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A Frenchie travelling the world...

22 February 2008


Dear readers,

I usually try to resist commenting news when they are still too hot topics, but there are cases when the opportunity is too nice to be ignored. Kosovo indepen-dance is one of these. I know it is a heated debate, but it is also a perfect occasion to make a couple of useful comparisons and use the thought framework that has been presented in previous posts.

So Kosovo declared independence unilaterally, an easy shot considering the UN is administrating the Albanian populated Serbian province. Even easier because the UN administration was a de facto EU one, and most EU countries had made clear that they were ok with Kosovar's independence. What's left of Serbia, of the Serbian world (that is essentially Republika Serpska in Bosnia) and of Serbian allies (Russia and China, primarily) is of course outraged. And rightfully so, I would add, as the declaration in question as well as the recognition by the USA and most bigger EU countries is obviously in breach of most international laws. It is certainly nothing new and Russia as well as China have practiced intensively in this field too in the past (Afghanistan, Chechnya, Tibet, Taiwan, Abkhazia, etc., only to name a few).

But let's face it, they are legally right now and they are letting the world know. Serbians are enraged too, which is understandable, even considering that they are themselves partially responsible for what is now happening to them. If they had behaved a bit better with their various minorities in the past decades, they probably would still enjoy a complete national territory. Imagine that Texas would rebel and declare independence under UN/EU supervision, because the Chicanos are considered second class citizens there, and see what the US reaction would be. There would certainly be a nasty fight... Remember Alamo and all that crap. Ok, it would never happen you would say. Why? Well, for one simple reason: the USA are a strong military power and an influential diplomatic one (still) and they can ignore UN decisions and laugh at the EU if they want to. It's called the "reason of the strong" or the law of force.

And that's what happened in Kosovo, no legal process, but a succession of strength conflicts, more or less violent. Serbia oppressed ethnic Albanian Kosovars, Albanians created a guerrilla to answer this, Serbian forces and paramilitary crushed the rebellion and killed many civilians, the UN whined, the Russians laughed, NATO bombed the Serbians to smithereens and invaded Kosovo. I am not saying that it was wrong to invade Kosovo. I supported it when it happened. It is what happened afterwards which went very wrong. The international community let Kosovars think that they could get independence, despite the fact that there is absolutely no treaty, international agreement or UN charter article which allows a part of a national state to split from it if it is not a federal entity. Kosovo was not a federal republic inside Serbia, it was simply a province with an ethnic majority different from the rest of the country. The Kosovar reaction was only predictable: they declared themselves independent, despite the fact that the Serbian minority in the North of the province will never recognize an independent Kosovo government as a legal entity.

Russia and China (but also Spain, Cyprus and various other countries) were quick to denounce the move and quicker to warn other countries that recognizing Kosovo independence was opening the Pandora box. And again they were right. Basically, the EU and the USA have said to the world that Kosovo is a unique case, not an example to follow. Ridiculous: first, ethnic groups, oppressed or not in various country will only see that they can get away with an independence claim if they have the military strength to back their word; second, even if you only follow the Kosovo path exactly, that still paves the way to huge conflicts. So waht is now the guideline to break away, Kosovo style?

First, of course, there need to be some oppression and you have to make the world know about it. Because if you are being oppressed and nobody cares (like nationalities in Central Asian dictatorships, for instance), it does not count. It has to be on Western telly and it has to be easily Googled, otherwise, you can suffer in silence. Second, you have to rebel and get some military power. Having foreign sponsors (preferably Western) helps, but if you can do well on your own, it is fine too. The most difficult part is to get the UN to intervene. The UN is notoriously slow to react and if you have an enemy in the Security Council (or if your oppressor has a really good ally there) you are basically screwed. See Darfur or Palestine, for instance, it does not matter that their plight has been thousand times worse than this of the Kosovars: China is supporting Sudan and the USA are supporting Israel, so their rights will never be recognized. Also the problem is that to get the UN to react and send NATO, EU or ANZAC troops to the rescue, there must be some pretty horrible violations of Human Rights (like slaughters, genocide, tortures, etc.). You might not be ready to play that game, especially if the ones tortured or raped are family members. But sometimes, you don't have a choice... The rest of the story is a piece of cake. Once the connection with the "motherland" is severed by force, declaring independence is a matter of PR and making it look good institutionally. And now that Kosovo got it, nobody can even tell that there is no precedent.

You think that I am a cynic and a pro-genocidal Serbian? You could not be more wrong. Remember the previous posts. I don't believe in nation states. They are a product of imperialist XIXth century and European colonization. I am actually enjoying the fact that the Pandora box is open. It is only showing how obsolete the UN has become, how stupid the post World War II border intangibility rule has become. I am, by the way, not ok either with the much quoted right of people to rule themselves. It is only another disguise of the nation state principle. You can always find a subgroup to oppress. The other, the different, the guy with an accent is always the enemy. No, the true path is in supra national non-imperial systems. And if some old empires and nations must die to reach this stage, so be it. So yes, let's allow Taiwan to become officially independent, let's Palestinians have their own state(s), let's Abkhazia, Transdniestria, Kurdistan, Chechnya or Tibet be independent. Let's get rid of Corsica (if there is truly a majority for independence there), of Pays Basque or of Friesland. Who cares?

The point is, they will be independent for a while. Then they will realize that you are nothing in this globalized world if you are alone. And they will want to join the EU, the ASEAN or whichever supranational group they may realistically belong to. Then the real winner will be the citizens. That is of course if the supranational entities in question are anything else than a club of unelected people, irresponsible before their populations...

08 February 2008

Who will be the boss?

Dear readers,

As you know, if you have been following this blog for a while, I have always had some admiration for the editor of Europea World, Peter Sain ley Berry. His most recent Comment on the EU-Observer is worth the reading. It is about the choice for the Presidency of Europe. Who will man the post, as described in the Lisbon Treaty? Tony Blair has been quoted as a front runner, though Sarkozy is reputedly against this (and I tend to agree). Peter Sain ley Berry is making the case that such a President (whose functions will very obviously been defined by the man rather than by the vague text of the treaty) will have international law as his only "bible". He goes on saying that any candidate, particularly Mister Blair, will have to be judged on his credentials regarding such laws. Which is equivalent to definitely discrediting the former UK's Prime Minister. We can safely say that his regards for such laws are minimal and his loyalties more towards his American friends. And these, as we all know, have little or no respect for anything international.

I'd like to go a bit further and throw a couple of names. Who would have the obvious stature, natural charisma, massive experience and most of all respect for the supra-national institutions fitting this job? I would say that there are very few contenders. Gerhardt Schroeder has the charisma and the experience, but his links with Vladimir Putin discredit him as much as Tony Blair's links to Georges W. Bush. No French politician could qualify in my eyes, not even François Bayrou, who badly lacks the experience and the charisma. Louis Michel would probably be a good choice, but the current infighting in Belgium could hamper such a nomination. Jean-Claude Juncker has said several times that he wants to remain faithful to his Luxembourg voters, so unless they ask him personally to take the job, he is unlikely to accept it. This is unfortunate, but expected. Apart from the case where one woman would get the job (after all it would be a good sign for Europe), I think there could be a surprise candidate. Romano Prodi has just lost his current job. He used to be a Commission President, which certainly gives him the experience, and he has both the charisma and the international stature and he speaks multiple languages. His respect for laws and international treaties is absolute. So he is a perfect match... Unless of course Mister Berlusconi vetoes him. That would be unfortunate too, but Il Cavaliere is not known for his sense of the public good neither for his tolerance. So I am now running out of names.

Do you have an idea?

07 February 2008

Kenya and democracy

Dear readers,

I would like to apply what I discussed last time about Europe and democracy to what is happening in Africa in general and in Kenya or Chad in particular. There is a general feeling in Europe that African countries should be democratic and that Europe should help this to happen. The reasoning behind this is simple: Africa was nearly totally colonized by European countries in the past (and until the 70's) so they now have some responsibility in helping African countries to get better. I am not going to delve into the debate about whether state aid should be given only in exchange of democratic progress. This is not the point. I would just like to discuss the idea: getting better = democracy. It is indeed a point which is strongly challenged by modern powers such as China, Russia, Iran or Saudi Arabia. They point out that exporting democracy is an ethnocentric European (or American) bias and that each culture should have its own regime.

A simple and way too basic answer to these countries criticism would be to point that it is probably no accident that all these countries don't show much about democracy themselves and are simply using this as a way of deflecting criticisms from their own shortcomings. It is a fair enough point, and sufficient to discredit the "messengers", but certainly does not address the message. By pointing out China or Iran gross violations of Human Rights, we are not answering the question. Which is in fact the eternal question about universals, civilization and culture. Nothing less.

But then, what did we learn from our latest reading? We learned that the ultimate universal (incidentally, the one which we believe is fundamental to modern democracy) is that everything should be put into discussion in a regulated but free manner. Regulation should be in the modalities of the discussion, not the topics or the expression itself. Freedom should be as defined by the old rule: "my freedom stops where begins the one of others". Civilization, as defined in Morin's book is in fact the way various cultures can dialog within this framework.

On this basis, we can revisit the criticism above. Is exporting democracy in Africa (for instance) a European ethnocentric biased idea, a politicized form of neo-colonialism, born in our sense of historical guilt? Well, I suspect that it all depends on two other questions: what do we mean by the word "democracy" and how do we actually implement the export?

Democracy is not the regime where the majority of the people rules over a minority through a voting system. This is called a Republic and, it has been proved many times in History, does not allow the respect of multiple cultures by itself. If we keep within Morin's thought framework, a Republic can function relatively well within a single autarcic culture but can not bring civilization (in the meaning we defined previously). Worse, it will not function properly in a globalized world, neither with multicultural groups. And I believe that any reader that has followed until now can see where I am going in regards to Africa: none of the current African states is a mono-cultural entity.

But again, this is not the main issue. Democracy might have very different meanings, modern political science scholars (as well as Morin himself) usually agree on one definition: it is a representative regime where the sovereignty comes from the people and where the government is responsible to the people; it is a regime where decisions are taken according to the rule of the majority but where at the same time the rights and basic freedom of the minority are respected; it is a regime which respects the integrity of each individual while the better good of the whole society is researched; last but not least, it is a regime where no citizen or category of citizens is entitled to more permanent rights or duties than any other. I know that many will dispute this definition, but it is the one this post is about, so it does not matter in principle.

The forms such a regime can take locally or according to a specific culture, the specific laws implemented to reach this state may vary immensely from one place to another and from one time to another. But these principles are the ones which correspond to the idea Morin has of Europe: a constant dialogic between principles which may seem contradictory but are in fact in permanent feedback cycles. Such a regime respects any specific cultural background while at the same time allowing the respect of any other one. Not because it ignores such backgrounds, but because it can integrate them in the daily functioning of the state.

Now we can see why places such as Kenya or Chad are suffering from such massive troubles, despite the fact that they were considered are countries with "democratic credentials". Europe exported there (from the UK and France respectively), a political model of institutions. This model was accepted (not imposed), by a local elite. But they are totally unadapted to areas where different ethnic, religious and language groups are prevalent. We exported the institutions but not the principles. We exported the democratic nation state institutions to these countries which are not based on such entities. We did not export the democratic principles there, because nobody was interested in understanding the local culture(s).

Now, if we really want to help Africa, we can send troupes, restore order or deliver aid. We may temporarily succeed. But what African countries really need is a complete institutional re-engineering. Only this will allow African people to integrate their identities as tribal groups, sub-cultures, etc. into a workable system that respects individuals but still support the society as a whole.

06 February 2008

A small revolution within Google Search engine

Dear readers,

I have noticed today a small change in the way Google displays results for a search. It may sound trivial but for people like me, who make a living out of finding information in multiple languages, it is a small revolution. If you type in a simple word such as virgil, you will get the following result:

As you can see if you enlarge this image, the first three items are your good old Google search results in the localized version of Google (here France). But instead of proposing upfront the alternative spelling virgil, it does so only after the three first results and displays immediately the tentative result. More interesting for me, the lowest results on the page are what the search result would have been if I had made the search in Googel.en, improving considerably the scope and quality of the overall search.

So ok, it is probably still very trivial to you, but for me it is indeed a small revolution.

02 February 2008

(Re)-thinking Europe

Dear readers,

I have just finished Edgar Morin's "Penser l'Europe" ("thinking Europe"), which is an excellent excuse for me to begin blogging again. The book will be also the opportunity for me to go a bit beyond and expose my own views on this important topic.

Edgar Morin is a French left wing philosopher and social anthropologist. His Mediterranean roots (born Edgar Nahoum in 1921, he is of Spanish and Sephardi Jewish origin) were soon hidden by his war name of Morin. Involved in the Spanish Civil War and later in the French Resistance, Morin was attracted by Marxism and was until his expulsion in 1951 a member of the French Communist Party. He is still today a known sympathizer of the center left "stream" of the French Socialist Party. More importantly, of course, he is a popular intellectual in France and even in Europe, respected by both right and left wing politicians for his open mind, immense culture and defining ideas.

It is interesting to know that Edgar Morin, as he admits himself in the book, was initially a strong opponent of the European idea but came later to recognize its vital importance. Converts are often the most enthusiastic missionaries, so it is no surprise that Edgar Morin has written this essay in an extremely convincing and didactic way.

The whole idea of the book is that Europe nearly died during the XXth century, mainly because of its internal tensions. Morin tries to understand what stands behind the European ideal (historically as well as nowadays) and why is it important to find it out. The tone is sometimes a bit precious, as Morin is often obsessed with semantics. But naming things is controlling them, by making them ours, so I guess he has a point in trying to be as precise as he can be. This aspect aside, the reading is pure pleasure. Morin manipulates concepts and ideas with ease and more importantly makes them understandable for people who don't have the same immense scientific and cultural background.

Morin sees Europe as an entity not really well defined from the geographical, cultural or ethnic point of view. He then tries to define what common points have developed and existed along History between the nations and other political organisations which have flowered on its space and which could have explained both the extraordinary expansion and global success of Europe and its terrible implosion and decadence during the XXth century. He finds them to be what he calls a "dialogic" between nihilism and creation, a permanent instability, source of progress as well as destruction. What he calls dialogic is the opposition between two ideas which are antagonistic without being contradictory or exclusive and as the same time complementary without being stable. He goes a bit further by explaining that it is this dialogic which has created the European Nation States and the modern democratic systems, but also the ideologies that have nearly destroyed Europe: Marxism and Fascism. This dialogic has also transformed Europe, both through its oppression of the rest of the world through the colonial system, and through its adoption and integration of other cultures in its own identity. Due to this, Europe has both spread its defining principles through the world and acquired a massive responsibility in doing it. The dialogic between cultures and civilization has made European civilization in some way compatible with all cultures.

This responsibility is the reason Edgar Morin wants a political Europe. He understands that to survive along these principles, Europe must be stronger (not in a military way, but in a softer, influential way) and united. Europe has hurt and changed the world all together, for better or for worse. But it now has to survive with it and in it. The Nation States have been created by the European dialogic and have been made redundant by it. We still have to invent something else to complete our cycle to the next stage, whatever it is. Otherwise, the nihilistic aspect of the dialogic will only destroy them, nothing will have been created to go beyond... Morin thinks that a Confederation (a bit along the Swiss model) could help us define what this next stage is.

But interestingly, at the end of the book, Morin gives clues. The point, according to him, is that there should not be any ideology. Europe has already created and destroyed all religions of earthly salvation. Europe has invented secularism and has proved that it is the only peaceful way to go. But it has not destroyed religions or ideologies. It has absorbed them and invented a system where all systems can coexist without facing annihilation. Our habit of facing the ultimate Void (and surviving it) has given us this amazing ability. Call it democracy if you want (though it is a tricky word to employ here, so much has it been misused), it does not matter. It is a way of handling public matters which solves the problem of power. No other system has done it. Of course, none is perfect either, and our democratic system could see many improvements. But Europe's mission, its new creation process, could be to defend it against the permanent entropy of the Void, and to propose it to the rest of the world that we infected with our own dialogic. Spreading democracy (what a terribly dangerous slogan) could become an ultimate goal for a future European Union.

The point that I would like to add to Morin's analysis is that it does not need to be disruptive. It does not need to be disruptive to the European States. They are going to disappear a way or another, swallowed by this new Void that is globalisation. They can understand that it is not too late for them to accept this kind of immortality. But more importantly, it does not need to be disruptive for the rest of the world. They can understand that Europe has now permanently abandoned any aggressive expansionism. What they can now also understand is that the system that we are offering (for free, so to say) is not exclusive of their own cultures or of their own contribution to civilization. It is the whole point of the democratic process that it is is not ethnocentric. It is not attacking any faith, any social system neither any form of expression. The democratic system only basis is that there should be a rule rather than chaos and that the rule does not need to be any heavier than needed to respect each group or individual. For this reason, it is the ultimate universal. The universal that includes all particularities.