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Reductionism, Modernity and Nihilism in Western Civilization: Should Aristotle be Resurrected?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Cogito, ergo sum” (Descartes)

But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (From Pascal’s Pensèes, 346)

There is an unfortunate tendency within our hubristic modern times to reduce and explain a higher reality by a lower one. Philosophically, it goes by the name of Reductionism. For example, the Resurrection of Christ will be explained away scientifically or positivistically by the phenomenon of springtime and its attendant rabbits, flowers, eggs and the general resurrection of nature, thus transforming a spiritual reality into a material one. The cart has been placed before the horse, when the proper approach ought to be that those natural phenomena in springtime point to, or are a symbol, a metaphor, if you will, of a transcendent spiritual reality.

Indeed, great errors as well as great advances have been made during the formative years of the birth of early modern science. Since the 17th century, right after the Renaissance and beginning with Copernicus and Galileo, many significant novelties make their way in the world by indiscriminate criticism of what had gone before. The new is praised without measure, the old is debunked, and the claimed relevance of new discoveries is extended analogously without careful argument into ever more areas. Thus it was in the seventeenth century: this is the heart of Pascal’s complaint against the narrowness of Descartes’ mathematical-geometrical definition of reality.

In one of his last lectures before his death eight years ago titled “The Mind and its Now” Stanley Jake, a leading philosopher of Science had this to say about the mistake of Descartes’ “cogito”: “There can be no active mind without its sensing its existence in the moment called now. The realization of this is the driving force of modern philosophy from Descartes’ cogito on. Without suspecting that the cogito, a personal reflective act, cannot be a starting point of knowledge, he took it for such. He failed to realize that it is not possible to know without knowing something. One tries in vain to cogitate without cogitating about something. And that something has to be a thing before one is cogitating though never in separation from a thing.”

Perhaps no greater mistake was made than in the matter of Aristotle. Early on it was clear that an Aristotelian account of physics or the heavens was no longer adequate. Naturally enough, this led to decreasing study of the Aristotelian texts, and with time to a decreasing sense of how and why Aristotle had framed central questions such as the nature of causation and teleology. We are on the way to a certain insistence in modern science that the proper study of science is the natural order, and not anything “behind” it, God, metaphysics, or finality. That is, we are on the way to a “surface” understanding of what the natural order is.

Since the credibility of his physics had been damaged, an assumption against Aristotle’s thought in general grew in scientific circles. Many thought Aristotle’s ideas about causality were implicated in the inadequacy of his physics. An argument of the present essay is that Aristotle’s thought about causation, especially final causality, articulated issues that will not go away. Though his thought has been largely ignored in recent centuries, and is not the last word, it is of permanent significance and should not have been jettisoned with more problematic aspects of his thinking during the years of the origin of modern science. Here again, the baby was thrown out with the dirty water.

Aristotle’s History of Animals provides a good entrance to his thought. Here he distinguished between simple and composite parts. Simple or homogeneous parts have a uniform nature: flesh is composed of pieces of flesh. Composite or heterogeneous parts do not have a uniform nature: a hand is not made of hands, but of a variety of parts. So it is for the entire animal. The interesting question is how an animal, once formed, is to be viewed. Aristotle’s preference was first to describe the completely formed animal (in today’s terminology, synchronically), and then the historical process by which the animal had been formed (in today’s terminology, ontogenesis or diachronically). This preference articulated his insight that by definition it was only the fully formed animal that expressed everything that the animal could be, that is, that defined the animal. Hence his emphasis on final causality, which looks to the end (telos) of whatever is to be defined.

For most biologists or zoologists today this is backwards. They commonly think of the parts as what is most basic to an animal, and are reluctant to speak at the level of the organism, let alone of an organic form which reveals purpose. To understand is to take apart, not to see the whole. To wit, Eisnstein’s famous statement: our era is characterized by perfections of means and confusion of goals. This is the perspective famously criticized by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis dreamed of “a ‘regenerate science’ of the future that would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.” To this regeneration one can add a science that would also remember history and origins. Not for nothing Vico dubbed his philosophy of history a new science.

Here debate about the criteria for defining the origins of humanity has centered on consciousness as a sure index of the appearance of man. There are no graves in the animal world, only humans construct them. But graves are an indication that humans have understood that they will die, are conscious of their finiteness. The idea of transcendence has appeared: “It is not necessarily with the use of tools that human existence begins, but rather with metaphysics.” The higher animals can use tools as it has been observed lately, but only man can transcend himself. This was already Pascal’s point in his famous “man is a thinking reed” passage (Pensées, 346): “But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

To anyone who knows anything at all about Giambattista Vico’s The New Science (1725), Pascal’s and the paleontologists’ observations on burial of the dead, are not new. Vico’s views have become the base from which Robert Pogue Harrison has launched a contemporary reflection on burial of the dead, and the relation of the dead to the living. Harrison is essentially in agreement with the paleontologists: humanity “is a way of being mortal and relating to the dead. To be human means above all to bury.” Religion and the idea of a transcendent reality are grounded in the burial of the dead which points to it. Humans have about them a “history-making mortality,” the aboriginal sign of which is the grave marker.

All this is very much in agreement with a line of thought developed by John Lukacs, who has been arguing throughout a series of books that scientific materialism has it completely backwards. It is not matter that produces mind, but human consciousness that shapes everything. It is nonsense to talk about humans as anything but at the center of reality, for it is humans who are conscious and can speak of centers. And humans have no choice as conscious beings other than to be at the center. This is the deep significance of Aristotle’s “anthropomorphism”: his option to privilege human experience epistemically.

In showing the many limitations of Darwinism, Lukacs goes further than some of the paleontologists, arguing for the incoherence of the application of the idea of evolution ever further backwards in time, one result of which has been the claim that humans existed as much as a million years ago. The hidden assumption here is the materialist one that matter preceded human mind, mind only gradually appearing. Lukacs has no patience with this “dribs and drabs” theory, and rejects the very idea of a “pre-historic” man. Humans are defined by the fact that they are historic or conscious beings, beings defined by historicity, conscious beings oriented in time. They have no pre-history, only history.

From such materials Michael Schulz has brilliantly constructed a counter-cultural position. Schulz argues that the very terminology “cosmos” or “universe” makes no sense other than as expressed by a human. It is indeed true that the earth is a minor planet, and that in one sense the universe has no center. But statements such as these are not possible without the man who makes them. In this sense, as the surveyor of reality, man is its center. As Albert Einstein and Henri Poincaré insisted, the only time we have is our time. The very notion of history must be human-centered.

In both Vico’s and Lukac’s provocative formulation, “We did not create the universe. But the universe is our invention” and it has a history and a development and a purpose. The universe’s unity appears to, and in some sense depends on, a conscious perceiver. Berkeley adds to this the notion that without a perceiver there is no existence either. Schulz in some respects goes further than Lukacs the historian. He asserts that “One does not become more objective by attempting to gain a neutral perspective from which to view finitude in abstraction from the human knower, which in any event is epistemologically impossible. If the cosmos can be grasped as cosmos only in man, and if independently from man it does not even exist (at least as cosmos), then the most objective view of the world is given within the horizon of man’s orientation to God . . . . If the ultimate meaning of the essence of the cosmos is dependent upon the reality of man, then the cosmos with man is qualitatively more than it is without him.”

Only by standing in a relation with God can man talk of such things as the unity of the world, of categories such as infinity and finiteness. Perhaps it is time to revive the ancient medieval idea of man as microcosm. That is, there are two further, related, considerations: (1) what the unity of the universe is correlative to is an embodied consciousness—and, as far as we know, man is the thing that fulfills that role; (2) this is not just phenomenological, but ontological. This I take it, was the intuition expressed in the idea of man as microcosm. Schulz develops the question of the early history of humans somewhat differently than does Lukacs. For Schulz, who accepts evolutionary theory, the question is not so much whether we may properly speak of human beings where there is no human consciousness, but the way in which history articulates all that it is to be human. He writes that “Evolution . . . testifies to the anthropocentric character of the cosmos . . . evolutionary development ends up with ever more complex structures. The more the complexity grows, the more we are able to distinguish between an interior and an exterior in a living being, and the more the form of subjectivity takes shape.”

In sum, as Vico points out in New Science, though humans initially may not have appeared with a high degree of consciousness nor much historical sense, they are “not bound up with the things of this world in an absolute way like the animals. Man is . . . a creature of transcendence; this creature is the window through which the cosmos ‘sees’ its origin.

To sum up, a number of ancient thinkers observed that there is a fit between nature and consciousness. This valuable observation did not lead to an anthropocentric view of the world in the modern sense that human consciousness is a pre-condition for knowledge; but the mixed blessing of the modern “turn to the subject” now allows us to see the centrality of human consciousness in organizing the world. It is not that there is no organization without human consciousness, that the universe is not already a universe before we know it, one that we are “fit” to understand, but that human consciousness is apparently the only vehicle by which such organization can be discovered. This makes humans central to the very idea that there is a universe, and themselves a kind of microcosm. Among the forms of organization and pattern they can discover is the “immanent teleology” of heterogeneous beings, already known to Aristotle, but largely disparaged in the years of the birth of modern science, along with serious debasement of the understanding of causation from being a category of analysis to being one of temporal relation.

Though Aristotle is not the last word on any of these issues, and his discoveries have to be expanded to give greater consideration to the place of the relations of things both to each other and to God, the contemporary rediscovery of certain categories of purpose—in particularly in biology—represents a great advance on the mechanistic world we have inherited from the age of Descartes. Purpose is not to be viewed as simply something extrinsic to individual living things, but as also something intrinsic to them, a description of their capacity for self-maintenance as wholes. What is now needed is a synthesis that overcomes the dichotomy “intrinsic/extrinsic” to show that all heterogeneous living beings have not just an intrinsic and extrinsic ordering, but an order that is at once both. This is mirrored in Vico’s concept of Providence which is both transcendent, i.e., beyond space and time, and at the same time immanent within history.

Hence, with his insistence on consciousness and history as intrinsic to man’s humanity and even to the point of it all of the cosmos (its logos), Vico is the first philosopher and humanist to detect the enormity of Descartes’s blunder at the origins of modern philosophy, and to suggest a possible remedy. Three hundred years or so later the Vichian diagnosis of that error remains valid; unfortunately, the prognosis remains to be applied and those who claim that Vico’s new science has nothing to do with history and wish to claim that his science is based either Plato’s forms or Descartes’s abstract mathematical cogito as the origins of all that is new and progressive and modern are not part of the solution but very much part of the problem.

N.B. This article appeared in Ovi magazine on 28 April 2011. It was relevant then, it is even more relevant now.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

As inequality grows, the UN fights for a fairer world

MD Staff

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The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the UN’s blueprint for a better and more sustainable future for all – calls for a reduction in inequality between and within countries. Nevertheless, global inequality is increasing. So what can be done?

Inequality is an “entrenched imbalance”

The question of inequality was raised several times by the UN in January: speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, UN chief António Guterres pointed out that, while technological progress and globalization have led to “fantastic improvements” in many areas, they have also increased inequality and marginalized millions.

And, in her annual letter, Lise Kingo, CEO of the UN Global Compact, which supports private sector efforts to do business responsibly, noted that, in 2018, we saw “a small group of individuals are getting exponentially richer as billions are left behind in poverty.”

Inequality is not only rising, it is also an “entrenched imbalance,” according to Richard Kozul-Wright, a globalization expert and Director with the Trade and Development agency UNCTAD.

In an interview with UN News, which you can listen to here, Mr. Kozul-Wright said that notionally high employment rates in many economies mask the fact that wages and working conditions are not improving, and that whilst wages have been stagnant for a decade, dividends on shareholdings have been recovering, benefiting financial asset holders. His remarks came in the wake of the January launch of the 2019 World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report which showed uneven growth (both between and within countries) that is often failing to reach where it is most needed.

Will AI take away our jobs, or transform them?

The beginning of 2019 saw a focus on the role of technology on the world of work, and the impact it is having on inequality. The International Labour Organization (ILO) launched a landmark report in January: the Global Commission on the Future of Work. This study concluded that technological innovations provide “countless opportunities” for workers, but warned that, if these technologies are not deployed as part of a human-centred agenda based on investing in people, work institutions and decent, sustainable employment, we run the risk of “sleepwalking into a world that widens existing inequalities and uncertainties.”

One of the key technological innovations mentioned in the report, one that garners significant media attention, is artificial intelligence (AI). A report from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), published at the tail-end of January, noted a “quantum leap” in AI-related patents, suggesting that AI could soon “revolutionize all areas of daily life beyond the tech world.”

AI inspires as much fear as excitement, evoking  a dystopian world in which more and more work is carried out by machines, with society split between a tiny super-rich elite and the rest, an unemployable mass of people with no prospect of finding work.

Kriti Sharma doesn’t see things that way. She has been recognized by the UN as a Young Leader For Sustainable Development Goals, in recognition of her work to ensure that AI helps to create a better, fairer world, through her AI For Good organization, and her role in the Sage Future Makers Lab, which was set up to equip young people around the world with hands-on learning for entering a career in Artificial Intelligence.

Speaking to UN News, Ms. Sharma acknowledged that people who live in countries which are on the wrong side of the digital divide (with less access to data) will be at a disadvantage, and pointed to studies that show a gender divide is looming, with women twice as likely to lose their jobs to automation, because of the kind of work they are involved in: “We need to make sure that we give people enough opportunities to reskill themselves, otherwise we end up creating more inequality that we had before.”

However, she believes that one of the biggest risks is failing to embrace this technology, and not equipping people with the skills to use it to solve global problems. Ms. Sharma laid out three ways to help ensure that AI brings about a fairer world.

First of all, it is important that a diverse group of people from many backgrounds are creating this technology, people who “understand society, policy-makers.” The second point is to ensure that AI is being used to solve the “right problems,” such as accelerating the Sustainable Development Goals, by diverting energy, research and funding into this area. And, lastly, international standards must be agreed upon, to make sure that the technology we create is used in a way that is safe and ethical for the world.

No progress without international cooperation

So, what is the way out of the “entrenched imbalance” of inequality? For the UN, a greater emphasis on international cooperation is an important part of the solution. The 2019 World Economic Situation and Prospects report concludes that, at a global level, a “cooperative and long-term strategy for global policy” is the way towards progress in reducing income inequality, and warns that a “withdrawal from multilateralism will pose further setbacks for those already being left behind.”

As the Secretary-General told the audience in Davos, a coordinated and global response is the only way to fight inequality, because “we need to work together. There is no way we can do isolated responses to the problems we face, they are all interlinked.”

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New Social Compact

Sexual Diversity in Hindi Cinema: A Beginning

Aditi Aryal

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Bollywood, or as the more politically correct call it the “Hindi Film Industry”, released last week what is advocated as the first commercial film to portray love between two women characters in ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ (When I Saw a Girl I Felt That Way). A sterner breakthrough was in1996 when ‘Fire’, a path-breaking mainstream film boldly represented same-sex love between two women worn-out from their conjugal lives to find companionship in one another. Gatekeepers of Indian tradition and culture vandalized theatres and ran smear-campaigns against the film; it was way ahead of its time. The later Hindi films did little justice to aptly represent diversity by only typecasting characters to fit into the stereotypes of queer men as effeminate and reducing cross-dressers to a mere punch line.

The misrepresentations and badly written jokes were unobjectionable and continued to amuse the audience and homosexuality was typecast into a box of fallacies.  Homophobia persisted, if not strengthened, as influential politicians and famous yoga gurus condemned homosexuality as immoral and abnormal but treatable disease. Some went so far as to call it a Western import, an idea that was flowed in to corrupt the Indian purity. The retrograde legal standing on homosexuality as an unnatural activity remained a hurdle to depict properly the gravity of the issue in mainstream cinema. Yet, the fact remains that these films only reflected homophobia that truly exist in the society.

Following the decriminalization of homosexuality in India in September 2018, a six months later about woman struggling to come out to her family is exceptional. The film plays safe within the realm of a conventional narrative without going overboard. Not pushing the envelope to advocate for a radical change in thoughts and action, the film simply speaks for acceptance. But does it really get its message across?

Perhaps not. The movie’s representation of homosexuality is washed out akin to the superficial dealing of homosexuality in India. It does not even do as much as show some physical intimacy between the main leads. It revolves around the obsolete narrative of a protective family that is oppressive to protect the woman. It shows a self-sacrificing situation where she is ready to marry a man only because she needs to put her family first, even before herself.

By doing this, the film is toying into a genre of a submissive female, a storyline that has always been exploited by Indian films. The act of women as submissive to the demands of the family by suppressing their desires to save the honor which lies in their character is outdated. For a film woke enough to speak about homosexuality openly, these outdated narratives were unnecessary as they tend to reinforce the norms that need to be eradicated from Indian cinema.

It goes without saying that Indian content is consumed across a huge geographical region, covering the whole of South Asia and also across Indian communities all over the world. A form of cultural hegemony has been established as local content is dominated by Indian content, thwarting native culture in the process. For the more diverse and liberal audience that consume these films it is concerning whether such things will also be internalized in more open societies.

However, delving into a topic that is untouched but essential in today’s time, it is one baby step that will gauge the standing of the society on homosexuality. It is not to say that the issue has gained much acceptance largely. Sexual minorities in India continue to be marginalized and their struggles to fit as ordinary or to be treated equally into the society is crushing. Progressive films are one way to get on board to bring the required change.

Nevertheless, it is only with slight trepidation that filmmakers can proceed to depict ‘bold’ issues on screen. The presence of a paternalistically stringent censor board has always been a hurdle to pass. Fringe groups backed by strong political connections are almost at the ready to vandalize a film set and put a bounty on the director and actors for distorting Indian culture.

23 years after the fate of ‘Fire’, little has changed about acceptance – both in cinema and society. More progressive films in the mainstream might be a long way ahead in India, especially since the formula of success is doused in skewed gender representations. However, one can only hope for stronger scripts that stir the audience, incite dialogue, and then bring the change we have always wanted to see.

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Human trafficking cases hit a 13-year record high

MD Staff

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The latest Global Report On Trafficking In Persons, released on Tuesday by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at UN headquarters in New York, shows a record-high number of cases detected during 2016, but also the largest recorded conviction rate of traffickers.

“The report was undertaken for a simple reason: if we want to succeed in confronting human trafficking in all its manifestations, we must better understand its scope and structure,” said Yury Fedotov, UNODC’s Executive Director as he presented the report in New York. “We need to appreciate where human trafficking is happening, who are its victims and who is perpetrating this crime.”

According to the latest figures compiled by UNODC, the record conviction and detection rates could either be a sign that countries have strengthened their capacity to identify victims – such as through specific legislation, better coordination among law enforcement entities, and improved victim protection services – or, that the number of actual instances of trafficking has increased.

While in 2003 fewer than 20,000 cases had been recorded, the number of cases recorded in 2016 had jumped to over 25,000.

UNODC Main forms of exploitation and profiles of detected victims, by sub-regions, 2016 (or most recent)

Despite improvements in data collection, impunity prevails

Over the last decade, the capacity of national authorities to track and assess patterns and flows of human trafficking has improved in many parts of the world. UNODC’s report notes that this is also due to a specific focus of the international community in developing standards for data collection. In 2009, only 26 countries had an institution which systematically collected and disseminated data on trafficking cases, while by 2018, the number had risen to 65.

However, many countries in Africa and Asia continue to have low conviction rates, and at the same time detect fewer victims which, UNODC stresses, “does not necessarily mean that traffickers are not active”.

In fact, the report shows that victims trafficked from areas of the world with low detection/conviction rates are found in large numbers in other areas of the world, suggesting that a high degree of impunity prevails in these low-reporting regions.

“This impunity could serve as an incentive to carry out more trafficking,” the report warns.

Women and girls remain a major target

“Traffickers the world over continue to target women and girls,” wrote Executive Director Fedotov, in the report’s preface. ‘The vast majority of detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and 35 per cent of those trafficked for forced labour are female.”

The report notes “considerable regional differences in the sex and age profiles of detected trafficking victims.” In West Africa, most of the detected victims are children, both boys and girls, while in South Asia, victims are equally reported to be men, women and children. In Central Asia, a larger share of adult men is detected compared to other regions, while in Central America and the Caribbean, more girls are recorded.

Sexual exploitation, the top form of trafficking

Most of the victims detected globally are trafficked for sexual exploitation, especially in the Americas, Europe, and East Asia and the Pacific. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, trafficking for forced labour is the most commonly detected form. In Central Asia and South Asia, trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation are equally prevalent,

Other forms of human trafficking include: girls forced into marriage, more commonly detected in South-East Asia; children for illegal adoption, more common in Central and South American countries; forced criminality, mainly reported in Western and Southern Europe; and organ removal, primarily detected in North Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe.

“Victims can be in restaurants, fisheries, brothels, farms, homes, and even organ trafficking and illegal adoption,” said Rani Hong, who survived child trafficking herself as she was taken from her family in India at age 7, submitted to intimidation, physical abuse and slavery, until she was sold for illegal adoption in Canada and later the United States.

“I was told by my witnesses that when I came into the United States, I was not able to walk because I had been locked in a small cage. This is what this industry is doing, and this is what happened to me.”

Many other forms, such as trafficking for exploitation in begging, or for the production of pornographic material, are reported in different parts of the world.

Armed conflict and displacement, a key driver of human trafficking

The report shows that armed conflicts can increase vulnerability to trafficking in different ways as areas with weak rule of law and lack of resources to respond to crime, provide traffickers with a fertile terrain to carry out their operations, preying on those who are desparately in need.

Armed groups and other criminals may take the opportunity to traffic victims – including children – for sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, armed combat and various forms of forced labour. This is the case for example in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, South-East Asia and elsewhere.

In some refugee camps in the Middle East, also, it has been documented that girls and young women have been ‘married off’ without their consent and subjected to sexual exploitation in neighbouring countries.

In addition, recruitment of children for use as armed combatants is widely documented. UNODC’s report notes that within conflict zones, armed groups can use trafficking as a strategy to assert territorial dominance, spread fear among civilians in the territories where they operate to keep the local population under control. They may also use women and girls as ‘sex slaves’ or force them into marriages to appeal to new potential male recruits.

The study shows that in all the conflicts examined for the report, forcibly displaced populations (refugees and internally displaced families) have been specifically targeted: from settlements of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, to Afghans and Rohingya fleeing conflict and persecution.

Notably, the risk faced by migrants and refugees travelling through conflict areas, such as Libya or parts of sub-Saharan Africa, is also well documented: in Libya, for example, militias control some detention centres for migrants and refugees and are coercing detained migrants and asylum seekers for different exploitative purposes.

“While we are far from ending impunity, we have made headway in the 15 years since the Protocol against Trafficking in Persons entered into force,” said UNODC’s chief Mr. Fedotov, as he noted that “nearly every country now has legislation in place criminalizing human trafficking”.

“The international community needs to accelerate progress to build capacities and cooperation, to stop human trafficking in conflict situations and in all our societies where this terrible crime continues to operate in the shadows,” he stated in the report’s preface.

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