In a continued great power competition world amid COVID-19, some Eastern sharp powers have been visibly attacking our values, rights, global architecture and worldview, as well as our hope for the future. Because, by attacking trust and economic and security means, one attacks both present and future. In a Joint Communication released at the end of last week, the European Commission and the High Representative explicitly state that “Russia and China have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU”. The gloves are off, and the EU seems to grasp the magnitude of the problem in the context of its broader “geopolitical” realignment, but the question remains whether its myriad of initiatives and plans will converge towards a pan-European strong and effective answer. One essential point here refers to how a carefully-designed general framework will be implemented and how different types of institutions and organisations (some outside Europe, but sharing similar values and interests) will cooperate and adapt their approaches to tackle one of the main challenges of our times.
Prior to COVID-19 those most inclined towards ignoring security concerns could claim that “they were not seeing it”, that the cocktail of disinformation, misinformation, and fake news had negligible consequences. Now we can connect the dots, and the result shows a game of smoke and mirrors which has tricked many and which increased the reputational risks of our organisations and institutions, at global, continental/regional, or national/local levels. As EU’s High Representative Borrell said, disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill. Thus, whether you are working for NATO, the WTO, the European Commission, the African Bank for Development, the Gates Foundation or a German exporting multinational, to name just a few global players, you should be concerned. The solution to the COVID-19 infodemic, I argue further down, is action not (continued) reaction (including by invoking naivete, like some top EU officials did in the past), and particularly substantial ecosystem action: we can’t succeed by a communications response alone. Before going into implementation mode, we should fully grasp the strategic dimension — the bigger picture.
There are two levels of impact of the infodemic we are experiencing. First, the obvious, simple, “above the line”, against which everyone warned – how the West “didn’t help” (enough), and how liberal democracies are useless when it comes to actually doing things and protecting people. Then, things get complex. The second level is topical and subversive; it has two main features. First, it works as “infotainment”: whether reading an outraged column in the militant media, or a social media post about cute cats that are more useful in life than politicians, the infodemic narrative is capable of insinuating itself in such content to make you dismantle everything that was wrong with society and government that allowed COVID-19 to happen (to you). The second feature: the message has to be, or look, self-evident, since, of course, it was by greed (spot the partial backlash against global philanthropies via conspiracy theories), by departing from care for the people, that such profoundly wrong things could be allowed to happen.
The majority of the counter-communication from the West and responsible world media tried to mitigate the impact of the overarching theme – that of the dismantlement of the Western-made world order. However, few have had the time and attention to warn against the industry level-infodemic themes. If, for example, the EU wants to empower citizens, raise awareness, and increase societal resilience in relation to infodemics, then this is a point to consider. As a brief inventory, we’ve seen debates about central banks, new monetary policy, and managed markets; about increased socialisation and mutualisation of responsibilities and support; and about possibly reshoring production facilities amid rethinking global supply chains. All these can be the target of disinformation campaigns and it really helps to address the potential damaging narratives head-on and from the start.
These, however, are wonderful macro-approaches, but they bring little clarity and concreteness at the level of the day-to-day organisational life, as well as individual fears amid talks of global recession and possibly depression. In an effort to bring intelligibility and certainty to your colleagues, partners, and stakeholder ecosystem, whether as EU decision-maker, UN SecGen, head of a MNC, or a line manager, from a strategic communication perspective you have had to transmit stability and confidence in the future. And it all worked fine, in the first week or so, until the economic numbers attached to coronavirus came in. Are you starting to be worried about the future? Imagine how those not on top of the hierarchy feel. So, don’t be fooled by infodemic talk, look into a reality check of global and local expectations and fears.
On the backdrop of opaqueness and lack of information from their own countries, our “competitors” have been digging at the base of our edifice, and cracks are starting to appear. For the first time in Germany, the US, and other countries, or multinational cities such as Brussels, people are starting to fear the future – something they have not known since World War Two. If you were wondering why people are attacking their governments and lockdown measures, why the protests are drawing such large crowds. it is because they are starting to no longer believe in a “return to normal”. They may be on to something. For the first time in 70 years, Western societies will need to learn a new script; again, this is a process of substance not just communications, so solutions have to be substantial, not shallow soundbites. In fact, they will need to create it, as we are all learning as we work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and tectonic geopolitical shifting. Against this backdrop, those that do not lead will be penalised more than those taking the prudent route. Against the backdrop of many in a position of leadership being accused of being too ineffective, those that at least try may have a chance to get a less bad reputation in the end, even if not proven right. “Bold prudence” may become a guiding mantra for the coming times.
In order to not deceive the expectations of the wider stakeholder community, organisational leaders need to consider a number of actions. I have grouped them in five categories. First, take bold action and turn the table. Engage with the wider community, build a dialogue of ‘system of systems’, and turn the heat on to spur creativity and urgency. Second, you can’t afford to focus in just one direction, think ecosystem, because the world will continue shifting and readjusting for another couple of years. This will be a chain of Ws, because after the public health issue we will have to deal with the economics, then with the political fallout, policy, geopolitics, implementation of reshoring etc, if not even manage several of these at the same time. So, do keep an ear to the ground and be open to any sort of exotic ideas.
Third, build a guiding coalition – from a diverse group of thinkers; build a support coalition – because those boards and shareholders will not convince themselves; then build an implementation coalition – because even in countries with 35h work weeks and strong labour unions, if you want your organisation or your country to survive, you may need to wake people up in the middle of the night and have them work weekends. And then make sure to build a critical coalition, to ensure you constantly question your assumptions and you strive for the best data and science possible. However, don’t delay decision making in the hope of consensus. Fourth, don’t be a slave to the stock exchange or quick wins, perceptions and applause. Since the beginning of the crisis, rating companies have shown incredible restraint, and the stock markets have been decoupled from the real economy. But when the hammer will drop, all those rankings may be talking about the before-COVID world and describe in no way your preparedness and capacity to function in the after-Covid reality. So, prepare yourself and those around you, both emotionally and technically, to “decouple” from the ratings and the reporting standards you’ve gotten used to. The reporting standards will survive. But few have had the practice in the Western world for the first reporting to turn in to be “in the interest of the state”.
Fifth, various organisations, corporations, primarily, have proven impressively resilient and have worked against the current over the past five months at pulling transatlantic ties together. Clearly, NATO is not defunct or braindead, nor is the European project. It is just ironic that corporations have had to pick-up the slack of the societies that were supposed to close in ranks around our community of values. As a leader, you should take pride in that and engage in these heterodox circles. This “counter cyclical” political economy dialogue can constitute the basis for a new economy starting as early as this summer. It can also bring the Transatlantic West back together, in a wider recovery boat also with the Global South. Rather than bet on Cold War & Containment 2.0, it is better to invest in Collective Recovery as competitive advantage in great power rivalry.
So, fear not what the future brings about and include everyone in the conversation about setting new bases for the post-COVID world. By action, and not by just complaining (in reaction mode) about the infodemic, you can win the COVID-19 Recovery March. Focus on substance, not just soundbites, on coalitions not just communications, to defeat this disinformation 2.0 powered by coronavirus. You will thereby manage hope, address fears, and offer a new societal and organisational deal. It may not be Sinatra’s way, but it may prove an effective way forward.
Should Turkey and Azerbaijan Be Worried About Killed Syrian Mercenaries?
Just a few weeks ago many analysts and observers were sceptical about reports of Turkey’s transferring units of its Syrian National Army (SNA) proxies to Nagorno Karabakh, even more so because Turkish officials denied any such claims. However, as evidence of massive casualties among the Syrian mercenaries continues to mount, there is little space left for doubt: SNA fighters have become cannon fodder in the Turkish operation in support of Azerbaijan.
The first batch of bodies of those Syrians who perished in Nagorno Karabakh counted over 50 people, according to messages and videos that went viral on opposition WhatsApp and Telegram channels. Among the dead who were delivered to Syria over Hiwar Kilis border crossing and were given a hasted burial were men from Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and other regions of Syria. Many of their relatives, like families of Muhammad Shaalan from Atareb and Kinan Ferzat from Maarat al-Nuuman, were shocked to learn about their death.
Just like the majority of the Syrians who travelled to Nagorno Karabakh, Muhammad and Firzat were primarily motivated by lucrative rewards of up to 2,000 dollars promised by Turkey. “I came here to make money and have a better life back in Syria where the living conditions are miserable. I consider this a job, nothing else,” a member of Liwa Sultan Murad, one of the first SNA factions to deploy its fighters to the contested region, told Guardian.
The reason behind heavy casualties of the Syrian mercenaries is that they are thrown into action where the clashes are the most violent, including Jabrayil, Terter, Fizulin and Talysh. This move allows Azerbaijan to keep its military, who mainly provide air support including operating Turkey-made Bayraktar TB2 UAVs and coordinate artillery and missile strikes of the Armenian positions, out of direct contact with the enemy.
The estimates of the numbers of the Syrian mercenaries present in Nagorno Karabakh are wildly different. While initial reports put their number at 500 men, it is currently believed that the actual number may be in thousands. This data indicates that at least 10 percent of the fighters were killed during the very first days of the escalation – a serious alarm for the mercenaries as well as their Turkish backers.
These developments must ring a bell for Azerbaijan as well. The longer the conflict protracts, the higher the risk of casualties among the Azeri servicemen becomes, who have already suffered losses in Armenian retaliation strikes. Baku has managed to avoid discontent among the military as well as the civilian populace – not least thanks to the Syrian mercenaries crushed as cannon fodder – but this can not continue for long.
Emerging Multipolarity and its consequences
“Make America great again” a slogan that formed the nucleus of trump’s electoral campaign vividly suggests that America is no more a great country. It is, in fact, an implicit admission that U.S is gradually losing its clout in international politics and hence, its image as a sole superpower of the world has virtually tarnished. Let me rephrase this connotation; it means that the era of unipolar world is over and the world has now transitioned to a multipolarirty.
Currently, new power centers are emerging in transnational political landscape. China, Russia, India and Turkey are excessively engaged to carve a niche for them in evolving international order. Most importantly, with China and Russia’s mushrooming proximity, balance of power is now shifting from west to east. Former United States (US) Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton at her state visit to New Zealand was one of the first to observe “a shifting balance of power to a more multi-polar world as opposed to the Cold War model of a bipolar world”. This conspicuous change in multi-national political setup was also realized by Ban ki Moon, the then secretary- General of United Nations who stated at Stanford University in 2013 that we have begun to “move increasingly and irreversibly to a multi-polar world”. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, also declared at the Russia-China Conference 2016 that “international relations have entered into a conceptually new historical stage that consists in the emergence of a multi-polar world order and reflects the strengthening of new centers of economic development and power”.
These manifestations of political spin doctors have since then revealed a general acceptance of the idea of multi-polar world as a concept that is inescapable political reality in the contemporary international dynamics. However, when it comes to the transitions and inevitability of power structures, there is a little agreement among the international states.
A much stronger resistance to forego unipolarity remains embedded in the Trump administration vision to “make America great again”. Political pundits such as Robert Kaplan continue to question, whether there is an overlap of unipolar and multi-polar world realities; where US continues to retain the supremacy in military realm of affairs and is anticipated to remain so for a considerable future time, whereby China leads in the economic realm. Additionally nations in the former Third World are acquiring status as rising powers, notably India who have over the years with smart diplomacy have acquired global outreach to shape international agenda.
Chronologically, After World War II, the U.S. became the undisputed and unchallenged global superpower. It was the only country, equipped with nuclear warheads and was one of the few countries involved in the war that came away from it relatively unscathed at home. The U.S. underwent a meager loss of approximately 400,000 soldiers and a fractional amount of civilians in the war. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, incurred a gigantic loss of around 11 million soldiers and some 7 million to 10 million civilians. While Soviet and European cities were undergoing the process of rehabilitation, American cities flourished. It seemed clear to all that the future belonged to the United States.
But it didn’t take long for the luster of unrivaled power to tarnish. The U.S. military machine relaxed as quickly as it had mobilized, and wartime unity gave way to peacetime political debates over government spending and entitlement programs. Within five years, a bipolar world emerged: The Soviets attained an atomic bomb, and the U.S. was caught flat-footed in a war on the Korean Peninsula that ended in a stalemate. Soon thereafter, the U.S. was withdrawing from Vietnam and rioting at home. In 1971, then-President Richard Nixon predicted a world that he said would soon emerge in which the U.S. was “no longer in the position of complete pre-eminence.” Within 26 years of the end of World War II, Nixon’s prediction saw the light of the day and the U.S. had to resign to its fate.
Theoretically, multipolarity refers to a distribution of power in which more than two states have nearly equal amounts of military, cultural, financial and economic influence.
If we look at the contemporary world, we find that with the rise of like China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil, global power will spread across a wider range of countries, hence, a new world order with multipolar outlook is likely to emerge .
Realistically speaking, several revisionist powers are and will shaking up their regions. For instance, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 – annexing Crimea, over which it has fought several wars throughout history (mainly with Turkey). In turn, Turkey is asserting its sovereignty over the eastern Mediterranean to the frustration of countries like Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and Israel. Meanwhile, India has upped its aggression in its border dispute with Pakistan as Modi began a process to revoke the autonomous status of the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir.
Notably, after the age of city-states and nation-states, we are now entering the age of continental politics. The most powerful countries of the 21st century (the U.S., China, Russia India, Indonesia, and Brazil) are the size of continents. They have broad economic bases and their digital economies potentially have hundreds of millions of users. Internationally, their scale requires them to seek broad spheres of influence in order to protect their security.
Here the question arises what will be the impact of growing multipolarity in the world? First of all, revisionist powers will increasingly ignite tensions. The growing assertiveness of countries like Russia, Turkey and India is the new normal. As they grow more powerful, these countries will seek to revise arrangements in order to reflect the new realities of power. Because these (continental) states seek broad spheres of influence, many places are at risk of destabilization.
Second, one of the biggest risks is the growing paranoia of the hegemon (the U.S.). The current trade war has shown how destabilizing the policy of the (financial) hegemon becomes as it feels threatened by the rise of a rival. Historically, this has been the most important source of violent conflicts. Indeed, the biggest source of uncertainty in the coming years is how the U.S. will react to the rise of China.
Third, the world order will become more ambiguous. Two developments deserve our attention. First, the growing use of shadow power will make conflict more unpredictable. With digital tools, states (and non-state actors) are manipulating each other in subtle ways. For example, Russian hackers posed as Iranians to hit dozens of countries and Americans blamed Russia for tampering with American elections. Second, alliances will also become more ambiguous. With ever changing dynamics of world economy, new alliances, motivated by the concept of triangulation (to keep balance in relation with the US and China, the trade warriors) will form and such alliances, as predicted by spin doctors; will be less stable than the blocs, formed in 20th century.
To sum it up, before we reach a multipolar world order, we will see a period of growing uncertainty based on the rise of revisionist powers, the paranoia of the U.S. and growing ambiguity of conflict and cooperation. Moreover, the political pundits are divided in opinion that whether multi-polarity is unstable than unipolarity or bipolarity. Kenneth Waltz strongly was in favor of “bipolar order as stable”. On the other side, Karl Deutsch and David Singer saw multi-polarity as guaranteeing a greater degree of stability in an article published in 1964, “Multipolar Systems and International Stability”. Simon Reich and Richard Ned Lebow in “Goodbye Hegemony” (2014), question the belief whether a global system without a hegemon would be unstable and more war prone. However, whatever the system the world is likely to witness in the days to come, let’s hope that this should be in the best interest of humanity and it should make the lives of the inhabitants of this planet peaceful and prosperous.
The future of strategic intelligence
There are currently three types of intelligence transformations, namely conceptual, technological and operational.
In the first case, we are dealing with a new and original intelligence paradigm.
From a mechanism based on the identification of the need for information-research-processing and analysis-dissemination-feedback, we are shifting to what some people already call “position intelligence”.
In other words, we are coming to an information mechanism that continuously perceives data and processes it, and then spreads it permanently and continuously to those who have to use it.
While the old intelligence model was “positivist”, i.e it concerned single objective and empirical data to be included in a decision-making process that is not determined by intelligence, currently it is instead a matter of building acontinuous follow-up not of data, but of political behaviours, perceptions of reality by the enemy-opponent, as well as complex phenomena that constantly reach the intelligence matrix from different parts and areas.
While in the past intelligence was rhapsodic and temporary, à la carte of politicians, and sometimes even unsolicited and not requested, it currently becomes the stable core of political, strategic, economic and industrial decisions.
This obviously results in a new relationship between politicians and Intelligence Services.
While, in an era we have already defined as “positivist”, facts, news and the unknown novelties of the enemy-opponent counted, what currently matters is the ever more evident integration between the intelligence system and politicians.
There is obviously a danger not to be overlooked, i.e. the danger that – without even realizing it – the Intelligence Services take on responsibilities which must be typical of elective bodies only.
But certainly intelligence currently plays a much greater role than in the past.
Another key element of the conceptual transformation of intelligence is the use not only of highly advanced and powerful information technologies, but also of scientific paradigms which were unknown to us only a few years ago.
Just think about Artificial Intelligence, but also cloud computing, algorithm theory and Markov chains – and here we confine ourselves to the mathematics that sustains current IT and computing.
But there is also human ethology, an extraordinary evolution of Konrad Lorenz’s animal ethology, as well as social psychology, sociological analysis and scientific depth psychology.
A whole universe of theories that, in Kant’s words, have recently shifted from metaphysics to science.
It must certainly be used to analyse, for example, mass behaviours that seem unpredictable, as well as the psychological reactions of both the ruling classes and the crowds, and the interactions between the various group behaviours of a country.
Nothing to do with the old Habsburg Evidenzbureau, which informed the General Staff of enemy troops’ movements or of the various generals’ lovers.
We here witness a substantial union between intelligence and political decision-making or, rather, between the thought produced by intelligence and the foundations of political decision-making.
CIA has often tried to poison Fidel Castro’s beard.
Today, apart from the doubtful rationality of that operation, it would be a matter of using – for example – advertising, TV series, Hollywood movies, the sugar, tourist or tobacco market cycles, not to poison late Fidel’s beard, but to put the Cuban economy and decision-making system into structural crisis.
The typical idea of Anglo-Saxon political culture –whereby, once the “tyrant” is eliminated, everything can be fine and back in place – has been largely denied by facts.
All this obviously without being noticed, as far as the operations for disrupting a country are concerned.
Another factor of the conceptual transformation of intelligence is speed: currently the IT networks are such as to allow data collection in real time with respect to facts and hence favour wide-ranging decisions.
As far as technology is concerned, it is well known that both the AI networks, the new calculation structures, and the networks for listening and manipulating the enemy-opponent data are such as to allow operations which were previously not even imaginable.
At this juncture, however, there are two problems: everybody has all the same tools available and hence the danger of not “successfully completing” the operation is great, unlike when the Intelligence Services’ operations were based on the skills, role and dissimulation abilities of some operatives – or on confidential and restricted technologies.
The other problem is intelligence manipulation: a country that thinks to be a target can spread – in ad hoc networks – manipulated news, malware, data and information which are completely false, but plausible, and can modify the whole information system of the country under attack.
Another problem of current intelligence technologies is their distance from the “traditional” political decision-making centres.
A politician, a Minister, a Premier must know what comes out of the intelligence system. Nevertheless, it is so specialised and sectorial that the distance between technical data processing and the “natural language” of politics is likely to make data ambiguous or unclear and of little use.
Moreover, there is a purely conceptual factor to be noted: if we put together the analysis of financial cycles, of technology change, of public finance and of political and military systems, we must connect systems that operate relatively autonomously from each other.
In other words, there is no “science of the whole” that can significantly connect such different sectors.
Therefore, there is the danger of projecting the effects of one sector onto another that is only slightly influenced by it, or of believing that, possibly, if the economy goes well, also the public debt – for example -will go well.
The room for political decision-making is therefore much wider than modern intelligence analysts believe.
Political decision-making is still made up of history, political-cultural traditions and of perceptions of reality which are shaped by many years of psychological and conceptual training.
With specific reference to operativity, once again we are dealing with radical changes.
Years ago, there was the single “operative” who had to decide alone – or with very little support from the “Centre” – what to do on the spot and with whom to deal.
Today, obviously, there is still the individual operative, but he/she is connected to the “Centre” in a different way and, in any case, imagines his/her role differently.
On the level of political decision-making, intelligence is always operative, because reality is so complex and technically subtle that it no longer enables even the most experienced statesman to “follow their nose”.
The primary paradox of the issue, however, is that intelligence cannot take on political roles that imply a choice between equivalent options.
This is inevitably the sphere of politics.
Another factor of the operational transformation is the inevitable presence of intelligence operatives in finance, in the scientific world, in high-level business consulting, in advertising, communication and media.
Intelligence has therefore progressively demilitarised itself and is increasingly operating in sectors that we would have previously thought to be completely alien to Intelligence Services. Instead, they are currently the central ones.
Moreover, we are currently witnessing a particular mix of strategic intelligence, geopolitics and financial analysis.
Why finance? Because it is the most mobile and widespread economic function.
We are witnessing the birth of a new profession, namely currency geopolitics.
Hence we are also witnessing the evolution of two new types of intelligence, namely market intelligence (MARKINT) and financial intelligence (FININT).
An old and new problem is secrecy. The greater the extent to which old and new intelligence is used, the less it can keep secrecy, which is essential now as it was in the past.
What has always been the aim of strategic intelligence? To predict phenomena starting from a given context.
Contexts, however, change quickly and the interaction between sectors is such as to change the effect of forecasts.
The formalised techniques for analysis-decision making are manifold: intelligence data mining, “grid technologies”, knowledge creation and sharing, semantic analysis, key intelligence needs (KINS) and many others.
All operations which are often necessary, but currently we need to highlight two factors typical of the North American intelligence culture which, unfortunately, also negatively affects the models used by U.S. allies.
The first aspect is that, strangely enough, the same formal models are proposed for both companies and States.
A State does not have to maximize profits, while a corporation does, at least on a level playing field with its competitors.
A State is not a “competitor” of the others and ultimately a State has no specific “comparative advantage” but, on the contrary, some of its companies have, if this happens.
Therefore, the overlap between business intelligence, which is currently necessary, and States’ intelligence is a conceptual bias, typical of those who believe that a State is, as Von Mises said, “the joint stock company of those who pay taxes to it”.
For companies, it is obvious that all specific and original intelligence operations must be known to the State apparata, which may coordinate them or not, considering that they inevitably have additional data.
On the other hand, some business operations can become very useful for intelligence.
Hence a structure would be needed to put the two “lines” of operations together, and above all, a new intelligence concept is needed.
In the past, the Intelligence Services’ operations were largely defensive: to know something just before it happened, to avoid the adverse operations of a State hitting its own resources, but all with often minimal time limits.
Now we need expressly offensive intelligence which can hit the opponents’ (commercial, economic and strategic) networks before they move and in good time.
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