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How American Presidential Contenders Talk About Russia

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Can American politicians talk sensibly about Russia? Major statements in the last year by leading contenders for the next presidential election in 2020 are not encouraging: they have presented severely distorted views of Russia and grossly exaggerated threats from the Kremlin. However, some influential politicians in the United States do have more realistic and balanced perspectives on Russia. Observers who wish for improved American-Russian relations should therefore be patient and not abandon all hope.

A year ago former Vice President Joe Biden published one of the longest statements, an article in Foreign Affairs that outlined “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin.” To his credit, Biden was relatively level-headed about Russian interference in the 2016 election: in contrast to those who hyperbolically likened it to the Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attacks, he treated Russian efforts to influence foreign elections as a problem to be managed, not an existential threat. However, Biden also presented a nightmarish view of “tyranny” in a Russia allegedly facing drastic demographic and economic decline. Popular support for Putin’s “kleptocracy” is so shallow, Biden claimed, that it would quickly disappear if the regime did not maintain “a chokehold on society.”

That kind of caricature, which encourages notions that Washington does not need to think seriously about how to engage with Russia, was soon challenged by a high turnout election in March 2018, when more than 70 percent of voters marked their ballots for President Vladimir Putin. Many American commentators dismissed the election as a sham because of the Kremlin’s domination of television coverage and its exclusion of some potential challengers. But the election result basically reflected genuine popular approval of Putin (ranging between 60 and 80 percent), which is rooted in beliefs that he is a strong leader who restored stability after the chaos of the 1990s and revived Russian national pride. The stereotypical notion of Russia as a backward land of totalitarian repression was also contradicted in June, when more than 80,000 Americans who visited for the World Cup saw for themselves Russian cities that are clean, modern, friendly, and lively. Many American politicians, including Biden, have wished for years that Putin was not the leader of Russia. But the reality US policymakers must face is that he will be President until 2024.

What to do? Biden’s recommendation boils down to long-term containment, deterrence, and vigilance. Although he recognizes a need to “keep talking to Moscow,” the sole purpose he indicates is to avoid dangerous miscalculations. Thus, Biden’s grim vision offers little hope for any improvement in the future from the present tense stalemate.

Much like Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders envisions standing up to and telling off Putin. In Where We Go from Here, published in November 2018, Sanders combined a pacific vision of the future with a militant policy in the present. He is rightly critical of how “the arms merchants of the world grow increasingly rich as governments spend trillions of dollars on weapons of destruction” and he dreams of a world in which swords will be beaten into plowshares. At the same time, Sanders vows “to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia,” and in an aggressively Wilsonian vein he declares that “in the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.”

The trouble with that combative stance is that it disregards how crusades under the banner of democracy against autocracy have led to catastrophic wars from Iraq to Libya and have had counterproductive effects in Russia. As former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s vivid recent memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace, amply shows, his confrontational championing of democracy failed: while antagonizing Putin, it made it easier for the Kremlin to depict the small minority of Russian liberals as clients of America and led some prominent Russian democrats to distance themselves from the emotional and ideological ambassador. (During McFaul’s 2012-2014 ambassadorship the percentage of Russians with positive views of America fell from 52 to 23.)

The flourishing democracy McFaul and Sanders would like to see in Russia is not likely to spring up in the harsh glare of foreign denunciation and exhortation; it is more likely to grow in the softer light of reduced international tension. Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratization of the USSR began after summit meetings with Ronald Reagan eased Soviet fears and warmed superpower relations. Aware of that precedent, McFaul recognized at the start of the Obama administration in 2009 that “a more benign international environment for the Russian government would create better conditions for democratic change internally.” Unfortunately, McFaul later forgot his insight that “confrontation with the Kremlin would impede democratization.”

The most effective way to advance democracy around the world is not to grandstand about support for democrats in countries where the US has very little credibility but to make American democracy at home truly a model others will want to emulate. That will require facing problems such as racism, inequality, police brutality, and paralyzing partisanship that plagued America long before the 2016 election. Pugnacious preoccupation with Putin is a distraction from that goal, not a way to pursue it.

Although Sanders recognizes that “the global war on terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership,” he champions a different kind of war, a global battle against “oligarchy and authoritarianism.” To mobilize support for that fight, Sanders makes Putin a symbol of all the “demagogues” and “kleptocrats” who “use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.” While Kremlin officials and loyalists have indeed indulged in self-aggrandizement, that began in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, whom Americans lionized as a great democratic reformer while tycoons pillaged the economy. Loudly calling for a worldwide struggle against oligarchy and making Putin the locus of that evil, as Sanders does, will make it much more difficult to engage in quiet and effective diplomacy – a lesson Ronald Reagan learned in the 1980s. It also will complicate the quest to turn spears into pruning hooks that Sanders extolls.

One of Sanders’ major rivals on the left wing of the Democratic Party is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who formally announced her candidacy in February. Warren set out her vision of “A Foreign Policy for All” in the January/February 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs. While her sharp criticism of how American post-Cold War foreign policy has served the interests of large corporations is bold and vigorous, her alarmist depiction of Russia is ill informed and unwise.

According to Warren, “Russia became belligerent and resurgent” in response to the US promotion of rapid privatization and a wild form of capitalism in the 1990s. That inaccurate statement disregards how, in his first years as President of Russia at the start of the 21st century, Vladimir Putin eagerly pursued a strategic and economic partnership with the United States as he sought to revive Russia after the deep depression of the 1990s. When terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001, Putin was the first foreign leader to call the White House to offer support. He then ordered the Russian military and intelligence services to provide important assistance to the American war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. When the George W. Bush administration announced withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2001 and then encouraged NATO expansion into the Baltic states that had been part of the former Soviet Union, Putin expressed only mild opposition because he still prioritized a partnership with Washington.

Politicians and journalists who vilify Putin ignore that history because it contradicts their claims that he is innately anti-American and aggressive. The truth is that Russia gradually reacted to U.S. policies that repeatedly threatened its interests and security, including the war against Iraq in 2003, the drive to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and the placement of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. If Warren and other prospective presidential candidates are to develop a sound strategy toward Russia they must first have an accurate understanding of the origins of contemporary Russian foreign policies and attitudes toward the United States, which have been strongly affected by US military interventions from Kosovo and Iraq to Syria and Libya.

Warren’s foreign policy vision is disappointing in several other ways. Although her desire to reduce defense spending to “sustainable levels” will be welcomed by many progressive Americans, she does not appear to have thought through how she will be able to do that after stoking fears of “a revanchist Russia that threatens Europe” (a view that disregards how key European leaders have continued to see Russia as a partner in dealing with issues such as the maintenance of the nuclear agreement with Iran). Warren declares that Washington should “impose strong, targeted penalties on Russia” as if that had not already been done, repeatedly, with no positive effect. She categorizes Putin as one of the dictators who remain in power “because they hold unwilling populations under brutal control” – disregarding how surveys of Russian public opinion have shown persistent high support for Putin and conveying a terribly distorted view of Russia as if it were one of the “captive nations” of the Cold War.

The Senator from Massachusetts invokes the memory of President John F. Kennedy in connection with her vision of how to “project American strength and values throughout the world,” but she appears to have forgotten Kennedy’s speech at American University in June 1963. In that courageous address, delivered less than eight months after the Cuban missile crisis brought the United States and the USSR to the edge of nuclear war, Kennedy urged Americans to reexamine their attitudes toward the Communist Soviet Union. Making a dramatic shift from his earlier posture as a militant Cold Warrior, Kennedy implored Americans “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side” and he reminded them that “history teaches us that enmities between nations … do not last forever.” Instead of demonizing the Soviets, Kennedy argued, Americans should focus on promoting a gradual evolution toward peaceful relations and problem solving. Kennedy’s farsighted speech helped to clear the way for a limited test ban treaty that he hoped would help to “check the spiraling arms race.” By the fall of 1963, when Kennedy authorized the sale of wheat to the Soviet Union, US relations with the USSR were more hopeful than almost anyone could have anticipated a year earlier. Warren and other prospective presidential candidates should remember Kennedy’s wise leadership on relations with Russia in the last months of his life as a model of the kind of thoughtful, articulate president we need in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

In contrast to Kennedy, Biden, Sanders, and Warren have portrayed Russia as a perpetual enemy, distorted its people’s attitudes, and exaggerated the threats it poses. They also have failed to consider how constructive dialogue with Russian leaders could promote common interests such as curbing costly spending on the modernization of nuclear arsenals, countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and combating Islamist terrorism. While Kennedy envisioned the possibility of moving beyond Cold War confrontation, the three senior prospective Democratic candidates have embraced establishment perspectives that are holdovers from the Cold War.

Even some of the younger presidential aspirants have been unable to resist the temptation to attack President Donald Trump by linking him to Russia. When Senator Kamala Harris of California announced her campaign for the presidency at the beginning of February, she claimed that foreign powers are “infecting the White House like malware.” She also asserted that in 2016 Russia not only interfered in the presidential election but also attacked “our very American identity.”

An even younger Democratic candidate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has sharply criticized US interventions for “regime change” around the world, is likely to face intense criticism of any statements that can be construed as “soft” on Russia. On February 1, NBC News claimed that social media experts had detected “stirrings of a possible campaign of support” for Gabbard by online accounts associated with Russia. An NBC reporter went so far as to assert that “The Kremlin already has a crush on Tulsi Gabbard.”

Although it will therefore be difficult for presidential candidates to talk reasonably about Russia, some prominent American politicians do realize the need for better relations between the two countries. For example, California Governor Jerry Brown recognized that common interests, such as avoiding nuclear war, addressing climate change and promoting mutually beneficial economic development, are much more important for the long term than the political conflicts that have marred relations in the last few years. Other politicians with sober and thoughtful perspectives on Russia include Democratic Representative Ro Khanna of California and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

If major incidents that inflame hostilities can be avoided in the next two years, there is reason to hope that eventually more American political leaders will recognize the need to move beyond the recent futile efforts to isolate, punish, and demonize Russia. During the McCarthyist hysteria of the early 1950s, when Republicans accused Democratic officials of being soft on communism or even of being traitorous agents of the Kremlin, respectful dialogue between Washington and Moscow was almost unthinkable. Yet by the summer of 1955 the McCarthyist fever broke and Eisenhower and Khrushchev met at Geneva. The resumption of discussions between top American and Soviet leaders would culminate – after some unfortunate and dangerous interruptions – in the test ban treaty and the partial détente of 1963. If leaders in Moscow and Washington show patience and restraint in the coming years, it is possible to hope for a similar improvement in relations, particularly after the presidential election in November 2020.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

David Foglesong is a professor of history at Rutgers University. He is the author of “ The American Mission and the “Evil Empire": The Crusade for a "Free Russia" Since 1881 (Cambridge University Press); and “America's Secret War Against Bolshevism”: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920 (The University of North Carolina Press).

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Americas

Murder of George Floyd – On Camera Murder by Neo Ku Klux Klan

M. Abdul Basit

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image credit: Flickr, Fibonacci Blue

Now that the doors of racism have been shut down by law, the de facto persecution of blacks carry on. The cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officers is one of the many such cases. If the four racist cops could strangulate a handcuffed person on camera, one should be fearful to assume what could they be doing off camera. Until the lion learns how to write, every story will keep glorifying the hunter.

The persecution and segregation of colored people has been done since long. Gone are the days when Rosa Parks could be ordered to leave her seat on bus for a white. And gone should have been the days when Eugene Bull Connor could use state authority to subjugate unarmed protestors in Birmingham during Civil Rights Movement while being filmed on Television. George Floyd kept on begging to let the air in for he was suffocating.The racist cop told him to be easy while putting more pressure on his neck while Floyd laid down on ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. The four armed cops apparently could not find a better way to handle him except strangling him to death. Or perhaps they did not wish to.

The inhumane treatment, especially when done by state authorities, develop grievances in vulnerable communities. A liberal state is meant to treat everyone equally. When Jim Crow Laws were on a high and Ku Klux Klan started to target humans on basis of skin color, it led to the formation of violent groups in African Americans like Black Panther. Violence against particular groups cannot sustain for long in a developed world. When USA tries to proliferate liberal values across the world, it should not remain aloof that despite being the world’s oldest democracy, blacks are still victims of oppression in America.

The white supremacy is not a myth. The Minneapolis officers were able to kill a person while being filmed as well as begged by the civilians to do mercy on Floyd for he didn’t put any threat to them. The cops gave him a slow death without any shame like they were living in a pre-Lincoln era. Luckily, the heinous crime was filmed and all the cops have been terminated but it is likely that without being prosecuted for the cold-blooded murder, it may not give a lesson to other state authorities regarding misuse of their powers.

This is simply a Neo Ku Klux Klan where the Blacks are being oppressed on the basis of color and the murderers get a clean chit. A similar case happened in 2014 when Eric Garner was strangulated when he kept saying “I can’t breathe” while dying and the white officers didn’t face federal charges despite being filmed doing the murder. In the same year, a 12 year old black boy Tamir Rice was carrying a toy gun and he was killed by a white cop. In 2016, Philando Castile was murdered in his car when the situation could be handled pacifically but the police used preemptive measure to kill him right away. There are many cases in recent past that make it evident that The United States of America has not fixed the problem of Ku Klux Klan; rather it is a neo Ku Klux Klan that is de facto segregating and oppressing the colored community. One in every 1000 black males can expect to die at the hands of police in USA.

The Neo Ku Klux Klan needs to be stopped. State institutions must function as they are supposed to perform and not to deal humans with discrimination depending on what color of skin they carry on their flesh. Racism should have been buried when President Kennedy got successful in calling civil rights a moral cause. But racism thrives till today and now with President Donald Trump, it is far from possible to end racism in American society when he himself dehumanizes the blacks. If the state institutions as well as the public does not proactively try to resolve the issues that are a direct threat to human security when it comes to black lives, the dreams of Equality, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness will remain a hoax.

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What do Donald Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani imams have in common?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Authors: James M. Dorsey and Tehmina Qureshi*

US President Donald J. Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani religious scholars may have more in common than either would want to admit: a belief that congregation is an essential pillar of prayer irrespective of public health concerns.

Mr. Trump, however, may wish that he had the kind of less polarized and/or more compliant audience that Pakistani clerics address.

Scores of religious leaders and groups in the United States have sought to protect their communities by advocating virtual rather than physical congregation at the time of a pandemic in which the coronavirus has yet to be brought under control.

Religious authorities in much of the Muslim world, Pakistan being the exception that proves the rule, have heeded government instructions and medical and public health advice.

That advice ranged from the closure of mosques to bans on social gatherings that precluded traditional iftar meals breaking the Ramadan fast and celebrations of this week’s end of the holy month to Saudi Arabia’s suspension of the umrah, the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca and possibly the haj too.

Leaving aside the question whether he has the legal power to do so, Mr. Trump vowed to overrule governors who refused to open houses of worship, noting that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) had issued guidelines that included physical distancing.

The move designed to play to Mr. Trump’s Evangelist voter base received a mixed reception among American faith communities.

It appealed to those segments of the community with an unqualified belief in God’s ability and will to protect and that often are steeped in notions of Christian manhood that have deep roots in American Evangelism and were boosted by the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Towers and the Pentagon in Washington.

Mr. Trump’s recognition of prayer as an “essential” societal activity further drew a line intended to give houses of worship autonomy in an environment in which state intrusion into people’s lives has expanded greatly in a bid to fight the pandemic.

In that sense, the president was fighting a battle similar to that of Pakistani Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders who rejected a total closure of mosques but were willing to accept guidance on issues such as physical distancing.

The leaders see mosques “as spaces where you cultivate  and express a communal religious identity that is very central to…their vision of the Pakistani state,” said a Pakistani Islamic scholar.

The clerics’ determination to retain control of religious spaces was reinforced by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s flip flops that resembled Mr. Trump’s zig zags.

Mr. Khan initially sought to appeal to religious circles by meeting in the early days of the pandemic with Maulana Tariq Jameel, a leader of Tablighi Jamaat, who initially denied the contagious aspect of the virus.

Mr. Jameel reversed course and embraced physical distancing after his movement’s mass gatherings in Pakistan, Malaysia, India and Indonesia turned into super spreaders of the coronavirus.

Mr. Khan’s government further complicated issues by initially agreeing with religious leaders on a division of labour that would have empowered the clerics to advise their followers to stay at home, avoid congregational prayer and maintain physical distancing and then jumping the gun to announce the measures without coordination.

Mosques in major Pakistani cities were packed in recent days, despite religious leaders paying lip service to physical distancing, in a reflection of the degree to which ultra-conservatism has woven itself into the fabric of Pakistani society and in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia’s pre-emptive response to the health crisis.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled against government lockdowns, suggesting that the coronavirus was not a pandemic. Religious leaders have since backed away from their acceptance of physical distancing, demanding that the advice be abandoned.

Mr. Trump’s recognition of prayer as essential aligned itself with notions of concepts of religious freedom promoted by his administration, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the lead, that in effect serve to legitimize discrimination against minorities of various stripes.

Few doubt that Mr. Trump made his move with an eye on the US presidential election in November. Mr. Trump was embarking on a road on which mainstream ultra-conservative Pakistani clerics were also travelling.

The clerics remained silent when Ahmadis, a sect viewed as heretic by mainstream Muslims, were excluded from a national commission created by the government earlier this month to promote religious tolerance and counter persecution of minorities.

Pakistan’s religious affairs ministry barred inclusion of Ahmadis, who are among Pakistan’s most discriminated minorities, on grounds that they did not qualify as a minority and refuse to recognize the country’s constitution.

A 1974 amendment of the constitution bars Ahmadis from identifying themselves as Muslims because they do not recognize Mohammed as the last prophet.

Compared to the polarising environment that Mr. Trump operates in and likes to entrench, Pakistani clerics have it a lot easier. Except for liberals and human rights activists, few in Pakistan are willing to stand up for Ahmadi rights.

Moreover, the government shied away from imposing its will on the religious establishment during the pandemic as did the military, which built quarantine centres in various cities and helped local authorities implement a lockdown.

Pakistan lacks truly influential, more liberal religious voices in the mould of for example Reverend Curtiss DeYoung, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches that groups African-American denominations, the mainline church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

“We listen to communities of colour, and many of our congregations’ people are engaged in representing refugees and immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, even seniors, they’re saying, why the urgency?” Mr. DeYoung said in response to Mr. Trump’s push.

“They’re…directly affected. They’re actually afraid in many cases to go into group gatherings…We feel that we need to make our decisions based on good science and the recommendations of our health department,” the reverend added.

Mr. DeYoung was joined by his Muslim counterparts in contrast to their Pakistani brethren.

“American Muslim scholars and community leaders have already determined that mosques will not be open in the near future because of the health concerns brought on by the pandemic. That’s a determination for them to make not for the president to make,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations, the largest US Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

To be sure, the United States and Pakistan are vastly different countries. Pakistan has been hard hit by the pandemic with 55,657 cases of infection to date and 1,155 deaths. Yet, that is  a far cry from the United States’ 1,613,324 cases and 96,659 deaths.

Pakistan, nonetheless, saw its number of cases quadruple during the month of Ramadan and the rate of new infections jump by 30 percent in the last week as the holy month neared its end .

Yet, when it comes to employing religion to entrench power at the cost of striking a balance between faith and science, Mr. Trump and Pakistani religious scholars share the kind of opportunism and worldview that serve their short-term interests irrespective of the cost to human life and potentially to already battered economies.

*Tehmina Qureshi is a multi-platform journalist and editorial writer at Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper.

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COVID-19’s Weakness Is Its Strength

Rich Berdan

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About 4/5ths or 80% of the deaths come from 1/5th or 20% of the Canadian population. Our seniors and those living in long-term care facilities have been held with obscure and unregulated measures to say the least. Conversely, roughly 1/5th or 20% of the deaths have come from 4/5th or 80% of the population that are younger than or senior community and perhaps some underlying health issues. While not short of devastating to families affected, it is roughly a thousand deaths in 80% of the population or about 1 in 40,000 deaths in this sizeable wedge of our communities. The mortalities equate to a relatively small number of 2.5 per deaths for every 100,000 Canadians.

In contrast, the top 5 leading causes of death in Canada per 100,000 are:

  1. Cancer: 68,000 deaths or 207.7 per 100,000
  2. Heart Disease: 50,000 deaths or 152.8 per 100,000
  3. Cerebrovascular Disease: 14,000 deaths or 42.3 per 100,000
  4. Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases: 10,000 deaths or 30.0 per 100,000
  5. Accidents: 9,700 deaths or 29.5 per 100,000

In 2018 there were 4,157 suicides in Canada: making it the 9th leading cause of death behind Alzheimer’s Disease. With an economy currently on life support in some sectors, the number of suicides will likely climb higher this year as people succumb to job loss, the inability to pay their mortgage or credit loans, and bankruptcies. In the last month alone, there have been nine spouses murdered in domestic violence and likely thousands of cases of abuse and violence in family homes going unreported.

While the initial unknowns and actions around the pandemic were undoubtedly justified, Canada and the world should be better equipped to understand what is necessary to sustain a more robust economy if there is indeed a second wave of the virus. The most dangerous characteristic of COVID-19 is its weakness to kill. Unlike more deadly viruses that dispatch the host quickly and have a tapered prospect to vault to others and dies out, COVID-19 is carried by asymptomatic humans who unknowingly infect those most vulnerable to the illness.

The best solution following a crippling downturn in the market from the first wave will not be a nation-wide shutdown in the next go around. It would rather be a laser focus to take care of our seniors, specifically in our long-term care facilities, and self-isolate our most at-risk population and those with underlying medical issues. One must wonder how the leading causes of death in Canada will pop well above the number of COVID-19 related deaths with postponed cancer treatments and the like over the year.

One then must also examine whether the prolonged lockdowns and restrictions throughout the country, not to mention the crippling debt load and taxes to ensue, was the best reaction overall. It is safe to say, lives were saved through physical distancing practices, and the sacrificial deeds by individuals taking coronavirus very seriously was prudent. If only intense attention were placed on long-term care facilities during the onset, Canada would have come out relatively unscathed by the pandemic.

A full financial recovery will be painful for many, and it will likely take several years to see some semblance to a roaring economy. We do know many life savings for retirement have withered, numerous sectors in the marketplace. Such areas as automotive, travel, hospitality, and oil and gas will not bounce back any time soon, and many Canadians will never return to the jobs they once worked.

It is also apparent through this pandemic that if you have an alternative opinion, one is quickly shunned or dismissed as irresponsible if you are not a medical professional or virologist. Specifically, predicting models of death or advocating ever-changing protective measures or restrictions that shifts the goalposts almost daily.

Rule changes and lockdowns are more readily accepted when one’s income stream is uninterrupted. However, it is a far different story for those on the cusp of their business dissolving in debt or a neighbor prevented from earning a living and placed in the dire predicament in having to choose between paying their rent or buying groceries to feed the kids.

The effects of COVID-19 are far-reaching today and will be far-lasting tomorrow. One thing for sure, the adversity we have all faced through the pandemic has introduced us to ourselves.

From our partner RIAC

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