wrote about my disappointment on one of my other blogs (I also write on politics and more general matters). Any case, the thing I want to do here, is to firmly state my position in regard to cold and hot fusion: I do not believe in either. Theoretically, yes. Of course. But, practically speaking, no. And that’s a resounding no!

The illustration below (from Wikimedia Commons) shows how fusion actually happens in our Sun (I wrote more about that in one of my early papers). As you can see, there are several pathways, and all of these pathways are related through critical masses of radiation and feedback loops. So it is not like nuclear fission, which (mainly) relies on cascaded neutron production. No. It is much more complicated, and you would have to create and contain a small star on Earth to recreate the conditions that are prevalent in the Sun. Containing a relatively small amount of hydrogen plasma in incredibly energy-intensive electromagnetic fields will not do the trick. First, the reaction will peter out. Second, the reaction will yield no net energy: the plasma and electromagnetic fields that are needed to contain the plasma will suck everything up, and much more than that. So, yes, The ITER project is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money.

As for cold fusion, I believe the small experiments showing anomalous heat reactions (or low-energy nuclear reactions as these phenomena are also referred to) are real (see my very first blog post on these) but (1) researchers have done a poor job at replicating these experiments consistently, (2) have failed to provide a firm theoretical basis for those reactions, and (3) whatever theory there is, also strongly hints we should not hope to ever get net energy out of it. This explains why public funding for cold fusion is very limited. Furthermore, scientists who continue to support frauds like Dr. Mills will soon erase whatever credibility smaller research labs in this field have painstakingly built up. So, no, it won’t happen. Too bad, because LENR research itself is quite interesting, and may yield more insights than the next mega-project of CERN, SLAC and what have you. :-/

Post scriptum: On the search for hydrinos (hypothetical small hydrogen), following exchange with a scientist working for a major accelerator lab in the US – part of a much longer one – is probably quite revealing. When one asks why it has not been discovered yet, the answer is invariably the same: we need a new accelerator project for that. I’ll hide the name of the researcher by calling him X.

Dear Jean Louis – They cannot be produced in the Sun, as electron has to be very relativistic. According to my present calculation one has to have a total energy of Etotal ~34.945 MeV. Proton of the same velocity has to have total energy Etotal ~64.165 GeV. One can get such energies in very energetic evens in Universe. On Earth, it would take building special modifications of existing accelerators. This is why it has not been discovered so far.

Best regards, [X]

From: Jean Louis Van Belle <jeanlouisvanbelle@outlook.com>
Date: Wednesday, March 31, 2021 at 9:24 AM
To: [X]
Cc: [Two other LENR/CF researchers]
Subject: Calculations and observations…

Interesting work, but hydrino-like structures should show a spectrum with gross lines, split in finer lines and hyperfine lines (spin coupling between nucleon(s) and (deep) electron. If hydrinos exist, they should be produced en masse in the Sun. Is there any evidence from unusual spectral lines? Until then, I think of the deep electron as the negative charge in the neutron or in the deuteron nucleus. JL

How science works nowadays…

A few days ago, an honest researcher put me in cc of an email to a much higher-brow researcher. I won’t reveal names, but the latter – I will call him X – works at a prestigious accelerator lab in the US. The gist of the email was a question on an article of X: “I am still looking at the classical model for the deep orbits. But I have been having trouble trying to determine if the centrifugal and spin-orbit potentials have the same relativistic correction as the Coulomb potential. I have also been having trouble with the Ademko/Vysotski derivation of the Veff = V×E/mc2 – V2/2mc2 formula.”

I was greatly astonished to see X answer this: “Hello – What I know is that this term comes from the Bethe-Salpeter equation, which I am including (#1). The authors say in their book that this equation comes from the Pauli’s theory of spin. Reading from Bethe-Salpeter’s book [Quantum mechanics of one and two electron atoms]: “If we disregard all but the first three members of this equation, we obtain the ordinary Schroedinger equation. The next three terms are peculiar to the relativistic Schroedinger theory”. They say that they derived this equation from covariant Dirac equation, which I am also including (#2). They say that the last term in this equation is characteristic for the Dirac theory of spin ½ particles. I simplified the whole thing by choosing just the spin term, which is already used for hyperfine splitting of normal hydrogen lines. It is obviously approximation, but it gave me a hope to satisfy the virial theoremOf course, now I know that using your Veff potential does that also. That is all I know.” [I added the italics/bold in the quote.]

So I see this answer while browsing through my emails on my mobile phone, and I am disgusted – thinking: Seriously? You get to publish in high-brow journals, but so you do not understand the equations, and you just drop terms and pick the ones that suit you to make your theory fit what you want to find? And so I immediately reply to all, politely but firmly: “All I can say, is that I would not use equations which I do not fully understand. Dirac’s wave equation itself does not make much sense to me. I think Schroedinger’s original wave equation is relativistically correct. The 1/2 factor in it has nothing to do with the non-relativistic kinetic energy, but with the concept of effective mass and the fact that it models electron pairs (two electrons – neglect of spin). Andre Michaud referred to a variant of Schroedinger’s equation including spin factors.”

Now X replies this, also from his iPhone: “For me the argument was simple. I was desperate trying to satisfy the virial theorem after I realized that ordinary Coulomb potential will not do it. I decided to try the spin potential, which is in every undergraduate quantum mechanical book, starting with Feynman or Tippler, to explain the hyperfine hydrogen splitting. They, however, evaluate it at large radius. I said, what happens if I evaluate it at small radius. And to my surprise, I could satisfy the virial theorem. None of this will be recognized as valid until one finds the small hydrogen experimentally. That is my main aim. To use theory only as a approximate guidance. After it is found, there will be an explosion of “correct” theories.” A few hours later, he makes things even worse by adding: “I forgot to mention another motivation for the spin potential. I was hoping that a spin flip will create an equivalent to the famous “21cm line” for normal hydrogen, which can then be used to detect the small hydrogen in astrophysics. Unfortunately, flipping spin makes it unstable in all potential configurations I tried so far.”

I have never come across a more blatant case of making a theory fit whatever you want to prove (apparently, X believes Mills’ hydrinos (hypothetical small hydrogen) are not a fraud), and it saddens me deeply. Of course, I do understand one will want to fiddle and modify equations when working on something, but you don’t do that when these things are going to get published by serious journals. Just goes to show how physicists effectively got lost in math, and how ‘peer reviews’ actually work: they don’t. The reviewers check if you are part of the in-crowd. If you are not, you are out. If you are in, you are in. :-/ And this is physics: the king of science? It is a whore.

The implosion of the EU

The Russian Foreign Minister pronounced the EU officially dead – as far as Russia is concerned, at least: ““There are no relations with the European Union as an organization. […] Moscow only has relations with individual EU nations now.” Similarly, China finds the EU also increasingly difficult to deal with, and may also decide to just treat the EU for what it has become: a wasteful international bureaucracy. Brexit, the mismanagement of the COVID-crisis, and the increasingly diverging politics and political views within the EU only exposed the deep-rooted rot.

The Russian and Chinese Foreign Minister both want to strengthen the UN Security Council, which is probably a good thing – because the UNSC embodies the kind of nasty but effective realist deal-making our brave new multi-polar world desperately needs – especially now that all trust in the US as a ‘global policeman’ has been eroded. Biden calling Putin a ‘killer’ has not helped matters in this regard.

The UNSC might work – especially with Germany playing a more active role now as non-permanent member, probably seeking to reform it so as to achieve permanent member status. Enlargement of the UNSC should not be based on the preferences of the current permanent members, but on real power-projecting capabilities and other assets that may help to stabilize an increasingly volatile world. We may criticize Russia and China but – unlike democracies such as India – these are societies – or social systems – which have managed to define and, more importantly, implement medium- and long-term political and economic objectives. The numbers of 20 years of Putin, and a rapid comparison of China’s growth versus that of India (similarly endowed with natural and human resources) speak for themselves. Measured against Bentham’s utilitarian moral rule (what produces the greatest good for the greatest number?), Russia and China have surely done better than any other (large) society over the past 20 years.

As for Europe, I am not sure it has much future. Even as a name, it does not work very well: Europa was just a consort of Zeus, and she came from a region which is currently referred to as Turkey. So what message were ‘European’ politicians trying to convey with the idea of Europe anyway? :-/

Ursula von der Leyen still has another four years to go, and does much better than inebriated Juncker (but then he was, without any doubt, the weakest EUC President ever), but she faces an uphill (impossible?) housecleaning task. Perhaps she should speak more German than French? With Brexit, a return to either is good. Let’s see what Germany’s voters say in September. Their vote is more important than others’. That is not a racial prejudice, but just fact: some people matter more than others, and some countries matter more than others, too!

[…] So what makes sense, then – in terms of international order? Perhaps the idea of weighted voting in the larger UN system should be re-considered. It may well be the only rational alternative to a return to the 19th-century international system, which was based on rivalry between nation-states. The only difference is that the world population will soon reach the staggering 8 billion mark, up from less than 2 billion in 1900: it more than doubled since I was born (which is 50 years ago). Doomsday thinking is not warranted, however. 🙂 And the nation-states are different. Two of them (China and India) now account for 36% of the world’s population. Asia as a whole will account for about 55% of the total in 2050, Africa 25% share. Europe and North America? Probably about 10% only, but this projection is based on healthy (overoptimistic?) demographics for the US and Canada.

The US alone still accounts for about 40% of the world’s spending on arms and the military. To protect whom against whom? Europe from Russia? The Middle East, Central Asia or Africa from fundamentalists? Democracies against dictatorships? And with what mandate, really? The US bypassing the UN Security Council in 2003 (the invasion of Iraq), as well as on numerous other occasions and related matters (including the first Gulf War) damaged its international credibility beyond repair. I worked for about 10 years in Afghanistan – about half of that time I was paid out of US taxpayers’ money – and I understand the appeal of the Yankee, go home idea very much. I believe that, since Trump, more Americans start to understand it too.

What about NATO? It served two purposes: one was to prevent war between its members, the other was to protect Europe against the Russians. The latter threat is no longer relevant in this interdependent world, so NATO should (also) scale down its xenophobic rhetoric, and focus on the first: reduce tensions between Greece and Turkey, focus on stability in the Balkans, reduce tension in former Eastern Europe (please stop expanding, NATO!), etcetera). Unfortunately, rational decision-making and international institutions are difficult to marry. :-/

Remembering 9/11

11 September. A sad day of remembrance of a historical event on another continent. The world has changed in the meanwhile – and very much so. Unfortunately, it is not a better world now. The refugees who try to reach Europe may be said to be refugees from the great act of vengeance of the US.

[…]

I hate Trump, but today I thought US politics are actually none of my business. Worse, if Trump wins, that may be bad news for the US but – if America First would effectively mean the end of US interventionism – that would probably be good news for the world. At the very least, it would force our Old Continent to finally deal with the world as it is, and on its own terms rather than on those dictated by the US military-industrial complex.

Post scriptum: By the way, I do think Trump is going to win. Let me absolutely clear on this: I do not hope so, but I do think so. I follow very few people on Twitter—but Trump and Biden are among them. I usually junk their tweets immediately. Trump’s tweets make no sense. Biden’s tweets − about the shenanigans of the likes of Michael Flynn or other débris from an ill-timed and totally disastrous impeachment attempt − are too complicated to look at.

So, yes, I hope Trump loses the next US elections. I really do. Why? Because another four years of Trump will completely demolish the US as we know it. However, being rational, it looks like Trump will win. Hands down. Like Boris Yeltsin in the UK. […] Sorry. I meant Boris Johnson. Why do I think Trump is going to win? Because the Democrats are too stupid to handle him.

Polls reveal support for Biden is based on an anti-Trump feeling. That’s it: an anti-Trump agenda. Nothing more. The Democrats are making the same mistake: they are putting Trump in the underdog position. Nothing that suits him better: if Biden would admit Trump might win, he would have a chance. But the Democrats will not even consider that, so they will lose. Again.

In terms of personality contests, there is no comparison: it is pretty obvious Trump eats guys like Biden for breakfast. Finally, and most worrisome, public rallies – like these boat parades, the Trumptillas – draw incredible support and basically show the Americans have had it with democracy: they want enlightened dictatorship. Like Germany in the 1930s: the people want change. However bad the change may be. Trump may not be very enlightened but he sure brings the dictatorship part of that scary New American Dream.

I am just trying to rationally think this through here. No emotion.

The new EU Commission

I will be honest: when I first read through the new political program of the new European Commission, which is to be led by Mrs. Ursula von der Leyen, I was quite enthusiastic. It hit all of the right notes. [By the way, the lowercase v in von der Leyen is there fore the right reason: pedigree.] But then I started to read a bit. I thought: I’ve been abroad for too long, so I should check what it’s all about.

I found this: most – if not all – of the Political Guidelines for the 2019-2024 Commission are just copy-paste from Juncker’s Guidelines for the 2014-2019 Commission (‘A New Start for Europe’). Mrs. von der Leyen only re-packaged Juncker’s ‘Forward-Looking Climate Change Policy’ into a new ‘European Green Deal’ and put it first place to please the Greens and other left-wing movements.

These guidelines continue to reflect the federal utopia of the ruling pro-European political parties: the European People’s Party, the Party of European Socialists (PES), and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), which dominate the Commission (85% of Commissioners) and the European Parliament (60% of MEPs). It blatantly undercuts the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality as laid down in the TEU and TFEU treaties. Mrs. von der Leyen’s programme will also continue to feed a sprawling EU bureaucracy (32,000 staff in the European Commission alone, not counting agencies and committees) which EU citizens can no longer identify with.

The European Union does not need a new start. It needs to get back to basics, and that is to promote free enterprise, liberty, democracy and security – internally and externally. The EU needs to stay away from redistributing hard-earned taxpayer money and dictating the economic and political choices of its member states. Countries with lower productivity growth, for example, should not be forced into a monetary union. They should, instead, be encouraged to fully unleash the potential of free-market policies, and the benefits of deregulation, lower taxation, and effective governance. The EU should stop gradually increasing its power in each and every area: power should, instead, be given back to the lowest level possible.

Instead of proposing another European Democracy Action Plan, or launching another Conference aimed at expanding the powers of the EU, Mrs. von der Leyen should initiate an honest reflection on why a majority of the British people voted to get out of the European Union while – back in 1975 – almost 70% of the UK’s population was in favor of the then Conservative government’s choice to accede.

While Mrs. von der Leyen refers to the May 2019 elections in her mission letters to all of the Commissioners-designate, she fails to accept European voters voted overwhelmingly right-wing: the EPP and S&D fractions no longer have a majority in European Parliament: only by co-opting the ALDE MEPs who, unfortunately, subscribe to the same federalist utopia, will they be able to propose and adopt more of the same. By refusing to acknowledge the need for a Euro-realist reform of the EU’s institutions and policies, these three status-quo parties pave the way for Euro-skepticism and worse: increased support for extremism, authoritarianism and racism is already evident now. Burying one’s head in the sand is not an option.

While climate change, the economy, big data,  social inclusion and the return of extremist political views are, obviously, very real concerns, the solutions that the likes of Mr. Juncker and Mrs. von der Leyen have been pushing at the European level are not working. On the contrary, they are making things worse by further alienating citizens from politics and government. Most citizens in EU member want less regulation, lower taxation and smaller government: not more !

The EU’s migration policies and its tentative Common European Asylum Policy are not working. Political leaders simply need to accept European countries cannot accommodate all people fleeing from war or poverty. If it does not want to radicalize populations in Czechia, Poland and Hungary, then the EU should stop imposing quota. Uncontrolled migration and abuse of the right to political asylum are to be stopped by a strong defense of the external borders of the European Union and by moving forward on full integration of the Western Balkans.

The EU should pursue solid agreements with the countries of origin ensuring a safe return. Such agreements, and the EU’s external action in general, should also address the root causes of the problems that make people flee. Such external action should not be pursued in splendid isolation: if Mrs. von der Leyen’s call for a ‘genuine European Defense Union’ leads Mr. Macron to proclaim NATO’s ‘brain death’, then we should not pursue this union – because it is clear to all that NATO, and NATO only, has enabled the new democracies in Eastern Europe to resist Russia’s attempts to re-establish the Cold War border between democratic and authoritarian states.

Mrs. von der Leyen wants her incoming Commission to be a ‘geopolitical Commission.’ If that is her true objective, she made a very poor start in laying out its vision and foundations. The citizens of Europe’s nation-states voted for another platform just a few months ago. :-/

International laborers

I am in Dubai airport, waiting to catch a plane en route from Kabul to Kathmandu. Dubai airport was built and is serviced by foreigners. All of the hubs in this sheikhy region are. I’ve seen most of them. They all look more or less the same-and surely the people who work in them. Poor Nepali, Indians or Bangladeshi clean the toilets and the public areas. Philippinos, or others who happen to speak somewhat better English that the others, run the shops and eateries. Africans are making inroads into this job market as well. The fanciest jobs – airline staff, for example – are reserved for pretty ladies from all over the world, just like anywhere in the world. Asian or Eurasian, it doesn’t matter: a stewardess has to be pretty, smile and look smart. The diversity of stewardesses matches the diversity of travelers. Wherever they are in the pecking order, they’re international laborers. Just like most people who are transiting through here.

The South Asian laborers working outside, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun, sip from their bottle of water as they take a rest. The Russian, British and Singaporean stewardesses at the table next to mine sip Costa coffee, just like me. [I am actually not sure about the last girl’s nationality but she sure looks like the ‘Singaporean girl’ of the publicity.] We are lucky.

Am I an international laborer? My consultancy job in Afghanistan pays more than what I could earn in my home country with my experience and degrees. I chose to go abroad. So… No. I am not an international laborer. But then people servicing this airport-including the pretty stewardesses over there-think they made a choice as well, don’t they? [Did I choose to go abroad? Perhaps not-but that’s another story: I am where I am and I am happy with that. It’s no use complaining anyway, is it? In fact, when I see a pretty stewardess, I always think about that Belgian ambassador who married one. Both of them were lucky people (she was beautiful and he was rich and powerful), but they never seemed to be happy together, and so I always wondered why they chose to be together.]

In any case, let’s go back to the stewardesses and me. How are we different? Job-wise that is. Both our salaries are determined not in national labor markets but by global demand and supply: Dubai has to keep up with Doha, or vice versa, or with Brussels or London, and USAID-approved salary scales in Kabul can’t be too out of whack with USAID’s in Baghdad. So are we a global commodity?

If we are, then we’re obviously less of a commodity than the South Asian crew outside, digging up God knows what. They really are a commodity, I would think. They’re probably as bad off as the Belgian laborers, whose sight led Marx to re-write the theory of capitalism at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps they’re even worse off. Surely if they’d be working on some sheikhy construction yard outside of the airport. It was on the news that, in the past year, since construction started for the UEFA Cup in Qatar, a few thousand Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi construction workers have died there from ‘accidents’ building stadiums and other infrastructure. Let’s try to put that number in perspective.

As a percentage of the trade in ‘voluntary slaves’, it may not be an awful lot. Probably about the same percentage of the US and other foreign soldiers – as part of the total presence – who died on Afghan soil for a cause that no one really understands. [As for the term ‘voluntary slaves’, I don’t have a better one. What else should we call them? Upon arrival, their passport is taken away, and they can’t switch employers, even if they’re not being paid. That qualifies as ‘slave’, I think.] In comparison to the number who dies from heart attack in an average European country, a few thousand is also a rather relative number. And madmen machine-gunning innocent men, women and children in a US school or shopping mall kill as much, it seems. Conflicts or natural disasters also easily claim a few thousand victims. So what’s a few thousand?

I think the number is an indicator of the state of our over-populated world, and it’s a horrendous statistic, just as horrendous as the number of women who end up as sex slaves, or the children that get sold, in the poorest of the poor countries, to pay off a debt, or because the parents can’t afford to feed them. Trafficking in human beings – national and international – is a gray zone, but there’s gray that’s almost black, as opposed to gray that’s close to white. Those Nepali workers dying in ‘accidents’ in Qatar surely qualify for the very dark grey zone as far as I am concerned.

But let me go back to where I am – Dubai airport – and the human beings who are working here, i.e. the men and women I can see as I am typing these words: the lady serving Costa coffee, the stewardesses chatting away, and those poor guys working just next to the runway, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun scorching the earth.

A benign view is that this ‘recycling’ – direct or indirect – of petrodollars serves at least two purposes. First, infrastructure gets built in what would, otherwise, just be desert, worth only as much as the market price of the oil beneath it. We can’t blame the sheikh countries to try to diversify their economy, can we? The second argument is also economic: labor has become an internationally tradable community, and the theory of comparative advantages tells us the world should indeed take advantage of that, because – when you add everything up – taking advantage of it will increase the world’s GDP more than when not taking advantage of it. An even more fundamental argument, perhaps, is that if sheikh A doesn’t take advantage of it, sheikh B and C will, and so then we have unfair competition, and that’s, surely, a no-no for any economist, isn’t it?

Perhaps. That all makes sense. I actually am an economist. However, I can’t think of many countries that have become rich by exporting their labor. None actually, including mine: Belgium’s brainy people work abroad, like me. So if a country suffers from exporting its labor (usually the best and brightest leave indeed), there might be some conflict between national and global interest here. That’s one. [Strangely enough, I find myself saying here something that Comrade Prachanda in Nepal regularly says in his speeches. So I am not in good company.]

My second point is more subtle. I’ve detailed the micro- or meso-economic logic behind the gross macro-economic simplifications underlying the comparative advantages theory in one of my other posts, and it’s a mixed story. When you walk about a bit in the Himalayan mountains, you see entire villages becoming dependent on remittances, with grandparents taking care of children, and no one taking care of the fields. The parents that should care about the kids and/or the fields are all gone: they work in Kathmandu or abroad. Comparative advantages: cheap labor goes where it’s better paid-or where it’s being paid at all. And then those fields don’t matter anymore: the remittances pay for cheap food stuff coming along the new bulldozer road that some crazy politician ordered built – often at the cost of great environmental degradation – to win a few more votes and, hence, why should we care about those unproductive fields? The road changes comparative and, in this case, even absolute advantage: growing your own barley in the high mountains instead of buying cheap rice from the over-populated Terai plains is stupid, isn’t? And then those parents are not there to raise their kids, but then they can pay for boarding school in Kathmandu as soon as they’re like ten or twelve years old. Indeed, there are not many teenagers in those villagers either: just old people and small kids.

You’ll say I sound like one of those old people. Well… 45 years is a pretty decent age in Nepal and so I should probably admit that I actually am an old man, still struggling to come to terms with a ‘revolution’ that started some 300 years ago. Indeed, the communications revolution that helped triggered the industrial revolution – railways and steam ships connecting huge factories with markets across the world – is still unfolding. It’s also spreading production and, hence, wealth. You may look at your iPhone as a product ‘made in USA’, but it actually comes from everywhere and nowhere. It’s a ‘world product’, literally: it was designed where it’s cheapest to do design (the US is still awesome for that), its components were built where it’s cheapest to build them (China), and it was assembled where it was cheapest to do so (China and Taiwan). It’s also stocked everywhere and nowhere really. Wherever it’s cheapest.

So why am I complaining? Frankly, I don’t know. We’re all part of what’s going on. I should kneel and thank God I am not one of those South Asians digging outside. The War in Afghanistan was – and still is – crazy but I cannot, and will not, complain about it because it pays my bills as a development consultant. In fact, if I should say anything at all about my job, I should only note that guys like me are increasingly following the mess: South Sudan, Syria, and now Iraq once again… I am at the forefront of globalization really.

Indeed, we’re not doing any development there. We’re just following the money. Aid agencies are now all formally or de facto extensions of their political counterpart: the State Department, or the Foreign Office, or le Ministère des Affaires Etrangères. The communications revolution has also shortened planning and implementation horizons: money gets re-directed – in a matter of months, or even weeks – to wherever there’s a ‘problem’ that needs ‘fixing’. There’s no sequencing anymore: war; humanitarian aid; negotiation, reconciliation and peace-building; reconstruction; development; whatever-all needs to happen simultaneously. Why? Because we can. In our globalized world, we can be everywhere and we can do everything.

Can we? No. Of course the international community is now in a position to re-direct billions of dollars to wherever the international media directs its gaze, but one can’t fight and reconstruct simultaneously. Worse, pouring in resources while the conflict is still raging usually worsens the fight-because now there’s even more to fight for: international resources (not only money but also international credibility or other assets-civilian or military). So we come and meddle with good intentions, but the first impact is usually negative: we deepen the conflict.

Obama is right to look inwards again: he needs to fix the problems of Americans first. The rest of the world used to take care of itself, until the myth of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ made the white men think they had a moral responsibility to do so. I am one of those white men. My problem is that I don’t feel any moral responsibility anymore. I am just doing a job for which there’s demand, and for which I’m qualified and smart enough apparently. Just like the stewardesses. A job in an inter-connected world. So I am an international laborer too. I feel for those guys outside. When everything is said and done, I actually am one of them. What could I do to help them?