China syndrome and Strauss-Kahn's fate

2011-05-26Asia Times

BEIJING - The fate of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is sealed. The once almost all-mighty International Monetary Fund (IMF) director, projected to become the next president of France and possibly also the most influential European political leader, is no more.

A New York chambermaid's accusations of sexual assault have thrashed that trajectory and perhaps changed the course of European and global history. It seems like a science fiction story, in which a writer like Isaac Asimov sends his protagonist back in time to kill Adolf Hitler or Napoleon Bonaparte before they took power.

It could all be well and fine if a crucial aspect of Western values, mindset and institutions had not been sacrificed along with Strauss-Kahn - the presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise. This is all the more important as 60% of the world population - the people in Asia - is moving fast to catch up with the Western economic world and look up to Western values as a possible political compass. Is the principle of presumption of innocence still holding, or has it just been trashed?

In fact, well ahead of Strauss-Kahn's trial in court, the mudslide of a scandal has engulfed him, forcing his resignation from the IMF and possibly derailing his candidacy in next year's French elections. Many papers argue that his past and his history as a womanizer make the accusations against him likely.

Yet, in theory at least, there should be a great difference between being a womanizer and a possible rapist. Actually, there should be a contradiction between the two. If you are a womanizer, why should you go around raping women? These are common-sense perplexities that feed the conspiracy theories abounding around this case. It was a set-up, the theories say, and Strauss-Kahn was framed to prevent him from running for the presidency.

The conspiracy theories live because of the hopes and fears of what Strauss-Kahn might have done as France's president.

Presently, the process of European political unity has stalled. There are many causes for that, but the main reason is the break in the special relationship between France and Germany, a relationship that French historian Michel Korinman in the 1990s called "Framania". France took the political lead and Germany the economic lead, and the two would de facto coordinate between themselves on what would then result in a united European political line. This process has fallen apart over the past few years.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy broke the mold of traditional French politics, which had been keen on marking a distance between Paris and Washington, despite the strong alliance. Sarkozy aligned himself with the US administration, be it that of George W Bush or Barack Obama. At the same time, Germany loomed farther away in France's priorities.

Meanwhile, Germany changed too. The generation of leaders who were scared of Germany's recent history - and thus over-sensitive about any political initiative that was not agreed on with Washington or Paris - gave way to the first of a new brand of leader, Angela Merkel.

She came from a different upbringing, in former Soviet satellite East Germany, and thus was unhindered by the convulsions of conscience assailing her former West German colleagues, who were still steeped in the guilt for Germany's role in two world wars. She was therefore less timid than her predecessors in transforming Germany's economic muscle into political leverage.

This was further enabled by the economic crisis. Germany is the largest creditor of weaker and financially unruly European countries, and its economy is faring better than those of all other European countries. Germany had the possibility and responsibility to almost dictate the most important terms for the European recovery, unfettered by France, which was economically much weaker and politically looking across the Atlantic.

By themselves these deviating tendencies could have broken Europe apart, especially coupled with growing suspicions from junior European members. Actually, while Germany channeled a growing amount of credit to European member states, this credit de facto also financed the purchase of German goods, since Germany is by far the largest exporter in Europe. This in turn caused a drain of resources from Europe's weaker countries to Germany, in a fashion similar to what northern Italy has been doing to southern Italy for decades [1].

This could sow a feeling of being robbed by Germany if in a moment of need Germany did not help failing countries like Greece, Ireland or Portugal, but simply dropped them. On the other hand, those countries really messed up their public accounts, without any German involvement, and German help should be granted on the condition of greater responsibility both locally in the failing countries and by Germany at the European level.

In this situation, Strauss-Kahn at the IMF played a significant role in reining in German impulses and coordinating a more pan-European economic strategy, which had global implications since the IMF actions de facto pushed Europe for greater political unity. If he were to become France's president, he could bank on this experience and lead not only France but also Europe. He could also rely on the US's trust, gained at the IMF and before, that he would not turn the European Union into an anti-American stronghold.

Without him, this project is not impossible but certainly less likely. History does not move in a straight line, men and countries are taken by hubris, and s... happens. Yet it is very important to dismiss suspicions that there is any conspiracy in these sexual abuse charges.

This is not simply a domestic French issue; it is globally relevant. If China, traditionally fond of conspiracy theories, were to come to believe that Strauss-Kahn was put away to eliminate a possible future political scenario for Europe and the world, this could move Beijing further away from the West. It is a critical moment when at its 2012 Communist Party Congress China will decide its strategic course for the next 10 years.

Therefore, judgment should be suspended until Strauss-Kahn is proven guilty to cast away any conspiracy theories. If he is innocent he should be allowed to choose to run for president, even as a womanizer - that is not against the law and not even against his wife's knowledge. There have been many other womanizing presidents. He won't be the first and won't be the last, provided he has not broken the law.

Perhaps the court in New York should take all this into consideration, strongly recommending the public not to pass judgment on Strauss-Kahn before the jury does. In this confusing moment, perhaps only that judge in New York can remind Westerners and the world that, yes, Strauss-Kahn might have his faults, and these should be known to his potential voters, but he is innocent until proven guilty.

1. I am grateful for conversations with Paolo Savona and Reinhard Buetikofer on this.  (2011-05-26 Asia Times)


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