20/01/2014

Francois Hollande's Escapade, the NSA and the Private/Public Divide

The recent revealing photos of Francois Hollande's evening escapade together with the sudden hospitalization of the erstwhile (?) partner/First Lady Val←rie Trierweiler raise most interesting questions. Specifically, together with the blowback from the Snowden/NSA revelations we are obviously entering a new era of defining the private/public domains. While we all appreciate how technology has brought the world closer together, the invasion of privacy issue can no longer be ignored. We certainly like to communicate, but we are getting worried that most if not all of our private communications have entered the public domain.  

Hollande's January 14 press conference was riveting. 

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06/12/2013

Kiev, the OSCE and the Swiss Chairmanship

It’s cold in Kiev. No, this is not a weather report, though it is freezing here. Rather, it is a reflection on the current political turmoil since the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovitch, did not sign an accession agreement with the European Union (EU) at the end of November in Vilnius. Protesters are braving the weather to gather in squares in the center of the city to express their clear desire to have Ukraine become an official part of Europe rather than join a customs union with Russia. European Union flags are being sold by street vendors, Ukrainian flags on cars are another sign of support, although the manifestations are very limited to a specific area in downtown Kiev.

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18/11/2013

The Importance of Nostalgia and the Kennedy Assassination

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy has brought forth an enormous amount of interest. Films about Jack and Jackie have flooded the television screens; interviews have replayed the terrible scenes of Dallas, the swearing in of LBJ, the salute of John John at the funeral, the riderless horse following the procession. Conspiracy theorists have been widely quoted; new evaluations of the famous 1000 days continue to be printed.

Why all this interest? During a recent interview, I was asked why so many people get emotional when analyzing the importance of JFK. And I admit I was as emotional as the others being interviewed. The tapes of the shooting, the arrest of Oswald and the second shooting, all came vividly back. Fifty years ago we were glued to our television sets for those horrible four days. We were not aware that history was being made; we just wanted to know what was happening, to have people help us understand what was going on.

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28/10/2013

Thoughts on the Upcoming Geneva Election and Democratic Deficits

Geneva citizens will soon be electing the seven members of the executive branch of the Cantonal government. The second round of voting, established by the new Constitution, will take place on November 10. Although it is reasonably simple to explain the system of voting and the election procedure, there are two particularities that remain puzzling.

There are seven members of the Geneva executive because there are seven departments. However, when voting in the election, citizens are only asked to select the candidates without any reference to which department the person will head if elected. In other words, we will be voting for individuals as members of political parties with no knowledge about which part of the government the elected will head. When voting, how many citizens will vote for a candidate thinking that that person is eminently qualified for a specific job which the person may not wind up getting?

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01/10/2013

The Difficulty of Aligning Emotions and Politics

The recent positive Swiss vote on maintaining obligatory military service was an important statement. Beyond strategic considerations of how the country can best be defended, there was a certain part of the population saying that conscription re-inforces national identity. In a country with three distinct languages and cultures, the military experience has long been considered an important element in creating a sense of national unity.

Belonging to some group matters. We all like to feel that we are members of a community. From the very local to the national level, people’s identities are crucial to their emotional well being. While in many ways societies have evolved from tribes and clans, there is no question that belonging still matters, even if it means sharing feelings with others on Facebook or Twitter. Virtual communities are still communities, and in many ways reflect nostalgia for being with others through modern technology in spite of the loss of face-to-face interaction.

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12/09/2013

Kerry - Lavrov: a most interesting reset of the reset button

                In March 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov with a reset button in Geneva. The symbolic gesture was to usher in a new era of a cooperative relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. No more missile crisis, no more pounding shoes on a desk at the United Nations. If the fall of the Berlin Wall had symbolized the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the gift of the reset button was supposed to symbolize the beginning of positive cooperation.

                Things did not work out that way. President Medvedev was replaced by President Putin and the atmosphere surrounding his relationship with Barack Obama has been described as chilly at best. The high (or low) point of that relationship occurred when President Obama canceled a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow before the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was the Federation’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, considered a traitor by the United States for leaking secret information about the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping activities, an obvious poke in the eye to the United States.

                How are we to understand the meeting in Geneva between Lavrov and John Kerry on September 12? How are we to understand the U.S./Russian cooperation on Syria? Is this the beginning of a true reset in the relationship?

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08/09/2013

Judgment by the Other in Syria and Switzerland

President Obama has made two decisions that are fundamentally undemocratic. No, I do not mean the potential bombing of Syria nor the request for Congress’ approval. First, President Obama has decided that his intelligence service’s analysis that President Assad has used chemical weapons is correct. Second, he has decided that he, representing the United States, speaks for the entire world. “I didn’t draw the red line, “ he said. “The international community drew the red line.”

Democracy is not just a system of voting. It is based on the recognition that others have the right to decide what an entire population should do. In a democracy, those in the minority must accept the majority’s will. The minority accepts the majority’s decision hoping that sometime in the future the roles will be reversed.

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29/08/2013

50 Years After: President Obama's Speech Commemorating the March on Washington

Dr. Martin Luther King's August 28, 1963, speech "I Have a Dream" has become an iconic moment. Before over 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King captured the hopes of millions of Americans for racial equality in a deeply divided country. Over time, the speech has become a rallying cry throughout the world for freedom movements, from behind the Iron Curtain to South Africa.

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12/08/2013

The End of the Arab Spring?

With continuing tensions and violence in Egypt, a horrendous civil war in Syria with over a million refugees and internally displaced persons destabilizing neighboring countries, assassinations in Tunisia, a supposed plot to seize an oil port in Yemen, it is perhaps understandable for people to ask what has happened to the Arab Spring.

Rather than answer that question directly, it would be better to revisit the so called Arab Spring itself. In other words, before questioning whether something has faded or died, it is important to understand what we are talking about in the first place. In his famous book, Orientalism, Edward Said argued that the Western world had created a vision of the Orient and the Middle East from a biased point of view. The Eurocentric vision, according to Said, helped justify what he saw as colonial or imperial activities by the West. By caricaturizing Arabs in a certain way, the West could sell weapons, extract oil, and invade in the name of the international community. Said’s central point is that Western academics and diplomats saw the Orient from their perspective and used it for their interests.

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25/06/2013

Brazil, Turkey: “The Street’s the Place to Go”

Whether in Turkey or Brazil, “the street’s the place to go” (from a song by the Weather Girls). Social media has allowed hundreds of thousands to protest against government policies throughout the two countries. But questions remain about the identity of the protesters, what they are protesting against, and the outcomes desired.

 

There were two specific issues during the 1968 protests in the United States: ending racial segregation and ending the Vietnam War. Although the protests were not necessarily identical, these were the fundamental issues around which students and sympathizers coalesced. Many of the same people participated in both protest movements, united by the two progressive causes. (I will ignore those cynics who said that the real issue behind the May 1968 movements was for students to get out of final exams.)

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27/04/2012

The Trial of Anders Behrig Breivik and Insanity

Mass killer Anders Behrig Breivik is fighting in Norwegian court to be considered sane. Originally considered criminally insane, he was later judged to be sane and responsible for his actions.  Admitting to killing 77 people in a bombing and youth camp massacre, he said that no one would have asked for a psychiatric examination if he had been a "bearded jihadist". Two psychiatric examinations have reached different conclusions about his mental state.

The Norwegian Board of Forensic Medicine has asked for additional information from the two psychiatrists who found him sane. Jon Hestnes, who heads a support group for victim's families and survivors, was quoted as saying, "He's not in our world".

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19/04/2012

The American Election: Where is the Passion?

I have recently been to the United States twice in the last three weeks. There was passion for the finals of the college basketball season. There is passion for the finals of the professional hockey season, professional basketball season and the beginning of the baseball season. People were glued to their televisions to watch the Masters Golf Tournament to see if Tiger Woods would win again. What I didn't see was passion for the November presidential election. Why?

The obvious answer is that the election will take place in November; seven months is an eternity in politics. While there was some excitement during the Republican primaries with a series of candidates - Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul, Santorum- challenging Mitt Romney, there was no real passion behind the candidates. Mostly the rhetoric was either Anyone but Romney or Anybody but Obama.

On the Democratic side, President Obama has not been able to maintain the excitement of 2008. He has certainly had some accomplishments, but the soaring speeches of his campaign, the narrative of the first African-American as President have not been translated into a genuine transformation. This is not to say that all the blame should be placed on the President's shoulders, but merely to note that his 50% popularity ratings should be higher at this point for a sitting President.

Just as the Republicans have accepted Romney with considerable reservations, the Democrats are set to rally behind Obama, but the thrill is gone. The young who left school to ring doorbells for candidate Obama are and will be less present in 2012.

The Presidential election in the United States traditionally has been a global story. After all, historically, it has been the choosing of the leader of the free world. Perhaps another reason for the lack of passion is a realization that whoever wins will have a limited role in world affairs as well as limited options domestically. The unipolar world seems well past and perhaps with it the importance of the U.S. President.

 

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12/01/2012

The Thrill is Gone: The 2012 U.S. Presidential Election

My friends in the financial sector keep reminding me that history is the last 15 seconds on the Reuters screen. And I am aware that we are living in accelerated time. However, a short reflection on the presidential campaign of 2008 compared to where we are today is not without interest.

On the Democratic Party side, the primaries between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were riveting. A most qualified woman, former First Lady and New York Senator was battling a dynamic, articulate African-American. History was being challenged. If either got the nomination, if either won the presidency, history would be made and a new era would begin in the United States. A sense of excitement was palpable; a transformation was taking place; the young and many of the disenfranchised were energized.

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30/11/2011

Switzerland, Egypt: The Joys of Voting

As one of the more positive consequences of the Arab Spring, voters in Egypt and Morocco have recently exercised their right to vote. This was especially so in Egypt, where people waited in line for hours. The "chaotic celebration of democracy" saw polling hours extended because of the unexpected large number of enthusiastic voters. Long deprived of any form of empowerment, people formed lines of up to three kilometers outside voting areas with the massive turnout expected to see over 70% of eligible people participating.

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10/10/2011

Protests Begin in the United States, Enfin

The Arab Spring brought hope to the Middle East and North Africa. People took to the street to protest autocratic if not dictatorial rule, many using social networks with a prominent role for the young. In Athens, Madrid and London, people took to the street to protest chronic unemployment, many using social networks as well with a prominent role for the young. Where has the United States been in all of this given its similar situation of millions unemployed? The jobless rate for high school graduates now stands at over 20%.

While the protests of the late 1960's focused on the Vietnam War and civil rights, the recent populist Occupy Wall Street movement is focusing on the distribution of wealth. With official unemployment figures continuing to hover at 9%, people are protesting against the concentration of wealth associated with Wall Street's financial center. The Government bailed out large firms and banks too big to fail, but the tax money spent on them has not yet trickled down to the middle or lower classes. The TARP program has not led to increased lending or job creation while financers continue to receive huge salaries and bonuses.

What began as a small protest movement in New York three weeks ago has spread to Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston and looks to be catching in other major cities as well as outside the U.S. Little formal organization is involved, with social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google playing a major role. No political party is in the lead, although some labor leaders seem to be joining the movement.

It is fascinating to compare this movement with those of the 1960's. There is no clear leadership now, no Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd or Mario Savio. There is no clear organization like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or ideological statements like the Port Huron document. There are no clear objectives either such as end the war in Vietnam or desegregation. There is anger at the radical inequality in the distribution of wealth; there is anger at the failure of the government to create jobs; and there is anger at the Wall Street firms for their inability to deal with the realities of Middle America.

For the moment, neither the Republicans nor Democrats have reacted. No candidate has come forward within the two established parties like Eugene McCarthy with the Democrats; no third party movement has started. With the election of 2012 on the horizon, it is not yet clear how this grass roots movement will play into traditional two party politics. The Tea Party has become a major player moving the Republican Party to the right. Barack Obama's Democratic Party is long past being inclusive of populism. It is fascinating to see how a populist movement is developing in the United States after the Arab Spring and European demonstrations. In 1968, it was the other way around.

 

October 10, 2011

 

28/09/2011

What do debates tell us about the candidates?

 

As we enter the electoral season in Switzerland and the United States, debates in public venues as well as on television are taking place. Candidates for the two chambers in the Swiss Parliament are squaring off; Republican presidential hopefuls are going at it across America. (Pugilistic metaphors are appropriate since the media judges the winners and losers much as referees decide boxing matches.)

Why are debates important? What do they tell us about the candidates? There have been great debates in American history. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 remain a shining example of sophisticated discussion. The two held seven debates across Illinois in their race for the Senate which focused mainly on the issue of slavery. One candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the other for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate had 30 minutes to reply. The presentations were edited and printed and remain outstanding examples of oratory skills.

On the other hand, the first debates on television, the four Nixon-Kennedy debates for the presidential election of 1960, remain an example of a perverse television effect. If one listens to the first debate, watched by over 70 million viewers, Nixon had the better answers. If one watches the debate, the charm of Kennedy overwhelms the Republican who refused makeup and suffered from a gloomy image from his heavy stubble. All candidates since have realized the importance of looking good if not presidential.

Are these debates relevant? Certainly in Parliaments like the House of Commons in England debating skills are important. Many British officials have been trained at institutions like the Oxford Union where debating competitions are judged. Indeed, in a traditional Anglo-Saxon education, debating is required. Are these skills relevant today? What skills are the candidates showing during debates to convince us to vote for them? More and more candidates in the United States look like movie stars. The elections of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California or Ronald Reagan as president have more to do with their theatrical abilities than political acumen. We may enjoy a politician's performance during a debate, but that does not necessarily mean the person will be a competent elected official. Preparing a budget, or working in a committee to prepare legislation is not the same as charming an audience. Discussions among heads of state have an element of charm, but presiding over a country requires skills not evident in campaign debates, as President Obama is surely finding out.

I must admit I enjoy watching debates, but then again I enjoy being entertained at the theatre as well.

 

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19/09/2011

Courage

The word courage is spelled exactly the same way in French and English and has the same meaning in both languages. But, it is a word that we hear less and less frequently these days in both languages. True, President Obama recently awarded former Marine Corps Corporal Dakota Meyer the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions saving his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in September 2009.

And, this weekend the Musée des Suisses dans le monde inaugurated an area in its museum entitled Lumières dans les Ténèbres, a room dedicated to exceptional Swiss, including the Consul Carl Lutz, who saved 62, 000 Jews from death in Budapest in 1944; the Roman Catholic seminarian Maurice Bavaud, who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1938 and was subsequently executed, and the Chief Red Cross delegate in the Middle East from 1963 to 1971 André Rochat who was instrumental in several delicate diplomatic missions, including freeing hostages from plane hijackings.

One is humbled in recalling the actions of each of these people, as one is in thinking of the examples of political courage in Senator John F. Kennedy's 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of eight United States Senators. In each of the histories, Kennedy traces the decision to cross party lines and/or go against popular opinion which caused the Senators minimally be harshly criticized and in some cases to be voted out of office.

How are these examples of courage relevant? In the case of Lutz, as with others who saved lives from Nazi extermination, their own lives were clearly at stake. In the cases of Rochat and Meyer, they often went against the orders of their superiors for a higher cause. In the case of Bavaud, he was abandoned by his own government. And, in the cases of the eight Senators, they did not follow what would have been best for their political careers. Each of the courageous mentioned responded to what was thought the right thing to do. And history has proven their actions justified, as opposed to others who have acted in the name of conscience and who have been proven to be not only incorrect, but in some cases totally delusional. The line between acting for one's conscience and insanity is not as large as some imagine.

What is relevant today in particular is the power of opinion polls. Politicians are susceptible to acting according to what they think the public wants them to do, as if their only function is to be representative of public opinion. I would love to hear someone say that they will be proposing a law or voting on a motion in a certain way because "it is the right thing to do," in spite of what the political consequences may be.

We often speak of the role of values behind Western democracies, but when the time comes to vote on a given issue, such as Palestinian statehood, the only values discussed are political expediencies. Whether one agrees with a vote or not, it has been a long time since people have crossed party lines or gone against public opinion by being courageous. The awarding of the medal and the exhibit at the Chateau de Penthes are excellent reminders how the value of courage has been de-emphasized and how we feel enlightened when told of what humans are capable of doing in surpassing the ordinary and limited self-interest.

 

30/08/2011

Where has the War on Terror led us?

septembre 11 statue.jpgThe events marking the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11 will be filled with the horrors of the deaths of 3,000 people. We will be shown the playback of the tragic scenes of those jumping from windows, of the crumbling of the World Trade Center Towers, of the plane crashing into the Pentagon. Survivors will be asked how they are dealing with the past; relatives will share their enormous grief. Loved ones will have their virtues extolled. Heroic firefighters and policemen will be interviewed. We will all mourn. We will properly pay our respects to all those who died in the United States as well as around the world in terrorist attacks.

Could the commemorative services also serve another function? I recently walked the beaches of Normandy. Hectares after hectares of crosses and monuments and dedications to those who lost their lives in the landings of June 1944. With time, the heroism of those actions continues to impress and to humble. We are certain that we are all better off for the sacrifices of those buried there.

Where has the War on Terror led us?

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18/03/2011

Accelerated Time and Pregnant Moments

As I type these words from a conference in Montreal, I am impressed by the rapid changes going on in Japan and Libya. We are all trying to understand the implications of the earthquake disaster, tsunami and now the potential for nuclear disaster. Japan had certainly made efforts to protect its nuclear facilities, but they are proving insufficient. Is the same potential disaster possible in other locations? Are we in Geneva safe from a spread of nuclear material?

The United Nations has voted to allow measures to be taken against Libyan forces killing civilians in the civil war. Although Russia, China, Germany and Brazil abstained, legitimate authority has been given to establish a no-fly zone at minimum to protect civilians. Who will carry out these military operations and what they will do remains unclear at this point.

Changes are taking place rapidly in both locations. There is an acceleration of time. While the United States State Department has presented a quadrennial report on foreign policy for the next four years, these two situations point to however thoughtful planning may be, situations occur which are obviously outside predictions or preparations.

This does not mean we should not plan. What it does mean is that imagining potential scenarios will require greater levels of creativity. We are all influenced by the past. "Generals always plan for the last war," is a banality that holds some truth.

Given that unforeseen scenarios are unfolding, the need to react is nonetheless present. There is no blueprint for what is to be done. Whether or not intervention in Libya is too late will be debated for years to come. On the other hand, the implications and consequences of intervention will have immediate as well as long term effects.

Given the immediacy of the situations in Japan and Libya and the lack of clear blueprints of what to do, those in power do not have the luxury of measuring cost/benefit analyses of what is to be done. Today is the moment, a clear case of the acceleration of time and the importance of seizing the moment.

The study of geopolitics dates from the beginning of the 20th century. It is based primarily on territory. What it does not consider is time. Although Einstein showed the relation of space to time, those who deal with policy are now stretched in a situation of accelerated time. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, problems of deficit and local politics fade to the back of the radar screen. This is our modern situation and part of the consequences of our technological advancements. We know what is going on around the world and we are called upon to react now.

And by the time I write these words and they are sent out, the situations will have already changed.

 

March 18, 2011