Guest Post: The Universal Spider

Here’s another fascinating essay from the Vacuous Wastrel. You can read the original here.

At the end of my boyhood and at the age of being able to manage a horse, I was brought to Lille before Duke Charles of Burgundy, then called the Count of Charolais, who took me into his service. This was the year 1464.

 A quarter-century after that meeting, Philippes de Commynes was released from imprisonment (he has spent two years in prison, including five months trapped in a small iron cage), and set about catching up on his correspondence. One of his most pressing concerns was responding to a request from an old friend, an archbishop named Angelo Cato, for a contribution toward a history book the latter was hoping to compile, and Commynes appears to have set about dictating a reply as soon as he was free to do so. That reply would take him several years, and was to be divided into six volumes – two further volumes offering an update concerning more recent events would follow in the subsequent years.

Commynes was not, he was at pains to point out, a historian himself. He lacked all of the necessary skills of a historian: he did not speak (at least not with any fluency) Latin; he did not have the literary skill to invent appropriate speeches and episodes to enliven his narrative; his scholarship was far too inadequate to allow him to appropriate finesse historical events into the required classical and Biblical analogies; and his reluctance to lie meant that at times his recollections would fail to give full and dutiful praise to his social betters. He was not a historian – merely a source of information for Cato, who would use it for respectable, literary and historical purposes (and even in that regard, Commynes recommends others who may recall some details more fully). Instead of producing a work of art himself, Commynes laments, “I am merely sending you what immediately comes to my mind.” In place of respectable, scholarly, history, all Commynes can do is describe what happened, and why.

As a result, the Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Commynes as “the first critical and philosophical historian since classical times”; others have called him simply “the first modern writer”. Closer to his own time, Emperor Charles V referred to his manuscript – published after the author’s death and quickly translated into languages across Europe – as “a textbook for princes”.

Although Commynes himself protests that he is providing source material for a biography of King Louis XI of France (and, in the final two volumes, of his successor, Charles VIII), his work soon came to be known by the publishers and scholars as Commynes’ “Memoirs” – understandably, given that the narrative begins before Commynes meets Louis, and continues after the latter’s death. In this edition, the final two books are removed, along with a few digressions, and the scholar responsible believes that they have in this way, as the title indicates, produced a biography – perhaps the first true modern biography – of the monarch known as The Universal Spider. In truth, Commynes’ history is considerably broader than that: a portrait, not of one man, but of an era.

It is an era of immense importance. At least three of the defining events in the last half-millennium of European geopolitics take place in these pages: the rise of a modern, centralised France; the foundation of the Hapsburg empire; and the resolution of the Wars of the Roses. We do not learn much, except implicitly, of the broader social currents of the times; but we are treated to intimate and incisive portraits of the men who shaped the times, not as Great Men, but as terribly flawed men – and above all, the book offers contrasting analyses of two men with whom Commynes was as closely familiar as anyone ever was: Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Louis the Prudent, King of France. The fate of Europe rests in the hands of these two men.


Let’s set the stage. Commynes is a Burgundian – a native of the confused border area between the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Duchy of Burgundy has always been, in law, a vassal of the King of France – but as France has been brought close to ruin, by enemies foreign and domestic, Burgundy has become a de facto independent state, swollen by advantageous marriages to the point where the Dukes now dream of an empire that stretches from sea to sea, from their dominions in the Netherlands through to the possessions of their allies in Provence and Savoy. As our story begins, Burgundy is perhaps the richest and happiest nation in Europe: its rich soils thriving under light-touch taxation, it has been at peace for over three decades under the benign, wise rule of Philip the Good, one of the richest men in the known world. Philip is ailing, but the nation waits eagerly for his successor, the fearless, charismatic Charles, Count of Charolais. Philip was godfather to young Commynes, and when the latter is orphaned as a child, the Duke brings him to court, and places him close to Count Charles.

France, meanwhile, has undergone a far more traumatic succession, only a few years earlier. Charles the Victorious, who, with the aid of Joan of Arc, somehow managed to save the nation from English dominion, and from her own civil wars, quarrelled terribly with his son (who once chased Charles’ mistress through the palace with a drawn sword), exiling the young Dauphin, Louis, first to the Dauphiné, and then from France entirely – the young prince was forced to take refuge in, of all places, Burgundy, a glorified beggar at the ducal court. When Charles died, Louis returned to Paris with an avenging fury, purging and disinheriting all those who had wronged him – most of the nation’s wisest and most experienced statesmen have fled to neighbouring princes, and the mood of the nobility is angry and bitter; the king’s own brother plots against him. The king’s writ struggles to run beyond Paris, as feudal vassals like the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, and the Count of Provence, are independent in all but name. In 1465, the year after Commynes comes to Philip’s court, France rises up, the great nobles of the land declaring a ‘War of the Public Weal’, a war of nation against king, for the common good. France is on the verge of a final dissolution, and Burgundy’s triumph will soon, it seems, have no obstacle. At that moment, Charles, the Burgundian heir, rides for Paris at the head of a vast army, his godbrother, Commynes, at his side.

Twenty years later, Burgundy will no longer exist. Its core domains will have been reabsorbed into a resurgent France, along with those of Brittany; while its peripheral territories will have fallen into the hands of the rising Hapsburg dynasty, a geographical anomaly that, Commynes seems to recognise, will set the stage for centuries of war. It’s an astonishing reversal of fate. As Commynes puts it:

It seems to me that at that time [the Duke of Burgundy’s] territories could more truly be called lands of promise than any other domains on earth. They were overflowing with riches and in complete peace – as they never have been since. The standard of living and the clothing of men and women were extravagant; the feasting and banquets were on a more prodigal scale than in any other place I have known of; the bathing parties and other entertainments with women were lavish and lax – if a little on the seamy side. In sum, it then seemed to the subjects of this house that no prince was a match for them – at least that none was capable of oppressing them. And in this world today I know of no princely house so desolate.

This is, at heart, the question that plagues Commynes, the question that he sets out to answer through psychology, through military history, and through philosophy: how could it be that Burgundy could fall so rapidly from such grace?

Commynes’ answer, needless to say, is that God did it. And at first, that might seem like a cop-out, but of course it’s not: Commynes is not insisting upon faith in a Godless world, he’s using the concept of a God within a conceptual system in which God is unavoidable. He is, as it were, only rephrasing the question: if nations fall when they fall from God’s favour, why do nations fall from God’s favour? Commynes’ answer has nothing to do with scripture, and little to do with doctrine: again, Commynes’ God is not a creature locked within a bible, but the animating principle of the entire world. To understand the world is to understand God; and although that might be impossible, that’s not reason not to try.

Commynes never really offers a coherent ideology of fate – that would, after all, be hubris. But he believes in a system in which God helps those who help themselves, yet moderated by a sort of karma. Those who do wrong face justice – in the next life, but also often in this. Evil, foolishness, and violation of the constitutional norms of states and societies are often repaid in the same coin, whether on the land – a prince who breaks his word to others finds his subjects break theirs to him – or in the soul – a prince who plots against his courtiers himself plagued by irrational, paranoid fears of his best advisors.

So while his theories may be lofty and divine, their application is more down to earth, and at the heart of Commynes’ history is a pair of contrasting portraits, psychological and political sketches of the two ‘great men’ who he believes have shaped the fates of their nations, for better or worse: Louis and Charles. One French; one Burgundian. One the paragon of a bygone age; the other the herald of modernity.

Duke Charles the Bold (sometimes translated ‘the Rash’) was, we’re given to believe, almost the perfect mediaeval monarch. He is attractive, strong, and intensely charismatic, the kind of man who can turn a battle by riding through it and exhorting his men one by one. He has an indefatigable energy and, Commynes tells us, an almost supernatural ability to suffer: he asks no more of his men than he is willing and able to undergo himself, and his men know it. He is decisive, and courageous not only physically but politically. His ambitions are sweeping. He can be violent, but he is not unusually cruel for his age, and he is good company for his court.

Louis, on the other hand, is a coward. He is plagued, as even he acknowledges, by a big mouth and a sour wit, and he is constantly offending people. He is not physically impressive. He overtaxes his people, and appears to have little sense of shame; nobody likes to spend time with him. He can’t really be trusted – his nickname is ‘The Universal Spider’ after all – and he is instinctively a vindictive, occasionally mass-murdering, arsehole.

But Commynes’ at-the-time-controversial thesis is that it is Louis who is the great monarch, and Charles the deluded prince who dooms his people.

Put simply, Louis has two key strategies at all times: avoid any true military contest; and, if in doubt, bribe everyone. He’s a political and military cockroach, constantly retreating, constantly negotiating (with multiple people, in contradictory ways), constantly stalling for time. He reminds me, if you’ll forgive the fantasy/pop-culture reference, of George RR Martin’s Littlefinger: he doesn’t exactly have a plan, as such, but he continually sows chaos, knowing he will eventually, somehow, benefit from it. Every alliance is against him is turned against itself. He follows a terribly Christian theory of politics: if your enemy strikes you on one cheek… thank him, applaud him publically, write the man a great big cheque, and ask him to slap someone else for you.

This is why, partway through the book, Commynes abruptly flees Charles’ military encampment and becomes one of the King’s chief advisors. It’s not just him – everybody does it. The pay is better, and the life much easier.

Ultimately, Louis’ greatest strength is his willingness to appear weak. He may remember slights, but he publically forgives them, and promotes his enemies; he may be opinionated, but he listens to his advisors, and he corrects his mistakes. At times, he even uses his weakness as his trump card, and works to maintain it. He gives advice to his enemies on how to defeat his allies (because he wants his enemies to feel strong, and hence to feel able to wait, rather than weak, and hence desparate to act). At one stage, fearing an explosion among the common soldiers that will destroy an alliance, he intentionally makes himself visibly vulnerable, to shame his allies into de-escalating the situation. It’s behaviour Charles – who at one point humiliates Louis by in effect holding him prisoner – could never endure. Charles is a more traditional, vain prince who cannot abide disgrace – and it’s ultimately that stubbornness that dooms him, and Burgundy, when he first attacks, and then refuses to retreat from the seige of, Neuss, despite being needed urgently elsewhere. It’s what leads to him lying dead in a ditch, his corpse unrecognised. Throughout Commynes’ account, Louis’ prudence, his ruthless exploitation of his own impotence, is contrasted sometimes explicitly but more often between the lines with the vanity and vainglory of the other princes of his age: Louis’ willingness to be weak, whch Commynes suggests is a lesson from his time as a beggar at the Burgundian court, is in effect a form of power. Perhaps the most striking example is when Louis is “forced” to pay “homage” to a number of English lords – he obsequiously sends them regular tribute, via an intermediary who, naturally, needs their signatures to prove to Louis that he hasn’t stolen the money for himself. It’s humiliating for Louis and a clear win for the English, they believe, even if they allow that the transactions can remain secret for the sake of Louis’ dignity… …except that now, if those lords ever give their king advice that’s not in Louis’ best interests, he can reveal (to their king or their public) that they are secretly on the payroll of a foreign power, receiving a regular pension for their services, and he has the carefully-catalogued original receipts to prove it. Only Louis can make being conquered into a form of dominance.

Commynes never exactly gives us a rounded or deep portrait of his king, as we might expect from a modern writer. And yet, through descriptions and through anecdotes, he constructs a striking and understandable image – reading Commynes, we feel as though we know Louis, just as we know Charles. Other characters benefit in this way as well, although many – such as the Count of St Pol – are too historically insignificant for the reader to really invest in. Others are shown briefly, but brilliantly – one of my favourite moments is the only appearance of Emperor Frederick III, who responds to a detailed military-diplomatic proposal with a rambling parable about bear-hunting. It’s a moment that perfectly displays both why Commynes can’t stand the man (he’s over-cautious to the point of inaction, lazy, pretentious and not that bright) – and why he deeply respects him (he’s an old man whose experience has bought him considerable wisdom, and he’s the only ruler secure enough in his position to be able to fob off monarchs with irritating parables without any consequences).

After the two duelling princes, probably the third character in the story is Edward IV, whom Commynes sees only from a distance (it’s disputed whether he may have served as an ambassador to England at some point, but it’s not mentioned here in any case). Edward is a monarch famed for his military prowess and valour, but, unlike Charles, he’s really only in it for the quiet life, prioritising food, women and entertainments. Through overconfidence, he manages to lose his entire kingdom in only 11 days. But this is England, where, as Commynes constantly laments, politics is not very stable or sophisticated – so he’s able to invade England, win two major battles, overthrow and kill the Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI, and the Prince of Wales, and complete a round of mass executions of his enemies, all within the span of another 26 days. Everything hinges on his being welcomed, while still virtually without troops, into the city of London, and Commynes explains the three main reasons why, after some debate, he was given access: his wife had just given birth and, awh, a royal baby, how exciting and cute!; he was deeply in debt to many of the richest merchants in town, who realised that if he didn’t regain the crown he’d never be able to pay them back; and most importantly, he can rely on “the influence of many ladies of rank and rich citizen’s wives”, because after a decade of womanising they were all “very good friends indeed” of his, and they nag their husbands until they let him in. It’s a reputation that gives Louis pause, and one of his priorities in negotiating with the English monarch is ensuring that the man never, ever visit Paris: “He’s a very handsome king,” Louis worries out loud to Commynes. “He’s crazy about women. He could find some clever sweetheart in Paris who would say such nice things to him that she’d make him want to come back…”


It’s a bizarre conjunction of great affairs of state – seasoned with little philosophical asides – with the intimately personal. It’s not, perhaps, great history by modern standards – broader social developments get only a sentence here or there – but it’s a very entertaining way of writing. It’s half Macchiavelli, half gossip column.

That intimacy, indeed, is sometimes almost shocking in its modernity. Commynes is emphatically not writing a mediaeval hagiography – sure, he he doesn’t go into many details on the sexual side of things, and he glosses over many things that might be of interest to a modern reader. But he depicts his characters as human beings – human beings who he in many cases knew extremely well. This is particularly striking in the later parts of the narrative, when the fortunes of the princes decline in turn. Charles is beset by mental illness after a military defeat, and although Commynes never uses that exact term, there’s little ambiguity in his description – he’s not shy about calling it an illness, and he’s not shy about the fact it’s primarily an illness of the mind. He even hypothesises a little about the appropriate treatment. The doctors and priests of the day favour blood-letting, and making the man bloody well shave properly for a start; Commynes, on the other hand, suggests beginning with humility before God, before moving on to talking therapies, discussing one’s fears and shames openly out loud, not worrying about disgrace, in a safe environment with a trusted friend or advisor (as “it is ineivtable since we are men, that deep griefs stir violent passions”). Sadly, trust is a rare commodity for rulers, which may explain why so many of these princes are at least a little mad…



Charles the Bold, Commynes’ first master


[it’s another example, incidentally, of how God is used in this world-view, not as a tool of superstition but as a call to reason. Commynes believes that when a man like Charles loses a campaign, it’s appropriate to ask what went wrong. But he mustn’t become lost in self-recrimination, and religion offers him a way out: instead of asking what is wrong with him, he can ask why God may have failed to favour him on this occasion. It allows reflection and consideration of one’s actions, without self-blame. Throughout the book, we see this mindset in which God is central not because of what he does – Commynes does not believe in a God who actively performs miracles willy-nilly, and does not even particularly stress God’s role as a rule-giver, except indirectly – but because of how human beings act toward Him…]

Similarly, Louis’s quality of life rapidly deteriorates when he suffers a series of debilitating strokes. At one point, Commynes literally has to hold the king as he spasms, and Louis’ speech is at least temporarily so impaired that Commynes has to translate what may be a deathbed confession to a priest who can’t understand what the king is saying. To say that Commynes was close to his subjects is an understatement.

It’s true that the book is closer to a series of anecdotes than to an academic historical analysis, although there are elements of the latter: Commynes does lay out a fairly detailed chronology of the wars and the diplomacy, and does his best to explain events in geopolitical, psychological and theological-philosophical terms. But it’s the anecdotes that stand out, combining a clear and personal touch with a lacing of dry, observational humour. It’s suprising just how modern Commynes feels in style, if not always in beliefs, and many moments continue to resonate with modern readers, either because of how things have changed (Commynes’ frequent exasperation toward the barbarian English and the way their leaders never fail to be equipped with a suspiciously convenient prophecy) or because of how they haven’t (Commynes’ old-man complaints about self-important minor celebrities these days constantly telling you to “speak to my people!”…). And while there are moments of tragedy, there are also a suprising number of moments of pure farce. At one point, for example, Louis is hosting a messenger from one of the Duke’s vassals, who is thinking of coming over to Louis; Louis, pretending joviality, baits the man into doing insulting impressions of the Duke, pretending to be a little deaf so that the man does his impressions as loudly as possibly; but, in the time-honoured traditions of Frence farce, what the messenger doesn’t realise is that Commynes is crouched alongside the Burgundian ambassador, hiding behind a suspiciously large screen in one corner of the room. The ambassador is outraged on the Duke’s behalf, and Louis succeeds in sowing even more disquiet between the Duke and his vassal.

[other monarchs would have seen the vassal as an ally, helped him, and used him against the Duke. But Louis knows you can’t trust a traitor. Instead, by weakening the vassal still further by betraying him to the Duke, he forces the vassal to come to him in a more fearful, and hence dependent, state, while distracting the Duke, and pretending friendship with him. In Louis’ world, you help your enemies and you hurt your friends…]

[Of course, sometimes Louis sees the right time to strike directly. He summons one enemy/friend to court, for example, by pleading for his help in a difficult time, saying that he could really do with having “a good head” around to advise him at a time like this. He then, having dictated the letter, observes to his henchmen by way of explanation: “I do not mean us to have his body – only his head. The body can stay where it is…“]

The greatest virtue of this books, however, and of Commynes as an author, isn’t just his access, or even his deadpan wit (which is always interesting, and amusing, but too dry to really be lovable). Instead, it’s his wonderful honesty. Now, apparently in the 20th century it was fashionable, particularly among offended Belgians, to paint Commynes as a serial liar, fundamentally dishonest in every word – but while that seems hard to believe to me (or to the editor of this translation), it doesn’t really matter in terms of the book’s value as a narrative, rather than as a historical source. Because either Commynes is truthful, or else he’s the most gifted liar in literary history, and in either case it’s the impression of honesty that is so powerful in reading these memoirs. Commynes has his own opinions, but he is scrupulously even-handed in discussing even his personal enemies. His goal throughout – perhaps reflecting the origin of this project as source material rather than a published text – is not to definitively paint history, but to understand it, and that requires him to see both sides of every dispute, and recognise the virtues as well as the vices of every participant. The result is a far more complete and sympathetic portrait of his life and times than we might expect… and a more accurate depiction of the conflicting thoughts common in his age.

Because if the book is interesting as a specific history, and as a guide to statesmanship, it’s most fascinating as a window into a bygone age – a window refreshingly devoid of the usual stained glass. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this comes close to being absolutely required reading for any fan of fauxdiaeval fantasy or historical fiction, and should certainly be obligatory for anyone wanting to write a story set in a similar culture.

Most strikingly, Commynes provides a very different picture of twilight of the middle ages not because of differences in how he sees the ruling systems, but because of the context of those systems. Put bluntly: this is not a little world of feudal clockwork; this is a vast, largely empty world in which a tiny number of feudal overlords play their games amid a vast ocean of people who, most of the time, don’t care in the slightest. Yes, by modern standards all these rulers are brutal dictators. But what Commynes shows us, and which is essential to understanding that brutality, is the naked weakness of a mediaeval prince, and the near-total impotence of all their structures of power. Charles, after all, yearns to construct an empire, but even this great leader of a great nation cannot accomplish it; Louis’ driving ambition is to modernise and harmonise the French legal code and bring a universal rule of law to the whole nation, but even this intelligent and ruthless man cannot accomplish it. These are men beating their heads against unbreakable walls, while at the same time holding on for dear life.

Surprisingly, it is the people who are at the heart of Commynes’ perception of politics. He is not a great fan of the ordinary people trying to rule themselves – he rolls his eyes at the predictable brutality and naivity of the endless revolutionary committees of the Low Countries – but he believes unshakeably that power comes only through the consent of the people. He sings the praises of the Parliament of England and its democratic powers – while he has no time for commoners making decisions, he does see them as a valuable veto force standing in the way of tyranny and foolish monarchs. But for him, the question is not whether the people should have power – that is an absurd question, because it suggests that there is any way to remove power from the people – but how it can be better organised. The power of the people is omnipresent throughout this narrative. It’s the power that lynches dozens of nobles every day whenever anger breaks out in a Belgian town (the nobles may be bastards, but they’re mostly legal bastards, whereas the commoners send for the hangman the moment they’re in charge); it’s the power that slaughters every English straggler and leaves their bodies in ditches, regardless of what peace treaties may be made between monarchs, and the power that sends commandos creeping through the streets of Peronne, happily willing to murder both King and Duke in their beds. It’s the power that coalesces a bunch of Swiss peasant farmers into what will become the most feared military force of the age; it’s the power of the common soldiers, who in the end decide not only how to fight, but whether to fight, whatever their generals might want. When the Pazzi family decide to launch a coup d’etat in Milan, it’s the power that determines, in a matter of minutes, which family will have its entire membership swinging from the church rafters by the end of the day, and which family will be in power. Above all, it’s the power of cities to control their own walls.

Because again, this is a huge world, and these are very small kings. In all these wars, very few armies are ever larger than the militia that could be mustered by a medium-sized town: a city like Amiens or Liege is a major challenge even for a monarch to subdue, and a city like Paris or London is effectively impregnable – the size of army necessary to either beseige or storm such a city simply is not achievable in this era. The fate of kingdoms rests, therefore, on the whim of common townsfolk. It’s the people of London who choose to accept Edward IV – then almost without resources – as their king, and in so doing doom the Earl of Warwick; just as it’s the people of Paris who decline to yield to the Duke of Burgundy and his allies, and in so doing leave Louis as their king and France as a viable nation.


Louis the Universal Spider, Commynes’ second master

As for those princes – well, it’s not long into the book that we’re thrown into the Battle of Conflans, and we see its absurd chaos, its contingency, its nonsense. Commynes tells us quite explicitly; monarchs and generals may form up their strategies, but there is no monarch on earth who can direct a battle according to his plan. A general does not so much direct his army, as ride it. So too, a monarch sits in his saddle upon the roiling chaos of his nation, prodding here, whipping there, offering carrots in one direction or another, but by and large able to do no more than desparately keep his seat, or else fall and be unceremoniously trampled.

These men are half statesmen, half petty mafiosi. It’s very easy for simplistic accounts to see them as only one and not the other – all politicians, or all robber barons. But Commynes shows us how they can be both at the same time. “In all of them were good and evil” he warns us, speaking of the great princes of his day, “for they were human beings.” 

The depiction of women is also of interest (among many other topics). Commynes is writing in an extremely male-dominated world, and most of the women of the story go entirely without mention (there’s no way to tell, for example, that Commynes himself is married, and you’d have to read very carefully to notice that either the Duke or the King were married). Commynes essentially takes it as read that it’s men’s role to dominate, politically and socially, just as that’s also the role of the upper classes. And yet there is a refreshing lack of misogyny. Commynes doesn’t have to insist that men are superior, or argue that women shouldn’t have power – because in his culture, those questions don’t even arise. God has simply willed that men have power – there’s not need anyone inventing notions like male superiority to explain why that may be. Which means that when individual women do have power, Commynes has no grounds to object. He may depict Marie of Burgundy as naïve – after all, she inherited one of the greatest empires of Europe when she was still a teenager – but he doesn’t fail to respect her goodness, her popularity, and the beginnings of a sharp intellect. He is almost fearful, yet respectful – and depicts Louis as almost fearful – of the intelligence and ruthlessness of the Duchess of Savoy. The autonomy of women seems greater than one might expect here: not only can women veto arranged marriages at least some of the time, they can even insist upon love-marriages, even when strongly against the interests of the families and nations. Louis, for instance, is forced to accept the marriages of the Duchess’s two daughters, which strengthen his enemies, when the Duchess points out that the women are in favour of the matches, and that they’re not just political ploys. Similarly, even at a time when Marie is tantamount to held hostage by commoners, they are unable to pressure her into marrying their preferred candidate (Commynes wryly notes that it was seeing him and getting to know him that probably doomed his suit with her…). There are also surprisingly hints at a chivalry out of keeping with the general violence of the world: during a war, when soldiers are being murdered on the streets, Louis has his secret messages conveyed by a young woman, on the grounds that a woman alone can travel freely without harrassment, where a man would be at risk of attack by brigands. [Commynes, interestingly, does not make clear that it’s actually a woman who ends up imprisoning him in a tiny cage for six months…]

In short, where these memoirs excel is in vividly, intimately and fair-handedly depicting this late-mediaeval world and its characters, and in doing so with wit and insight.


Where they fall down, however, is in the sheer complexity of the events under discussion. It’s here that Commynes does indeed fail to be a true historian: what we are given is not so much a narrative as a whole mass of information, in mostly (but not always) chronological order. Take any few pages, and the sequence of events appears clear, because Commynes writes clearly; but as the pages mount up, so does the sheer assembly of places, dates, titles and, every few sentences, shocking betrayals. [Betrayals that sometimes fail to betray anyone, because the betrayal is betrayed before it can betray anyone…*] It’s not unclear, it’s just… a lot. It’s very dense, and that’s why it too me a surprisingly long time to read through the book, because after ten pages or so of the count of this and the bastard of that and trying to remember which one is Corday and which ones is Cordres, I just needed a change of scenery. Of course, that’s partly my fault, for not being in the righ frame of mind – as I say, Commynes does try to make these confusing events understandable, and I’m sure if I were in an academic mood I’d have no trouble with it, but as light entertainment reading I found it was making my head hurt.

[It doesn’t help that Commynes adopts mediaeval naming practices, which is to say he usually called people by their titles. This means that the same person can be known by two different names in one sentence (at one point he notes something along the lines that a person has been of service to the Count of Charolais, and was rewarded by the Duke of Burgundy – the latter being the same person as the former, but several years later), while the same name can refer to multiple different persons (as the name is inherited when its holder dies). When you have people like the King’s brother, who wears about six different titles in six years, this can get confusing…]

Some help, to be fair, is provided by the translator/editor, Paul Murray Kendall, who remains largely on the sidelines but who does chip in with the occasional explanatory footnote. Those coming to the text for academic reasons may be frustrated at how little commentary is provided, but for the casual reader I think it’s about the right amount – enough to let us understand what’s going on, but little enough that the narrative still feels like the work of the original author. Further background information on the author and his time period are provided in a forward, which could perhaps be more detailed in places but does probably as much as is strictly required. As regards the translation itself, it’s pretty good – there are moments when it seems to veer too far into modern colloquialism, or else too far into stilted archaism, but this will be a problem with any translation of a historical text that attempts to retain something of its character while still fully conveying its original meaning. By and large, I think the tone is successful – it has a clarity and straightforwardness that suit the style of the author, without appearing to try too hard to be contemporary. One small irritation is the way Kendall edits out some of Commynes’ tangents, replacing them with brief summaries – this is either done too much, or else it’s done too little. I can understand why an editor would want to trim the fat here and there, as Commynes does ramble on a little at times; but Kendall includes so much of the original text that it’s a little head-scratching why he’s bothered to edit out the handful of extra pages that he’s excised, while leaving other things in – I think I’d have been happier either with a more ruthlessly focused text, or else the whole thing in all its glory. But as we do only lose a handful of passages, this is honestly a very minor quibble.

[Another such quibble: not only as the translator stuck on the striking but non-original title, “The Universal Spider: The Life of Louis XI” to Commyne’s text, but the SAME translator has also written his OWN biography of Louis XI, using the exact SAME title. This is understandable – “The Universal Spider” has to be one of history’s coolest soubriquets, and it’s understandable the writer didn’t want to waste it on just one book title – but also probably a bit of a pain for people trying to find this specific edition (which is, incidentally, the old Folio Society edition).]

*this is a book in which a vassal can attempt to murder his liege and their entire family with a cannonade, and the next page we can be told with a straight face that “never was any man more loyal to another than [vassal] was to [liege]”. Oh, and while he’s trying to murder his liege’s family with cannons, the vassal also sends out two flasks of wine, because the liege’s daughter is giving birth, and it seems the decent thing to do to ease her labour a little. I mean, obviously he’s not going to not murder her or anything, but it would be unchivalrous not to give a woman wine when she’s in labour…


Marie the Rich, the tragic Duchess of Burgundy

In conclusion, in writing a text entirely for his age, without the pretenses of history (indeed, several times Commynes declines to describe some well-known event, because “you”, being people of the same era as him, will no doubt know just as much as he does…), Commynes has inadvertantly written something both invaluable as a historical document, and at the same time timeless. It’s a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the time period or its culture, not only for its intimate, first-hand account, but also for its combination of unvarnished honesty and wry irony; it is also remarkable as a study in political leadership, and one that has had a great deal of influence throughout the centuries. It’s dense with action and a little prone to tangents, and casual readers probably shouldn’t expect to skim through it all in an afternoon unless they have excellent heads for details, but fundamentally it’s an entertaining and understandable account, translated attractively. I thoroughly recommend reading it.

And if that’s my conclusion, what conclusion did Philippe de Commyne reach, half a millennium ago? In the end, this student of statescraft is left extolling the virtues… of the quiet life.   By the end of the book, Louis is dead, his life crippled by paranoia – a king, Commynes says, who had so often condemned his enemies to dungeon cells is left, in his castle reinforced with iron towers, with no more freedom than a single courtyard, across which he is too frightened to walk to mass. Charles is dead, his lust for glory and military fame ending anonymously in the dirt – his mind and his courage stripped from him, and his body at the last left naked and unmarked in a common field. Marie is beautiful, witty, and phenomenally wealthy, held virtually hostage by her people, and dead of a tragic accident. Edward IV is dead; and his sons are dead, killed (Commynes believes) by his brother, and his brother is dead on the field at Bosworth. Charles, Duke of Berry, is dead, as is Francis, Duke of Brittany, and Frederick III will soon follow. Commynes, from being the closest friend and advisor to the king, is cast into an iron cage. France is set for a new round of wars, and Burgundy, Commynes’ homeland, has been destroyed and subjugated. So why, in the end, wonders Commynes, should anyone bother with ambition? Nobody can more fully subjugate a man than by his own fears; to be fearless is to treat others well, and that requires having as little to do with great affairs of state as possible. And so I’ll end where our author ends, and give Philippe the final words…

“Thus you have seen so many great men dying within a few years of one another, men who laboured so hard to increase their power and attain glory, but who experienced such sufferings and toils, and thus shortened their lives – and perchance their souls could be the worse for it…

…But to speak plainly, as a man who has no learning, save for some little experience he has gained, would it not be better for them and all other princes, and for men of medium station who have lived under these great ones and will continue to live under those now reigning, to choose the middle way in these matters? That is, to burden themselves with fewer cares, to work themselves less hard, to undertake fewer enterprises – and to have greater fear of offending God and persecuting their people and their neighbours by cruel means… …and, instead, enjoy ease and honourable pleasures? Their lives would be the longer for it, illnesses would come later, and their deaths would be the more regretted by a greater number of people, and looked forward to by fewer, and they would have less reason to fear death.

The most splendid examples of humanity give us to realise what an insignificant thing is a man, and how miserable and brief this life is. Neither the great nor the small, as soon as they are dead, are anything; and everyone holds the corpse in horror and loathing, while the soul, on the instant, must be judged. And already sentence has been passed upon it, according to the works and merits of the body.” 




East Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

Adventures in the Age Dependency Ratio: A Demographic Overview of the World

2008 was as significant a year from a demographic perspective as it was from a financial one. In 2008 the world’s age dependency ratio —  the number of people who are either younger than 15 or older than 65, relative to the number of people aged 15-65 — reached its lowest point. From a peak of approximately 77 in 1967, the ratio fell to a floor of 54 in 2008, a level it has remained at every year in the decade since. This low is not likely to be surpassed. The UN predicts that the ratio will rise again during the generation ahead, albeit at a far more gradual pace.



The age dependency ratio is a useful, though obviously imperfect, measure of economic potential. The larger a country’s dependency ratio, the heavier the economic burden (to put it crudely) its working-age population may need to bear. The country with the highest such ratio in the world, Niger, with a ratio of 112, has a burden 1.12 times as heavy as those who bear it. The country with the lowest dependency, South Korea, with a ratio of 38, has a burden that is only about a third as heavy as those who carry it. The Gulf Arab kingdoms have even lower ratios than that (the UAE’s is just 18!), but only because they have so many temporary foreign workers.



It is not surprising that a lower dependency ratio tends to correlate somewhat with economic success. Not only is a country with fewer dependents more able to invest its time and money in increasing its productivity, but productive countries also tend to have low fertility rates, which keep dependency levels low in the short-term (though not in the long term, when low fertility rates lead to small working-age populations). As such, a low dependency ratio can be both a cause and an effect of economic growth. Even the oldest country in the world, Japan, only has a dependency ratio of 66.5, much lower than those of the young countries within Sub-Saharan Africa.


In recent history, the correlation between economic growth and age dependency can be seen most clearly in East Asia. China’s rapid economic growth has tracked its dependency ratio’s steep fall, while Japan’s stalled economic growth has tracked its own dependency ratio’s rise. China’s dependency ratio, which is today the lowest in the world apart from South Korea (not counting city-states or the Gulf Arab monarchies), was almost twice as high a generation ago, and only fell below the US’s in 1990. That same year, Japan’s ratio fell below Germany’s to become the world’s lowest other than Singapore or Hong Kong. A rapidly aging population has since made Japan’s become by far the highest in the developed world, however. Japan’s ratio has also risen higher than those of many developing nations in recent years, even than some of the world’s poorest nations, such as Haiti.


Outside Japan, East Asia now has the lowest dependency ratios of any region, by far. Not only China and South Korea but also Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even North Korea all have ratios between 38-44, the lowest in the world anywhere outside of the Persian Gulf. Indonesia’s too, at 48.5, is now lower than those of most countries in the world, while the Philippines, the major outlier in the region with a dependency ratio of 57.5, no longer has a high ratio by global standards either. This trend, however, is finally beginning to change. China’s ratio has begun to rise since 2010, prompting many to worry that the country “will become old before it becomes rich”. The dependency ratios of Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea have also begun rising during the past several years. And Japan’s already high ratio will continue to rise quickly unless it finally decides to raise its extremely low immigration rate.


The years 2008-2010, in addition to being when the global dependency ratio and the Chinese dependency ratio both reached their lowest levels, was also when the EU’s dependency ratio rose higher than that of the US, for the first time since 1984. The EU’s dependency burden has continued to rise relative to the US in the decade since, a fact that has perhaps contributed, at least to a minor extent, to the US’s stronger economic performance during this period. Indeed, at the risk of attributing far more significance to the age dependency ratio than is justified, I will also point out the fact that countries in Central Europe have enjoyed a much lower ratio and a much stronger economic performance than has the EU as a whole. Similarly, Canada has had the lowest dependency ratio and one of the strongest economies among rich Western nations in recent years. Ratios in Canada and Central Europe were particularly low during the financial crisis:


Another intriguing case is Italy, which has a ratio that has been rising at fast pace since 2010, reaching the highest level in its modern history in 2017, at the same time as its economy has become perhaps the primary point of concern in European politics. A similar trend has existed throughout Southern Europe, with the ratios of Greece, Spain, and France reaching high levels in the years after 2010. Although it is actually France which has the highest dependency ratio of these countries, a result of its having a relatively large population of children, it is Italy which has their highest old age dependency ratio (population older than 65, relative to population 15-65):


If we look at Europe as a whole, including countries in its surrounding region, we can see there is a divergence occurring between northern and southern countries. Northern countries such as Germany, Russia, and Poland, which have had some of the lowest dependency burdens in the world in recent decades, will see sharp increases in the years ahead because their largest population cohorts are approaching 65 years old and they have few teenagers approaching 15 years old. (An exception to this is Ireland, which has had a fairly high ratio because of relatively high birth rates, but is not likely to have this increase much going forward, as it has few people approaching 65). Mediterranean countries, in contrast, will have their dependency ratios rise more slowly, because they have more children or because (particularly in Spain) their largest age cohorts are now only in their forties rather than their fifties. Within the EU this is especially true of France, but it is even more true of non-EU Mediterranean countries such as Turkey and Tunisia. These countries used to have far higher ratios than the EU or Russia, but no longer do today.

This fall in dependency in places like Turkey and North Africa is part of a greater trend, in which countries in the “global south”, particularly those outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, have recently seen their ratios fall much more quickly than countries in Europe, North America, or Northeast Asia. India’s dependency ratio, for example, fell below both the US’s and Germany’s in 2016. So did Bangladesh’s. (Pakistan’s ratio is falling too, but still remains high, around the level of Japan’s). Latin America’s is even lower; it recently became the lowest of any region, excepting East Asia. The major country that has had the most significant fall in dependency, however, is Iran:


Of course, age dependency ratios are simplistic. They treat all people above the age of 65 and below the age of 15 as if they were the same, and all people between 15 and 65 years old as if they were the same. Yet if (for example) we were to change the upper limit of working age from 65 to 70, Japan’s dependency ratio would fall substantially as a result, because Japan’s largest age cohort today is 65-70 years old. If, on the other hand, we were to change the lowerlimit of working age from 15 to 20, many middle-income countries’ ratios would rise substantially. To address these obvious shortcomings, alternative measures of dependency have been created. Examples of these include the economic dependency ratio, health care cost age dependency ratio, pension cost dependency ratio, and prospective old age dependency ratio. For each of these measures, Canada is forecast to have the biggest increase in the decade ahead among significant OECD countries, while Italy and Britain are expected to have among the smallest increases.

A primary lesson that can be learned from the analysis of age dependency ratios is that the common “young population good, old population bad” view of countries’ economic prospects is a misleading one. In reality countries with young populations tend to remain poor, in part because the youngest countries in the world (in Sub-Saharan Africa) are much younger than the oldest countries in the world are old. It will still be a number of decades before aging populations lead Europe or North America to have a higher age dependency ratio than Sub-Saharan Africa. And even that assumes that no unexpected shifts in migration or fertility will occur.

What age dependency ratios do show is two big trends, both of which have to do with middle-income economies. The first trend is the emergence of what we might call a goldilocks belt, located between the aging populations of North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia and the youthful populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. South Asia, North Africa, and Latin America all now appear to be in the process of supplanting high-income countries in terms of having the demographic trends that are arguably most conducive to (or at least, indicative of) economic growth.

The second trend is that Northeast Asia’s dependency ratio, which has been the lowest in the world for a generation and probably played a significant role in helping the region emerge from a low-income to middle-income level, bottomed out almost a decade ago and is continuing to rise.

Taken together, these trends suggest opportunities for middle-income countries, particularly those countries located in or near to the Mediterranean and Caribbean regions, to increase their exports to developed economies, given the aging labour forces of developed economies and traditional exporters in East Asia. In contrast, these trends also suggest that there should perhaps be a greater level of caution regarding the younger, high-growth economies in East Africa, such as Ethiopia or Kenya, which have recently been among the favorites of some emerging market investors.



Valuing Italy

The results of the 2018 election in Italy reflected two main economic realities: the economic struggles in Italy relative to northern Europe, and the economic struggles in southern Italy relative to northern Italy. The former helped  anti-establishment parties to gain a large share of the country’s vote. The latter resulted in Lega Nord and centre-right parties performing well throughout much of the north of Italy, and the 5-Star Movement performing well in the south of Italy.

In geopolitics, the school of thought that argues that geography is the most significant or  fundamental element in politics, these two economic realities have the same obvious source: mountains. Italy and southern Europe are much more mountainous than northern Europe, and southern Italy is much more mountainous than northern Italy. Mountainous regions tend to be much poorer than non-mountainous regions. Italy is no exception.

The question most analysts are now asking is what the broader consequences of Italian politics will be. On the one hand, Italy is too big for Europe to bully. On the other hand, Italy is too big for Europe to ignore. I do not have any insight as to how one might succeed or fail at predicting the short-to-medium term financial outcomes of this political situation.

A question that analysts are not asking, though, is whether the geographic realities that are underpinning current Italian and European economics may change as a result of technological developments. To put it directly, will modern technology — the Internet, automation, etc.– alter the economic disparity between mountainous and non-mountainous areas?

If they were to do so, Italy would be in a far more advantageous position than it is today. Its internal economic disparities between north and south would shrink, while at the same  it would likely be able to capitalize on its central position within the mountainous Mediterranean region. Its entire territory of 301,000 square km (84 percent as large as Germany’s, but with much greater proximity to the sea) and population of 61 million (74 percent as large as Germany’s) would suggest that Italy’s GDP might not, in the long run, remain as small (53 percent as large as Germany’s) as it is today. For this reason, if current politics cause Italian markets to turn negative, then long-term investment opportunities in Italy may grow.

So, will new technologies help the economies of mountainous areas to catch up with those of non-mountainous economies?

My suspicion is that they will. Companies like Google are now trying to develop technologies that will allow cheap, high-speed Internet to become accessible even in rural and mountainous areas. Logically, it seems plausible that mountainous areas would benefit from high-speed Internet more than non-mountainous areas, as the benefits of virtual accessibility may be more significant in areas where real, physical accessibility is low.

Automation may have a similar impact. If autonomous logistics facilities (warehousing, loading and unloading vehicles) allow for efficient intermodal cargo transportation, it could benefit geographies like Italy by making it easier to transfer goods between ships, railways, or large trucks (which do not operate well or at all in most mountainous areas) and small trucks (which do operate relatively well in mountainous areas, but are generally not efficient elsewhere).

And if transport vehicles themselves become autonomous, it could greatly increase the efficiency of using trucks, and particularly small trucks, and particularly small trucks operating in mountainous areas where speed limits are lower and safety risks are higher, as the labour costs involved in (especially small) trucking are far higher than in rail or sea transport.

In my view, the question of mountainous relative to non-mountainous areas may be the key long-term question in determining the north-south balance in Europe (just as the question of coastal relative to continental areas may be the key long-term question determining the east-west balance in Europe). Non-mountainous areas have performed extremely well economically during the past two centuries, presumably as a result of the spread of canals, railways, and highways, all of which are much better suited to flat landscapes than to mountainous ones.

But we should not assume that flat areas will continue to so outperform mountainous ones going forward. We should try not to lose sight of this long term question; it may ultimately be easier to answer than the questions about what will happen to Italian and European politics and markets in the shorter term.

Europe, North America

On Pulling Your Goalie: Unconventional Factors to Consider

NHL teams generally look at three factors to determine when to pull their goalie: the score of the game, the amount of time left remaining the game, and the location of the puck (i.e. if it is in the defensive zone, the goalie will not usually be pulled). It seems to me that two extra factors are needed:

  1. the exhaustion level of the opposing team’s five on-ice players
  2. the purpose of pulling your goalie

1. Exhaustion Level of Opposing Team’s Five On-Ice Players

Here’s a riddle: if your team was trailing by one goal, would you rather have the goalie pulled with 2 minutes left against a relatively well-rested defense or, instead, pulled with 3 minutes against a defense that is utterly exhausted as it is being caught on the ice during a really long shift?

There is no empirical evidence by which we can attempt to answer this riddle, because coaches almost never pull their goalies when down one goal with 3 minutes left. My guess, however, is that playing 6-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left may be better than playing 5-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left and then waiting until around the 2 minute mark to pull your goalie. Here’s why:

1) an exhausted defense is less likely to clear the zone and/or score an empty net goal

2) if an exhausted defense tries to score a long empty net goal and misses, resulting in an icing, then they will pay a big price for it: the other team will be able to bring on fresh players, which will make the difference in tiredness between the two teams even greater.

3) an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is less likely to get a lucky bounce or turnover that would allow them to clear the zone (or, if they do clear the zone, to clear it enough to get many of its players to reach the bench)

4) an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is more likely to have its goalie screened, so the odds of the goalie making a save to stop play and allow a line change is reduced.

5) by bringing a 6th attacker on the ice, you have the opportunity to seamlessly bring on a top player on who is fully rested himself.

6) pulling your goalie early means that the exhausted defense has less of a chance of winning the game by simply running down the clock. From a psychological perspective also, it may be more difficult for an exhausted player to muster his remaining energy when he knows he is not closed to being ‘saved by the bell’.

7) the exhausted players may not be that team’s best defenders; whereas with 1 or 2 minutes left in the game to play, a team normally has their best defenders on the ice. Moreover, if they cause an icing, you can bring on your own team’s best players

8) If the opposing team knows you might employ this strategy at some point during the game, they will be less willing to use their ‘coach’s challenge’ and so risk losing their time out. They will also be less willing to use their time out earlier in the game, even at times when they may need it. Your team gains an advantage by them being less willing to use their time out or coach’s challenge.

9) If the other team does manage to clear the zone and change lines, you can then use your own time out in order to rest your top line so that it can stay out on the ice for the rest of the game.

10) If you are playing a division rival or wild-card rival, and would like to deny them the chance of getting a point from an OT loss, this strategy gives you a (small) chance of winning the game in regulation

For all these reasons (some much more than others, obviously), I suspect that if you are facing a scenario where the opposing team’s line is exhausted with 3 minutes left and you are down a goal, you may be better off pulling your goalie then rather than waiting to do so with 2 minutes left against a better(-rested) line. If I were an NHL coach, I would try to simulate this scenario in practice during the offseason in order to try to answer this riddle. The reason I would run such an experiment is this: if it is true with 3 minutes left, what about with 4 minutes left? What about with 10? What if you were down by more than one goal? In other words, how exhausted do the opposing team’s players need to be, and much time left does there need to be, and how many goals down in the game do you need to be, to make this strategy worthwhile? We don’t know, as teams never try it.

We do know, though, that teams get caught out on long shifts fairly frequently. And we know that players’ effectiveness tends to drop dramatically when being caught on a long, tiring shift. So, if the strategy really were to prove effective, whichever team discovers it and implements it first may actually gain a significant advantage. (If it proved really effective, there may even be a case for waiting until the playoffs to deploy the strategy for the first time, in order prevent other teams from adopting the strategy themselves after seeing you use it). If successful, the benefit of simulating these scenarios in practice in the offseason could far outstrip the cost (of time and energy) that will be required to properly simulate the scenarios as required.

2. The Purpose of Pulling Your Goalie  

We assume that the purpose of pulling your goalie must be to score a goal playing 6-on-5. But what about pulling your goalie to increase your odds of scoring a goal 5-on-5? Consider the following scenario: your team is trailing by a goal with 3 minutes left in the game, and is in control of the puck in the offensive zone. Some or all of your players on the ice are physically exhausted, and your best offensive player is on the bench. You would like to swap out one of your tired players to bring your star on the ice, but you don’t want to change on the fly because you are worried the other team might take advantage of the brief swap to try to gain control of the puck and clear the zone. Well, maybe you should think about pulling your goalie for a few seconds to bring him in, and then, once he joins his teammates in the offensive zone, have another player exit the game as quickly as possible so that your goalie can reenter the game. (This plan also works better if the players on both teams are tired, as at best they are only likely to get a chance to score an empty net goal from behind centre-ice, so they would be risking an icing). If done smoothly, you might be able to improve your odds of tying the game by trying this move.


Africa, Europe, Middle East, North America

Secession Procession

A century ago, a British Member of Parliament and geographer, Halford Mackinder, wrote one of the famous books of geopolitics, “Democratic Ideals and Reality”. The book discussed the tension between what nations want (“Democratic Ideals”) and what they often get (geographic “Reality”).

That tension seems especially topical this week. It is not everyday that the president of the United States tries to give his viewers a geography lesson, but that occured in the past few days as President Trump repeatedly told Americans that aiding Puerto Rico would be difficult because of “the big ocean” — the Atlantic — that blocks it from the rest of the country.

Puerto Rico’s ocean barrier is more than just a logistical barrier. It is also an emotional, political one. It is the main reason why many Americans do not care about the plight of Puerto Ricans in the same way as they did for the hurricane victims of Texas or Florida. It is also one of the main reasons why the US has not offered Puerto Rico statehood, despite 97 percent (of the 23 percent of its voters who participated in the referendum this past June) voting in favour of its becoming a state.

An opposite situation exists for Catalonia and for Iraqi Kurdistan, where referendums were held in the past two weeks. No big oceans separate regional capitals Barcelona or Erbil from national ones Madrid or Baghdad; the latter two of which have taken steps to prevent secession by the former.

Rather, Catalonia lies south of the high, steep Pyrenees Mountains, making it part of the Iberian peninsula along with the rest of Spain. Ditto for Iraqi Kurdistan, which lies on the Mesopotamian side of the high peaks that divide Iraq from neighbouring Kurdish regions east and north. The tensions between Democratic Ideals — over 90 percent of Catalans and Iraqi Kurds voted in favour of independence (with 43 and 73 percent voter turnout)—and geographic Realities are high.

Of course, geographic realities are not necessarily or directly decisive. Hawaii is an example of this; its Big Island is surrounded by an even Bigger Ocean than is Puerto Rico’s. Portugal is another example, Iberian but not Spanish. So too is Kuwait, which is Mesopotamian but not Iraqi.

Still, it is hard to know how much to lean toward realism or idealism in any given case. The three examples given above came about less because of ideals trumping geographic reality, but instead because of geographic reality being crushed by an even greater reality; namely, the decisions of superpowers. The US chose Hawaii in spite of its remoteness. The British Empire chose to protect Portugal from the Spanish and French in order to pursue its own political aims. And both the British and the Americans have worked, on separate occasions, to carve Kuwait out of the Mesopotamian plains to which, geographically, it belongs.

This brings us to the other, more neglected secession attempt this week, which occured in Cameroon. Historically Cameroon was a compromise between two imperial powers, Britain and France, which took it from Germany in WW1 (the same year Mackinder was writing his book). It is located in a region, West Africa, that was also split between Britain and France. An estimated 50-60 percent of people in Cameroon speak French and 20-30 percent English. Last week, arguably 17 people were killed during protests being held by some of the country’s English-speaking minority, some of whom have called for secession from Cameroon.

This is especially notable given that West Africa is the region of the world in which geographic realities were most readily ignored by the imperial powers which drew the maps of the region’s states. While today it has become popular to chastize past British and French governments for misdrawing Middle Eastern borders, the truth is that in most cases it is actually not easy to figure out alternative Middle Eastern borders that would have clearly been much better. (And some of the ones that are most obviously wrong, such as—arguably—the existence of Kuwait, are not the ones usually criticized). In West Africa, in contrast, most of the borders that were drawn are obviously wrong.

West Africa is full of states or autonomous regions that, like Kuwait, seem to be enclaves carved out from larger regions willy-nilly (examples include Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Angolan region of Cabinda, and, arguably, Sierra Leone). It also has states that either have or consist entirely of narrow strips of land that were created solely to make them accessable to the Europeans from the sea (examples include Gambia again, plus Togo, Benin, and both of the Congos). And it has five different large, landlocked countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Central African Republic).

From this we come to the final and perhaps most important aspect of the secession issue: transnational regionalism. It is regionalism that has, arguably, helped to keep Puerto Rico from becoming an Atlantic Hawaii: Puerto Rico is a part of a large region, Latin America, which the US in general is not a part of. Regionalism also plays a role in Spain, where the existence of the EU has helped to bolster independence movements like that of the Catalans, while the weakness of the EU limits those movements’ success. And regionalism plays a role in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has served as a leading force in the fight against ISIS’ transnational attempt at a Caliphate; ISIS recently having its largest city, Mosul, just 85 km away from Iraqi Kurdistan’s, Erbil.

If and when transnational regionalism is ever a success anywhere, it is likely to be in a region in which nationalism is itself most problematic. Given its terribly-drawn borders, that may turn out to be West Africa.

Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

Trump and the Turks

Evaluating American-Turkish relations in light of Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East and the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, a Turkish and American ally

As Donald Trump returns from his first international tour as US president, one thing that stands out is, as usual, the difference between his and Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy. Whereas Obama’s first Mideast destinations were Turkey and Iraq, Trump’s were Saudi Arabia and Israel, a country Obama did not even visit until his second term in office.

Trump’s trip also included stops in Brussels, Sicily, and the Vatican in Rome. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, these represent four of the five most significant allies of the US within the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean region: Italy, Israel, the Saudis, and the EU.

The fifth ally, which appears to have been snubbed, is Turkey. The Turks were not honoured with a stop during Trump’s first trip to the region, as they were during Obama’s.


Turkey failing to make it onto Trump’s travel itinerary might seem to be of little  significance, if it were not for the flurry of unpleasant events involving the Turks and Americans that have occured this same month.

First, there was the meeting of Erdogan and Trump at the White House on May 16, which lasted a mere 22 minutes and was complicated by the announcement, less than a week before the meeting, that Trump would be approving a Pentagon plan to arm the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that the Turkish government views as a terrorist group.

That meeting was then marred also by a public brawl that occured in Washington on the  day it was held, which pitted Erdogan’s security detail against protestors who, according to the Turkish government, were supporters of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

Later in the week, Turkish military planes repeatedly violated Greek airspace—a point of friction between two NATO countries occurring directly ahead of the NATO summit that Erdogan and Trump attended in Brussels.

If this was not enough, the week also saw the Flynn/Trump/Comey affair dominate the news cycle — and the word “impeachment” bandied about in Congress for the first time —  which followed the admission by Michael Flynn a week earlier that he had previously been on a Turkish payroll.

Meanwhile, Trump has used his trip in the Arab world to endorse the idea of forming an “Arab NATO”; an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that, unlike the real NATO, would exclude the other, comparatively liberal and democratic Sunni power in the region: Turkey.

Now, just a week after Trump’s return home, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led a move to politically isolate Qatar, the country which is Turkey’s primary ally within the Gulf region.

The Price of Oil

The root of all this unpleasantness is America’s growing concern that, if energy prices continue to stay low for a sustained period, and if Turkey’s oil-exporting neighbours like Russia, Iran, and the Gulf Arab states are weakened as a result, Turkey could become formidable enough within the region to risk cracking down on US allies — starting with the Kurds.

Russia-Turkey-Greece GDP.png

Nominal GDP

Turkey has, thus far, been relatively happy to work in a cooperative fashion with the Iraqi Kurdish groups, who are America’s primary Kurdish allies in the region. Turkey imports Iraqi Kurdish oil, has fought on the same side as the Iraqi Kurds against ISIS, and uses its relationship with Iraqi Kurds to gain leverage over Iranian-allied Iraqi Shiite groups.

Regarding Kurds in Turkey and Syria, however, the US and Turkey are in disagreement. Though the US has already partially conceded the point on Kurds in Turkey — the US continues to list the PKK as a terror organization, just like Turkey does — it has nevertheless been alarmed by the Turkish government’s treatment of political parties in Turkey that are supported by many Kurds, notably the HDP.

In Syria the conflicting interests of America and Turkey are even more explicit: America is now working in conjunction with the YPG, a group Ankara views as terrorists.

At this point, because Erdogan seems to have consolidated his power domestically, with recent victories in the Turkish constitutional referendum in April, in the failed coup attempt in July 2016, and in the general election of November 2015, he may now increasingly turn his sights to areas beyond or adjacent to Turkish borders, in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey’s own Kurdish regions.

Thus, with Trump snubbing Turkey on his first foreign trip, and with the flurry of events involving Turkey and the US that have surrounded the trip, it appears that the US and Turkey may be in the process of aggressively haggling over the details of their alliance against shared rivals like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Assad, and Hezbollah. The twin issues they have to work out are how much of the burden against these Middle Eastern forces the Turks will bear, and how tough the Turks can be with Kurdish groups—notably those in Syria.

The Price of Loyalty 

Of course, we have no way of knowing how the details of these issues will be worked out, or even whether the US really will be willing to abandon the Kurdish militias to the Turks. But we can guess. Turkey seem more likely than not to accept the burden of fighting in Iraq and Syria, and the US more likely than not to abandon the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.

But (I will continue to guess) the US and its allies will extract two more conditions in return for their abandonment of the Kurds: Turkish cooperation within both Cyprus and Gaza.

In Gaza, although Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, Turkey has become a key ally of the Gazans almost by default. This has been the result of the Syrian Civil War (which alienated Hamas from Assad, leading Hamas’ formal leadership to move from Damascus to Qatar in 2012), the Egyptian coup in 2013 (in which Sisi overthrew and then outlawed Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies), and finally the crash in oil and gas prices in 2015 (which has hurt the economy of Hamas’ newest host and benefactor, the royal family of the tiny state of  Qatar).

The US and Israel want not only that Turkey prevent another incident like the Mavi Marmara, but also that they tie Turkish and regional investment in Gaza to the condition that Hamas work to prevent a resumption of violence in the Strip. An increase in fighting between Israelis and Gazans would, among other things, imperil the tacit Israeli-Arab alliance directed against Iran and ISIS; an alliance Trump’s current visit has intended to solidify.

Israeli-Palestinian violence would also draw a gigantic amount of the world’s media attention, and would inevitably be blamed on Trump, showing his portrayal of himself as an unparalleled dealmaker to be yet another con. Indeed, at the risk of being too cynical or conspiracy-minded, I would like to point out the possibly politicized pattern of the four main Israeli-Gaza battles that have occured since Hamas began to gain control of Gaza in 2006:

The first, Israel’s Operation Autumn Cloud, ended the day before mid-term elections in the US in 2006. The second, Operation Cast Lead, ended two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration. The third, Operation Pillar of Defence, began a week after the US general election in 2012. And the fourth, Operation Protective Edge, ended two months before the 2014 mid-terms.

Whether or not this pattern was a coincidence, Trump and the Republicans obviously do not want to see a new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence before the 2018 or 2020 elections.


Source: The Economist

While Turkey can perhaps help to keep Gaza peaceful, it can certainly help to do so in Cyprus, where it wields decisive influence over the island’s North. Turkey is the only country to recognize Northern Cyprus, a Turkish-speaking political entity Turkey established almost single-handedly in the 1970s. Moreover, the island as a whole needs Turkish aid in facilitating both gas and water pipelines across the 80 km sea-channel that separates Cyprus from the Turkish mainland.

The Turks may feel that they can now afford to throw their historic Greek and Greek-Cypriot rivals a bone, given that the economic decimation both Greece and Cyprus have suffered in the past decade have rendered them less of a potential threat to Turkish interests. Thus they may not stop peace talks on the island from moving forward.

The US and its allies will also be happy to see reconciliation or even reunification in Cyprus, as it may help prevent another Mediterranean financial crisis or, even, help show off Trump’s deal-making.

Indeed, while a reconciliation or reunification deal in Cyprus would not directly benefit Trump very much, it could perhaps help to provide him with momentum and bona fides he will want in order to make a more exciting and significant “deal of the century”: a deal which — taking a cue from his Celebrity Apprentice co-star Dennis Rodman — will likely be in Korea.

And of course, as Trump said while in Jerusalem, about peace between Israel and Palestine: “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all but I have a feeling we’re going to get there eventually…I hope”.

Winners and Losers 

In the end, in this scenario, the losers would be the Kurds in Syria, and perhaps also the Kurds in Turkey. The winners would be the Cypriots, and perhaps also the Israelis and Palestinians.

As for the US-Turkish relationship, more complicated years lie ahead. It may be that the relationship will ebb and flow along with expectations of the future price of oil, which will determine the perceived strength of Turkey relative to both Russia and Middle Eastern states. The US will want to deputize Turkey to contain forces like Russia, Iran, and Sunni jihadism, yet will also worry about Turkish intentions regarding smaller groups like the Kurds.

If oil prices stay low for long enough, it is likely that we will see the United States opt not just for the Trumpian move of bolstering relations between the Saudis and Israelis, but also for the more Obama-esque one of reaching out to Iran in order to win a new powerful ally for America in the region.

Europe, North America



Politics obviously effects all our lives, sometimes for good and sometimes not. All of my grandparents were born in Poland and experienced hard times during WW2. One of my grandfathers wrote a memoir of his experience as a Jew during the war, which has just been republished for the first time in many years. You can read a free preview of the first chapters, or buy the book, on the link above.

My other grandfather, who was born on the exact day that WW1 ended in 1918, and who spent most of the war in northern Russia rather than in Nazi-occupied Poland, passed away a month ago. He suffered no less for spending the war in the Soviet Union rather than in Poland. Of the more than 100 members of his extended family, only he and two of his second cousins survived. Later, in Canada, he and his wife went on to start a new family that today has nearly 40 people in it. His obituary was published this morning: