Switzerland is world famous as a financial center as well as home to multinational companies like Nestlé and Rolex. The city of Geneva is famous as the global human rights and humanitarian capital. In multilateral diplomacy, Switzerland is often said to punch above its weight, hosting major conferences such as the recent one on Syria. In sports, especially in skiing, Switzerland is among the top countries in the world. But in tennis?
When I was playing for my high school tennis team, I once walked off the court after losing a match and began giving excuses to my coach about why I had lost. He cut my arguments short by pointing to an L on his scorecard. “See this,” he said. “It’s an L. You lost. That’s all I care about.”
President Vladimir Putin’s recent speech announcing the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation was the most important presentation by any world leader since the end of the Cold War. While the speech is being analyzed from the perspective of domestic politics, geopolitics, military strategy, energy strategy, diplomacy and international law, the defining particularity was emotions. No more axis of evil, no more subservience to carpetbaggers telling lowly Russia how to organize its government and society after the end of the Soviet Union, no more pivot to Asia forgetting Russia, no more end of history. Putin announced to the world, “Russia is back,” and it’s back on its own terms.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a legendary 1915 American film directed by D.W. Griffith that became a classic because of its innovative film techniques. In spite of its extremely racist message, it was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry. The title of the movie raises difficult questions that are particularly relevant in Ukraine today: How are countries born? How do countries die?
There are ideas that once expressed become crystallized into paradigms that become very much part of how we see the world. The Swiss Jacob Burckhardt pioneered the field of cultural history by opening our eyes to the radical changes taking place during the period he named the Renaissance, a definition that endured. In a different way, the American historian Barbara Tuchman described a series of historical events from Troy to Vietnam in “The March of Folly” that highlighted how leaders can perform in ways that they know are diametrically opposed to their own interests. Recent events in Ukraine and Switzerland may fit her description.
Many years ago my then wife and I were told by our friendly local doctor that she was half-pregnant, much to our bewilderment. Ever since the Enlightenment, western thinking has been dominated by binary reasoning: yes or no, 0 and 1, inside and outside, are fundamental paradigms. We are all familiar with Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures”. While binary thinking may be extremely helpful in certain areas – computer programming and establishing borders are prime examples – its obvious clarity may have limitations that can have negative consequences. Recent examples in Switzerland and Ukraine highlight the disadvantages.
There is certainly much to be said about the recent Swiss vote on “immigration de masses”. Certainly much will be said in the future since the exact nature of the operationalization of the positive vote on the referendum is still very unclear. What can be said at this moment, however, is that a majority of Swiss voters felt that there were too many non-Swiss in the country. Whether it was because of housing difficulties, unemployment, lack of security or a perceived loss of national identity, 50.3% of the voters wanted more restrictions on foreigners
Sports fans around the world are riveted on the Olympic Games in Sochi. Dario Cologna’s narrow victory in the men’s 30km skiathlon was a wonderful example of how an athletic event can be transcendent. Dominique Gisin’s winning smile after the downhill was worth its weight in gold. But sports fans are not the only people focused on the Games. Economists are analyzing how $53 billion was spent in preparing the venues and how athletics has morphed into big business/entertainment; diplomats are watching how Vladimir Putin’s pharaonic investment will affect his standing domestically and internationally. What used to be mere athletic contests have turned into a global spectacle with all the ramifications that implies.
Every year millions of Americans and fans around the world watch the Super Bowl, the finale of the U.S. football season. The numbers keep growing – for this year’s game XLVIII, there were over 100 million viewers and the most expensive rates for TV commercials ever. At earlier games, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, etc. have performed at halftime. Commentators not only microscopically analyze the actual play, but ratings are given for the best and worst commercials during the game as well as announcers’ performances. Super Sunday has become a de facto American national holiday, although for many women it only means preparing endless bowls of guacamole and chips and serving beer. (Eight million pounds of the green stuff are consumed during the game with 14,500 tons of chips.)
Stan Wawrinka’s victory in the Australian Open properly deserves all the superlatives it received. The first time…The first time…The first time…It also marked the first time that Stan has been ranked ahead of Roger Federer. The perpetual Swiss number two and first time Slam winner has jumped to number three in the world rankings, five places ahead of the 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer. While the 32-year old Federer tries desperately to regain his magic touch – new racket, new coach – the 28-year-old Swiss Romand native has become the darling of more than just the sporting world. He was Man of the Year in Switzerland even before he won in Melbourne.
What explains Wawrinka’s popularity?
Politics has often been defined as the art of the possible. By this, analysts point to the numerous variables involved in a given situation to construct what would be a reasonable outcome. This type of analysis can further be refined by rational choice theory which uses sophisticated mathematical models. “Possible politics” is thus based on a logical behavior by all actors that can be mapped and predicted.
What would “impossible politics” look like? What would happen if actors in a given situation defied logic?
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.
Can people change? Can leaders radically change their countries’ policies? We all recognize the audacity of Richard Nixon in his opening to China, but rarely do we examine what caused the change to take place. We admire the signing of the recent nuclear treaty between the United States and Iran, but we cannot fully comprehend the complex reasons behind the shift – the easing of economic sanctions is a simplistic, unicausal explanation.
For example, tributes to Nelson Mandela at his death re-affirmed a universal recognition of his extraordinary personal qualities and leadership in freeing South Africa from the curse of apartheid.
Inviting people to a party is not always simple. Besides the logistical problem of deciding exactly how many people should be invited and anticipating how many will come, there is the more subtle problem of anticipating who will get along with who. Are these people friends? Does this couple know this couple? Should we try to introduce this unmarried woman to this bachelor? Who should seat next to whom? And the list goes on.
Amidst the celebrations of the holiday season, there is an element of hope in all messages; hope for health and happiness in the new year, hope for seeing friends and family more often, hope for peace and prosperity, etc.
What is the importance of hope? The recent manifestations in Ukraine are an excellent example. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in icy weather to protest the refusal of President Yanukovitch to sign an accession agreement with the European Union (EU). There was never any promise by the EU that the agreement would lead to eventual membership. Nor were there any promises by the EU that it would bail out Ukraine from its catastrophic economic situation. The people of Ukraine were in the streets because they had hope that being affiliated with Europe would give them a better future.
When most people think of diplomats, they think of aristocratic families and their descendants who attend private schools like Eton, Harrow or Le Rosey and universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or ENA. When most people think of diplomacy, they think of flying on special planes, feasting at fancy receptions in elegant embassies, sleeping in luxurious suites in hotels like the Hotel Intercontinental or savoring haute cuisine meals in restaurants like the Perle de Lac.
One does not think of diplomats as being creative. However, there are situations in which creativity is needed to get out of seemingly intractable situations. The current crisis in Ukraine is an excellent example. A large country with over 40 million citizens, Ukraine appears torn between entering into a customs union with the Russian Federation and some former Soviet Republics and an accession agreement with the European Union (EU). President Viktor Yanukovich said he would sign the EU agreement in Vilnius at the end of November, then changed his mind and appeared in Russia negotiating with President Putin. No one, perhaps even Yanukovich, knows his intentions.
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.
Peace seems to be breaking out in the Middle East. An agreement has been reached with Iran to curb the development of its potential military nuclear program. The United States and the Islamic Republic are publicly talking. Over thirty years of diplomatic isolation appears to have ended. In addition, and not unrelated, a date has been set for a major conference in Geneva to stop the horrendous civil war in Syria. Diplomacy is working; sabers have been put back in their sheaths. Geneva is back in the news; the Hotel Intercontinental is doing land office business.
There are, however, two countries that are not jumping up with joy over the above.
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.
November is a sad month. Christmas is not yet here and we are between brilliant fall colors and crackling snow. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the death of President John Kennedy in November 1963, there is an added sadness. For those of a generation that remember him, it was a defining moment, a moment when we witnessed a national trauma that transformed us. Later, we would witness the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, but the death of John Kennedy was something unique that changed how we saw and continue to see the world.
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?
How to evaluate the outcome of the 16 day U.S. government shutdown? Most “referees” judge that President Obama won by a knockout. “Republicans backed down,” we are told. “The President got an extension of the budget and the debt ceiling without caving in to Tea Party demands. In addition, Republicans are being blamed. No contest.”
There are, however, more losers than just the Republican Party. The image of the United States as the world leader was seriously damaged. How can the rest of the world rely on the dollar as the global currency when the Congress cannot responsibly manage its national budget and debt ceiling?
A question making the rounds during the shutdown in the U.S. asks: “What’s the difference between terrorists and the Republican Tea Party?” Answer: “At least you can negotiate with terrorists.” Having failed to overturn President Obama’s overhauling of the country’s health system, the Republicans are now threatening to have the U.S. default on all its payments on October 17. The Suicide Caucus, as it is known, failed over 40 times to pass bills to repeal Obamacare; now House Republicans are trying to defund the entire government.
Their motive is that any form of national health insurance is leading the country down the slippery slope of socialism, and obviously ruin. And from this position they will not budge. Led by a group of 80 or so members of Congress from safe districts, they are willing to not only furlough 800,000 federal government workers but on October 17 to have the government default on its debt obligations, which will send shockwaves throughout the world.
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.
The classic definition of the New York expression chutzpah is that of an only child who pleads clemency to the court because he is an orphan after murdering his parents. Two new examples of chutzpah have appeared surrounding the proposed visit of the Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
According to an article in the New York Times of September 18, the President of Sudan has submitted a visa request to attend the U.N. meeting in New York. The United States, as the host country, is obliged to grant visas to foreign heads of states who wish to attend. The chutzpah of Mr. al-Bashir is that he is under indictment by the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) on genocide charges stemming from mass killings committed in Sudan’s Darfur region. If the visa were granted, he would be the first visiting head of state to visit the United Nations in New York while under indictment by the International Court. Leaders who have been violently opposed to the U.S. like Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev were never under criminal indictment.