A tragic historical role reversal

In 1948, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, Paul-Henri Spaak, made a speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations. It is referred to as the ‘Discours de la Peur’: the Discourse of Fear. It is one of those moments that may be associated with the start of the Cold War, and the breakdown of the international system that was put in place to prevent a new war. I read it again today, and I am thinking we might well substitute the Soviet Union for the United States in that speech. Let me do that by paraphrasing a few of his lines:

“I am scared. I am scared because the United States and Europe are in a undeclared war with Russia. I am scared because of the insane level of the United States’ defense budget and the insane level of arms and sophisticated weapon systems it supplies to third countries that cannot be said to be of strategic importance for our security. I am scared because, this year, critical energy infrastructure has been blown up, right in the heart of Europe, and one cannot accuse Russia of what happened there: it is an act of international terrorism that has been left unexamined. I am scared because a defensive alliance of democracies has become an offensive one. I am scared because of the belligerence of our leaders. I am scared because of the lack of democratic legitimacy of our political system, especially when it comes to questions of war and peace at our borders. I am scared because our discourse on rights, freedom, democracy, international trade and business has been contaminated with moral fascism, unwarranted protectionism, neo-colonialism and misplaced talk of empire.”

Text and video link to the speech:

Energy and the stupidity of sanctions

The invoices for gas and electricity have tripled or quadrupled, and may rise to ten times what household and industries in Europe used to pay for energy a year ago. The price differential of the gas price in the US and Europe – also a factor ten – is likely to anger voters in the coming years: are these smart sanctions? Why would Europe pay more for economic warfare with Russia than the US?

The truth is: not importing gas from Russia is ineffective and counterproductive. First, a military agression should be countered with military action. Sanctions on a country – on its economy and its people – should be used as a last resort. Sun Tzu wrote about that in his ‘Art of War‘: the objective is not to destroy a country or its people but to defeat its army if and when it threatens your sovereignty.

Second, if sanctions are deemed to be necessary, they should not hurt your own economy too much, but the economy of the enemy. Sanctions on this or that country on finished products (say, electronics, cars or consumer goods) are logical: you can, quite simply, procure these from another source. Let us suppose we would be at war with Japan, for example: we would just stop buying Japanese cars and electronics and switch to American, European or Chinese products. That is an effective or smart sanction: it hurts Japan but it does not diminish our purchasing power, resources or wealth.

With energy or raw materials, one cannot switch easily: these are inputs. Demand for them is inelastic, supply cannot be increased in the short run, and, therefore, the shortage or mismatch between supply and demand will drive prices up very quickly (with factors ten or even a hundredfold, as we are seeing for the raw gas price now). It will hurt your economy more than the country you want to punish and may, therefore, be labeled as pure and simple masochism.

I remember talk in the newspapers here in Brussels about how not importing Russian gas would not hurt the Belgian economy because Russian gas had only a very small share in our gas imports. That misses the point completely: even for such small share, we have to find other suppliers, and these other suppliers do get very large demand from countries which were very dependent on Russian gas, such as Germany. Hence, even small customers suffer from extraordinary price rises as supply gets cut on a market that was already tense.

The only way out is to roll back our self-imposed ban on Russian gas, but Europe’s political leaders lack the guts to (1) admit their mistake and (2) to do something about it. Why it is so difficult? Most EU countries reversed their stance on nuclear energy over the past few months. Why not take this logical step too? We can, quite simply, just decide to import gas from Russia again. It will fix the root cause of the huge problem we are facing. Will this disappoint people more than the decision to go for nuclear energy again? I do not see why that should be the case. It is a very necessary step: it is the only way to prevent the total meltdown of the European economy that we are currently witnessing (make no mistake here: it is a lot worse than the 1970s energy crisis, so we have to act).

It will also prevent a swing to extremist right-wing or left-wing political parties (such as Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) in France). These may have extremist views on migration and other topics but they have far less extremist views on Russia than the current political parties at the center. The center is, therefore, no longer a center when it comes to what concerns most voters now: the war with Russia, and the prospect of deepening and worsening it by also entering into a cold war with China.

President Macron scraped through for the second-term (10 and 24 April 2022) presidential elections: the voting in two rounds (typical of France) saved him. I do not think he and other moderate leaders will be so lucky next time. It’s the economy, stupid! Policies that destroy industry and reduce lower- and middle-class families to poverty are sure to get you where you do not want to be in politics.

Also, it is the first time in my life that I would like Belgium to dissociate from the EU’s foreign policy: a von der Leyen and a Borrell are non-elected, and the mandate of EU institutions for foreign policy and defense is very limited. They surely do not have the right to declare war on behalf of the sovereign nation-states within Europe. Also, Russia blew up its dialogue with the EU as a multilateral forum almost two years ago (I wrote about that at the time, anticipating a lot of events and trends that we see happening now). If Finland or the Baltic states want to go much further in sanctioning the Russian people, let them go ahead. Belgium’s leaders and people should not be seen to be part of what is, clearly, just plain warmongering for no good reason.

The frontlines have stabilized, and Russia’s military has been weakened considerably. Now is a time to negotiate a settlement: not peace (that is not possible anymore because of the escalation) but a ceasefire and practical arrangements to stop the bleeding and start reconstruction. The conflict will then just become one of the many frozen conflicts of Eurasia, and we can all focus again on what we should be focusing on: work, family, fun. We should do it now because we are in a position of strength vis-à-vis Russia. The winter will weaken our position. Russians are used to surviving long winters. We are not.

Not deepening or dragging out war – especially because the energy crisis is causing a rapid disintegration of our industrial base (not to mention pushing lower-class households into poverty) – should be a priority now. A matter of life and death, so to speak (sorry that sounds so bitter in this context), rather than about a selection of one single country where the values of freedom or democracy abroad matter more to us than, say, in Syria or in Afghanistan. Also, I repeat we should stay clear of demonizing the Russian people with measures such as visa bans, labelling every Russian resident in the EU as a potential spy (and, worse, calls for systematic checks on them) rather than target Mr. Putin, his regime and the Russian military directly. That is a lesson we Europeans should have learnt from the world wars.

However, let me get back to the point here: when considering economic sanctions, cold economic and political analysis should be used to evaluate and decide whether to implement them and continue them. If the analysis shows they produce the opposite effect (polls show that Mr. Putin’s popularity as a war leader popularity keeps increasing), they should be rolled back. Blindly sticking to things that do not work and hurt ourselves more than the enemy is not wise: if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging, right?

Again, most countries reversed their decision – taken decades ago – to phase out nuclear energy, and this measure to tackle the energy crisis has not met with popular resistance. On the contrary, polls show support in Belgium. Why is it that leaders show no willingness to roll back the decision to no longer import Russian gas? If it is about human rights or whatever, then we should scrutinize our energy imports from countries like, say, Saudi Arabia as well. But banning such imports would not be effective either, right? Gas, oil, rare earth minerals and all the other things that are routinely imported to produce consumer or industrial goods tend to be produced in countries that we do not necessarily like. A consistency check is always a good lens to look at whatever it is that you are trying to decide.

Post scriptum: I have been quite vocal on my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and I got a lot of flak for it. At one point, I even got censured on LinkedIn, and I was very surprised about that because my pro-peace comments were everything but inflammatory. I looked at the identities and origin of the angry reactions and I note that a lot of them come from nationals from EU countries that have traditionally different views on Russia and, I must assume, other geopolitical questions too (think of China here) only because of their recent history.

Again, I am surprised that reasonable people act so emotionally on what should be analyzed rather coldly. When talking economic sanctions, cold economic and political analysis should be used to evaluate and decide whether to continue or, in the opposite case, roll them back. That is the point of view that I am defending in this post and on social media. In any case, to get away from personal attacks and emotional one-to-one tits-for-that, I should present something objective on public opinion on these questions. So I quickly googled and found this survey: https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/06/16/europeans-divided-over-how-ukraine-war-should-play-out-reveals-poll. It is a bit dated (June) but it shows how divided public opinion in the EU actually is on the question. It also shows – I am happy about that in light of all the flak I have been getting for being pro-peace – that my views are actually not a minority view. On the contrary, in many of the older EU countries (except the UK, perhaps, but they walked out of the EU so we should not take them into account), people are clearly more rational about this and do consider our current stance to be way out of whack. When the EU Commission and our government leaders start ignoring majority opinion, and when vocal minorities shut down debate on peace and war questions, we are in very deep trouble as a democracy. Not only US democracy but Europe’s democracy as well has become a bit of an international joke. :-/

To end on a happy note, I am a fan of American culture (do not be surprised: I like culture in general). Especially music (I like action hero movies too but the apocalyptic element in many of these looks frightening real now). Two songs that come to my mind right now is Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise and Where Is The Love from the Black Eyed Peas. A quote from the latter song: “The truth is kept secret, it’s swept under the rug; If you never know truth then you never know love.” And just one line from the first: “Tell me why are we so blind to see that the ones we hurt, are you and me?” :-/ I am now going to focus on life and fun again. Politics – both national as well as international – are too depressing to follow lately. 🙂

The concept of Eurasia

Geographically, Europe and Asia are part of the same continent: Eurasia. Of course, geopolitically, we speak of two continents: Europe and Asia. Or, thinking of Russian or Slavic or Turkish culture, and also of the Indian subcontinent and other large geopolitical realities, perhaps we should think of four or five subcontinents, right?

If you are reading blogs like this, then you must know a thing or two about influencers such as Zbigniew Brzezinski. He was a Polish diplomat before WW II: he was in Canada when Germany and Russia invaded Poland in 1939, and went on to study in the US. He was a counselor to US President Johnson (1966-1968), and went on to become President Carter’s National Security Advisor (1977-1981). He was in favor of ‘peaceful engagement’ with the Soviet Union (and China) at the height of the Cold War but he wrote this in his 1997 book, titled The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives:

“… how America “manages” Eurasia is critical. A power that dominates “Eurasia” would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over “Eurasia” would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in “Eurasia”, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. “Eurasia” accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.”

His thesis was, basically, that no Eurasian challenger should emerge that can dominate Eurasia and challenge what he (and other US advisors and strategists) referred to as ‘US global preeminence’. I do not believe the US has achieved ‘global preeminence’: not before the writing of this book and also not since it was written, i.e. in this unexpectedly troublesome and volatile 21st century.

However, the US did achieve to transform what should have been a limited war between Europe and Russia into a global conflict, pitting the US, Europe and NATO on one side against what remains of the old Communist enemy: Russia. Russia is still the largest country (I am talking its landmass now, not its people or economy) on the Eurasian continent and in the world: 17 million km2. To make you appreciate this fact, think of this: the distance from Saint Petersburg (a city, by the way, that is larger than Berlin or Madrid) to Vladivostok is about 10,000 km. That is almost twice the distance between Norway’s North Cape and Gibraltar. Another fact that helps to appreciate this immensity is this: Russia, despite the loss of its satellites after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is still about 70% larger than the second-, third-, and fourth-largest countries in the world: Canada, China and, yes, the US. [Despite its huge population, India is relatively small: its 3.2 million km2 amounts to about half of the territory of, say, Brazil or Australia.]

The strange visit of Ms. Pelosi, the US Democrat Party’s second-most senior leader after President Biden, to Taiwan has also heralded the start of a new Cold War with China. As a result, we may say that Eurasia, for all practical purposes, now consists of three geopolitical entities (and their respective spheres of influence) which should work together rather than blindly follow America’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics: Europe, China and Russia. Europe is not taking much of a lead in this (and Mr. Putin obviously cannot do anything at all) but China’s Xi Jinping seems to be serious about it. His talk about a new Era and rejuvenation – not only of China but for all countries who believe in multipolarity, multiculturalism, and peaceful coexistence – does not sound empty to me. We Europeans would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand as propaganda, and even if you think of it as propaganda: it is propaganda that, unlike former Soviet propaganda, is now changing the world, so we had better accept it as a reality. Terminology does not matter: facts speak louder than words nowadays.

What I write above may sound strange to those who know me, and understand for what I stand or stood: the end of ideology indeed, based on mutual respect and liberal or basic social-economic freedoms (it is futile and counterproductive to try to impose our concepts of Westminster-style democracy on the rest of the world), but I do believe it is the only way forward:

1. Europe must end the hot war with Russia, together with the UN and countries such as Turkey and, yes, China. The US is not interested in ending this war because its Army has a new outpost now in Ukraine, right in the heart of Eurasia. It is a far more convenient (and far more strategic) location than Afghanistan.

2. Europe must also not enter the new Cold War between the US and China. That is not in our interests. On the contrary, the time and prospects for cooperative long-term engagement with China have never been better. We must not keep Chinese companies like Huawei out of European tech markets. We should invest more in scientific and technological cooperation with China. We should talk more about our common interests at all levels – business and official – as US-China talks on issues like climate change, disarmament and other global challenges have broken down completely.

What I write above is not ideological. It is plain common sense. When everything is said and done, we need to prepare for the future of our children and our planet. If the US is not interested in doing that, then we Europeans should cut the umbilical cord with the US and move on with others. China’s Xi Jinping shows leadership (he is likely to be elected for a third term as President later this year) and its government officials say all of the right things. Why would we not believe them? There is no historical reason whatsoever to not trust China.

Post scriptum: I was born in an age where one could still bike across the southern and central parts of the Eurasian continent as a worry-free cyclist. Countries such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and others were not democracies but they were all peaceful and fun to travel in. The much revered Lonely Planet guidebooks have their origin in such travels. It is sad these countries are all off-limits now. Most of Europe’s Sunni and Shia belt is now not very accessible or open. Why? Read their history: their instability often starts with the kind of stuff that we see happening in Ukraine now. If US interventions are well-intentioned (which you may still think to be the case), it is worth remembering an old wisdom: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I understand why Cold War thinkers such as Brzezinski (his name is Polish-Jewish, by the way) thought of ideologies such as Nazism, fascism or communism as ideologies that were evil and had to be destroyed: these ideologies effectively destroyed his home and family. However, when the Berlin Wall came down, such thinking no longer had its use, and it has become destructive in its own weird way: what is the difference between cultural or geopolitical hegemonic thought and fascism? I have used the term ‘moral fascism’ before, and it was censored on LinkedIn.

I am not taking it back: the lense that is used by pro-NATO thinkers and politicians in Europe amounts to moral fascism: we think of ourselves as inherently better than Russians or Chinese or whatever other people from countries whose systems we do not like or do not resemble ours. That is sure to lead to confrontation. The difference, this time around, is that we can no longer be sure to win whatever confrontation or conflict we wanted to start or join. In fact, I think we are very likely to enter a very different era, indeed! I am saying this based on my study of Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu starts his treatise on the Art of War by reminding the reader of the first principle of war: the Moral Law needs to be on your side. The US – and the EU, as it applauds America’s belligerent attitude vis-à-vis Russia and China now – can no longer claim to have the Moral Law on their side. That will backfire hugely. Most western observers laugh Xi Jinping’s talk about a new era away. I do not. There is toughness in most of the recent statements of Chinese leaders nowadays: I do not blame them.

I have quoted much eastern wisdom in this and other posts. Let me – just to show I also do know my own cultural roots, which are Christian – adapt a saying from the Bible, from the same era in which historians place Sun Tzu (and that is an era long before a Jesus or a Mohammed or other prophets created the religions many of us now believe in – religions which, unfortunately, ended up dividing those who are often referred to as the People of the Book): “For we sow the wind, and we shall reap the whirlwind. If the standing grain has no heads, it shall yield no flour. If it were to yield, strangers will devour it.” (Hosea 8:7) :-/

What is commonly referred to as the East and the West (vague concepts, but they have their use) have more in common than what sets us apart. Europe and China share a common desire for peace and prosperity. We should build on that. Let us not be like “the blind leading the blind.” It is time for Europe to look East again. Beyond the Ural mountains which are said to form a natural border between Europe and Asia. There is no natural border between Europe and Asia. The ocean that divides us from America would qualify as such natural border. Rivers and mountains are there to be crossed and climbed. That is what inspired the conquests of Alexander The Great, most of which were done through marriage (marrying himself or marrying off his generals to create satrapies), by the way. Europeans may also be warriors at heart (all men probably are, biologically speaking, right?) but, if we are, I think of us as smart warriors – smarter than the US, in any case (but that is not very difficult if you look at the mess since WW II, I guess). 🙂