At the turn of the new millennium I joined the on-line dialogue and debate on “The Future of the European Union.” It was inaugurated by Tony Blair and the then President of the EU Council Romano Prodi.
They invited all Europhiles to participate with their own contributions and ideas and thus further the democratic spirit of the new, still evolving, polity. I began to routinely exchange observations, comments, reflections on various aspects of modern European culture and how it was perceived across the Atlantic. One of the hottest issues was that of the emerging EU Constitution.
I began to realize that despite the disparate complex viewpoints and perception of European culture expressed usually in an essay form, there is nevertheless a fundamental guiding thread, and it is this: the awareness that an essay, besides elucidating a specific subject, is also a reflection of the self on the self, a revelation of the mind at work within, at times in contrast to the spirit of the age, as indeed is the case with any human artifact. Those artifacts in turn mirror the culture of a civilization as narrated and transmitted via language.
Man makes language and artifacts and symbols, but paradoxically, as Giambattista Vico and Carl Jung have well taught us, the opposite is also true: language and artifacts and symbols make Man. It occurred to me that part of the uniqueness of the essay form is to give the reader a glimpse as to where the self is coming from and where it is heading as it dialogues with other selves across time and space. What was unique in this transatlantic dialogue is the fact that the dialogue was occurring not only among elite intellectuals, populist or not, but also among ordinary citizens.
In other words, the dialogue went beyond systematically defined academic positions rigorously argued, underpinned by “clear and distinct ideas” leading to unassailable logical conclusion; rather, the dialogue was challenging the academic mind-set to relinquish the privileging of rationalism over the poetical, to involve his/her imagination, to interact rather than merely react to the text, to courageously attempt the exploration and the discovery of new ground across disciplinary boundaries. For, it is at the edge of boundaries that life and knowledge, experience and theory, meet most fruitfully. This was to be expected, given that rational logical arguments underpinned by “clear and distinct ideas,” are not congenial to the essay. The essay form resists both extreme rationalism and self-absorbed diary writing unconcerned with the larger issues of the times.
Etymologically, essay means “an attempt.” Both the author writing an essay and the reader reading it, need to find the courage to attempt something new keeping in mind that to pour new wine in old wineskins may mean losing the new wine. In reading and interacting with an essay, both author and readers are challenged to give up old comfortable assumptions without forgetting them and make an attempt, i.e., to carry on a brave novel exploration of the issues at hand from its origins to the present, beyond rigid disciplinary boundaries.
There are various aspects of the European cultural identity and its transatlantic dialogue that remain to be explored. That dialogue, if truth be told, begins way back in 1492. To facilitate the exploration we will need a sort of “leitkultur” or cultural guides if you wish that will allow us to navigate the stormy ocean of the transatlantic dialogue where the icebergs of nihilism and extreme rationalism float silently by in the tick of night. Giambattista Vico is undoubtedly one such guide, another is Vaclav Havel and another is Emmanuel Levinas. And there are many others, we could go back to Dante and his vision of a United Europe. Those admirable and exemplary visionaries, mostly poets and philosophers, are to be considered the original architects of a New Europe.
Vico is considered by many scholars the culmination of Italian and European Humanism. This interest led me eventually to the writing of a book on the hermeneutics of Vico’s speculation on the interface of language, history and literature. Likewise, literary theory and criticism, and their nexus to cultural anthropology, otherwise known as hermeneutics, are prominently featured in this book’s ruminations, under the stimulus of the emergence of the European Union’s Constitution in 2002. In as much as a constitution is analogous to the vital signs of a body politics and reflects its value system, its analysis is essential for determining that body’s moral and social health as well as suggesting an appropriate diagnosis and prognosis.
But to return to the above mentioned existential philosophical aspects, these reflections, more than with the being of Man, are concerned with the ongoing journey of Man. A spiritual or intellectual journey may imaginatively originate at any point on the hermeneutical circle, to eventually return full circle to its place of origin. This paradigm which believes that in the beginning there is the end and in the end there is the beginning, may at first appear cyclical and closed upon itself, merely immanent, a sort of Nietzschean eternal return, but in fact it is more like a forward, or even upward moving spiral. To be sure, on a spiral one can also move downward, as Dante’s descent into hell amply suggests, but even there it eventually leads to the other side of the earth and then upward, via the mountain of Purgatory, to the final destination in heaven, God’s vision. Indeed, for Dante the way up is the way down. This Vichian structure of the narration of Man’s journey is not always linear narration and may at times make the essays appear contradictory. But such is the story of Man, as imaginatively remembered and as narrated to oneself, beginning at any place of the hermeneutical circle.
Contrary to what one may think when entering the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s narration does not begin with the creation of Light by God but with the drunkenness of Noah. It is via narration, rather than via logical clear and distinct ideas standing behind words, that Man discovers that he is his own history and that while the cycles of the “story” may recur, they also move spiral-like toward a providential final purpose or “telos.” We may then be surprised to discover that transcendence and immanence are not mutually exclusive but complementary to each other. The mind’s restless cognitive operations reflect at least that much. The same inventor of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, some five centuries ago, jotted down this acute insight into the nature of his essays as they related to his own self: “If my soul could only find a footing I would not be essaying myself but resolving myself” (from essay “On Repentance”).
It is through the attempt to know the workings of our mind, that we may hope to arrive at self-knowledge and begin to realize that in the final analysis, the way to a recovery of transcendence and humanistic modes of thought in Western culture cannot possibly be an Hegelian-Marxian historical paradigm of inevitable progress, or its corollary, manifest destiny, allowing colonizers of various stripes to ride rough shod over native cultures, but rather a new humanistic Vichian-Joycean paradigm intimating “back to the future;” the awareness, that is, that paradoxically the emerging new Europe is neither old nor young, but novantiqua; that old stale unimaginative cultural paradigms rooted in a Machiavellian “real-politick mind-set” need to give way to a more Vichian poetic approach. For the journey into self-knowledge is integral part of our essential humanity, and not only as individual human beings, but also as people, nations and even entire civilizations and as humankind as a whole. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm but the contrary is also true. This can only be so if there exists indeed the universally human.
That question of identity is inescapable, for without self-knowledge, one will inevitably fall prey, along the way, to the seductive voices of false sirens and gods, even when they (like the mythical bull) arrive on time and promise an adventurous journey. Those voices (even when they seem to be the voice of Being itself) make it nearly impossible to focus with the mind’s eye on the final destination of one’s journey. For the question “Are you leaving and arriving on time?” hides a deeper, more crucial question: “On time for what?” Unfortunately, too many political-cultural leaders are running headlong toward the future nowadays in fast cars devoid of a rear-view mirror; and this is happening on both sides of the Atlantic.
The horizon is vast, but keep in mind however that, as mentioned, this maze of cultural issues is to be kept within the framework of self-knowledge. For, besides empirical knowledge of the sciences, mathematical knowledge, and metaphysical knowledge, there is another overarching kind of knowledge: self-knowledge. Joseph Campbell used to enjoin to his audiences: “find your bliss!” The goddess Europa surely must have expected bliss or she would not have left a secure shore to head towards the unknown on the back of a bull. This metaphor is also valid for entire cultures. It is the injunction to search and to find one’s identity, rooted in one’s origins. Vico’s philosophy can become a needed navigating chart once we opt for leaving behind the desolate shores of pure rationalism, technocracy and consumerism, to sally forth on the high sea of the poetical for an adventurous imaginative journey of self-discovery.
The German philosopher Habermas has challenged taken-for-granted assumptions in a seminal essay which envisions a post-secular Europe. He poses the above quoted challenging question to European culture’s conception of modernity as seen through the prism of secularism and its corollary aversion to religion’s role in the public agora. Habermas addresses the debate in terms of John Rawls’s concept of “public use of reason” and proposes that secular citizens in Europe learn to live, and the sooner the better, in a post-secular society; in so doing they will be following the example of religious citizens, who have already come to terms with the ethical expectations of democratic citizenship. So far secular citizens have not been expected to make a similar effort. He is not alone in that challenge. In the year 2000 an essay came out written by Shmuel Eisenstadt, an Israeli sociologist, titled “Multiple Modernities (see Daedalus 129: 1-30) which right from its outset challenged the taken for granted assumption that modernizing societies are convergent, as well as the notion that Europe is the lead society in that converging modernizing process.
This is what Eisenstadt writes on the very first page of the essay: “The notion of ‘multiple modernities’ denotes a certain view of the contemporary world—indeed of the history and characteristics of the modern era—that goes against the views long prevalent in scholarly ad general discourse. It goes against the view of the “classical” theories of modernization and of the convergence of industrial societies prevalent in the 1950s, and indeed against the classical sociological analysis of Marx, Durkheim, and (to a large extent) even of Weber, at least in one reading of his work. They all assumed, even if only implicitly, that the cultural program of modernity as it developed in modern Europe and the basic institutional constellations that emerge there would ultimately take over in all modernizing and modern societies; with the expansion of modernity, they would prevail throughout the world.”
In other words, Eisenstadt is saying that modernity can come in both secular and religious versions. This notion, of course, contradicts the theory that modernization necessarily implies secularization and that the United States is a mere exception to this rule made safe by the proverbial separation between State and Church. Rather, what Eisenstadt is suggesting is that the United States and Europe should be seen as two different versions of modernity. Which in turn leads to this crucial question: is secularization intrinsic or extrinsic to the modernization process? More to the point: is Europe secular because it is modern or is it secular because it is European? Depending on how one answers that question, one will assign exceptionalism to either the United States or Europe. In fact, they are two different ways of being modern. The Chinese wish to go one step further and even prove that one can be modern without being democratic. That experiment bears watching closely because it would sever the link between democracy and so called “free markets” and prove Marx right by revealing that indeed Western societies are what many outside the West believe they are: decadent materialistic societies paying lip service to democratic ideals and human rights but ultimately interested only in the selfish amassing of wealth and capital; which is to say, one can be prosperous without being democratic.
What the concept of multiple modernities implies is that Western (especially European) modernity is not the only conceivable one. It can come with indigenous differences. It would be enough to consider India, the largest democracy on earth which enshrines religion as part of its heritage and cultural patrimony. If one takes a careful look at the world outside the West one immediately notices that it is religion which defines the aspiration to an alternate modernity. That may well surprise the “enlightened” European mind, but there is such a thing as a Russian modernity inspired by Russian Orthodoxy, an Islamic modernity, a Hindu modernity, and what may surprise them even more, an integrally Catholic modernity. They are not illusions as the old classical secularization theory tended to imply.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of all might be that, as hinted above, that in many parts of the world the West is perceived in a pejorative way, as propagating a decadent. hedonistic culture of irreligious materialism. Such a perception is reinforced by both the influence of intellectuals, usually heavily secular, and the omnipresence of the Western mass media, much of whose content can indeed be defined as materialistic and irreligious. If that be true, it ought to be of great interest to the practice of diplomacy of Western democracies. At the very least, this crucial question ought to be asked and discussed: What are the consequences of taking seriously the empirical sociological fact that for the great majority of the world’s populations in the 21st century, it is not only possible, but quite normal to be both modern and religious? Might this question make a difference in the kind of paradigm that we construct in the West to understand a little better the nature of the modern world, be it European, American, Asian or African. Is it really “enlightened,” as the age of Enlightenment surely supposed in Europe, to isolate the vast field of the sociology of religion, or should it be restored to its rightful place in the overall global social agenda?
From Davos to Munich
An overview of the views and attitudes of European officials during the Davos and Munich Conference and their comparison with each other suggests that the security, economic, and political concerns of European countries have not only not diminished but are increasing.
During the World Economic Summit in Davos, the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France both gave a significant warning about the return of nationalism and populism to Europe. This warning has been sent in a time when Far-Right movements in Europe have been able to gain unbelievable power and even seek to conquer a majority of parliaments and form governments.
In her speech, Angela Merkel emphasized that the twentieth century’s mistake shouldn’t be repeated. By this, the German Chancellor meant the tendency of European countries to nationalism. Although the German Chancellor warning was serious and necessary, the warning seems to be a little late. Perhaps it would have been better if the warning was forwarded after the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, and subsequently, more practical and deterrent measures were designed. However, Merkel and other European leaders ignored the representation of over a hundred right-wing extremist in the European Parliament in 2014 and merely saw it as a kind of social excitement.
This social excitement has now become a “political demand” in the West. The dissatisfaction of European citizens with their governments has caused them to explicitly demand the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe. The recent victories of right wing extremists in Austria, Germany and…, isn’t merely the result of the nationalist movement success in introducing its principles and manifestos. But it is also a result of the failure of the “European moderation” policy to resolve social, security and economic problems in the Eurozone and the European Union. In such a situation, European citizens find that the solutions offered by the moderate left parties didn’t work in removing the existing crises in Europe. Obviously, in this situation “crossing the traditional parties” would become a general demand in the West. Under such circumstances, Merkel’s and other European leaders’ warnings about the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe simply means the inability of the Eurozone authorities in preventing the Right-extremism in the West.
These concerns remain at the Munich Security Conference. As Reuters reported, The defense ministers of Germany and France pledged to redouble their military and foreign policy cooperation efforts on Friday, inviting other European countries to participate if they felt ready to do so.
In a speech to the Munich Security Conference, German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen said Europe’s countries would not be able to respond nimbly enough to global challenges if they were stymied by the need to decide joint foreign policy approaches unanimously.
“Europe has to up its pace in the face of global challenges from terrorism, poverty and climate change,” she said. “Those who want to must be able to advance without being blocked by individual countries.”
Her French counterpart Florence Parly said any such deepened cooperation would be complementary to the NATO alliance, which itself was based on the principle that members contributed differently depending on their capacities.
“The reality has always been that some countries are by choice more integrated and more able to act than others,” she said.
The push comes as Germany’s political class reluctantly concedes it must play a larger security role to match its economic pre-eminence in Europe, amid concerns that the European Union is unable to respond effectively to security concerns beyond its eastern and southern borders.
But in their deal for another four years of a “grand coalition” government, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats have agreed to boost spending on the armed forces after years of post-Cold War decline.
The deal, which must still be ratified by the Social Democrat membership, comes as Germany reluctantly takes on the role of the continent’s pre-eminent political power-broker, a role generations of post-war politicians have shied away from.
Days after U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated President Donald Trump’s demand that European countries spend more on their militaries, Von der Leyen pledged to spend more on its military and the United Nations, but called in return for other countries not to turn away from mulitlateralism.
The pledges come as the EU seeks a new basis on which to cooperate with Britain, traditionally one of the continent’s leading security players, after its vote to leave the EU.
Earlier on Friday, the leaders of the three countries’ security services said close security cooperation in areas like terrorism, illegal migration, proliferation and cyber attacks, must continue after Britain’s departure.
“Cooperation between European intelligence agencies combined with the values of liberal democracy is indispensable, especially against a background of diverse foreign and security challenges,” they said.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect
This year’s election calendar released by OSCE showcases a broad display of future presidential, parliamentary and general elections with hefty political subjecthoods which have the potential of transforming in their entirety particularly the European Union, the African Union and the Latin American sub-continent. A wide sample of these countries welcoming elections are currently facing a breadth of challenges in terms of the level of transparency in their election processes. To this end, election observation campaigns conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for American States (OAS), the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the National Democratic Institute, Carter Center and even youth organisations such as AEGEE and Silba are of paramount importance in safeguarding the incorruptibility of election proceedings in fraudulent and what cannot be seen with the naked eye type of fraudulent political systems, making sure elections unfold abiding national legislation and international standards.
What exactly does an election observation mission supposed to accomplish?
An election monitoring mission consists of operational experts and analysts who are all part of a core team and are conducting their assignments for a period of time varying between 8 and 12 weeks. Aside from the core team experts and analysts, there can be short-term or long-term observers and seconded observers or funded observers. Joining them, there is usually a massive local support staff acting as interpreters and intermediaries. Generally, an election observer does not interfere with the process, but merely takes informative notes. With this in mind, it is imperative of the observer to make sure there isn’t any meddling with votes at polling stations by parties and individual candidates; that the people facilitating the election process are picked according to fair and rigorous benchmarks; that these same people can be held accountable for the final results and that, at the end of the day, the election system put in place by the national and local authorities is solid from both a physical and logical standpoint. Oftentimes, particularly in emerging democracies, the election monitoring process goes beyond the actual process of voting by extending to campaign monitoring.
In practical terms, the average election observer needs to abide by certain guidelines for a smooth and standardised monitoring process. Of course, these rules can vary slightly, depending on the sending institution. Typically, once the election observer has landed in the country awaiting elections, their first two days are normally filled with seminars on the electoral system of the country and on the electoral law. Meetings with candidates from the opposition are sometimes organised by the electoral commission. Talking to ordinary voters from builders to cleaners, from artists to businesspeople is another way through which an election observer can get a sense of what social classes pledged their allegiances to what candidates. After two days in training and the one day testing political preferences on the ground, election day begins. Since the early bird gets the worm, polling stations open at least two hours earlier than the work day starts, at around 7am. Throughout the day, observers ask voters whether they feel they need to complain about anything and whether they were asked to identify themselves when voting. Other details such as the polling stations opening on time are very much within the scope of investigation for election monitors. Observers visit both urban voting centres and rural ones. In the afternoon, counting begins with observers carefully watching the volunteers from at least 3 metres away. At the end of the day, observers go back to their hotels and begin filling in their initial questionnaires with their immediate reactions on the whole voting process. In a few weeks time, a detailed report would be issued in cooperation with all the other election observers deployed in various regions of the country and under the supervision of the mission coordinators.
Why are these upcoming elections particularly challenging to monitor?
Talks of potential Russian interference into the U.S. elections have led to full-on FBI investigations. Moreover, the idea of Russian interference in the Brexit vote is slowly creeping into the British political discourse. Therefore, it does not take a quantum physicist to see a pattern here. Hacking the voting mechanism is yet another not-so-classic conundrum election observers are facing. We’re in the midst of election hacking at the cognitive level in the form of influence operations, doxing and propaganda. But, even more disturbingly, we’re helpless witnesses to interference at the technical level as well. Removing opposition’s website from the Internet through DDOS attacks to downright political web-hacking in Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to show as winner a far-right candidate are only some of the ways which present an unprecedented political savviness and sophistication directed at the tampering of the election machinery. Even in a country such as the U.S. (or Sweden – their elections being held September of this year) where there is a great deal of control over the physical vote, there is not much election monitoring can do to enhance the transparency of it all when interference occurs by way of the cyber domain affecting palpable election-related infrastructure.
Sketching ideational terrains seems like a fruitful exercise in imagining worst-case scenarios which call for the design of a comprehensive pre-emptive approach for election fraud. But how do you prevent election fraud? Sometimes, the election observer needs to come to terms with the fact that they are merely a reporter, a pawn which notwithstanding the action of finding oneself in the middle of it all, can generally use only its hindsight perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is good enough when employed to draft comprehensive electoral reports, making a difference between the blurry lines of legitimate and illegitimate political and electoral systems.
Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?
In what looks set to become the ‘dieselgate’ of the tobacco industry, a French anti-smoking organization has filed a lawsuit against four major tobacco brands for knowingly selling cigarettes with tar and nicotine levels that were between 2 and 10 times higher than what was indicated on the packs. Because the firms had manipulated the testing process, smokers who thought they were smoking a pack a day were in fact lighting up the equivalent of up to 10, significantly raising their risk for lung cancer and other diseases.
According to the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT), cigarettes sold by the four companies have small holes in the filter that ventilate smoke inhaled under test conditions. But when smoked by a person, the holes compress due to pressure from the lips and fingers, causing the smoker to inhale higher levels of tar and nicotine. According to the lawsuit, the irregularity “tricks smokers because they are unaware of the degree of risk they are taking.”
It was only the most recent example of what appears to be a deeply entrenched propensity for malfeasance in the tobacco industry. And unfortunately, regulatory authorities across Europe still appear unprepared to just say no to big tobacco.
Earlier this month, for instance, Public Health England published a report which shines a positive light on “tobacco heating products” and indicates that electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks. Unsurprisingly, the UK report has been welcomed by big tobacco, with British American Tobacco praising the clear-sightedness of Public Health England.
Meanwhile, on an EU-wide level, lawmakers are cooperating too closely for comfort with tobacco industry executives in their efforts to craft new cigarette tracking rules for the bloc.
The new rules are part of a campaign to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, a problem that is particularly insidious in Europe and is often attributed to the tobacco industry’s own efforts to stiff the taxman. According to the WHO, the illicit cigarette market makes up between 6-10% of the total market, and Europe ranks first worldwide in terms of the number of seized cigarettes. According to studies, tobacco smuggling is also estimated to cost national and EU budgets more than €10 billion each year in lost public revenue and is a significant source of cash for organized crime. Not surprisingly, cheap availability of illegally traded cigarettes is also a major cause of persistently high smoking rates in the bloc.
To help curtail cigarette smuggling and set best practices in the fight against the tobacco epidemic, the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The first protocol to the FCTC, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, was adopted in 2012 and later ratified by the EU. Among other criteria, the Protocol requires all cigarette packs to be marked with unique identifiers to ensure they can be tracked and traced, thereby making smuggling more difficult.
Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry has come up with its own candidates to meet track and trace requirements, notably Codentify, a system developed by PMI. From 2005 through 2016, PMI used Codentify as part of an anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. But the agreement was subject to withering criticism from the WHO and other stakeholders for going against the Protocol, which requires the EU and other parties to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in anti-smuggling efforts.
The EU-PMI agreement expired in 2016 and any hopes of reviving it collapsed after the European Parliament, at loggerheads with the Commission, overwhelmingly voted against a new deal and decided to ratify the WHO’s Protocol instead. Codentify has since been sold to the French firm Impala and was rebranded as Inexto – which critics say is nothing but a front company for PMI since its leadership is made out of former PMI executives. Nonetheless, due to lack of stringency in the EU’s draft track and trace proposal, there is still a chance that Inexto may play a role in any new track and trace system, sidelining efforts to set up a system that is completely independent of the tobacco industry.
This could end up by seriously derailing the EU’s efforts to curb tobacco smuggling, given the industry’s history of active involvement in covertly propping up the black market for cigarettes. In 2004, PMI paid $1.25 billion to the EU to settle claims that it was complicit in tobacco smuggling. As part of the settlement, PMI agreed to issue an annual report about tobacco smuggling in the EU, a report that independent researchers found “served the interests of PMI over those of the EU and its member states.”
Given the industry’s sordid history of efforts to prop up the illicit tobacco trade, it’s little surprise that critics are still dissatisfied with the current version of the EU’s track and trace proposal.
Now, the CNCT’s lawsuit against four major tobacco firms gives all the more reason to take a harder line against the industry. After all, if big tobacco can’t even be honest with authorities about the real levels of chemicals in their own products, what makes lawmakers think that they can play a viable role in any effort to quell the illegal cigarette trade – one that directly benefits the industry?
Later this month, the European Parliament will have a new chance to show they’re ready to get tough on tobacco, when they vote on the pending proposal for an EU-wide track and trace system. French MEP Younous Omarjee has already filed a motion against the system due to its incompatibility with the letter of the WHO. Perhaps a ‘dieselgate’ for the tobacco industry might be just the catalyst they need to finally say no to PMI and its co-conspirators.
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