Category Archives: non-fiction

“Fear”: Why Bob Woodward’s New Book is a Bombshell

A key question is raging around Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House”, published by Simon & Schuster on September 11:

Did Bob Woodward wildly exaggerate and fabricate findings or is the Trump White House, and more importantly, the president himself, wildly dysfunctional?

An answer in partisan mode is no answer at all. Here, as a friendly outside observer (disclosure: I am European), I will try to clear up the issue.

The book, in a sober style, convincingly depicts an administration in the midst of a “nervous breakdown”, with aides running to contain damage. He reports this unforgettable comment from Reince Priebus: “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody. That’s what happens.”

Among the revealing anecdotes:

  • Gary D. Cohn, former Goldman Sachs President then working for Trump as Chief Economic Adviser, removes a letter from Trump’s desk in the Oval Office to stop him from signing it – a letter that authorized withdrawal from the trade agreement with South Korea; Cohn said afterwards that he did it “for the country”, as the trade agreement vitally underpins US-South Korea cooperation, a pillar of US policy to contain North Korea;
  • Chief of Staff Kelly exploding in a meeting:  “We’re in crazytown, I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had”;
  • an exasperated Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, after a discussion with Trump last January about the nuclear standoff with North Korea, tells colleagues “the president acted like — and had the understanding of — a ‘fifth or sixth grader.’”

This particular depiction of Trump’s White House found an unexpected echo –  really a confirmation – in the anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times just a few days before Woodward’s book came out, with the striking title: “I’m Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration”. It is from a White House senior official and there are many theories as to who did it. The latest from  Ann Coulter claiming Jared Kushner did it. But at the time of writing, still no one really knows.

What is most unsettling about Trump is not so much his level of understanding about issues, bad as it is, but his systematic misperception of reality.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Literature, non-fiction, politics

The American Dream is Dead, Long Live the American Dream!

My latest article on Impakter that I wanted to share with you:

THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM!

BOOK REVIEWS: REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH AND POWERBY NOAM CHOMSKY, PUBLISHED BY SEVEN STORIES PRESS (MARCH 2017); THE VANISHING MIDDLE CLASS: PREJUDICE AND POWER IN A DUAL ECONOMY BY PETER TEMIN, PUBLISHED BY MIT PRESS (MARCH 2017)

In a raft of bestselling books this year, our thinking elite has announced the demise of the middle class and the “American Dream”. At the heart of that “dream” is the idea that every generation, through hard work, would come out better off than the previous one. Of course, the 2008 Great Recession put a serious dent in the notion and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 pointed the finger at income inequality (it’s the One Percent!). In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century, provided definitive scientific confirmation to every man’s perception that middle class income had been stagnant for decades, that the ultrarich was getting richer at the expense of everyone else.

Two important books from MIT luminaries addressing this issue came out in the same month (March 2017): Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream and Peter Temin’s The Vanishing Middle Class. They both caused waves, loudly proclaiming that the American Dream is dead.

But can we really declare the American Dream dead? Both authors make suggestions though perhaps neither offer definitive solutions. That might require something more than a new set of policies and some people are beginning to talk about it. Recently New York Times journalist David Brooks suggested in an Op-Ed that “Trump is not just a parenthesis.” He is “the farcical culmination of a lot of dying old orders — demographic, political, even moral — and what comes after will be a reaction against rather than a continuing from.”

A lot of “dying orders” and one of them is the American Dream. It is essentially what kept the lights on in the “city on the hill”, the beacon that famously attracted the tired, poor and huddled masses to America – to paraphrase the American poet Emma Lazarus.

REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM

At the outset, it is striking how different Noam Chomsky’s Requiem is from all the other books he has written. It is far more accessible than the academic fare he has accustomed us to. Chomsky has taught at MIT for fifty years and he is one of America’s foremost thinkers, the most famous voice of dissent on the left. He is also an innovative linguist, credited with revolutionizing the field and as a political philosopher, the author of several seminal books, notably 9/11: Was There an Alternative?   considered the most influential post 9/11 book both at home and abroad.

The reason for Requiem’s greater accessibility probably derives from the fact that it is, bottom line, a movie tie-in. Based on the documentary of the same name released in April 2015, it encapsulates and builds on the main ideas presented in the film.

To read the rest, including about Peter Temin’s book and a possible solution suggested by Courtney E.Martin in a famous TED talk, click here 

Enjoy! These books are seriously good summer reading…

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Filed under Book review, Economics, non-fiction, politics, Sociology, Uncategorized

The People vs. the Elite? Democracy is the Loser

Yet another one of my articles just published on Impakter. Here’s the opening: 

BOOK REVIEW: THE RETREAT OF WESTERN LIBERALISM BY EDWARD LUCE, PUBLISHED BY LITTLE BROWN (JUNE 2017)

In his latest book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce argues that with the rise of populism, Western liberalism is facing its gravest crisis since World War II. And without a deliberate effort on the part of the governing “elite”, it may be impossible to save it.

An Oxford-trained journalist and currently the Financial Times columnist in Washington and author of several bestselling books, Luce has made a solid reputation for successfully predicting the future, anticipating in his 2012 bestseller, the rise of middle class resentment and fight over immigration that led to Brexit and Trump’s victory.

In this book, with his deep knowledge of History and keen observing eye, he zeroes in what is ailing our society: At the heart of the crisis, the people pitted against the elite. That part of the middle class left behind by globalization – now fast becoming a large, vociferous mass of angry people –  rising against the experts. As he put it:

“Here then is the crux of the West’s crisis: our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts – the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders; Britain versus Brussels; West Virginia versus Washington. It follows that the election of Trump, and Britain’s exit from Europe, is a reassertion of the popular will.” (p. 120)

The Enemy is Within

“This time,” writes Luce, “we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”

As we all know, that was just the beginning in the US and UK. Abroad, populism has already made giant steps, starting in Russia where despite the hopes raised by the fall of the Wall of Berlin, democracy was still-born and Putin gained absolute power, increasingly unopposed.

Luce reminds us that liberal, democratic forms of government are recent, they arose some two hundred years ago, and they are notoriously fragile. There are numerous historical precedents for setbacks and relapses into autocracy. Two dozen democracies have failed since 2000 and we now find such “illiberal democracies” everywhere, in Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, and Duterte’s Philippines.

This growing tension between the people and the experts could end up killing Western liberalism (and democracy) or at least, as the title of Luce’s book implies, cause a serious “retreat”:

“Europe and America’s populist right wants to turn the clock back to the days when men were men and the West ruled. It is prepared to sacrifice the gains of globalization – and risk conflict with China – to protect jobs that have already vanished.” (p. 67)

Conflict with China? That possibility is explored in Chapter 3 aptly titled “Fallout”. Populist trends all point in that direction – “fear is the currency of autocrats” as Luce says.  Add irascible, narcissistic Trump to the mix, and what you get is (inter alia) war with China.

Luce estimates it could very well happen in 2020 and he makes the case that the man who is likely to stop this conflict is… Putin.

Really, Putin-the-peace-maker? It sounds over-the-top and crazy but, alas, probably it is not.

IN THE PHOTO: PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN OF RUSSIA. PHOTO CREDIT: CNN

To drive the point home, Luce draws a striking parallel between the world today and the world in 1914, noting that the “decades preceding the First World War marked a peak of globalization that the world economy only regained in the 1990s”.

To read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, non-fiction, politics, Uncategorized

The Soft Power of American Philanthropy

Impakter magazine just published another one of my articles and I’m happy to share it with you – it’s a book review, great read, highly recommended! Here’s the start of my review:

THE REAL ROLE OF THE NEW MEGA-DONORS: SHAPING THE SOCIAL AGENDA

BOOK REVIEW: THE GIVERS BY DAVID CALLAHAN, PUBLISHED BY KNOPF (APRIL 2017) 352 PAGES

Is philanthropy good or bad for society?

With the global explosion of philanthropy, the new forms of giving and volunteering, and the rise of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, the issue is more pressing than ever. Nowadays, the soft power of mega-donors has grown so much that in many areas it has displaced governments – even very large ones like the Federal government.

Philanthropists address critical social problems, they move in where public funds have failed (or are weak). Ultimately, they set the social agenda, not only in the United States but around the world.

Yet, unlike democratic governments and politicians that must face voters, mega-donors are accountable to no one. Their own private views, beliefs and ideologies end up shaping society. They decide what diseases to battle, what kind of schools are needed, what social policies to promote, what research and what artistic trends should be supported.

Is this a fair system in a democracy where all citizens should have a say?

That question is increasingly asked, including in David Callahan’s latest book I am reviewing here. Yet this is not the first time philanthropy arouses suspicion in America. When Rockefeller launched his foundation a hundred years ago, many politicians doubted his good will. As it turned out, the Rockefeller Foundation had a profound impact on the human condition when breakthroughs in the agricultural research programs it had financed in Mexico and India, initiated respectively in 1941 and 1956, laid the foundation for the “green revolution”, so-called because it changed food production for the better, particularly in Asia, helping to solve the recurrent horror of devastating famines.

IN THE PHOTO: FARMER STANDING IN HIS CORN FIELD IN ANDHRA PRADESH, INDIA IN 1957 AFTER SCIENTISTS SUCCESSFULLY DEVELOPED HYBRID GRAINS THAT COULD RESIST DISEASE AND INSECTS. PHOTO CREDIT: THE ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION

Nevertheless, in spite of the successes, countless books and articles continue raising questions, particularly over the past ten years, starting with Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, the work of the Economist’s Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. Published in 2008, based on interviews with mega-donors like Bill Gates, it was perhaps the first modern compilation of what philanthropists living today are really up to. Another milestone was reached last year with Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, edited by Stanford political scientist Rob Reich who sees charitable foundations as an “institutional oddity” in a democracy and is concerned that foundations, in spite of their usefulness in supporting innovation – what Warren Buffett famously termed “society’s risk capital” –  may be the “voice of plutocracy”.

Among the notable essays in that book, a theory of “disruptive philanthropy” developed by Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell, two Stanford sociologists, stood out. Based on the observation that philanthropy often competes with government instead of collaborating with it, it raises deep ethical questions. As Horvath and Powell explained to The Atlantic: “Disruptive philanthropy seeks to shape civic values in the image of funders’ interests and, in lieu of soliciting public input, seeks to influence or change public opinion and demand.”

A classic (and controversial) example that often comes up in this connection is charter schools promoted, inter alia, by the Broad and Gates Foundations. Not everyone agrees that they are an improvement over the existing public education system.

David Callahan’s new book The Givers – Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age is the latest arrival on the scene and adds to the debate – philanthropy vs. democracy – carrying it forward with considerable new and updated material. Callahan has done his research for years, he has met many people in the industry, he has uncovered hard-to-find facts about the “opaque” world of philanthropy and the website he has been running, Inside Philanthropy, has been a major source of information ever since it was launched in 2014.

With all this data in hand, Callahan takes us for a roller-coaster ride through the current philanthropy landscape, showing us how living mega-donors wield more power than ever before. And, he warns us, their influence is likely to grow unimpeded as a result of growing income inequality, a trend first magisterially documented by Thomas Piketty in his now famous Capital in the 21st Century.

In short, and to use Callahan’s words, “in many ways, today’s new philanthropy is exciting and inspiring. In other ways, it’s scary and feels profoundly undemocratic.”

WHY TODAY’S NEW PHILANTHROPY IS EXCITING

The book starts off by bringing home two stunning truths about our time that, Callahan argues, amount to a paradigm shift:

The rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, non-fiction, Uncategorized

How to Stop Climate Change and Reverse Global Warming

My latest article on Impakter, hope you enjoy it. I tackle here what I consider the key issue of our time and these are great books, a must read, the authors make a truly convincing case: Thanks to people like them and their work, we should not despair, all is not lost in the fight against climate change….

BOOK REVIEWS:  CLIMATE OF HOPE: HOW CITIES, BUSINESSES, AND CITIZENS CAN SAVE THE PLANET BY MICHAEL BLOOMBERG  (AUTHOR), CARL POPE  (AUTHOR) PUBLISHED BY ST MARTIN’S PRESS (APRIL 2017) 272 PAGES;

DRAWDOWN: THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE PLAN EVER PROPOSED TO REVERSE GLOBAL WARMING BY PAUL HAWKEN  (AUTHOR, EDITOR), TOM STEYER (FOREWORD) PENGUIN BOOKS (APRIL 2017) 240 PAGES; ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON PROJECT DRAWDOWN’S WEBSITE

Two books published this year on the same day (April 18) and on the same subject, climate change. Two books that could change our lives, our children’s lives and how we view the challenge of climate change.

Two books that make reversing global warming look like it’s within reach. At last.

So far, we’ve heard too much doom and gloom. And we still do, as attested by a recent Op-Ed from environmental activist Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org.  Published on the New York Times last month, it has a scary title: The Planet Can’t Stand This Presidency, with a subtitle that doubles down on the message: “Trump is in charge at a critical moment for keeping climate change in check. We may never recover.” And the opening sentence is a scary reminder that coal pollution kills.

But it’s time to try a different approach. Let’s be positive: Global warming can be arrested, and better still, we may be able to reverse it. It will require a lot of effort and goodwill, but it can be done. And it won’t be costly, on the contrary, it will jump start a new age of prosperity and well being.

Both books tell us how to do it and their starting point is the same: The evidence is in, it really can be done. Thanks to them, we can start to entertain a rosy vision of our future, and that’s amazing. Furthermore, the two books are complementary and re-enforce each other, even though they are radically different in structure and the stories they tell.

A Hopeful Message on the Climate, from Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope

The way forward suggested in Climate of Hope, co-written by  Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, may surprise a lot of people. It certainly surprised me, I hadn’t realized the extent to which cities play a major role in the climate change drama.

The other surprise is to see two completely different persons working as co-authors, an endeavor that requires deep understanding and mutual respect. Bloomberg is a billionaire, Carl Pope an environmentalist.

To read the rest and find out about Paul Hawken’s work and the role of Patricia Scotland, click here.

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Filed under Book review, climate change, non-fiction, politics

Platform Capitalism: The New Economy of the Future?

My latest article, just published on Impakter Magazine:

BOOK REVIEW: PLATFORM CAPITALISM BY NICK SRNICEK, PUBLISHED BY POLITY (DECEMBER 2016) 120 PAGES

Platform Capitalism

Platform capitalism is the latest buzzword, replacing what used to be called “eco-systems”. It is also sometimes confused with the “gig economy” or the “sharing economy”, enthusiastically embraced by politicians as the answer to the Great Recession.

Uber, AirBnB, TaskRabbit and the like are viewed as saviors, providing jobs to those who wouldn’t have any or rounding off the pay of those who make too little. Their apps create a digital space where service providers and users meet; the needs of the latter are satisfied by the former while the app owners take a fair percentage off every transaction.

THE BLESSED AGE OF POST-CAPITALISM?

Technology enthusiasts see platform capitalism, created by the digital revolution, as a benign form of capitalism ushering in a new blessed age where people come into their own, workers find instant demand for their services and consumers get what they want at the tap of a button on their smartphone.

Before we go on, let’s get one piece of semantics out of the way: Platform capitalism should not be confused with the “sharing economy” (insofar as it exists at all). Platform capitalism has nothing to do with “sharing” in the sense of an exchange of goods or services at no cost to those engaged in the exchange. Platform capitalism is capitalism pure and simple: You pay for the goods and services you get, nothing is free – even if transaction costs tend to be lower online. Lower but still substantial: Uber, for example, creams off 25 percent of every taxi ride. The difference is that it’s not done through an exchange of cash in the real world, it is done digitally.

And, according to the proponents of platform capitalism, there is an added advantage: The middleman is cut out, costs to users are thus automatically reduced. This is the capitalism of the future, they enthuse. Thanks to the digital revolution, we are into the age of “post-capitalism”.

Not true, argue the critics: The basic exploitative nature of capitalism has not changed. Middlemen are replaced by new gatekeepers. “Many of the old middlemen and retailers disappear but only to be replaced by much more powerful gatekeepers,” complained one disgruntled German blogger.

Is platform capitalism heralding a bright new future or is it just the latest form of exploitative capitalism?

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, Digital Revolution, Economics, non-fiction, politics, Startups, Tech

American Leadership at Risk – How to Win it Back

Another one of my articles just published on Impakter magazine:

AMERICAN LEADERSHIP AT RISK – AND HOW TO WIN IT BACK

BOOK REVIEW “BUILDING THE NEW AMERICAN ECONOMY: SMART, FAIR, AND SUSTAINABLE” BY JEFFREY D. SACHS (AUTHOR), BERNIE SANDERS (FOREWORD) COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, FEBRUARY 7, 2017

When Professor Sachs, one of the world’s most influential economists, wrote the book I’m reviewing here, we lived in a simpler, more innocent world, full of hope for a better future, particularly after the success of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, in large part a result of President Obama’s efforts.

America was firmly seated in the global leadership role it had occupied since World War II and as recently as last summer, it looked like nothing could upend it. The most recent “soft power” wins included the opening with Cuba and the deal with Iran to neuter its nuclear power – soft power wins that came on top of a long series of similar victories since 1945, starting with the generous Marshall Plan that resuscitated Europe from the ashes of war.

It may come as a surprise to many Americans, but it is this soft power, much more than its military power, that has ensured American leadership, turning it into a global moral compass, effectively the “land of dreams”.

Incidentally, the American military is well aware of this soft power, as evidenced in a recent letter signed by over 120 retired generals and admirals calling on Congress not to slash funds for diplomacy and foreign aid (as called for in Trump’s proposed budget), noting that “The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Sachs’ book, Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable, was intended as a roadmap for America to continue to lead the world. He had worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 and clearly meant this book to guide a new Sanders administration – for Professor Sachs, as he insisted in a recent interview discussing his book, sees himself as a “progressive”. And barring Sanders, no doubt he expected to see Clinton in the White House.

But that was not to be. Some sixty million Americans, many without a college degree and who felt by-passed by “globalization” and betrayed by a “blinkered elite”, voted in a man that is likely to upend America’s global leadership by systematically cutting everything that sustained America’s soft power: foreign aid and diplomacy; the environment and clean energy; support to science, health and the arts;  immigrants and trade.

As soon as Trump signed his “Energy Independence” executive order on March 28 rolling back Obama’s Clean Energy Plan, China stepped forward, claiming the climate leadership role. And this came on top of the Davos meeting earlier this year, where, as Sachs put it, “Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a stirring defense of globalization and international responsibility.” Indeed, Chinese leadership is the biggest story that came out of Davos this year.

Is there anything that can be done to win back the moral high ground and global leadership for America? Professor Sachs’ book shows us how.

WHY WE SHOULD LISTEN TO PROFESSOR SACHS

Jeffrey D. Sachs, born in 1954 and raised in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, is today Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University as well as Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Sachs started early accumulating firsts. He was one of the youngest ever to achieve tenure at Harvard University, becoming a full professor of economics in 1983 when he was just 28.

Over the next two decades, he was one of the few economists willing to leave the safety of Academia’s white tower and step out in the real world, with the risk of getting burned.

IN THIS PHOTO: JEFFREY SACHS AT THE UN (2009) –  PHOTO CREDIT: JAVAMAN200

To read the rest, click here. This is a book I really enjoyed and it was also extremely interesting to dig into Professor Sachs’ life for this review. A highly recommended read

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Filed under Book review, non-fiction, politics, United Nations

Poverty in America vs. Poverty in India: The Making of Bestsellers?

I just wrote this article and uploaded it on Thingser, the only social network that lets you do this – write an article and post it on the platform – if you don’t believe me, try doing this on Facebook!

It comes with the Thingser logo as a featured image to draw attention to this special feature:

And here’s the article:

POVERTY IN AMERICA vs. POVERTY IN INDIA: A JUICY SUBJECT FOR BESTSELLERS?

 

Featured image on NYT review of Evicted, published February 26, 2016

 A book about poverty, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist and Harvard University professor and Co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, was defined by the New York Times as “an astonishing book”. Before going on sale on March 1, 2016, it had already 23 positive “customer reviews” on Amazon. The publisher, Crown Publishers, is ensuring this will be a smashing hit, including pricing the hardcover edition lower than the digital edition. The objective? Echo Katherine Boo’s success with her 3-year study of a Mumbai slum. Here are the reasons why such a book, in spite of its dark, depressing content, is very likely to make it as a major best seller and perhaps even as a future blockbuster movie.   

In a recent and impassioned review of Matthew Desmond’s latest book, Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City, to be published shortly (on 1 March 2016, Crown Publishers), the New York Times wryly noted: “Poverty in America has become a lucrative business, with appalling results”.

The author of the review is Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted political activist who was perhaps the first one to publish a best seller about the subject of poverty,  Nickel and Dimed that came out in 2001.

It caused a stir and inspired others to follow in her path, including Adam Shepard with Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the Search for the American Dream and Charles Platt with his blog “Boing, Boing”.

Ms. Ehrenreich is also the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) dedicated to “supporting journalism, photo and video about economic struggle”. EHRP is run by editor-in-chief Alissa Quart, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and author of a socially-oriented non-fiction book Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers .

Published in 2003, it was considered a “substantive follow-up to Naomi Klein’s No Logo” (Publishers’ Weekly).

In 2012, Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist and recipient of a Pulitzer prize, erupted on this American scene focused with her best selling book about poverty in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum .

It instantly earned praise from everyone that counts (1,851 customer reviews on Amazon, over 8,000 reviews on Goodreads) and an accolade from best-selling author Junot Diaz on the New York Times, calling it “a book of extraordinary intelligence and humanity…beyond groundbreaking”.

What have all these authors in common?

They all did something unusual…

Click here to read the rest.

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Filed under non-fiction, politics, Publishing, social media

Chasing the Flame…

This week leading to Easter was an authentic Via Crucis for some 300 innocents massacred  by demented people: half of them were hapless tourists flying on Lufthansa’s low cost GermanWings, the other half, university students in Kenya who were shot and decapitated because they happened to be Christians.

The Pope had unforgettable words on Holy Friday for the Christians who were killed and for all the senseless violence permeating our society. Referring to the Christ’s Via Crucis, he said “In you, divine love, we see also today our persecuted brothers and sisters, decapitated and crucified for their faith in you, before our eyes and often with our complicit silence.”

Whether Christian or not, let us all agree that we cannot be silent. That something must be done – all of us can do something either at work or on our days off. And I was reminded of Sergio Vieira de Mello from Brazil, a man who dedicated his life to humanitarian causes and was horrifically killed in the line of duty. Samantha Power wrote an unforgettable book about Sergio – a man defined by Stephen Balbach, one of the reviewers of the book, as the “ultimate go-to guy”, in his words:

Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (simply “Sergio” to many) was the personification of what the United Nations could and should be. As Paul Bremer’s adviser Ryan Cocker once said, “Sergio is as good as it gets not only for the UN, but for international diplomacy.” Sergio was the UN Secretary General’s “ultimate go-to guy”, a nation builder in the world’s toughest spots like East Timor, Cambodia, Kosovo. No one who met him – from George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War, to the Khmer Rouge, to Slobodan Milosevic – came away untouched by his intelligence, physical bearing, charisma and integrity. It was a major blow to the world when he and 14 other UN staff were killed on August 19th 2003 by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, an event that has become known as the “UN’s 9/11”.
Yes, another victim of terrorism – one who died twelve years ago. I only recently came across Samantha Power’s book about him (it was published in 2008), in the course of researching my upcoming book about the United Nations. And I was immediately taken in by what is in fact a gripping read.

Here is my own review of it (I gave it 5 stars!):

Brilliantly written, with a title that beautifully reflects the thrust of the book, it draws a spell-binding portrait of an idealist, dedicated to his work and the goals of the UN. At the same time, it depicts with deep compassion a very human person, highly likeable in spite of the flaws. The last chapter, reporting the details of his tragic death, makes for a harrowing read, high drama that will bring tears in the reader’s eyes – including tears of frustration, because with a little better organization, his life might have been saved.
Yet, it could be argued that the real value of this book lies in another direction, it zeroes in on a phenomenon I have often come across in my 25 years of work at the UN: the rise of a new class of bureaucrats, far from the stereotype we all think of when the word “bureaucrat” comes up. Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian, was a true cosmopolitan, a man who lived beyond any nationalistic allegiance (though he loved his home country) and who truly believed in the supremacy of human rights, as defined in the UN Charter and the Declaration.

Here is no bureaucrat attached to red tape and looking forward to week-end partying. Here is a man who worked incessantly, often putting work before family.

I can vouch that there are many more like him in the UN system, people who honestly believe that the world should move beyond nationalism if it is ever to achieve peace and prosperity. Such people are “civil servants” in the most basic sense of the term, i.e. serving Society with a capital “s”, and Samantha Power reveals in this book exactly how such people come about, what pushes them, what inspires them and frustrates them, in short, how they act and why.

To anyone wondering how and why the UN continues to survive the violent attacks against it, including skepticism about is continued relevance, here is the beginning of an answer: the resilience of the UN system lies largely in the quality of (some) of its staff – people like Viera de Mello. The insights “Chasing the Flame” provides into this little known aspect of the UN is what makes this book particularly important and a must read.

Indeed. I consider this  an important piece of evidence for my own book about the UN, tentatively called “Soft Power, the Real Nature of the United Nations System”: Sergio exemplifies the special type of “bureaucrat” that the UN system attracts – people who are idealists, who believe in human dignity and in the value of every human life, precisely the reverse of Daesh assassins or suicidal pilots who criminally take the lives of others along with their own.

I hesitate to say “Happy Easter” but we need to make it happy and hopeful, we need to believe that humankind can be redeemed, that there will be in future many more people like Sergio…So have a Happy Easter, whether you are Christian or not!

Available on Amazon here

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Filed under non-fiction, politics

What’s Wrong with Europe? Ukraine, Greece and Libya: All Unfinished Businesses

Libya is sinking into a fundamentalist Islamic chaos, the cease-fire in Ukraine is breaking down and Greece’s debt problems are far from resolved.

Merkel, Putin and Hollande at the Kremlin (2015)

And this in spite of the the so-called agreement reached in Minsk between Putin and the Merkel-Hollande couple. And in spite of the news coming out late Friday evening (20 February) that the Eurogroup (the Euro-zone 19 finance ministers) had agreed to extend by four months Greece’s bailout, thus avoiding a financial shutdown of Greece.

Anyone following the news in Ukraine can see that the cease-fire hasn’t got a ghost of chance, with Russia still fully supporting the rebels’ advance in the East.  Yet, both Hollande and Merkel confidently talk about taking new sanctions and Kerry echoes them. One wonders how anyone can still believe in the power of sanctions. Surely Putin doesn’t care.

As to the Greek bailout extension, it’s a sham: this coming Monday (23 February), as reported in the New York Times:

“Greece must send its creditors a list of all the policy measures it plans to take over the next four months. If the measures are acceptable, European finance ministers could sign off on an extension of the bailout agreement on Tuesday.”

Varoufakis and Tsipras (Facebook)

Really, a “list of all the policy measures” by Tuesday? And to whom are the said measures supposed to be “acceptable”?

To Germany, of course. The fundamental idea is that a newly elected government in the Euro-zone cannot change the commitments taken by a previous government, i.e. the austerity measures forced upon Greece by Germany. Therefore the new government led by Tsipras and his dynamic finance minister Varoufakis must continue with the reforms and austerity policies called upon by the infamous “troika”, the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Back to square one.

Italian Military Mission (Olycon)

And the same can be said for Libya. The chaos threatening this country, just 350 km off the coasts of Europe, is a matter of grave concern to Italy: the radical fundamentalist Islamic militia over-running Libya are patterned on ISIS. Threats have already been sent via Twitter to Italy. The wonder is that the rest of Europe doesn’t seem to care. Italy declared its willingness to lead a multinational force to “restore peace and order” in Libya and sought a green light from the UN Security Council – as did Egypt, after it had attacked extremist positions inside Libya a few days ago.

But the Security Council did not respond – in practice, both Egypt and Italy were told to calm down and forget it.

I am worried. The world is fast sinking into anarchy, the West is doing nothing to stop it and not even using its prime instrument to prevent war: the United Nations. After Gaddafi was ousted, no serious effort has been undertaken to help Libya recover and rebuild – a tiny UN mission was sent to Libya, with no means to operate on the ground, and all the UN Representative can do, is warn that Libya is falling apart. Yes, it’s rapidly becoming a failed state like Somalia, and it’s sitting on Europe’s doorstep.

Of the three problems, Greece should be the easiest to fix: write off the debt and forget it. If one is to believe Paul B. Kazarian, one of the “vulture investors” of Hilary Rosenberg’s famous book, the €318 billion Greek debt is worth only one tenth of its value as a result of the series of adjustments to the Greek debt over the years that include restructuring, maturity extensions and interest rate reduction. He argues that if one applied international accounting rules and took into account the assets owned by Greece, the overall net debt figure would fall to €32 billion. “You are suffocating a country with a figure that has no relevance”, he argues, “Just take the fricking loss and move one.”

Not many people agree with him, such views are always scary to conservatives and particularly so in German circles. Yet, historically, sovereign state debts have always been treated this way: that is exactly what happened in the United States, for example when the Second Bank of the United States collapsed in 1836, sending thousands of UK investors scrambling for their money. This was not the end of the United States’ dollar, so why should a Greek (near) default be the end of the Euro?

When will our European leaders wake up and start facing the far more important challenges of Ukraine and Libya? Europe, quo vadis, where are your values, where are you going?

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