Dimmed sconces bathe the reception carpet in soft burgundy. A woman in a white apron takes off my coat. Her gaze is reproachful.
Was my hearty "Good morning!" a bit frivolous?
"Mr. Pike is waiting in the salon," she whispers.
Outside, sparkling Christmas decorations sugar-coat a crazy world. What hasn't it brought upon us this year? An Ethiopian Nobel Peace Prize winner starts a bloody war. America capitulates to bearded zealots in the Hindu Kush. Russia rattles its sabers. And the most powerful man on earth falls asleep while world leaders try to save the planet from climate change.
Suit? Shirt? Tie? Francis Pike gives me a stern look. "Perfect," he nods with satisfaction. "When Bryan Adams came to see me here, he turned up in washed-out jeans and was turned down instantly."
Brooks's is one of London's best addresses. May the world go mad, but here at the venerable Gentlemen's Club, the old order prevails. Here, we are in the eye of hurricane "Woke," about to shatter history and conventions, atomizing society into a myriad of genders.
Brooks's on noble St James's Street has been "Men Only" since its founding in 1764. It was frequented by the Roman historian Edward Gibbon, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, the Prime Ministers Lord Palmerston and William Pitt the Younger. Here the fate of the British Empire was discussed, and political cabals were concocted. But above all, gambling took place; entire properties were lost at play tables with cards and dice.
"Brooks's Club represents the time of intellectual inquiry, when you could do anything, say anything, travel anywhere, when real freedoms were available,” Pike says.
Pike himself exudes an air of that faded liberty. He has crisscrossed Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, building financial institutions, helping to lift Bangladesh out of poverty, and advising governments from Japan to Tajikistan. His book “Empires at War” is among the best you can read about modern Asia.
On his visits to London, Pike regularly stops in the quiet salon at Brooks's Club, where he has been a longtime member. It is the perfect place, then, to reflect on the year 2021.
Weltwoche: In Washington Joe Biden has taken over the leadership of the free world. We witness a US President who staggers, stumbles and falls asleep in public, like recently at Glasgow Climate Change Conference. Francis Pike, is “the most powerful man in the world” up to his job?
Absent: Biden at the Climate Change Conference.
Pike: He was not up to the job even before the election, which is why all the left-leaning media in America - which means 90% - threw him softball questions. They didn't question why he was being hidden in his cellar with very little communication with the outside world. Simply the Democratic Party, TV, the press and the social media platforms wanted anybody but Trump… it really didn't matter who it was.
Of course, it has become difficult to hide his declining mental competence. No president in modern history has gone his first two months without holding a press conference. What's interesting is when Trump was accused of being mentally incapacitated, he took a cognitive test which Biden has not taken. Now, I wonder why! [chuckles] From what I've heard, he spends a large portion of the day ‘resting’. He only has the energy to do a very limited working schedule. I think his policies certainly are fleshed out by people behind the scenes.
Weltwoche: Can you remember a western leader that has been more absent in history?
Pike: It happened in the presidency of President Wilson after the World War I. When he came back from the Treaty of Versailles negotiations. He had a stroke and was incapacitated for the last year and a half of his presidency. His wife is sometimes called the First American Female President because she and the doctor ran America while he was mentally incapacitated. I think there is something of that going on. Of course, sometimes he's more mentally with it, but that's typical of deteriorating mental conditions. It's not a linear decline. Personally this is a sad story but Biden should never have been put in this humiliating situation.
Weltwoche: America’s role in the world suffered a major setback this summer. US troops have fled the country in a rush. The longest war in America’s history ended in a complete surrender to the Taliban. Thousands of Afghans tried to get on board on one of the last western airplanes taking off from Kabul Airport. What does that scene symbolize to you?
Pike: It symbolizes a further chapter in the decline of American power worldwide. Of course, America has had defeats in the post-world period before… in Vietnam for example.
This question though is different now in Afghanistan, because economically, America is no longer the absolute dominant economic power. Now it has to share the football field with China. It is like Manchester United versus Manchester City. Manchester City is the new boy now, has a top manager, seems to have more money, and is more successful, while the established Manchester United is on the decline. I think that's where it's different to the 1970s.
Weltwoche: President Biden declared that Trump’s “America First” policy is over. He promised, he would respect his allies and deal with world leaders on an eye-to-eye level. You have travelled and worked across the world. What leader do people in Asia, in Africa, in South America, respect more, a multilateralist or a decisive character who pushes his country’s agenda through?
Pike: I think there's no question that in Asia, Trump was much more respected than Barack Obama, and that's because Trump had this very strong vision of American power and the need to combat Chinese influence. Chinese influence is something that may scare America, but it scares people in Asia much more. People are worried about it, whether it's in the Philippines, in Indonesia, obviously, Taiwan, Korea, Japan in particular, and also in Vietnam. Trump's strong stance, was appreciated, as it was in the Middle East.
Here Barack Obama was incredibly unpopular, in spite of being anti-Israel and pro-Arab. From my knowledge and experience, the Arabs absolutely loathed him; how could they trust an American who's not pro-Israel? At least, with Trump, they knew where they stood. Actually Trump made great advances in terms of bringing Israel and some of the Arab states together in a mutual alliance against terrorism and against Iran, of course.
With Biden you have now a situation where a rather weak Democrat president is renegotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran, while everybody knows that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. It's moving along that path to much higher levels of uranium enrichment.
Weltwoche: In other words, trying to talk to Iran will not stop this dangerous process?
Pike: In my view, the original Iran nuclear deal was a bad deal. It just kicked the can down the road for eight years while Iran quietly got on with preparing to create a nuclear weapon. It will be one of the big challenges next year. 2022 is the year Israel may have to attack Iran.
Weltwoche: There have been a number of cyber attacks. What kind of new attacks are you talking about?
Pike: Israel’s first line of attack will be to disrupt Iran’s nuclear plans through cyber interventions and the agent network they have in Iran. If that fails, Israel would only have one choice.
Weltwoche: A military attack?
Pike: People say, Iran would never attack Israel with nuclear weapons. But if the Iranian regime constantly tells you that they're going to destroy you, what would you do, if you were Israel? Tiny Israel can't survive a nuclear attack. They'd get wiped out. The only thing they can do is a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Weltwoche: There is already an Islamic atomic power, Pakistan. The atom bomb gives them protection for their disruptive foreign policy. The Biden government has been widely criticised for its mistakes, handing over Afghanistan to the Taliban. But without the substantial help of Pakistan the Taliban would have hardly survived 20 years of US occupation.
Pike: You say Pakistan, I would say the Pakistani military. The military has always been very infiltrated by Salafists, very hardline Muslim ideologues. With the use of the Taliban they kept some control over Afghanistan. So, when you look at Pakistani politics, you really have to look at the army. Even Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, for whom I have the greatest respect, cannot rule without the army’s blessing.
Hope for Pakistan: Imran Khan, former wife Jemima.
Weltwoche: You are personally related to Imran Khan.
Pike: Yes, he is my former brother-in-law. Imran’s first wife, Jemima Khan, is the sister of my former spouse. Imran is a man of extraordinary integrity. I would say he is the most honest and bravest man I've ever met. I remember once I was in the car with him, three o'clock in the morning and we were going from Chechnya into Dagestan.
Weltwoche: That was a private trip?
Pike: We were in Chechnya to meet President Maskhadov who was the president during that brief period when Chechnya was independent in the mid 1990s. Imran and I were then flying on to Baku to meet the Azerbaijani finance minister. It was a pitch dark night and Imran and I were in the back of this armour-plated SUV. We had just come to the border when there were a lot of “ratcheting” sounds… the noise of Kalashnikovs being cocked. With lots of screaming and shouting, I thought a firefight was about to break out. I ducked down to the lowest point of our car, literally scraping the floor of this big wagon, and Imran was sitting there laughing his head off. He just thought the whole situation was incredibly funny. He has no fear. He's very extraordinary.
Weltwoche: For decades Pakistan has been fostering fundamentalism, through money and religious schools. Can Imran Khan change this course?
Pike: Obviously, he has the most impossible job in the world but if anybody can do it, I would say he can. He's a born leader. He showed that in his career as a sportsman where he led Pakistan’s cricket team to World Cup victory; he's one of the greatest cricketers ever. He has set about trying to make his country more honest and investable. He was preparing for this task for a long time before he became prime minister.
Dominance: China celebrating 100 years of CCP
Weltwoche: With great pomp the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 100th birthday in July. While the world is suffering tremendously from the COVID plague, that has originated in China, Beijing making advances on the global stage. And at their doorstep they are openly threatening Taiwan. In a nutshell, what is China’s strategy in the world?
Pike: I think when we look at China, we have to remember that in 1820, China was without question the world's most powerful country. For the last 200 years the west has been dominant. But before that, China was the world's largest economy for 2000 years. In a way, we're just getting back to normal. Xi Jinping sees China’s destiny as a return to world domination.
China may well grow to double the size of the US over the next 50 years. When economies grow this powerful, they tend to reach out around the world, which is what happened with America, and with Britain before America. This is a natural development.
Weltwoche: Even though the Chinese military is flexing its muscles at Taiwan, Beijing has until now not been ruling through their military. Large parts of the world depend economically on China, therefore they naturally will not attack the rising Empire, but keep doing business with it. Dominance through dependencies, is this China’s strategy?
Pike: I think that's exactly right. Global military domination is not on the cards. For example, China is never going to send an army to the Middle East to sort out the Jihadist problem. In a way, America, Britain, and Europe felt they had no alternative to trying to solve the problem at source in the Middle East. You can't crack down on Islamic groups in liberal America or in England or in Europe, in the way the China can. We thought we're going to solve the problem at source by sending armies to the Middle East. Well, you saw how well that worked! Instead, China is doing exactly the opposite. It is fighting its Muslim problem at home in Xinjiang province.
Weltwoche: Beijing is cracking down on their Muslim minority, the Uyghurs, with severe measures. There have been reports about concentration camps and “re-education” by force, which has caused wide criticism in the west.
Pike: In China’s defence one has to remember how appalling the Jihadist atrocities committed by Uyghur extremists in China were. This is forgotten because it was very little reported in the West. Although I do not approve of what the Chinese government is doing, I do understand why they're doing this rather than sending armies to the Middle East. You have to ask yourself, which is the better method of dealing with the domestic Jihadi problem? I'll leave it to readers to make their own opinion.
Weltwoche: This year was not void of friction with Russia. In fact, we are witnessing right now a military build-up along the Ukrainian border. What is the larger strategy behind this? And what cards is Putin holding in his hand?
Putin’s armlock over the West: Troop deployment on the Ukrainian border.
Pike: The biggest card he has is supply of energy. Whatever happened at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, the fact is that Europe and the whole world needs carbon energy. And Russia has probably more available untapped resources than any other country in the world. You've got to remember they've hardly started on the development of the resource rich Arctic Ocean. That's why Russia put so much emphasis on building up an Arctic navy. Their key power is energy and Europe has played the most stupid game possible in foreign policy. It's really laughable.
Weltwoche: What was the stupidity of the west?
Pike: We were trying to annex the Ukraine into the EU and NATO sphere. I don't know why anybody would want Ukraine. Ukraine is a most appallingly corrupt country. Let the Russians have it, then it is their headache, not ours. Trying to embrace Ukraine was stupid for a number of reasons, but for one especially.
Weltwoche: Which one?
Pike: By attempting to annex the Ukraine, the West, led by Barack Obama, foolishly pushed Russia into an alliance with China. At the same time the West agreed that Russia should build a pipeline, Nord Stream 2, to bring gas to Europe. Well, those were two completely incompatible policies. We've made Putin an enemy at the same time as giving him the weapon with which he can beat us. Putin has an arm lock over us. If people don't get petrol in their cars or heating in their homes or energy for industry, then European politicians are finished. So, we've handed Putin power instead of building an energy system independent of Russia.
Weltwoche: That would have been possible, do you think?
Pike: Yes, of course. But we should have been planning this for the last 30 years.
Weltwoche: It's too late now?
Pike: It's too late now. Anybody who looks at energy knows you can't just build a non-carbon energy system through windmills and through solar power alone. Intermittency of supply is one of the major problems. Wind power is remarkably expensive, and quite carbon-intensive in terms of manufacturing. You have to have base power and if you want base power, you either have to have coal-fired power stations or gas. Or you have nuclear.
Weltwoche: Since Fukushima greens have declared nuclear a power of evil.
Pike: The bizarre thing is the green eco-fanatics have actually been one of the main causes of climate change because they've been so anti-nuclear power that we're more dependent on carbon energy than before. Non-carbon nuclear energy as a proportion of global energy has halved since the turn of the millennium. The greens have been shooting themselves and all of us in the foot. Worldwide, you're getting an exit from nuclear power at a time, when actually if you want to meet your carbon targets from COP26, everybody knows, or should know, you have to have more nuclear to provide base load.
Wetwoche: Who is your person of the year?
Pike: I would say, Bill Gates. Apart from being one of the first people to pump money into vaccine capacity through his financing of the expansion of the Poona based Serum Institute of India (the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer), he has also developed visionary plans to generate non-carbon energy. Gates co-founded TerraPower, a start-up aimed at revolutionizing nuclear power by building small modular systems. He's a very smart guy. At the moment, he and Warren Buffet are building one of these Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in Oregon. It's a joint venture between Warren Buffett's power company, PacifiCorp, and Bill Gate's TerraPower.
Weltwoche: How many of those would we need to produce enough energy for the whole world?
Pike: I made a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation. To meet COP26 targets, I estimated that you would need to build about 20000 of these small modular reactors (SMRs) worldwide. Rolls Royce are developing an SMR system in the UK. Sadly it will take about seven years to build one and we're nowhere near it. Russia is also developing SMRs. In fact, some countries (including Switzerland) are going backwards on nuclear which is insane. So, to sustain global economic growth, we will have to use more and more carbon energy.
Weltwoche: With a growing middle class, China is in great demand of carbon energy.
Pike: Chinese people actually like hot and cold running water in their houses and they like central heating just as we do. Turkmenistan has the second biggest natural gas field in the world. China built a 7,000 km pipeline through Kazakhstan all the way to Turkmenistan to pump gas into their grid. India, too, is in desperate need for more carbon energy. The idea that carbon is going to go away is fictitious.
Weltwoche: You wrote “Empires at War”, the fantastic “Short History of Modern Asia since World War II”. What is the most underestimated country in Asia?
Pike: There's no question, Vietnam. When I was a teenager, almost every day Vietnam was front-page news. As it happened, I was living in Paris when the peace talks were going on between Henry Kissinger and the north Vietnamese. The Paris Treaty was signed while I was there. After the 1970s, Indochina essentially disappeared from the newspapers. Today you never hear anything about what's going on in Vietnam. Did you know that on January 31, 2021, de facto leader Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected as General Secretary of the Communist Party for a third five-year term at the 13th National Congress? No, it's like an invisible country to the West, completely under the radar.
Weltwoche: You were the first Westerner to fly into Vietnam after economic reforms in 1986.
Pike: I flew into Saigon on Christmas Day in 1986, just after Doi Moi, like Russia’s Perestroika when reforms were initiated with the goal of creating a socialist-oriented market economy. Then, the average annual income was about $80. Today, it is about $8,000 (in purchasing power parity terms), so it's been tremendous growth. Vietnam’s demand for energy grows 15% per annum, about double the rate of GDP growth. 50% of Vietnam's energy comes from coal; that's going to continue. Vietnam is going to be a huge economy… a 100 million people and growing. They started looking at building a nuclear power station about four years ago but abandoned it because it's too expensive. It's not just China that is building more coal-fired power stations.
Millions displaced: War in Ethiopia.
Weltwoche: Another country under the radar is Ethiopia. This year it moved into the headlines with the war in the Tigray region with thousands of people killed and millions forced from their homes. It is remarkable that this war was started by a man, who bagged the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, Abiy Ahmed. What does that war symbolize for you?
Pike: Well, you say that it's surprising that Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Prize and then went to war. So did Barack Obama. Let's remember, Barack Obama ramped up death by drone 10 times more than his predecessor, President Bush, which is extraordinary. You have this arbitrary justice… death from the sky from Barack Obama. It became institutionalized. Honestly, any decent man with a conscience in his position would've turned down the Nobel Peace Prize. It's the most stupid thing I've ever seen. Well, apart from awarding the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan! (chuckle)
Weltwoche: What remarkable event has caught your eye in Africa this year?
Pike: The demographics of Nigeria. If you look at global population growth over this coming century, 80% of it is going to come from Africa and a high proportion of that will come from Nigeria. Nigeria now has over 200 million people and that will double by 2050; by 2100 Nigeria’s population will be approaching a billion people. That to me is a really extraordinary number.
Weltwoche: It's a big potential for migration, of course.
Pike: I read a survey which showed more than 50% of Nigeria’s population wants to live in America or Britain.
Weltwoche: Half of Nigeria’s population are Muslims. What consequences will Europe face, if millions are trying to come here?
Pike: The fact is, the biggest threat to Europe is not Russia. The biggest problem we have in Europe is immigration and a very rapid change in our societies and our culture. More importantly, the long-term threat we face continues to be with the Islamic population. Even if just a miniscule proportion will be Jihadified, that's a huge problem for the West. To me, the mass immigration from Africa is by far the biggest challenge we face because it's not happening slowly, this is happening very rapidly. Hence Eric Zemmour, the firebrand French presidential candidate, is saying, "We've got to get our France back." Rancorous divisions in Europe can only get worse.
End of an era: Queen Elizabeth II bids farewell to Prince Philip.
Weltwoche: Back to the United Kingdom. The world witnessed a harrowing scene. The Queen was sitting completely alone on the benches at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle in April, mourning the death of her husband, Prince Philip. He was a few months short of his 100th birthday. What kind of world did we bid farewell to at this moment?
Pike: If you look back in history, the most outstanding British monarchs have been women; Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and now Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen is 95, obviously with decreasing energy and decreasing health. She's not going to be here for that much longer. As we come to the end of the second Elizabethan age, I think there is remarkable respect for the Queen because she has had extraordinary devotion to duty. She's never controversial which may be because she's quite dull. But even republicans like me have a huge respect for her.
Weltwoche: Quite a few royalists fear the moment Prince Charles will take his place on the throne. Will this be the end of the British Kingdom as we know it?
Pike: This is a going to be a challenge. Charles is not held in the same esteem as his mother. The whole episode with Princess Diana clearly tarnished his reputation, although it's recovered to some degree. A lot of people resent his constant interference on the subject of the environment. They resent the fact that he's a man with 70 servants, with huge houses, cars, planes, who lectures people on energy usage. There's just a lot of hypocrisy. I'm not sure that the British Crown will survive another 100 years. Young Brits are anti-monarchy.
I've come to the view that I would rather that there was a referendum on whether to continue with the monarchy every time a monarch dies. I voted for Brexit because I wanted to live in an independent democratic country like Switzerland, which democratically is the country I most admire in the world. How could I then possibly carry on supporting an institution as undemocratic as a monarchy? I think my suggestion would never be taken up, but strangely enough referenda might actually protect the monarchy in the long term because they would institutionalize it as part of a democratic system.
Apocalypse Now: Drones, weapon of choice for terrorists.
Weltwoche: What are the hotspots in the world where things could really explode next year?
Pike: Iran will take a lot of focus. That's not to underplay the Taiwan situation, which I think is very serious. And there is also the Ukraine. But very often, it's what you're not looking for which tends to erupt.
Weltwoche: What are you thinking of?
Pike: I'm just wondering whether 2022 will be the first year when we have a head of state assassinated by a drone. We've had two attempts so far. One on Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela in 2018 and one this year on Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the prime minister of Iraq. They both failed. But I think they're almost certainly going to succeed at some point. People used to play with drones… now they're deadly weapons in the making. This is the overwhelming new weapon of choice not just for regular armies but for terrorists. The advances in the weaponization of drones is absolutely extraordinary. You can attack with more than a single drone; terrorists could deploy a whole fleet of quadrocopters.
Weltwoche: A kind of air raid like in Apocalypse Now, but silent and almost invisible?
Pike: A Turkish company has developed miniature quadrocopters, 8 centimetres wide, which can carry enough explosive charge to come up to your head and blow your brains out. Science fiction is now reality. Occasionally, I've been right on my predictions. I was having lunch with the Chairman of Bloomsbury Publishing on the day of 9/11 and predicted that there would be “a major Jihadist attack using a dirty bomb or biological weapon on a Western city."
Weltwoche: A few hours before it happened.
Pike: An hour later at lunch, we hear that a plane has just gone into one of the World Trade Centre towers. I was right with the intent if not the method.
Weltwoche: What is your prediction?
Pike: My advice would be: “city mayors, prepare your stadiums”. Terrorist quadrocopter attacks are almost certain to happen.
Quest for the beginning of everything: James Webb telescope.
Weltwoche: What is the event in the coming year that you most look forward to?
Pike: The most exciting thing that's going to happen next year is the mission of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the replacement for Hubble. We are going to be able to see back in time.
Weltwoche: To the beginning of everything.
Pike: The beginning of time. We are going back to 200m or so years after Big Bang: ‘the Great Inflation’. The James Webb telescope should give us much more detailed information about the earliest galaxies. That's the most exciting thing to look forward to. I just cannot wait.
Weltwoche: Do you think it's going to reshape humanity's position in the universe?
Pike: I would like to think that the more we know about the history of the universe, the more we realize that what we do as individuals is of very little significance. I think that we should all put our activities as human beings into cosmic perspective.
Pioneer without borders: Francis Pike.
Francis Pike was born in Leicester, England in 1954. He studied in Paris before going to Cambridge where he took an MA in History. His varied financial career started as an analyst covering gold, diamonds and metals, as well as the Asian plantation sector. He moved to Tokyo in 1983 where over the next decade he started investment businesses in Japan and throughout Asia. He later set up investment banks in the Indian subcontinent.
In the UK he started and managed a numbers of public companies, including Eastern Europe’s first private equity business in 1990. In various capacities he has advised governments and states in the US, Asia and the Middle East. As well as London, Paris and Tokyo, he has lived in Hong Kong, Mumbai, Berlin and Marrakesh. He is a partner of the Temple Gallery, a leading dealer in Russian and Byzantine Icons.
Over the last decade Francis has published two books ‘Empires at War: A History of Modern Asia since World War II’ and ‘Hirohito’s War: The Pacific War 1941-1945’.
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