In today’s world, great powers are the most influential members of the international system. The impression of great power plays a significant role in the theory of international politics as any changes in the great powers’ strategies or the emergence of new great powers normally alter the status quo. A numeral of scholars has attempted to come up with a definition of great power and throughout the years, the concept of great power has been employed by a number of theoretical schools of international relations including liberal internationalism, realism, and constructivism. For instance, Arnold Toynbee defines great power as ‘a political force exerting an effect corresponding with the widest range of the society in which it operates’ and Martin Wight refers to great powers as those ‘powers with general interests, meaning those whose interests are worldwide’. Professor Hedley Bull from Oxford University articulates that great powers contribute to the international system ‘by maintaining their relations with one another and by using their preponderance in such a way as to impart a degree of central direction to the affairs of international society as a whole.
According to Kenneth Waltz, great powers possess extraordinary influence in the international system, which enables them to assume tasks that other states cannot execute. In addition, other scholars debated that within the international system there is an irregularity of power and when power irregularities are high; the frequency of an intervention is likely to increase. Realist Krasner further purports that great powers usually intervene in the internal affairs of weaker states by using various norms, values, and principles to justify and legitimize their actions. Nonetheless, the same great powers sometimes violate those values and principles, while at the same time they stay free from external interference. This is what he refers to as organized insincerity.
In order to be a great power in the international system, a nation has to possess not only economic prosperity and military might, but also strong soft power and strong identity as a leader. In other words, economic strength implies a soaring level of development of the country. On the other hand, the military strength of a country is usually measured by its military expenditure, defense spending, the number of military personnel and aircraft carriers, and the size of the navy, among other factors. For soft power, strong cultural ties with other countries, moral strength, and technological level are considered features of great importance. Identity as a leader refers to the ability to bargain as well as the capability to take action independently while at the same time, being able to play an active and co-operative role in the international system.
Conferring to Bridget Rodgers, among the top 10 powers of the world include the United States of America, China, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Japan, France, Italy, Brazil, and India with the United States is the number one superpower of the world, henceforth achieving its hegemonic status of the world. Not only does the United States possess the largest economy by a long bounce, but it also has the most powerful military by an even wider boundary. This gives the United States the self-assurance and bravery to stretch its military and diplomatic muscle whenever it feels like its interests have been jeopardized and this is something that has been both much-admired and denounced by the international community.
The end of the cold war witnessed a grate change in how great powers interact with each other. We are now in a world where there is little chance that major powers will engage each other in wars. This suggests that great powers no longer view each other as potential military rivals, but instead as members of a family of nations called the international community. In this promising new world, the possibility for cooperation is very high, with the likelihood of increased prosperity and peace to all the great powers. On the other hand, it is also argued that international politics has always been a cruel and unsafe business, and it is likely to remain that way. Although the level at which their competition keeps growing and declining, great powers fear each other and are always competing with each other for power. The superseding goal of states is to maximize their share of world power, which in turn implies gaining power at the expense of others. Much as the great powers embrace the outcome being the strongest powers of the world, their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon that is, the only great power in the system.
Great powers are hardly gratified with the current distribution of power; rather, they strive to face a constant incentive to change it in their favor. They almost always have heterodox intentions and endeavor to balance the stronger powers even to the extent of using force, if they think it is worth accomplishing their goals. In some circumstances, the costs and risks of trying to shift the balance of power could be too great, and this forces the great powers to wait for more favorable circumstances. However, this does not eradicate their mission for wanting more power, unless a state attains the eventual goal of hegemony. Ever since no state is likely to achieve global hegemony, hence, the world is destined for continuous great-power competition.
According to realists, great powers are in pursuit of power due to the structure of the international system, which forces states to seek security, nonetheless to act aggressively toward each other. Henceforth, according to realists, three features of the international system combine to cause states to fear one another: the absence of a central authority that sits above all states (anarchy), the fact that states always have some offensive military capability, and the fact that states can never be certain about other states’ intentions (Security dilemma). Given this fear which can never be wholly eliminated states recognize that the more powerful they are relative to their rivals, the better their chances of survival.
The first feature implies that the international system is anarchic. This does not mean that the world is disordered or muddled. Slightly, it is an ordering principle which denotes that the system is made up of independent states that have no ultimate authority above them. In other words, autonomy is inherent in states because there is no higher ruling body in the international system. The second characteristic is that great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability, which gives them the means to hurt and possibly destroy each other. States are potentially dangerous to each other, although some states have more military might than others and are therefore more dangerous. A state’s military power is usually identified with the particular weaponry at its discarding, even though if there were no weapons, the individuals in those states could still use their feet and hands to attack the population of another state. The third attribute (security dilemma) is that states can never be certain about the intentions of other states. Explicitly, states are uncertain that another state will not use its offensive military capability to attack them. This does not infer that states unavoidably have bad intentions, but it is only necessary for them to be on the lookout because the intentions of others can never be judged with inevitability.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to measure how much relative power one state must have over its competitors before it feels that it is secure. In addition, determining how much power is enough becomes even more complex when great powers consider how power will be distributed among them ten or twenty years down the road. The competences of individual states also vary over time, sometimes decidedly, and it is often problematic to foresee the direction and scope of change as far as the balance of power is concerned. Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. It is very unusual for a state to pass out on an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system especially when it believes it already has sufficient power to survive. Conversely, even if a great power does not have the resources to aid it in becoming a hegemon, it will still act in a provoking manner towards other great powers with the aim of accumulating as much power as it can, because states are almost always better off with more rather than less power. In short, states do not become status quo powers until they completely dominate the system.
In terms of profits, states can cooperate with each other, although cooperation is sometimes difficult to achieve and almost always difficult to sustain. There are two factors that hinder cooperation between states and they include considerations about relative gains and concerns about cheating. Ultimately, great powers are always in competition with each other and they view each other as real or at least potential enemies, and hence look to gain power at each other’s expense. In the event that two states are considering cooperating with each other, they first consider how profits or gains will be distributed between them. The states contemplate the divisions in terms of either absolute or relative gains. With absolute gains, each side is concerned with maximizing its own profits and cares little about how much the other side gains or losses in the course of their agreements. Each side cares about the other only if the other side’s behavior affects its own prospects for achieving maximum profits. With relative gains, on the other hand, each side considers not only its own individual gain but also how well it fares compared to the other side.
When great powers consider cooperating with other states, they normally focus on the balance of power and their choices are based on the relative gains. Evidently, each state tries to maximize its absolute gains; still, it is more important for a state to make sure that it does no worse, and perhaps better, than the other state in any agreement. Cooperation is more difficult to achieve, however, states are only accustomed to relative gains rather than absolute gains. This is because states concerned about absolute gains have to make sure that if the pie is expanding, they are getting at least some portion of the increase regardless of the amount, whereas states that worry about relative gains always pay careful attention to how the pie is divided, which complicates cooperative efforts.
Another drawback to the cooperation of states is the concern about cheating. Great powers are often reluctant to enter into cooperative agreements with each other for fear that the other side will cheat on the agreement and gain a significant advantage over them. This concern is especially critical in the field of military, causing a “special threat of defection,” because the nature of military weaponry allows for rapid shifts in the balance of power. This could eventually create a window of opportunity for the state that cheats to impose a decisive defeat on its victim.
Nonetheless these cooperation barriers, great powers do cooperate in a realist world. The balance-of-power logic often causes great powers to form alliances and cooperate with each other against common enemies. The bottom line, however, is that cooperation takes place in a world where competition is the center of attention and where states have powerful incentives to take advantage of other states. No amount of cooperation can, therefore, eliminate the dominating logic of security competition. It is very unlikely that genuine peace or a world in which states do not compete for power and profits will prevail, as long as the state system remains anarchic.
With regard to prestige, Nicholson (1937) defines it as “power based on reputation. Morgenthau, on the other hand, articulates that prestige specifically represents a reputation for power, or the ability to pursue one’s own interests while forgoing the use of power and force. Some scholars have further argued that security concerns are a significant part of state behavior and are actually driven by competitions for prestige. As such, states often acquire territory or weapons or exert their independence in international affairs not out of concern for their security but out of a desire to be recognized and listened to by other states. According to the Social Identity Theory (SIT), groups seek prestige when the comparison of the prestigious achievements of their group with other groups is lacking. By this logic, all groups except the most prestigious one would have a continuous incentive to vie for prestige, at least until their group becomes the most prestigious. Conversely, though, not all states are competing for prestige at all times. Much of the literature combining SIT focuses predominantly on status-seeking and the peaceful accommodation of emerging powers. Prestige does not rise automatically as states rise in their military and economic capabilities. Unindustrialized states often actively invest in supplementing their prestige just as they invest in augmenting their power relative to others.
Prestige has sometimes been interchangeably used with the word status. In both concepts, there is recognition of some ranking or hierarchy within a group in which appointment in the higher positions of the hierarchy is accompanied by privileges that would not be experienced by those who are lower in the ranks. In addition, both concepts are also based on the subjective beliefs of others. Among states, however, the terms are sometimes conceived of differently. We normally speak of states having ‘great-power statuses or ‘regional-power statuses. These terms expound the strong connection between military or economic power and status in the international system. An actor can have great-power status, however, without having prestige, if they are able to exercise power effectively but lack the respect of others, as was true of the Soviet Union during the most period of the Cold War. Similarly, states can have prestige for a particular quality but not have a particularly high status or vice versa. In relation to powerful states, great powers seek prestige for the purpose of gaining recognition, having a good reputation and maintaining a high status in the international system and by doing so, they feel good and proud about themselves.
It is further pronounced that states which have experienced a publicly embarrassing experience such as China will be more likely to pay costs to seek prestige because they want to minimize the decline in the influence that might result from their demotion in the eyes of others. Also, if the humiliated state is near enough in influence to the dominant state in the system or region, the dominant state will match the humiliated state’s prestige investment, generating an international race for prestige. Prestigious states will be those most accustomed to wielding influence and often to control resources. They will have the incentive to invest in their prestige both in order to avoid the psychological stress of confronting a painful downgrade in self-concept as well as to avoid the potential downgrade in international respect and influence that accompanies high prestige.
Prestige is at times linked to nuclear weapons because of the particular properties that come with it. According to Barry O’Neill, nuclear weapons are natural bearers of prestige, in part because they are clearly bordered – an explosion is either nuclear or not. In addition, nuclear weapons grab attention and testing them is always done discreetly as they are kept secret beforehand to avoid world pressure from stopping them or embarrassment in case they fail. The nuclear explosions make sudden headlines and disagreement, so people are aware that others have gotten the news. It is, on the other hand, tongue-in-cheek that just because the world worries about their spread they are better carriers of prestige. As evidence to support specific prestige, the possession of nuclear weapons is also related to the kinds of national skills that confer power. Nevertheless, the linking of the weapons and prestige depends on the behavior of all states, not just the potential proliferators.
In conclusion, over the centuries we have seen great powers competing for power, prestige, and profits. This is as a result of the insecurities that the great powers have towards each other. At the same time, great powers are always mindful of how others perceive them and so they are proactive in a number of ways to present a good reputation to the rest of the world, and in particular to the less powerful states with the hope of gaining their trust over the other powerful states. In order to succeed, however, the great powers need to maximize their profits by ensuring that they generate a lot of income. Nevertheless, they can only achieve this by cooperating with other states. In doing so, however, great powers give no room for trust towards each other as they are always concerned about cheating. In fact, over the past decade, we have seen a redeployment of economic power among the world’s great powers on a scale and rate that is probably unprecedented in history. In other words, power is now more evenly distributed in the international system as compared to the past. As a result, there is rising geopolitical competition among great powers. But the nature of the competition is limited by two significant factors: their domestic obsessions and their dependence on each other for economic growth. Conflict is, therefore, most critical along the periphery of great powers that are least integrated into the Western-led political order.
Democracy at Risk: The Global Challenge of Rising Populism and Nationalism
Authors: Meherab Hossain and Md. Obaidullah*
Populism and nationalism represent two discrete political ideologies; however, they may pose potential threats to democracy. Populism is a political ideology and approach characterized by the emphasis on the interests and concerns of ordinary people against established elites or perceived sources of power and privilege. Populist leaders often portray themselves as champions of the “common people” and claim to represent their grievances and desires. It is a political stance that emphasizes the idea of “the people” and often contrasts this group against “the elite”.
Nationalism, on the other hand, is an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests. It represents a political principal positing that there should be congruence between the political entity and the nation-state. While populism emphasizes the idea of “the people,” nationalism emphasizes the idea of the nation-state.
In what ways can populism pose a threat to democracy?
While some argue that populism is not a threat to democracy per se, others contend that it poses a serious risk to democratic institutions. Populism can become a threat to democracy by undermining formal institutions and functions, discrediting the media, and targeting specific social groups, such as immigrants or minorities. This threat arises from its potential to confer a moral legitimacy upon the state that it might otherwise lack. Consequently, it can jeopardize the defense mechanisms established to safeguard against tyranny, including freedoms, checks and balances, the rule of law, tolerance, autonomous social institutions, individual and group rights, as well as pluralism. Populism imposes an assumption of uniformity onto the diverse fabric of reality, distorting not only factual representations but also elevating the attributes of certain social groups above those of others.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s populist rhetoric and policies have led to the erosion of democratic institutions, including the judiciary and the media. Populism in Turkey can be traced back to the era of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s regime, during which Atatürk’s elites, who had limited commonality with the broader society, assumed the responsibility of educating and guiding the masses. This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘regime elitism,’ has rendered Turkey susceptible to populism, which fundamentally revolves around the conflict between the elites and the general populace.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s populist government has been accused of undermining the rule of law, limiting press freedom, and targeting civil society groups. He has established a repressive and progressively authoritarian state that operates under the guise of democracy.
In media discourse, he has been designated as a populist leader. Empirical analysis reveals that Hungary is currently governed by a form of political populism, characterized as conservative right-wing populism. The salient features of Hungarian political dynamics encompass the government’s claim of challenging established elites, a lack of a clearly defined political agenda, the utilization of propaganda as a prominent tool in its political communications, advocacy for the preservation of a Christian Hungary, intervention in areas traditionally considered independent from state interference such as education and jurisdiction, the implementation of mass clientelism to reward its supporters while exerting pressure on critics, and overt criticism of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Consequently, this trajectory underscores the ascendance of authoritarianism within Hungary.
How Nationalism can be threat to Democracy?
Nationalism can pose a potential threat to both democracy and international relations when it manifests in forms of discrimination, violence, and the exclusion of specific groups. The ascension of nationalism may jeopardize the established efficacy of multilateralism, which has historically been instrumental in preserving lives and averting conflicts. This can result in unilateral actions by certain nations, thereby undermining the collaborative approach to the peaceful resolution of disputes.
Nationalism can serve as a catalyst for conflict and division, fostering tendencies toward exclusivity and competition that impede the resolution of common global challenges. The ascent of economic nationalism has the potential to undermine global collaboration and policy alignment, resulting in a resurgence of nationalist economic strategies in many regions worldwide. Such strategies often prioritize individual national objectives over the collective global interest. Unrestrained nationalism can pose a threat to stability by inflaming ethnic tensions, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence and conflict.
In Europe, nationalism has historically been a significant catalyst for conflict and division, spanning from the emergence of Nazi Germany in the 1930s to more recent upsurges of nationalist movements in various countries. Nationalism tends to foster exclusivity and competition, thereby complicating efforts to address common global challenges. Under nationalist ideology, exemplified by Hitler, instances of extreme cruelty and inhumanity have been documented.
Another instance of nationalism, which presents a significant challenge to democracy, is the ascendance of Hindu extremism and nationalism in India, resulting in communal tensions. Since the Hindu nationalist BJP came into power, there has been a heightened sense of insecurity among Muslims in India, with the situation reaching unprecedented levels of concern. The government has actively employed media, television, and the film industry to propagate Islamophobia among the Hindu majority. In 2018, the Indian High Court rendered a judgment advocating for India to be declared a Hindu state, citing the country’s historical religious divisions. Nonetheless, it is crucial to emphasize that, in accordance with its constitution, India is mandated to maintain a secular state. Needless to say, the rise of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of fueling sectarian tensions and undermining the country’s secular democracy.
Indeed, while populism and nationalism are distinct concepts, their simultaneous global rise poses a considerable threat to democracy. These ideologies frequently favor specific groups over the broader population and can corrode democratic principles. They tend to exacerbate polarization and undermine vital democratic institutions. Hence, many countries are grappling with substantial challenges to their democratic systems, which puts their stability and effectiveness at risk.
*Md. Obaidullah holds both a BSS and an MSS degree in Public Administration from the University of Barishal. He is currently employed as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Advanced Social Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His writing expertise spans various subjects, including Public Policy, Politics, Governance, Climate Change, and Diplomacy, on which he frequently contributes
Principles of International Relations as Homo Sapiens
After listening to Hariri’s Home Sapiens, I grasped, with a new perspective, the state of our humanity. I deeply realized that indeed we are the last human species. Our closest relative and competitor, the Neanderthals, were long gone. So how do we, as homo sapiens (“wise men”), wisely ensure the well-being and future of our species? The question seems too general or even irrelevant to many considering that everyday life on Earth continues despite the horrors of war, the devastation of calamities, and the forebodings of apocalypticism. But let’s not toy around with the destructive propensity and capability of our species which could have played a significant role in the demise of the Neanderthals and could also threaten our very own existence.
Life on Earth now is multifaceted and more complex than when we were still cohabiting our planet with other human species. The ancient “us and them” have become the modern and ironically complicated “among us,” and consequentially “us versus us.” We have become the only remaining human species—but the only remaining species that wants to destroy itself for self-interest.
Reflecting on the implications of our being the only human species left on Earth, I deduce the following principles for our international relations.
As one human species living on one planet:
The principle of cohabitation
We all have the rights to peacefully and productively cohabit on planet Earth without the sequestration of others due to superficialdiversity such as geographical locations, skin color, social ideology, and culture; or because of national or corporate resource exploitation.
The principle of mutual survival
We cannot survive without the human ecosystem. Human life is a multidimensional ecosystem. It cannot survive and thrive with only one feature or characteristic in one locality. It necessitates global diversity and mutuality. For our species to survive, our relations need to be based on mutual universal survival.
The principle of co-thriving
We cannot thrive secluded from the universal life system. Regression and destruction of one geographical locus, one ethnicity, or one natural feature impacts the whole bio-societal system. Inversely, the flourishing of one locus, one ethnicity, or one natural feature in conjunction with others, furnishes the whole human system to thrive.
The principle of developmental competition
We have both the latent propensity for destructive bouts and a penchant for developmental competition. International relations based on destructive bouts eventually inflect global crises. Global relations based on developmental competition advance our civilization. Each progress in a varied sphere, though will not be the same, complements the whole progression.
The principle of common home protection
We only have one home, one present habitat for our species to live and thrive, and one human family. Allowing these to decay will not only result in our degeneration but also the eventual risk of our survival.
As homo sapiens, we are at the top of the food chain and intolerant. We want to devour everything we can see and irrationally have the delusion of grandeur of being the only predator left. But the prey and the predator are one and the same. It’s not so naïve to outline what can be tagged as an idealistic theoretical construct. But let’s also accept the fact that the most influencing factors in our international relations are either commercially exploitive or ideologically invasive. And these are not sustainable and globally beneficial—for they are calculated goodness intended for the temporal benefits of the very few. The principle of the common good will enable us to see more beyond our present state and ensure the well-being and future of our species.
UN 2.0: Reimagining our global organization for a world in flux
Working towards better results on the ground and focused on the future, the UN family is undergoing a reset that will give rise to more agile, tech-savvy and impactful UN organizations.This transformation in skills and culture, encapsulated in the Secretary-General’s vision of a UN 2.0, is focused on fostering cutting-edge capabilities in data, digital, innovation, foresight and behavioural science – to deliver stronger results, better Member State support, and faster progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
During a roundtable with Member States, a group of UN leaders and experts explained the potential and strategies of UN 2.0. They highlighted early success stories, that, when replicated, will boost on-the-ground impact of a stronger, more flexible and modern UN.
This event came before the launch of the Secretary-General’s policy brief on the issue of a UN 2.0 revamp.
At the core of UN 2.0 is the so-named ‘Quintet of Change’, a powerful combination of data, innovation, digital solutions, foresight, and behavioural science solutions.
Opening the discussion, Melissa Fleming, the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, emphasized the need for change, highlighting that the progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as a blueprint for peace and prosperity – is currently not on track.
Responding to the growing demand for reform, UN 2.0 represents a shift in how UN system organizations operate, aiming to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Guy Ryder, the Under-Secretary-General for Policy, who brings extensive experience from his decade-long tenure leading the International Labour Organization (ILO), explained that the purpose of UN 2.0 is to equip UN organizations with the contemporary expertise required to be an effective partner for Member States in the twenty-first century.
A transformed UN leaves no one behind
Catherine Pollard, the Under-Secretary-General for Management Strategy, Policy, and Compliance, explained that the primary beneficiaries of UN 2.0 are the people the UN serves in its 193 member countries. “But equally important, UN 2.0 is about UN organizations themselves, because they will develop new skills, new talent, new purpose to better deliver our mandate.”
The UN continues to be a relevant player in the multilateral arena. To maintain this relevance, Ms. Pollard said, the Organization will develop employees’ skills, offer more training, attract new talents, and improve human resources policies.
Like many things in the modern world, UN 2.0 will be driven by digital solutions and cutting-edge technologies. Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer of UNDP, the UN agency promoting international development, advocated for the potential that new technologies offer and contemplated on what the future can bring.
“AI is the current challenge, but there will be quantum computing and other breakthroughs around the corner, what we haven’t even anticipated,” he said, adding that when the ‘Quintet of Change’ is successfully implemented across the UN system, the Organization’s agility in responding to new challenges and in helping Member States will increase dramatically.
Data, digital innovation, foresight and behavioural science play key roles
The UN is actively supporting Member States in their pursuit of new solutions. A network of innovation labs has been established in more than 90 countries, serving as platforms for sharing new expertise in technology, data and other areas.
One notable success story comes from Indonesia, explained Faizal Thamrin, Data Scientist at UN Global Pulse Asia-Pacific. He illustrated how his team collaborated with the Government and thousands of small and medium enterprises to prepare for the future. Additionally, the team’s data analytics skills, combined with Indonesia’s experience, helped replicate early warning systems for natural disasters across the region.
UN 2.0 extends beyond data and digital solutions. Behavioural science, a multidisciplinary field that integrates insights from psychology, economics, communications, data science, sociology, and more, plays a crucial role in the ‘Quintet of Change’.
Claire Hobden, an ILO expert on domestic work, provided an example from Argentina’s informal sector. With support from UN colleagues, the Government was able to significantly expand social security coverage to domestic workers, such as nannies and caregivers, who are often hard to reach.
“Through a very small intervention we hope to be able to give more people access to social security, realizing their rights and access to decent work,” said Ms. Hobden noting the huge potential of replicating these methods, as there are 75 million such workers around the globe.
‘With new tools, we can do better’
In conversation with senior diplomats, Mr. Ryder emphasized that UN 2.0 is about potential of doing our job better “if we take a fresh look at some of the things we’ve been doing for a long time.”
Commenting on the journey ahead for UN colleagues, Mr. Ryder said “What you’ve done has been great. Now we have new tools. Let’s pick up those new tools, use them and maybe we can improve on what we’ve done before. It’s not saying what happened in the past was bad. It’s saying what we do in the future can be better”.
The event was co-organized by the Permanent Missions of Norway and the Republic of Indonesia to the United Nations in partnership with the Executive Office of the Secretary-General.
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