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Working Under the Radar: The Stealth Alternative in Russia’s Foreign Policy

Ivan Timofeev

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The new cold war between Russia and the West is characterized by the absence of a clear ideological confrontation. This constitutes its fundamental difference from the era of bipolarity, when the Soviet Union and the United States were irreconcilable ideological enemies.

Both sides offered universal ideological doctrines to the world. Ideology served as an important source of foreign policy legitimacy and formed the basis for consolidating allies and spreading influence.

Today, the situation has changed. The West continues to rely on the liberal political theory. The ideological component remains strong in terms of pressuring Russia, although it is fairly outdated and needs major adaptations. Russia, however, is unable to come up with ideological alternatives comparable to the Soviet ones. All of this creates an illusion of postmodern rivalry with a mixture of pragmatism and populist simulation of meanings in the foreground. However, the real situation is different. The ideology of the new cold war is taking shape and will make itself felt. For Russia, much will depend on its choice of ideological strategy.

The sharp ideological division in relations between Russia and the West is the legacy of the “short 20th century.” It was then that Soviet Russia (and later the Soviet Union) began to define itself in opposition to the Western bourgeois environment, the source of an alien ideology and way of life, which must be contained and, ideally, converted into another faith. This never was the case in the imperial period. Russia competed with individual Western countries or coalitions. But, at the same time, it led other coalitions, was part of them or sought the neutrality of some to free its hands in war efforts with others. For several centuries, Russia skillfully avoided confrontation with the collective and consolidated West, while being part of the ideological divisions inside it. After the French Revolution and throughout the revolutionary 19th century, St. Petersburg acted as a consistent supporter and even leader of conservative policy. For Europe, Russia was a significant other, but managed to remain an integral part of European politics and diplomacy.

The situation changed dramatically following the 1917 October Revolution. As the only major power in which left radicals succeeded in seizing and subsequently concentrating power, Russia confidently claimed leadership of the international left. Its authority and soft power were extremely strong. This was facilitated by the fact that throughout the 20th century, Marxism remained the most powerful and one of the most influential political theories in the West and the world in general. However, European socialism evolved as capitalism adapted to the demands of the left, took on milder forms, and was eventually co-opted by the liberal-democratic model. The success of such co-optation in the post-war period dealt a heavy blow to the universalist ambitions of the Soviet Union, which was unlikely to follow the path of European socialism. The latter threatened the foundations of the Soviet regime as it suggested a genuine alternative, regular change of leaders and democracy. The end of Khrushchev’s “thaw” and Brezhnev’s conservative reversal clearly illuminated this trend. The Hungarian uprising and the Prague Spring undermined the authority of the Soviet Union and its leadership position among the left. In Asia, the Soviet Union ran into a major opponent in the person of Communist China. Mao came up with an alternative interpretation of Marxism, accused the USSR of imperialism and demonstrated a determination to use force. In 1969, the Soviet army defeated Chinese troops on Damansky Island. However, China exposed the ideological unity of the international left on the world arena as ephemeral, and this was a much harder blow to the Soviet Union. On the ideological level, the falling out with China and the loss of authority in Eastern Europe did more damage to the Soviet Union than the US efforts to promote liberal values. Beginning in the 1970s, Soviet socialism started experiencing prolonged death throes, which intensified as economic administration deteriorated, the development gap widened and the exhausting arms race took its toll. Trust in socialism among the Soviet elite was shaken as well. Inside the country, ideology was increasingly becoming an imitation of itself, resulting in an explosive mixture of cynicism and frustration.

Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to alter this disastrous trajectory. He tried to end the confrontation with the West, substantially modernize the Soviet socialist project and bring it closer to European socialism, achieve convergence with Western Europe within the framework of the common European home concept, and, thus, create space to tackle the most pressing internal issues. By 1988, Gorbachev had managed to achieve some key goals, such as exiting the Cold War without suffering defeat, ending the arms race, maintaining equality in relations with the West, launching the modernization of the socialist system and gaining immense moral authority. However, already in 1989 all these necessary but belated measures let off a cumulative mass of contradictions that had built up over years. The collapse of the socialist bloc and the USSR itself was a totally unexpected disaster, which was swift and irreversible. It is not surprising that the West won a convincing victory. But the victory was over the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, not the socialist project or the left idea as such.

Following the Cold War, Russia spent a long time flailing in search of a new identity and ideology. Interestingly, the positions of the liberals were fairly weak both in Russia and all the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Nationalism was consistently gaining ground across the vast post-communist space. In Central and Eastern Europe, it fit well with the new democratic institutions and the common course toward integration with the EU and NATO. However, in the post-Soviet space, it took on a starkly ethnic nature and was accompanied by the degradation of institutions. In many cases, Russia was portrayed as part of a “dark chapter” in national histories, and Russophobia became a convenient tool for national consolidation.

Developments in Russia followed the nationalist trend in general. Liberalism was quickly defeated here. It was torpedoed by a weak social base, unsuccessful reforms, severe economic crisis and an overall disappointment in ideological prescriptions as such. On the contrary, nationalism proved to be a convenient alternative for unifying a frustrated and disparate society. It relied on patriotism, consolidation around common threats to security, emphasis on continuity with both the Soviet and imperial history, an end to denying the Soviet past, and an independent foreign policy. The leadership of Vladimir Putin, who personified the new political course, played an important role. The lost sense of dignity returned to Russian society. It began to acquire a new national identity.

Seemingly, all this brought Russia back into the tradition of the imperial era, when the country played an independent role, but always was a systemic “Western” player. This logic also seemed to underlie Russia’s massive support for the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the pushback (along with Germany and France) against the US invasion of Iraq. Russia regained its space for foreign policy maneuvering and was no longer constrained by a universalist ideology.

However, unlike the imperial era, the West itself retained both military-political and ideological consolidation. As soon as Moscow’s foreign policy activities crossed the “red lines,” all the power of Western ideology concentrated on Russia once again. Only this time around, there is no global alternative on our side. We are forced to play the West no longer on the global field, but our own one, contrasting liberal universalism with our own nationalism. This is an extremely risky game, because the nationalism of a single country will never become global. It can succeed in beating liberalism on its own field, but this will only reduce the game to a draw and provide no guarantees against a new game at the worst time for the country at that. Russia entered a new cold war with the ambitions of the USSR, but without its power, ideology, or authority it enjoyed in its better years.

What are the alternatives? The first is to return to the status quo of the conventional pre-Munich period. The problem is that a tactical retreat here may well turn into a landslide loss of ground as it happened in the early 1990s. Especially if such a maneuver coincides with the aggravation of domestic problems.

The second alternative is an attempt to build one’s own global alternative. It is also an undesirable option given the obvious inability at this stage to back up a global ideology with an effective economy, appealing way of life or other important elements. The attempt to play on the same field with Western liberalism will lead to an even greater depletion of resources.

Finally, there is the third alternative which I would call the “stealth alternative.” By this I mean Russia gradually disappearing from the Western radars as a threat, while it accumulates resources, builds regional integration projects in Eurasia, expands its participation in international organizations and increases its role in resolving global issues. This approach implies preserving and strengthening foreign policy positions along with a qualitative change in the language of communication with the West and the outside world in general. The language and the narrative of our foreign policy will play the key role. It is time for us to quit constantly complaining about the treachery of the West, and stop dwelling on who cheated us and how in the 1990s. The West is unlikely to have any compunctions. However, such rhetoric creates a depressive impression outside the Western world. Threats must be countered, but one should not obsess over them. We need a language of opportunities that we see for ourselves in the world, and which we want to offer the world. Fortunately, Russia has something to work with in this area.

First published in Valdai Discussion Club

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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It Is Crucial to Watch Changes among the Russian Elites

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Georgia’s and to a large extent any other post-Soviet state’s foreign policy depends on what happens in/to Russia.

Problems in the Russian economy might be causing reverberations in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etc., but it still is not a long-term problem. What should matter more fundamentally to us are internal developments within the Russian ruling class, changes in the government, struggle among powerful groupings, and relations between the civil and military branches.

In other words, we need to pay closer attention to the Russian elites which govern the country and therefore control the country’s foreign policy. This is important since Russia’s internal situation often has a bearing on foreign policy, and that is where it matters to us.

To be sure, watching developments in a country’s ruling elites is crucial for almost every modern state which is geopolitically active. But with Russia, this is even more important as the political power in the country does not derive from the people as in the European democracies, but rather from powerful security and military agencies which enable the central government in Moscow to control efficiently large swathes of territories, usually of unfriendly geographic conditions.

The way modern Russian elites operate is very similar to the way how Soviet and imperial (Romanov) governments worked. Quite surprisingly, in all the cases Russian elites have been always perceptible of changing economic or geopolitical situation inside or outside the country.

It is often believed that a ruler, again whether during the imperial or Soviet times, wielded ultimate power over the fate of the population and the governing elites. The same notion works for Vladimir Putin. Westerners often portray him as a sole ruler to all the affairs Russian and non-Russian and a major voice in what should be done. True, the incumbent president is powerful, but he gained this authority more as a balancer among several powerful groups of interests such as military, economic, security, cultural and numerous smaller factions inside each of these large groups.

To many, it might seem strange and hardly possible that the Russian president balances rather than rules, but generally a Russian ruler, despite the historically autocratic models of government, always had to pay attention to changing winds among the country’s elites. In the beginning, if all goes badly, the elites might be silent for the fear of oppression, but slowly and steadily they would always try to influence the government. If this did not work, the Russian elites would not hesitate to abandon the ‘sinking ship’.

Indeed, Russian history shows how powerful the Russian elites are and how vital their support for a government is.

Take the example of the Romanov dynasty before World War I. There was a big disenchantment with the way the government operated and once the Tsarist rule failed in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 and the WWI, the result was immediate: the elites turned their back on the Romanovs and the Empire ceased to exist in 1917.

Perhaps an even better example is how the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Though there were military problems, corruption as well as economic woes, it was still in the minds and hearts of the ruling Russian and Ukrainian, Georgian and other governing circles that the idea of a common state failed.

Nowadays, Russia is experiencing serious problems, ranging from economic and educational to purely geopolitical. There are occasional signs that the Russian elites are getting more worried about the future prospects of the country. Where before the Ukrainian crisis there was still hope of final European-Russian rapprochement and the idea that Russians had to model themselves on Europe, now this idea is dead.

Thus, along with social and foreign policy troubles, the Russians are also experiencing a purely spiritual problem. All point to the fact that there are too many issues which have accumulated during Putin’s rule, which, surely, will not be easy to change overnight, but there is a growing understanding that this chosen way is not getting Russia to a spectacularly good place in the world arena.

This brings us to the pivotal question of what Russia will be like after Putin. Is a change to the existing status quo possible? Many developments show that it is a plausible scenario. Considering how many problems have accumulated and considering how troublesome historically it has been for the Russian elites to act openly against the government, it is possible that once Putin is out, internal infighting among elite groups will take place. As a result, reverberations to foreign policy will follow. It is not about wishful thinking on the part of the western community, but rather the result of an analysis of Russian history and the Russian mentality. Almost always, changes at the top of the government, whether peaceful or otherwise, have an impact on the foreign and internal situation.

This is what should be meticulously studied by the Georgians.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Experts Campaign to Enlist Russia’s Commitment to Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Roscongress Foundation and Integration Expertise LLC (Intex) have signed an agreement on cooperation between their organizations to work collaboratively on the “Russia-Africa Shared Vision 2030” in preparation for the forthcoming Russia-Africa Summit. The agreement directed towards collecting and collating expert views for the project “Russia-Africa Shared Vision 2030” that could be incorporated into the final Summit Declaration.

A group of Russian experts plan to present a comprehensive document titled “Russia-Africa: Shared Vision 2030” at the forthcoming Russia-Africa Summit scheduled on 23–24 October in Sochi, southern Russian city.

Sochi, located in southern Russia, has an excellent heritage. In both winter and summer, the city hosts world-class global international events, such as the Olympics, the World Festival of Youth and Students, and many others. Sochi has one of the largest congress complexes in the country.

The key issue emerging from many policy experts is a fresh call on Russian Government to seriously review and change some of its policy approach currently implemented in Africa. It’s necessary to actively use combined forms of activities, an opportunity to look at the problems and the perspectives of entire Russian-African partnership and cooperation in different fields from the viewpoints of both Russian and African politicians, business executives, academic researchers, diplomats and social activists.

The Russia-Africa Summit will be the first platform to bring African leaders and business executive directors to interact and discuss economic cooperation of mutual interest with Russian counterparts, nearly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even as the historical event draws nearer and nearer with preparations underway, Russian officials at the Kremlin and Ministries, particularly Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and Economic Development and Industry, are still lip-tight over what African leaders have to expect from the Summit.

On the other hand, competition is rife on the continent, with many foreign countries interested in Africa. Resultantly, African leaders have been making rational and comparative choices that enormously support their long-term Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Roscongress Foundation along with the Integration Expertise information-analytical company said in a recent news brief that collaborative writing team of Russian and African experts have been working on a document that would outline the main areas for interaction between Russia and African countries.

An expert analysis, including macroeconomic reviews, and an analysis of political systems and inter-country development strategies would be used to reach conclusions about opportunities for cooperation, make recommendations, and define specific goals for the development of Russian-African relations in the period until 2030.

Anton Kobyakov, an Adviser to the Russian President, noted that “Russia has traditionally prioritized developing relations with African countries. Trade and economic relations as well as investment projects with the countries of the African continent offer enormous potential. Major Russian businesses view Africa as a promising place for investment.” 

Andrei Kemarsky, Director of the Department of Africa of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the work on the series of expert reports united by the common theme “Russia-Africa Shared Vision 2030” would make a significant contribution to intensifying Russian-African cooperation and would further promote Russia’s interests on the African continent.

“This project seems to be particularly relevant given the fact that the Russia-Africa Summit is scheduled to be held in Russia with the participation of heads of all African countries,” Kemarsky said.

In December 2017, Russian Export Center became a shareholder of Afreximbank. Russian Export Center is a specialized state development institution, created to provide any assistance, both financial and non-financial, for Russian exporters looking for widening their business abroad.

 “We are seriously looking at multifaceted interaction with Africa. Russia has a long historical connection with the continent since the time African states started gaining their independence. However, that has lost its momentum in early 90s. It is our major goal now to rebuild the trust and the connections with the African countries to make the strong foundation for further business cooperation,” the General Director of the REC, Andrei Slepnev, told me in an emailed interview.

“We’re witnessing a clear growing interest from the both sides to establish the new level of relationships which means it is a perfect timing to boost the economic agenda we have, create a platform to vocalize these ideas and draw a strong roadmap for the future,” stressed Slepnev.

“Given the growing interest in Africa, Russian organizations, both private and public, need a high-quality guide that will help to avoid at least some of the mistakes that have already been made and provide pointers on some of the most promising mechanisms for collaboration,” Roscongress Foundation CEO, Alexander Stuglev, said.

Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics said that Russia and Africa needed each other – “Russia is a vast market not only for African minerals, but for various other goods and products produced by African countries.”

Currently, the signs for Russian-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, already many important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen, first of all, how these intentions and agreements would be implemented in practice with African countries, according to Arkhangelskaya.

During the signing of an agreement between the Integration Expertise and Roscongress Foundation, Yevgeny Korendyasov, a Senior Researcher at the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that intensifying Russian-African cooperation was now among the list of current priorities of the Russian government and the business community.

“Preparations for the Russia-Africa Summit as a new platform for the Russian-African partnership are in full swing. In this situation, ensuring that relations between countries reach a new level requires a rethinking of approaches, mechanisms, and instruments for cooperation based on their heightened significance in the new conditions of world politics and economics,” according to Yevgeny Korendyasov.

Andrei Maslov, an Expert at the Valdai Discussion Club, noted that Russia’s partnership with the African continent was also a major focus at the Valdai International Club’s  discussion platform, which hosted an expert session titled “Russia’s Return to Africa: Interests, Challenges, and Prospects” held in March 2019.

On March 19, under the Chairmanship of Yury Ushakov, an Aide to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Organizing Committee on Russia-Africa held its first meeting in Moscow. The Russia–Africa summit is expected to be attended by roughly 3,000 African businessmen, according to the official meeting report.

As a way to realize the target goals, a preliminary Russia-Africa Business Dialogue as part of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) will take place on June 6–8, and will be followed by the annual shareholders meeting of African Export-Import Bank. Russian Export Center became a shareholder in December 2017.

The Roscongress Foundation, established in 2007, is a socially oriented non-financial development institution and a major organizer of international business conventions, together with Russian Export Center are the key institutions responsible for preparation and holding of the all events. President Vladimir Putin put forward the Russia—Africa initiative at the BRICS summit (Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) in Johannesburg in July 2018.

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Russia and North Korea: Key areas for cooperation

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The April 25 meeting in Vladivostok between President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un was their first since the North Korean leader came to power in 2011. Arriving on his armored train, Kim Jong-un said that he had always dreamed of visiting Russia and hoped that his first visit would not be the last.

“We talked about the history of our bilateral relations, about the current situation and the development of relations between our two countries,” Vladimir Putin said wrapping up the opening phase of the negotiations, which lasted for two hours – twice longer than originally planned.

Kim Jong-un said that the two leaders “had a very meaningful and constructive exchange of views tete-a-tete on all pressing issues of mutual interest.”

“I am grateful for the wonderful time I have spent here, and I hope that our negotiations will similarly continue in a useful and constructive way,” he added.    

The talks later continued in an expanded format and ran for three and a half hours.

“We had a detailed discussion of all issues on our agenda: bilateral relations, matters related to sanctions, the United Nations, our relations with the United States and, of course, the central issue of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, focusing on different aspects of all these problems,” Vladimir Putin said during the final press conference.

The main outcome of the talks, however, was the two leaders’ repeated emphasis on the need to restart the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as Russia’s readiness to act as a de-facto mediator between Pyongyang and Washington. Representatives of Russia, North and South Koreas, China, Japan and the United States regularly met between 2003 and 2008 (under Kim Jong-il), but those meetings were eventually suspended by Pyongyang following Washington’s refusal to ease the sanctions regime and its attempts to revise existing accords.

Ahead of the Vladivostok summit, the US Special Envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, made a brief visit to Moscow to discuss the terms of the new Korean settlement parley. The US State Department described the diplomat’s visit as a desire to “discuss respective bilateral engagements with North Korea and efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

However, Mr. Biegun’s visit only underscored the lingering differences in the negotiating sides’ views on resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula and regarding the mechanisms and mutual steps needed to make this happen. While North Korea, Russia and China are holding out for a phased lifting of sanctions on Pyongyang in exchange for North Korea gradually rolling back its nuclear missile program under international security guarantees, the United States insists on Pyongyang’s prior cessation of its entire nuclear missile development effort. According to Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un then asked him to convey his position and expectations to Washington.

“Chairman Kim Jong-un personally asked us to inform the American side about his position and the questions he has about what’s unfolding on the Korean Peninsula,” Vladimir Putin told reporters after the summit.  He promised to do this at upcoming international forums – including in China, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The North Korean leader had thus decided to get back to Pyongyang’s previous practice of “balancing” between the leading world powers in an effort to achieve maximum possible concessions. This balancing act is important for Pyongyang primarily with Washington and Moscow – especially after the failure of the US-North Korean summit held in Hanoi in February.

According to Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, “Kim Jong-un’s trip to Vladivostok means that he is looking for outside support amid his stuttering talks with the United States.”.

“With the failure of the Hanoi summit, Kim Jong-un needs to confirm that he is generally committed to denuclearization, but within the framework of the Russian-Chinese phased plan. Donald Trump and his team reject this and demand a complete denuclearization of the DPRK as a condition for lifting the sanctions,” Go Myung-hyun of Seoul’s ASAN Institute of Policy Studies said.

“What Pyongyang now needs following the failure the Vietnam summit is at least a semblance of minimal diplomatic success,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said.

The list of countries Kim Jong-un can now turn to for diplomatic support is very short. These are essentially Russia and China. However, his visit to Beijing is not in the best interest of China, which is currently locked in tense trade negotiations with the United States.

Therefore, Kim Jong-un apparently hopes that his talks with Russia will send a signal to Washington that since political pressure on Pyongyang is not working, the Americans should proceed to a phased lifting of sanctions against North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang partially coming across on its nuclear missile program.

“North Korea’s strategy always has been walking a tight-rope between the conflicts of the world powers and getting concessions that way,” the BBC commented.

With the successful Russian-North Korean summit, which reaffirmed the two countries’ shared desire to breathe new vigor into the Korean settlement process, the ball is now in the US court, and President Trump’s well-known predilection for quick fixes and spectacular moves inspires hope for his next, third, meeting with Kim Jong-un.

During his recent visit to Washington, South Korean President Moon Jae-in underscored the need for a new such meeting between Trump and Kim. When meeting with Donald Trump, President Moon stressed that his “important task” is to “maintain the momentum of dialogue” toward North Korea’s denuclearization while expressing “the positive outlook, regarding the third US-North Korea summit, to the international community that this will be held in the near future.” Donald Trump responded in his peremptory manner: “I enjoy the summits, I enjoy being with the chairman,” he said, adding that his previous meetings with the North Korean leader had been “really productive.”

Although there has been no word yet about when exactly this meeting could happen, Kim Jong-un has already made it clear that he is ready “to be patient and wait for the American president by the end of the year.”

Seoul, another target of Pyongyang’s political signals, factors in very importantly in the diplomatic activity currently swirling around North Korea. 

“Kim launched the inter-Korean phase of the “new way” immediately after the meeting in Hanoi. It involves ratcheting up pressure on South Korea to demonstrate greater independence from the US,” The Hill commented.

“Of course, while it is awkward for South Korea to say so openly, there is no gainsaying the fact that the failure to make really meaningful progress in implementing the detailed agreements negotiated during the inter-Korean summits in Panmunjom and Pyongyang is due to the constraints imposed by South Korea’s support for the US’ North Korea policy.”

“South Koreans truly may be the most effective mediators precisely because they are caught between the parties: the Americans with whom they share long-term, common interests; and the North Koreans with whom they share an existential, common national identity,” the publication concluded.

In addition to general political issues and the problem of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, economic projects in energy and infrastructure, including the construction of a gas pipeline and a railway line linking the two countries are an equally important aspect of cooperation between Russia and North Korea.

All these things, however, depend very much on the overall situation on the Korean Peninsula and the prospects for the normalization of inter-Korean relations.

“I spoke about this. We have been talking about this matter for many years. This includes direct railway traffic between South Korea, North Korea and Russia, including our Trans-Siberian Mainline, opportunities for laying pipelines – we can talk about both oil and gas, as well as the possible construction of new power transmission lines. All of this is possible. Moreover, in my opinion, this also meets the interests of the Republic of Korea, I have always had this impression. But, apparently, there is a shortage of sovereignty during the adoption of final decisions, and the Republic of Korea has certain allied obligations to the United States. Therefore, everything stops at a certain moment. As I see it, if these and other similar projects were implemented, this would create essential conditions for increasing trust, which is vitally needed to resolve various problems,” President Vladimir Putin said about this particular aspect of the talks with his North Korean counterpart.

Any further progress in the Korean settlement process depends directly on the kind of relationship we are going to see happening within the framework of the “six” world powers. Anyway, the summit, which has just closed up shop in Vladivostok, gives reasons for optimism. 

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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