society, The political use of...

The political use of public shaming

I decided that I would listen to a Ted Talk every morning while having breakfast. The point is to keep my brain going from the beginning of the day, but not necessarily on political or topical subjects. Every week, I will pick the one that made me reflect the most. I will post it here, and share my views with you.

We all know who Monica Lewinsky is. She was “the other woman”, the young lady Bill Clinton had an affair with in 1997 while being President of the United States. After years of hiding, Monica Lewinsky finally broke her silence and shared her vision of the scandal, how she regretted what happened, and how it had been a mistake. She rightly points to the fact that everybody makes mistakes in their early twenties; but her mistakes had far greater consequences than the average person’s. Lewinsky dwells on the changes that internet brought. The news of her affair with Clinton was everywhere, every time and for everybody who looked for the information. It triggered a scandal with unprecedented dimensions. The scandal had life-threatening consequences for her. The scandal was not just ethical – it was political. Lewinsky’s humiliation was just the byproduct of a political confrontation between Clinton an his opponents.

Clinton must be taken down 

Clinton was elected President of the United States in 1992, preventing George Bush from a second mandate at the White House (Clinton’s campaign focused on economy while Bush’s hinged on foreign affairs). The new democrat president is not accepted by a large portion of the most conservative politicians, who criticized Clinton for being too lax, for lacking of leadership and experience, and for including his wife in the government’s affairs. Refusing to accept Clinton, his detractors monitors his every move hoping to dig out some dirt which could ruin the president’s integrity and standing. Several stories were brought to the news, such as the Whitewater affair, Troopergate, Filegate or Travelgate, all started by the American Spectator, the same newspaper which launched the anti-Clinton campaign during the elections. The American people did not pay much attention to those affairs, too preoccupied by the stagnation of the national economy.

Monica Lewinsky’s affair with the president, while not being related to the affair that was being investigated at the time, was brought up and added to the list of accusations against Bill Clinton. The conversations the young woman had on the phone with Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s confident at the Pentagon, were tipped off to the prosecutor in charge of investigating Clinton’s past. Clinton was summoned to the Court where he deliberatly lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. This triggered a political spiral against the president, which went as far as an impeachment procedure against Clinton.

This case shows how adultery was used and distorted by Clinton’s political opponents, for political reasons. This also shows how Clinton’s political decisions as President of the United Nations did not matter in this story. His detractors tried to get him humiliated for his character because they did not support his political agenda. This is not democracy, and this is not justice. Lewinsky got caught in between conflicting political interests disguised as moralism. Clinton’s opponent did not play fair or by the rules.

Judging a president by his personal life

There are many examples of presidents, prime ministers or politicians whose personal lives were used to temper with their careers. Take France: we are probably the champions when it comes to being apologetic with our politicians’ personal faux pas. François Mitterand had a double life which was revealed after his death. Although morally wrong from a marital point of view but also because both wives and children were supported by public finances, did it make Mitterand less of a president? I am not saying that his politics were right. I am saying that what he did in his private life and what he did as the French President were two separate things that did not affect me the same way.

A more recent example: François Hollande was witnessed sneaking out of l’Elysée to go visit his mistress at the time. Same for Mitterand, this shows that he is someone I would not be willing to be friends with, no more no less.

Collage of cover pages of newspapers about scandal of Dominique Strauss Kahn

Innocent until proven guilty? Will ‘DSK’ survive the sex scandal? AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX

The most extreme example of distorting a politician’s personal life is that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Former president of the IMF, Strauss-Kahn is – or was – also a French politician who was rumored to have been preparing his candidacy for the French presidential elections  of 2013. He was accused of “aggravated-pimping”, sexual harassment and other terms of the sort, and finally acquitted. I am one of those who believe that this was a conspiracy, just like in Clinton’s case(You can read more about the scandals here). Because of the scandals, Strauss-Kahn was fired from the IMF and put to the sideline in France, thus annihilated (or at least greatly postponing) his possible candidacy for the presidential elections.

Find me cynical 

Now, find me cynical, but I believe every single politician has something to hide. We would like for them to resemble the general public, to be just like us, or at least reflect what we would like ourselves to be like. But we are not perfect, we also have things that we do not want to be made public. Because they have a public life, politicians’ private lives are more likely to get exposed. But think that we hope to be judged on our skills and capacities when we are at work. Let’s judge politicians on the same ground, in their case for their abilities to govern.

Do not get me wrong: adultery, sexual harassment, and so forth, are terrible things and they should be addressed. They should not, however, be used as political daggers to get rid of an opponent. Those defects should be exposed before they become liabilities for a nation. Everybody knew Clinton had had several affairs before going to the White House, but nobody did anything about it and it did not prevent him from becoming the president of the US.

The French (and others) political scene is sexist, which is only a reflection of our society. Change this approach and you will change the politicians. As long as this has not changed, I will continue judging my political leaders based on their capacities to govern, and not on what they do with their personal lives.

In the name of transparency, I would ideally like my politicians to be angels. But none of them are. Someone still has to run our countries. Does that make me cynical?

History and Culture

Hong Kong, Poppy and Waterloo: Taking others’ culture into consideration

In politics, and in life in general, culture matters. The best way to observe cultural difference is to study a negotiation process. On one hand it showcases the strategy and the personality of the negotiator, and on the other hand, it exemplifies how parties to the negotiation perceive one another but also perceive time. Understanding others’ customs, values and rites, as well as history is crucial. Failing to understand this will most certainly lead to problems; at the highest political ranks, this can lead to diplomatic crises or even to wars if the back channels are not able to mend the offend. Successfully understanding the other will however increase the chance of a positive outcome for the discussion.

The Hong Kong negotiations 

Mrs Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang formally agree the handover - Source: BBC News

Mrs Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang formally agree the handover – Source: BBC News

Take the example of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Independence of Hong Kong signed by the UK and China in 1984. The accord settled the question of the future of Hong Kong, as the UK’s lease on the New Territories was due to end in 1997. The agreement stated that the entirety of the territory of Hong Kong would be returned to China by the United Kingdom at the end of July 1997. In return, the Middle Kingdom would implement its “one country, two systems” administrative arrangement, thus respecting Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and other local specificities. In order to reach such an agreement, both parties to the negotiation had to work with the other’s demands and negotiation techniques. Margaret Thatcher’s team managed to get many concessions from Deng Xiaoping’s as they managed to understand the Chinese protocol and use it to their advantage. The Brits respected the Chinese chain of command, the negotiators built personal relations which made Peking put aside their resentment that two centuries of British domination had caused. The outcomes of the negotiation were positive for both parties: China got Hong Kong back, thus sending a strong message to Taiwan and reinforcing the stature of Deng Xiaoping at the national level, while the UK managed to secure their economic interests and ensured a smooth transition from British to Chinese rule for the territory.

The Poppy Scandal

As you have probably noticed, the UK and the decision-makers’ lapels get pinned by a red poppy every year around th end of October – early November. This symbol was created in remembrance of the 11th of November, the anniversary of the World War I armistice. This symbol is so enshrined into British politics and memory that former Prime Minister Tony Blair wears this red flower in his official portrait. It is with that same poppy that David Cameron travelled to China in November 2010.

David Cameron - wearing the poppy - inspects Chinese troops in Beijing with China's Premier Wen Jiabao

David Cameron – wearing the poppy – inspects Chinese troops in Beijing with China’s Premier Wen Jiabao – Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

I mentioned earlier that China resented the UK because of two centuries of domination. The high points of this domination are referred to as the Opium Wars (the first one was in 1839-1842, the 2nd in 1956-1860 – more info here), which awarded commercial privileges and territorial gains to the foreign powers. Now, remember that opium is made from poppies. The fact that the British Prime Minister wore a poppy during a visit to China brought to the surface a strong anti-colonial and bitter taste in the Chinese’s mouths.

Wearing that poppy, and keeping it on despite the Chinese protocol clearly demanding those symbols to be put away, was a clear diplomatic and cultural risk. Cameron and four members of his Cabinet, not without negotiation, were allowed to keep the pin on. The importance of the purpose of the visit, which was to enhance the economic partnership of the two countries and sign new deals probably pushed the Chinese to make this concession. The rest of the diplomatic visit was dedicated to economic considerations, but also to making clear that China had some work to do on the democratic front, furthering the offense by directly criticizing the local political practices.

Confronting the two examples 

All in all, this visit can be regarded as very condescending. A former colonial power went to visit a former colony, and wore a symbol of this domination despite the fact that the hosts asked for this emblem to be removed. If we transpose this situation to that of the negotiation of Hong Kong, Thatcher’s government would never have made this decision. Why? For the simple reason that there was too much on the table at the time. The UK could have potentially been forced to hand back Hong Kong to the Middle Kingdom without getting anything in return if they had not played their cards right.

In the first negotiation, the UK approached China in a position of weakness and hoping go secure their interests even if the power balance was against them. They followed the lead of Peking to avoid possible offense. None was made and the two countries left the signature ceremony content. In 2010, Cameron went to China in a position of strength, aware that China was willing to negotiate economic deals even though the UK had offended them several times, by wearing the poppy but also by openly criticizing their human rights violations.

It is then possible to assume that cultural understanding is only advisable and practiced when in a weak position, as demonstrated by the Chinese’s willingness to let Cameron wear the poppy during the official visit; it then only a detail when in a position of strength, when the weak party is desperate and is willing to accept everything to secure some benefits and its vital interests.

Ethical considerations 

So, where do we draw the line? What should we do – or not do – in order to avoid offending others, even though the offense is perpetrated by our national identity? But more importantly, should economic opportunities be considered acceptable excuses to baffle others’ culture? Should business allow us to be offensive?

Another example caught my eye a few months ago. Belgium wanted to introduce euro coins commemorating the battle of their victory in Waterloo against Napoleon. Needless to say that, as a French person, I was offended by the idea. Belgium and France have good diplomatic relations, they are close economic and cultural partners, are both part of the EU, NATO, etc. So, shouldn’t have Brussels taken Paris’s feelings into account when introducing the idea to the European Bank?

If Heads of State do not hesitate to offend their friends and partners, how can we expect people to be accepting of others?

Ted Talk of the Week

How a truely global ethic can save us all

A few weeks ago, I decided that I would listen to a Ted Talk every morning while having breakfast. The point is to keep my brain going from the beginning of the day, but not necessarily on political or topical subjects. Every week, I will pick the one that made me reflect the most. I will post it here, and share my views with you.

The talk that marked me this week was given by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009. National politics does not matter here, which is for the best as I am far from being an expert in British politics. You will also tell me that the speech is old, 6 years old to be precise. To that, I reply to you that old does not mean bad. And if you watch the video, you will probably notice that most of what G. Brown discusses still applies today. And this is exactly for that reason that this speech caught my attention.

The first part of the speech is made to captivate the audience, to appeal to their memories, to remind them of the horrors of the past that shocked them, of the pictures which changed the West’s perception of the world and triggered the intervention of the international community in crises abroad. This first part reminded me of a picture that was all over the internet a few days ago: the image of a little boy who was found dead on the Turkish shore after trying to cross the Mediterranean with his family in order to escape the war tearing apart Syria.

As Brown put it,

What we see unlocks what we cannot see

And although this picture is ethically wrong on many levels, it appeals to our humanity, which Europe seems to have had a hard time finding to come up with appropriate solutions to the continuous wave of migrants landing on our Southern borders.

The most important difference that I see between the picture of the little boy stranded on the Turkish beach and all the other examples given by Gordon Brown, is that this crisis has reached and directly affects the West. It is not in Africa or in the Middle East. It is right around the corner from us, within the borders of the EU. What this means is that the effects of decades of foreign intervention in the Middle East has caused a (predictable) crisis that is now asking us to correct our wrongs. It is also demonstrating that Europe is no longer immune to the problems the rest of the world is facing. And this time, sending off aid will not suffice, as it will have to be deployed within our direct realm, thus demanding extreme levels of understanding, cooperation and collaboration.

What this picture also suggests is that, we, the international community, have been unable to address a crisis that everybody knows exist. Gordon Brown rightly points to the failures of our institutions which have been created to advance human rights and human dignity, in order to create global and lasting peace. We have clearly failed, just like in Rwanda we failed to prevent a genocide, to rescue those who would rather risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats than stay in their country where their lives are at risk at every instant. And despite the importance of the media coverage relaying the information from Syria and other striken countries, we have failed to appropriately respond to their distress.

We need to tackle problems that everybody knows exist

We also fail to think global, to grasp the implications a foreign crisis could have on us. We forget that in this time and age, was goes around comes back around. Failing to support an underdeveloped country will have medium to long-term consequences that will be felt at the international level. Failing to think global, which also means diverse, compromises our chance for peace and stability. Ultimately, helping others also means helping oneself.

The example of global warming is a striking one as world leaders are due to gather in Paris at the end of November at the COP21 Summit. Gordon Brown’s speech came before the previous summit on the issue which took place in Copenhagen, but did not bring sufficient results. Institutions to regulate, punish and impose decisions must be created in order to make climate change a global common implicating everyone, for the sake of everyone.

In a time and age where people are aware and informed about what happens on the other side of the planet in an instant, more emphasis should be put on involving the people in decision-making and finding solutions to global problems. So far, civil society has been more active in welcoming the migrants coming from the other side of the Mediterranean than governments themselves. There has to be something wrong with our system. The global character of citizens is not reflected in governments. Information technologies are the key, which echoes another Ted Talk.

PM Gordon Brown calls for recognizing our responsibilities to others. We must act as global citizens to solve global problems, because they do not stop at borders. We have the potential to build a better world. Ethic must go beyond our nation interest. Let’s do it.

Gordon Brown engaged in a conversation on Global ethic vs. national interest which can be found here