I’m opening a bottle of decent red, a normal thing one does here in Paris.
Especially after the day I just had…
The meeting with international energy financiers has broken up for dinner and down time. But sitting on a balcony overlooking Avenue Kléber and its late afternoon bustle, I find my mind wandering.
Something is approaching – something I’ve seen before. And it’s causing to me to review earlier events in my life. These thoughts are not of the energy market – at least not directly. Rather, the path is back to a time when this city had a different feel.
The Most Valuable Lesson I’ve Ever Learned
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is to distinguish between invention and innovation. Invention is coming up with a completely new product, process, or explanation. In contrast, innovation is applying something already existing in a new way.
Actual inventions are rare. Most genuine human advancement has come from innovation. The way that emerges is almost always eclectic. You just never know from where the borrowing will come or where the resulting application will take you.
Innovation is still important in what I do. But in my “earlier life” in intelligence, pursuing that often-frustrating phantom called national security, it literally was a lifesaver.
I ran into some unusual people in those days. On occasion, they were downright unsavory. That just meant I had to hold my nose and dive in with whatever assets were available.
Leading me to the guy I am thinking about today…
“Jake the Snake” Had a Surprisingly Wise Saying
We called him Jake the Snake, and his base was a fake storefront in the commune of Nanterre. We ended up subsidizing its use in return for his services. Nanterre abuts Paris on the west, has some of the highest buildings in the city’s environs, and is home to major international banks and corporations.
However, back then, Nanterre was still a working-class area concentrated around industries that moved there a century ago but had seen better times. The street politics decidedly leaned communist. It was often regarded as the buckle in the “red belt” surrounding Paris.
Now Jake wasn’t his real name, of course, and what he did usually had him traveling elsewhere on the continent. We would pay for that as well, even though there would rarely be receipts provided (enraging bean counters back at the “office”).
On the other hand, the “snake” label certainly did fit. He was slimy and frequented the underbelly of Europe. These were places I could not, should not, or would not go.
My base was London in those days. But that still resulted in frequent hydrofoil rides across the Channel. No “Chunnel” back then for a quick train ride to Calais.
Jake was blunt and often said things for the sheer joy of shocking people. Perhaps it was his way of maintaining control over the situation in which he found himself (often of his own creation).
I put up with him because he was of some benefit. Then, in early 1988, he simply disappeared off the face of the Earth.
Nonetheless, something he once told me has stuck with me ever since…
Paris Is Less Fond of America Than Ever Before
It was a typical Jake phrase, but I ended up applying it to all manner of operational situations (and these days, to investment opportunities). Consider it verbal innovation (reusing something old in a new way) in the form of “how to look at the world” guidance.
As only Jake could put it: “Unless they find a body, there is no murder. The son of a bitch is just a missing person.” (“Á moins qu’ils ne voient un corps, il n’y a pas de meurtre. Le fils de pute n’est qu’une disparue.”)
I’ve decided to move back inside from the balcony, taking along my computer and the half-full bottle of wine. The weather has grown much colder; with the setting sun, a storm is coming.
Much like what I have been hearing.
Since returning to Paris two days ago, I feel like I’m back some 30 years ago, with storm clouds forming once again. And once again, I find Jake’s colorful caution to be of use.
That’s because the new environment that’s rapidly emerging seems only too familiar…
Frankly, I’ve never experienced as pronounced an un-American attitude, at least in this part of the world.
Sure, the French have always been dismissive, even haughty, when it comes to us Yanks. But nothing like this. And most of these folks populating my sessions are not French.
A stark and continuous refrain permeates just about everything in my meetings. There is clearly a conclusion becoming widely shared that Trump sees allies as unnecessary burdens, preferring to pursue whatever foreign policy emerging as a “go it alone” American endeavor.
Nevertheless, no one can ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room…
We’re Entering a New Cold War
The United States is still too big and powerful to be completely discounted. Despite this, it is not preventing plans being made to ignore, as one Parisian bank colleague put it this morning, “le enfant gâté résidant à la Maison Blanche” (“the spoiled child living in the White House”).
I expressed the concerted opinion that this group often trends toward overreaction – and even unflattering name-calling – when Washington moves in a direction they don’t like. And anyway, this “going alone” approach is easier to espouse than to accomplish. The U.S. presence remains too large economically and strategically.
That led to silence and an unannounced break for coffee.
This is a group I have advised now for years. They are very global, exceptionally heavy hitting, and expect to get their own way using a thick check book and even thicker political connections.
These exchanges aside, there is something significant coming. Plans are underway for a new global round of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) along with the necessary investment. To the extent possible, it will roll out without the usual American involvement.
Additional matters likely to be discussed over the weekend may oblige that I carry initiatives along for my Frankfurt meetings with the Iranians beginning on Feb. 13.
In other words, welcome to what I believe is a Cold War redux.
The players are not the same, and the opposition includes those who used to be (and on other matters may still be) our friends.
One thing’s for sure… Jake would have relished all of this. In his own brash way, he would have found all too many connections between how we approached the first Cold War and how we will react to this one.
The bottle is now almost empty. One last glass left. Enough to raise in a heartfelt toast:
“Here’s to you, Jake.”
Wherever the other “son of a bitch” finally buried you.