For those of you who are not Americans from Generation X, the tag line advertising and marketing jingle “Is it live or is it Memorex?” became popular in the early 1980s by the American company Memorex (founded in 1961). This marketing slogan was used to describe the very real audio quality of their cassette tapes (These are archaic audio recording devices used before CDs and after 8-track tapes. They were used in 1970s & 1980s boom boxes. An internet search of these ancient artifacts may be needed). In essence, the listener was to believe that the recorded sound was exactly the same as the original sound of someone speaking. Later, this marketing jingle became an iconic expression in American popular culture and daily casual conversation to indicate that one is not sure if something is real or fake (not real). While the topic of lies may seem inappropriate for this form, it is not. There are many political, economic and political economic examples of how lies have impacted populations, regimes and economies.
What is a lie? It is important to note each person and each culture have their own definition of what is considered a lie; what is considered a white lie; if lying is acceptable, in what circumstances it is acceptable, and how far the truth may be bent before it is considered a regular lie. In American English, the expression is to bend the truth, which means there is some basis of truth but it may be slightly or drastically distorted. It is not the same as a white lie. It is also important to note that cultural norms change over time especially within each new generation, so what was once considered unacceptable 40 years ago may be acceptable now.
Then there is a gray area: Is it a lie to not tell the entire truth, to remain silent instead of truthfully answering a question, to answer a question in a vague way for which the intended meaning could be construed in many ways (e.g. what is called political mumbo-gumbo or word salad; it’s a lot of words that sound good but mean nothing), or how far the truth can acceptably be bent (especially in regards to interpreting information and statistics, truth in advertisements and truth in the news)? In some situations, remaining silent when asked for the truth is considered an admission of guilt or that there is information the person does not want to tell because of its repercussions or incriminating implications. In regards to interpretation of information and statistics, here is an anecdote that is applicable further into this missive:
A CFO is interviewing prospective candidates for an open position of chief accountant. The CFO poses the same question to the top four candidates, “What does 2 plus 2 equal?” Their responses:
Candidate 1) 2 + 2 = 4. The CFO replies, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t get the job”
Candidate 2) Most times 2 + 2 = 4 but it sometimes it might equal 3 or 5. The CFO replies, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t get the job”
Candidate 3) Why does it have to equal anything? The CFO replies, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t get the job”
Candidate 4) What would you like it to equal? The CFO replies, “Very good! You’re hired!”
Are white lies considered a gray area? No, not really; they are a unique category in and of themselves. The difference between a regular lie and a white lie is motivation or intent. The motives for regular lies are for extrinsic gains or reasons; selfishness. A white lie is typically unselfish, and done for altruistic reasons. White lies are used so that:
1) others’ feelings don’t get needlessly hurt,
2) others are not caused undue stress and anxiety, and
3) one may prevent themselves from having to endure a needless unpleasant situation (for example, when a wife asks her husband if she looks fat, he knows to say no because otherwise he will have a very unpleasant evening. In the same sense, the wife is expecting him to tell her a white lie because she just wants to hear him say no).
In most cultures, the one person that people tell white lies to the most and is acceptable to do so is mom. When mom asks her adult child, “Is everything ok with you?”, whether it truly is or isn’t, one must always tell mom “I’m fine” so that she doesn’t worry.
The advent of the technology age has certainly impacted the ability to effectively tell and/or maintain a lie. GPS, satellite imagining, drones, hidden cameras/microphones, blog postings, mobile phone pings, online documents, Snoops.com, fact-checkers, hackers and the public’s demand for transparency have definitely pushed the topic of lies and lying into the spotlight. Sgt. Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have all experienced the repercussions for exposing lies. But what about those who told the lies? Are there repercussions for telling lies? In the grand scheme of current life, the answer is no, unless the person is an average citizen. In the US, everyone is supposed to be considered equal, but the truth is, there are many who are “more equal” than others, such as businesses, Trump (and his questionable win as POTUS) and Ethan Couch who, in June 2013, used the successful criminal defense of Affluenza to get only probation for driving while intoxicated (drugs & alcohol), speeding and driving without a license. He said that because he was rich, he claims that he wasn’t taught right from wrong, so his actions were not his fault. It may be prudent for Trump to use this same defense for his behaviors and lies.
Unfortunately, through the idea of behaviorism, the lessons learned from the results of lying are not what are expected. In the US, there are whistleblower laws to protect those who tell the truth and expose corruption, yet in 2013, Edward Snowden move to Russia after exposing NSA information; Julian Assange has had to stay in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, England since June 2012 for posting US government documents on his WikiLeaks site; and Private Manning was incarcerated for seven years (2010-2017) because he gave US government documents to WikiLeaks. Of course, in many cases, some secrets must be kept, but this is on a case-by-case assessment). Again, with the idea of behaviorism, if exposing the truth gets one punished, then it may deter others from telling the truth. The whistleblower laws in the US are like handing the keys to the fox who is watching the hen house. The whistleblower’s identity is easy to determine with today’s technology, and then the whistleblower’s life will be quite unpleasant afterwards, especially if the person would like to be employed. Many companies do not want to hire a whistleblower for fear of a repeat past performance.
As stated above, those who exposed lies have received punishment but those who did the lying received a small bit of public humiliation. The liars’ punishments rarely fit the severity of the crime of lying. Volkswagen was shamed for lying about their emissions statistics from 2008 to 2015. Did this company really suffer for its questionable integrity? No. It may have received some monetary fines and a bit of humiliation from the scandal, but their bottom line is still quite acceptable. Facebook’s initial IPO in May 2012 was substantially high, which later, media tells the public that the IPO prices were unsubstantiated due to the withholding of FB’s not-so-dazzling third quarter earnings. Those who found out shortly after the IPO dumped their purchases quite quickly, thus decreasing the stocks’ value in hours or days. The 2002 ENRON and Arthur-Andersen scandal and the 2008 global economic crisis seeds have caused a lot of financial carnage from their lies in the name of making profit. Historically, lies about the severity of industrial-related disasters have also caused lasting effects and carnage on human lives; for example, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown disaster, the 1984 Union Carbide disaster (Bhopal, India), and the many drug trial tests by pharmaceutical companies in Africa and India that actually gave diseases to the people and then tried to cure them with new pharmaceuticals. The idea of corporate responsibility may only be a fantasy.
Integrity: The act of doing what is right when no one is looking or watching. The ethical dilemmas and possible accusations of lies or lying begin when what is right, just, best, legal and moral are not one in the same. There are differing opinions about the definitions of each. When one makes a decision based on only one adjective, it may be perceived as a lie or lying, but is it?
In America, after such scandals like ENRON and Arthur-Andersen, the US government made new laws to prevent such things from happening again. Is it really possible to regulate morality, ethics and integrity with government laws? The answer is no. The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act (aka SOX, pronounced like socks) was created and enacted to stop such things from happening again. In the constant wake of financial scandals and the public outcry for the US government to regulate the immoral behaviors of businesses (including the accounting profession), on July 30, 2002, President George W. Bush signed SOX into law, which also created a new watchdog organization, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), for monitoring the financial reporting methods of publicly traded companies. Obviously, laws are not effective at regulating morals, ethics and integrity because the 2008 global economic crisis occurred six years after the advent of SOX.
Apparently in today’s world, it is acceptable to tell lies if doing so makes profit (monetary or otherwise) or if it gains someone the competitive advantage (such as exchange rate manipulation, government secrets, market first-movers market, untruths in advertisements and news, and the POTUS).
Are there effects of lies that are told by business and/or government? Due to the idea of behaviorism, many people may subscribe to, “The first time you fool me or lie to me, shame on you. But the second time you fool me or lie to me, shame on me because I shouldn’t have given you a second chance to trust you after you burned me the first time”. Unfortunately, serial lies make people suspicious of others, especially of those who are in positions of public trust like CEOs and politicians, such as Trump and his alternative truth. A certain level of trust must be established for good relations; personal, professional, business and government. Each time lies are exposed, the impacts either 1) make people quite suspicious or paranoid thus they believe everyone lies most of the time, or 2) they accept lies as commonplace and then forget about them as if they never happened. Option #2 is a dangerous slippery slope to losing morality, ethics and integrity. Perhaps a healthy balance of trust-distrust is an optimal solution, but not necessarily a Utopian one. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that lies and lying are the norm, and condemning them are just an illusion and to satisfy the public.
What a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to deceive – Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Trump and his alternative truth is somewhat a different topic because of the complexities of his motivation for lying (see 1-5 below). Most every day, new Trump lies are exposed. Some Americans feel that he has mental health problems. However, he seems quite cognizant of his choices and volitions. It is possible that he is the result of behaviorism. Here’s why:
1) When people get what they want by lying (especially without getting caught), their choice to lie is reinforced by getting what they wanted (the reward), which encourages them to lie again. No punishment for lying gives people confidence that their lies are believable, and they often start making “more believable” lies to receive bigger “rewards”. However, these new & improved lies are quite unbelievable.
2) When this successful cycle continues over a long period of time, it often becomes a way of life and who they are as a person.
3) They may continue to lie even though they will not gain anything from it (no reward).
4) In some cases, people continue to lie so that they can convince themselves (and others) that their lies are the truth. Is it live or is it Memorex?
5) For many, people will lie when caught in a lie because in the past, lying prevented them from getting into trouble or lying got them out of trouble; again the idea of behaviorism.
Unfortunately, many people cannot remember what lies they have told, so it is quite easy to bring to light the lies. In essence, their own myriad of lies tells on them. What a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to deceive! Trump should take note of these words of wisdom.
The liberal international order has not crumbled yet
Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.
The victory of Biden
Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.
In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.
More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.
The European Union is recovering
Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.
Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.
Non-Western world is struggling
The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.
Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.
More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.
It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.
Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.
Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?
With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.
Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.
Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.
In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.
Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?
In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.
This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.
President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.
What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.
If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.
Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit
Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.
A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.
I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.
The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.
But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.
Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.
Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.
Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.
For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.
This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.
Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.
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