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Making America Normal Again?

Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

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The recent U.S. election has been one of the tensest and most unpredictable in American history. Suffice it to say that, for the first time since 1920, the race for the Oval Office took place with a global pandemic as its backdrop. Back then, the Spanish flu took the lives of over 600,000 Americans, and this played an important role in Republican Warren Harding defeating Democrat James Cox. The GOP boosted its ratings by criticising the passive stance taken by the Woodrow Wilson Administration and the entire democratic elite, who had failed to make the promised progress in reforming the healthcare system. This year, during the Republic Administration’s tenure, 238,000 Americans had already died from COVID-19, which is the world’s highest number of deaths in absolute figures. This situation by default provided the Democrats with ammunition for their guns as they built their strategy on the Republican leadership having ignored problems in healthcare for four years and having developed no clear plan of action for emerging from the crisis. Over the last year, the number of Americans displeased with the measures the White House used to combat the pandemic has grown exponentially. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign only had to construct the technical part of their broad anti-Trump propaganda shrewdly.

Another distinctive feature of this race is its racial backdrop. Two major waves of discontent had swept across the U.S. during Donald Trump’s presidency. The first included fighting against the remaining Confederate monuments and flags. Unbridled though it was, it was mostly localised in Southern states, with a high percentage of the Black population. Protesters attempted to put forward demands, but the President responded rather harshly: he called on the protesters to respect the symbols of American history and not to politicise them. After that, the public and human rights organisations secured the support of the biggest media and launched a broad campaign painting the President and his administration as crypto-racists and white supremacists. The second wave took place after the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer pressing a knee on his neck during his arrest. A wave of “Black Lives Matter” mass rallies swept across the U.S., accompanied by pogroms carried out by African Americans and radical left-wing activists. Democrats had great experience of using such a situation in their favour (John Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964), and they immediately seized this highly valuable electoral agenda. Donald Trump’s only response was statistics showing that his presidency marked the lowest growth rate of Black unemployment. Yet all the pragmatic figures were predictably drowned in well-organised propaganda campaigns.

Clearly seeing their inevitable defeat in COVID-19 and racial unrest cases, Republicans attempted to find some damaging information about Joe Biden in the Ukrainian case. The attempts themselves and the hullaballoo surrounding them did, for a while, slow down the growing popularity of the former vice president, who was alleged to have used his position to lobby his family’s business interests on the Ukrainian market. The famous “Burisma case” did not, however, produce the expected results. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s pushy manner turned against him. After dismissed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified in Congress, the President was forced to cease his attacks and go on the defensive. To be fair, we should say that the Democrats’ elite launched the anti-Trump campaign on the first day of his presidency. The unique feature of the state systems devised by the founding fathers is that the presidential race is not a race between two persons but between elite systems proposing a particular philosophy for the future and appropriate mechanisms for putting it into practice. Groups and clans who used to be rivals now united to suppress the Trump-led Jacksonian revolt, and they poured huge financial, human, technological and media resources into achieving their goal.

Technically, Joe Biden has secured the requisite number of electors to become the 46th leader of the U.S. and the second (after Kennedy) Catholic president. Even so, Donald Trump’s campaign is insisting on recounts in several states where the incumbent claims elections might have been rigged. The Republican’s behaviour shows that he is unwilling to concede defeat and do down without a fight. This situation is creating additional tensions and deepening the rift in the country. Consequently, we cannot rule out both candidates’ supporters holding more rallies throughout the country and new confrontation lines emerging. The future course of events will largely depend on the Republicans’ regional leadership and their leadership in Congress. Their united front in support of Trump will mean they are ready to stand to the bitter end even if this means a second civil war. This scenario is only possible if the Supreme Court agrees to consider the possibility of vote-rigging and makes the decision to recount votes. Otherwise, the incumbent will eventually have to acknowledge defeat and transfer power peacefully. During his tenure, however, Donald Trump managed to provoke the dislike of many influential fellow Republicans, which makes the Republican elite less willing to undertake such grave risks for his second term in office.

Be it as it may, Joe Biden has essentially been elected, and the main question now is his policies for the next four years. He hails from one of America’s oldest political clans: one of his paternal ancestors was William Biden, among the richest capitalists in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware; on his maternal side, he comes from the once politically influential Blewitt family, who had for a long time been the backbone of Pennsylvania’s political and financial elite. Joe Biden’s great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, is believed to have been the founder of the Irish Catholic lobby and a key figure in the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, who assisted Irish immigrants and strove to have their representatives in all important public and political areas. With time, the organisation became an important mechanism for balancing the excessively powerful Celtic Protestant groups (Ulster Scots, Scotch-Irish), and the Bidens and the Blewitts played an important part in that respect. Throughout his career, Joe Biden had close ties with the U.S. Irish Catholic elites and enjoyed their support, particularly that of the Kennedys and the Fitzsimmonses. So it is unsurprising that, when he left the office of the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2008, he handed on the vacant post to his closest comrade-in-arms, the Irish Catholic John Kerry; during Barack Obama’s second term, Joe Biden lobbied Kerry’s move to the office of State Secretary.

Personnel decisions Joe Biden made in the Senate and in the Obama Administration show that the notional Irish factor will become a principal element in forming the future cabinet. In domestic politics, the new President will face several fundamental difficulties. Even though the Democrats have retained their majority in the House of Representatives, the party rift will become more obvious under the new administration since, over the last four years, the Democrats’ iron party discipline and their unity stemmed from their mission to prevent Trump from being re-elected. This goal has been achieved. Now individual special interest groups (ranging from neo-socialists to moderates) will fight tooth and nail to advance their own agenda and initiatives on the most topical issues, the most pressing being combating the coronavirus pandemic (a reason to reform the healthcare system). Joe Biden’s principal trump card is his extensive experience in working within the legislation as a senator and with the legislation as vice president. Additionally, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker (an Italian Catholic) will also directly lobby Biden’s line on Capitol Hill; over the last two years, Pelosi has become quite influential among various narrowly partisan groups.

Another problem is the difficulty of completely rolling back all of Trump’s economic policies and those initiatives that are already being actively implemented throughout the country. Of course, as far as rhetoric is concerned, he will stress the importance of boosting social programmes by raising taxes and cutting military spending and by going back to the globalist model, which entails re-launching talks on Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic projects. During a first term, however, being an experienced politician well-versed in the rules of the game, the new president is unlikely to become locked in open conflict with the military-industrial lobby, the energy sector, the intelligence, and particularly with farmers and industrialists. The last two categories are the backbone of the Republic and Trumpian electorate for whom Joe Biden should become one of their own, otherwise overcoming the painful rift will be virtually impossible. Unlike the inexperienced Donald Trump, Biden knows that a re-election campaign begins the day after the election and it depends for its success on the ability to build the correct balance of power between all actors in social and public life: from public workers to billionaires. So, in 2020–2024, Biden should not be expected to take any radical economic steps. On the contrary, he is likely to keep in place many of the protectionist measures instituted by his predecessor.

Many American analysts predict that Joe Biden’s foreign policy will continue Barack Obama’s neo-Wilsonian line. This forecast, however, is hard to agree with. In his first four years, Obama largely relied on his State Secretary Hillary Clinton, who, through internal struggle, succeeded in dampening the influence of neoconservatives such as Robert Gates (Defense Secretary until 2011) and Leon Panetta (CIA director until 2011 and Defense Secretary until 2013). Even so, many of her initiatives failed and the Libyan Benghazi fiasco seriously hurt her influence among her fellow party members, forcing Barack Obama to distance himself from Hillary Clinton. At that time, the experienced Joe Biden preferred to hover on the sidelines and influence the President through National Security Advisors James L. Jones Jr. (2009–2010) and Thomas Donilon (2010–2013), whose appointments he had lobbied. He also used his influence with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by his long-time protégé John Kerry. This leverage was very important, given that all appointments from top positions to ambassadors go through this committee. During Barack Obama’s second term, Biden solidified his standing: he promoted John Kerry (Irish Catholic) to the office of State Secretary, Chuck Hagel (an Irish Catholic who later converted to Protestantism) to the office of Defense Secretary, and Denis McDonough (Irish Catholic) to the office of the White House Chief of Staff.

Throughout his prosperous career, Joe Biden has never displayed an overly ideological approach to foreign policy. On the contrary, he might be called a classical realist who has always had a nose for topical trends and has endeavoured to minimise his involvement in undertakings that were obviously doomed to fail. Given his cautious attitude to war as a means for achieving external goals, he will primarily stress the philosophy of soft power and collective responsibility (via allies in Europe and Asia, too). Once again, no radical changes should be expected: the trade war with China is hard to stop quickly and painlessly and regaining control over Venezuela is equally difficult (yet support for the opposition will continue). Democrats and Joe Biden consistently accused Trump of liking Russia and of having ties with President Vladimir Putin. Consequently, Biden has, by default, to step up the anti-Russian policies (increased sanctions). Clearly, in some cases, including the Ukrainian one (which Biden supervised under Obama), Russia and the U.S. have certain red lines that, in themselves, are likely to keep the parties from arriving at fundamental agreements. The U.S. Administration’s stance on Russia’s domestic developments and on Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space has always been an important indicator for the Kremlin. Open support for non-mainstream opposition forces and complete disregard for Moscow’s opinion on, for instance, the Ukrainian question, were the principal causes of the acute cooling-off in the bilateral relations.

In the near future, the Belarus matter, to which Russia is highly sensitive, and the Nord Stream II problem may become the most urgent issues. Joe Biden has dwelled much on these subjects and frequently stated that Lukashenko’s rule and Europe’s remaining energy dependence on Moscow are inadmissible. Being, however, a pragmatic Democrat, he will do everything possible to avoid direct confrontation with Russia. For instance, in the Obama Administration, Biden opposed selling lethal weapons to Ukraine, and they were provided during Trump’s presidency. Moreover, Joe Biden was always rather critical toward Kyiv and he repeatedly noted the Ukrainian authorities’ inability to succeed in fighting corruption and democratising their country. The scenarios involving the parties going back to the problem of dismantling the fundamental treaty framework that both played an important role in bilateral relations and served as a global security foundation (the INF Treaty, nuclear arsenal reduction, etc.) are quite possible. At the same time, as regards Joe Biden and his future Administration’s potential approaches, it is important to remember that a determinedly harsh policy toward Russia is based on a bipartisan consensus. Congress has always approved sanctions and other anti-Moscow measures virtually unanimously, which is very rare for them.

As for the Middle East, Joe Biden, as one of those who had lobbied the Iranian deal, will attempt to revive it. If Democrats succeed in January in taking the Senate away from Republicans, there is every chance of rapid developments in that area. Much will depend on Tehran itself being willing to resume the dialogue. Pro-Israeli lobbyists will have little influence on the White House, but Biden is unlikely to abolish Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. At the same time, Israel should be getting ready for the new administration to put major pressure on it regarding the West Bank settlements. Some changes will certainly be seen in U.S. relations with the Gulf monarchies and with Turkey: the White House will certainly demand results in protecting human rights and it will also create new mechanisms for limiting the influence their lobbyists have in Washington. The Turkish opposition has been greatly inspired by Donald Trump’s defeat and has even congratulated Biden on his victory, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adopted wait-and-see tactics. The Turkish leader realises that Biden will certainly want to use the Fethullah Gülen (Erdogan’s principal opponent currently residing in the U.S.) factor and the mounting discontent with the current regime in Turkey itself to put pressure on Ankara on several strategic issues, including the purchase of Russian S-400s.

***

In general, Joe Biden’s victory should not be seen as a precursor of inevitable radical changes in domestic and foreign policy. The new President and his Administration will have to devote a significant chunk of their time to searching for formulae that would enable them to overcome the deep rift in American society. The record voter turnout also evidences a highly politicised nation, which is a marker of deep-running systemic problems. As a rule, heightened expectations do not materialise (as Barack Obama’s story clearly demonstrates), while many problems remain unresolved. The dilapidation of today’s political system (particularly the party system) is so obvious that no president, no administration will be able to introduce fundamental changes without revamping the system first. Only time will tell whether Joe Biden sets himself the task of going down in American history as a president who launched an in-depth transformation or whether he will become another top manager for the executive branch mired in the Washington swamp. One thing is certain: this election showed how serious and dangerous the crisis of state and national identity in the U.S. is.

From our partner RIAC

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Americas

The 4 groups of Senate Republicans that will decide Trump’s impeachment trial

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With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pushing back the Trump impeachment trial to mid-February to make sure things cool down, Senate Republicans’ positions on the vote are far from crystallized yet. Here are the four groups of Senate Republicans, according to views and likely vote. The numbers and composition of these four groups will decide Trump’s future political faith. Which group Mitch McConnell chooses to position himself in will also be a deciding factor in the unusual and curious impeachment trial of a former US president no longer sitting in office.

Group 1: The Willing Executioners

There surely are those in the Republican Party such as Senator Mitt Romney and Senator Ben Sasse who cannot wait to give that Yea and the final boot to disgraced former President Trump, and will do that with joy and relief. Both the Utah Senator and the Nebraska Senator may be vying for the leadership spot in the Republican Party themselves but that is not the whole story. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska openly said “I want him out.” This group is unlikely to reach as many as 17 Senators, however, needed for the two thirds Senate majority to convict Trump.

Group 2: The Never Give up on Trumpers

There are also those Republican Senators who will stick with Trump through thick and thin until the end – some out of conviction, but most as someone who cannot afford to alienate the Trump supporter base in their state – a supporter base which is still as strong. 

At least 21 Republican Senators are strongly opposed to voting to convict former President Trump, as reported by Newsweek. They realize that doing so would be a political suicide. Republican voters, on the whole, are unified in their belief that the presidential elections were not fair and Joe Biden did not win legitimately, with 68% of Republican voters holding the belief that the elections were “rigged”. The majority of the Republican Party constituents are Never Give up on Trumpers themselves.

Among them are Senators Cruz and Hawley. Both will fight at all cost a vote which certifies as incitement to violence and insurrection the same rhetoric they both themselves used to incite the Trump crowd. Cruz and Hawley will try to avoid at all cost the legal certification of the same rhetoric as criminal in order to avoid their own removal under the 14th Amendment, as argued already by Senator Manchin and many others.

Senator Ron Johnson even called upon Biden and Pelosi to choose between the Trump impeachment trial and the Biden new cabinet confirmation. Group 2 will fight fierce over the next weeks and you will recognize them by the public rhetoric.

Group 3: I’d really like to but I can’t be on the record for convincing a President of my own party

Then there is a large group of Republican Senators – maybe the largest – who would really like to give that Yea vote and leave Trump behind but they do not wish to go on the record as having voted to convict a US President from their own party. Some of these Senators will share their intention to vote Yea in private or off the record with the media, but when push comes to shove and the final vote, they will be hesitant and in the end will vote Nay. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida falls under Group 3.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is also the illustration of the average Republican Senator right now – someone who said that Trump committed “impeachable offenses” but who is not sure about convicting him through trial, so that probably means a Nay. 

The BBC quoted a New York Time’s estimate from mid-January that as many as 20 Republican Senators are open to voting to convict Trump, but it should be recalled that in the first Trump impeachment trial in 2020, several Republican Senators also shared in private and off the record that they would be willing to convict. After so much discussion, calculations and prognosis, in the end, it was only Senator Mitt Romney who broke ranks on only one of the two impeachment articles, and voted to convict.

The Capitol events, of course, are incomparable to the Ukraine impeachment saga, but it should be accounted for that the trial vote will likely take place sometime in March 2021, or two months after the Capitol events, when most of the tension and high emotion would have subsided and much of American society will be oriented towards “moving forward”. Group 3 will host the majority of Senate Republicans who in the end will decide to let it go. Most of the 21 Republican Senators who already expressed their opposition to convicting Trump actually belong to Group 3 and not Group 2 Never Give up on Trumpers.

Group 4: I am a Never Give up on Trumper but I really want to look like Group 3

And finally, there is the most interesting group of Republican Senators who are secretly a Never Give up on Trumpers but would like to be perceived as belonging to the hesitant and deliberative Group 3 – willing and outraged but unwilling to go all the way on the record to eliminate a former Republican President.

Senator Ted Cruz might move into Group 4 in terms of rhetoric. Never Give up on Trumpers will vote Nay willingly but will try to present themselves as conflicted Group 3 politicians doing it for different reasons.

Which group Mitch McConnel chooses will be the decisive factor in aligning the Senate Republican votes. McConnel himself seems to be a Group 3 Senator who, in the end, is unlikely to rally the rest of the Senators to convict Trump even though McConnel would really like Trump out of the Republican Party, once and for all. The very fact that McConnel is not in a hurry and is in fact extending the cool-off period places him in Group 3. 

Yea voters don’t need time to think about it and look at things. It took House Democrats exactly three days to get it over and done with. McConnel is quoted as willing to give time to “both sides to properly prepare”, allowing former president Trump enjoy due process. But Trump’s legal team will notice quickly that there is not much to prepare for, as they won’t find plenty of legal precedent in the jurisprudence on American Presidents’ incitement to violent insurrection for stopping the democratic certification process on an opponent who is the democratically elected President.

McConnel himself has said that he is “undecided” and that speaks volumes. He is a Group 3 Senate Republican, and with that, Group 3 will describe the mainstream Senate Republicans’ position in the impeachment trial. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set 8 February as the start of the impeachment trial, pushing earlier McConnel’s time frame. This is when it all starts.

It is my prediction that when all is said and done, there won’t be as many as 17 Senate Republicans to vote to convict former President Trump. Trump will walk away, but not without the political damage he has incurred himself and has also left in American political life.

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Two Ways that Trump Spread Covid-19 in U.S.

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Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

1. Encouraging infected workers to continue working even if it infects others:

On 12 May 2020, two hundred and twenty five labor organizations signed a letter to Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia who was Donald Trump’s appointed Secretary of Labor, and it urged his Department to change its policies “that address the standards that apply under the federal U[nemployment] I[insurance] law to determine when workers remain eligible for regular state UI or P[andemic] U[nemployment] A[ssistance] if they leave work or refuse to work due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns.” In more-common language, an economist Jared Bernstein headlined in the Washington Post six days later on May 18th, “The Labor Department is forcing workers back to jobs that could make them sick” and he explained that Scalia’s Department “has issued guidance that virtually ignores health risks and encourages employers to report workers who refuse job offers [while unemployed] so their unemployment payments can be taken away. The agency is busy urging employers to snitch on ‘claimants that have turned down suitable work.’” Trump’s Labor Department ignored the labor-organizations’ letter. Then, a barista headlined at Huffpost on 22 January 2021, “I Work In A Coffee Shop In Montana. Anti-Maskers Have Made My Job Hell.” She complained that the many customers who refused to wear masks were causing her to fear working there — she was blaming those customers, but not Trump. However, Trump and his Labor Secretary were responsible and simply didn’t care about the safety of workers, such as her, and were instead encouraging employers to force these workers to stay on the job, though doing so endangered themselves and their co-workers. Millions of infected workers were infecting others because not to would cause them to become fired and could ultimately force them into homelessness. Maybe the billionaires who funded Trump’s political career profited from such exploitation of their employees, but nationally this policy helped to increase the spreading of Covid-19. Also: since so many of those bottom-of-the-totem-pole employees are Blacks and Hispanics, etc., this Trump policy helped to cause the drastically higher infection-rates that have been reported among such groups.

2. Refusing to deal with the pandemic on a national basis:

On 15 July 2020, the Washington Post headlined “As the coronavirus crisis spins out of control, Trump issues directives — but still no clear plan” and reported that, “health professionals have urged the White House to offer a disciplined and unified national message to help people who are fatigued more than five months into the crisis and resistant to changing social behaviors, such as wearing masks and keeping a distance from others. Trump, for instance, refused to be seen publicly wearing a mask until last weekend, when he sported one during a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. ‘You can get a really strong and eloquent governor who can help at the state level, but it does seem like we need some more national messaging around the fact that for many people, this is the most adversity they’ve faced in their life,’ said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.” Every country (such as China, Vietnam, Venezuela, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, and Finland) that has been far more successful than America is at having a low number of Covid-19 cases (and deaths) per million residents has dealt with the pandemic on a national and not merely local basis, but all of the worst-performing countries (such as America, which now is at 76,407 “Tot Cases/1M pop”) have not.

It therefore also stands to reason that 

which ranks all 50 states according to how high is the number of Covid-19 infections per million inhabitants, shows (and links to the data proving) that “In 2016, the top 17 [most Covid-infected states] voted for Trump, and the bottom 5 voted for Clinton. All but 3 of the top 24 voted for Trump.” The correlation of high Covid-infection-rate with Trump-voting was astoundingly high. Trump, it seems, gave the high-infection-rate states what they had wanted. But what he gave to America is the highest Covid-19 infection-rate of any nation that has at least 11 million population. It is the 7th-highest Covid-19 infection-rate among all 219 reporting nations. Trump’s policies produced the type of results that had been expected by well-informed people around the world.

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A Most Unusual Inaugural

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President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden enter the inauguration platform during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Sic transit gloria mundi — thus passes worldly glory, which seems an apt phrase for the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. became the 46th president of the United States at noon on January 20th, and earlier  Donald J. Trump departed the White House quietly for Florida — his last ride on Air Force One as president — leaving behind a generous and gracious letter for Biden.  So it is described by Joe Biden himself.  Trump did not attend the inauguration, the first president not to do so since Woodrow Wilson in 1921, who remained inside the Capitol building because of poor health while his successor Warren G. Harding was installed.

It was a most unusual inauguration this time.  There were no crowds on the lawns outside; instead row upon row of American flags representing them.  The official attendees all wore masks and included three former Presidents (Obama, the younger Bush and Clinton).  President Carter, who is in his 90s and frail, sent his apologies. 

The usual late breakfast before the ceremony and the lunch afterwards were also cancelled — one cannot eat with a mask in place!  No evening inaugural balls either.  These were sometimes so many that the new president and his lady could only spend a few minutes at each.  In their stead, there was a virtual inaugural celebration hosted by Tom Hanks the actor.  It consisted mostly of pop-singers who supported Biden plus a disappointing rendering of Amazing Grace by Yo-Yo Ma on his cello. 

Biden’s first act was to sign a series of executive orders to undo some of Trump’s policies.  He announced the U.S. would not leave the World Health Organization (WHO) and would continue to contribute to it.  On climate change a complete policy reversal now means the U.S. will abide by the Paris climate accord.   

Biden’s other executive orders totalling 15 responded to the coronavirus crisis with the goal of giving 100 million vaccine shots by the end of April.  He proposes to establish vaccine centers at stadiums and community facilities and also plans to speed up production of the supplies required for making vaccines.

The U.S. now has lost 406,000 lives (and counting) from COVID-19.  That number is noted to be greater than U.S. deaths during WW2.  The virus has so far infected 24.5 million people.  However, the problem is more complicated than simply inoculating everyone.

Swedish authorities report that 23 people, mostly elderly and having other health issues, have died after being given the Pfizer vaccine.  Its side effects apparently can be severe and mimic the disease itself.  Thus given a choice, one would prefer the Moderna vaccine.  

Old age is a poignant sight to behold.  Biden the ex high school football star now having difficulty lifting his feet to walk.  Very gamely, he even tried a jog or two to say a quick hello to bystanders during his short walk to the White House.  We wish him well and hope for a successful presidential term.  Thirty-six years as senator and eight years as vice-president certainly make him one of the most experienced to sit in the White House Oval Office.   Good luck Mr. President!  

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