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Will Biden be able to rebuild US credibility in Asia?

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The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin just announced their diplomatic visit to Japan and South Korea at the end of March. This will be the first-ever overseas trip by any Cabinet officials in the Biden administration. Shortly after the announcement, Biden also scheduled a virtual Quad meeting with Japan, India and Australia to exchange views on a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific region on 12th March. The Department of Defense even described these meetings are to strengthen the alliance as the alliance is a “cornerstone of peace and security”.  US is stepping up its endeavors to revitalize its ties with its partners, but are these enough to restore US reliability in the region? 

US absence by Trump fostered Japan’s leading role in Asia  

Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy prompted Japan to step up its efforts to create a more independent foreign policy, rather than merely relying on the US for regional security. Trump’s “America First” policy, from rejecting an open, multilateral trade bloc to blatantly questioning the US’ expenditure spending to his allies, inflicted distrust among Asian countries.  On one hand, Trump decided to withdraw the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and on the other, Trump threatened to remove stationing of the US troops if the allies refused to pay for the cost of deployments, accusing them “free-riders“. Such distrust of Trump’s presidency triggered Tokyo’s fear of Washington’s possible abandonment, as US’ commitment to Asia was shown conditional only.

Therefore, Japan seemed to have accepted the likelihood of a reducing American role in the region.  To prepare itself for a possible US abandonment, Tokyo shifted its foreign policy focus to engaging Southeast Asia. During Trump’s administration, Abe emphasized ASEAN importance in its foreign policy, such as the “Five Principles of Japan’s ASEAN Diplomacy” to promote political norms and civil rights, free sea and open economies.  Even when Suga, Abe’s successor, came to power, he delivered an inaugural speech and shed light on the significance of ASEAN in achieving a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which aligns with Abe’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) vision. His speech intended to form a united stance with ASEAN by highlighting the rule of law for territorial disputes and ensuring freedom of navigation. This reflects Japan’s determination in deepening its foothold to contribute to regional security through spreading liberal norms.  

In these years, Japan’s leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region gained recognition, particularly those in Southeast Asia due to their shared perception of China’s maritime assertiveness. Beijing has taken advantage of the US diminishing engagement to flex its muscles in the region. For instance, Beijing attempted to fill the power vacuum left by Washington by pushing for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Additionally, Beijing also began its extensive dredging and military operations in the South China Sea, such as its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) tests near the disputed Spratly islands to show off its counter-intervention capabilities. Because of the shared threat perception of China, Japan is welcomed by its Asian neighbors.  First of all, Tokyo further boosted economic cooperation with them. For instance, Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, which focuses on Southeast Asia and is backed by concessional financing, offers an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  Alongside economic aspects, Japan and the Philippines conducted their first joint naval exercises and agreed to provide six patrol vessels to enhance Vietnam’s patrolling capabilities in the South China Sea. Due to the friendly ties established, a recent poll by CSIS found that over 90 per cent of ASEAN respondents regard Japan as friendly and reliable. To balance against China’s increasing influence, Southeast Asia needs stable partners and Japan is perceived to be the leading one to offset the China-associated security risks.

What could Biden do to regain Asia’s confidence?  

After Biden became the president, Asia’s attitude towards the US regional commitment remains skeptical, however. Concerns over the US’ ability to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the US economy still prevail. Therefore, many in Asia, including Japan, are worried that Washington would be too occupied in dealing with the domestic situation. Even though Biden has pledged to join international organizations and embrace multilateralism, many in Asia no longer see the US as a reliable partner after four years of Trump’s presidency. 

In the face of this, Biden should first reassure and re-engage allies by strengthening the alliances. Its cooperation with Quad, an evolving security partnership with Japan, America, Australia and India that upholds a free and open Indo-Pacific region, would be an evidence of American defense commitment.  Second, joint military exercise plays a crucial role to confirm US military presence and its willingness to safeguard the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This February, US dual carriers – the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group – already conducted naval exercises in the South China Sea. This sent an important signal to Beijing that the US is not going to connive at China’s expansive territorial claims. Meanwhile, the stationing of the US military troops in Japan and South Korea shall also continue. It does not merely aim at safeguarding those countries, but also acts as a wider scope for regional stability and maintaining the US-led postwar liberal order. 

Second, re-committing to free trade and multilateral institutions is also of paramount importance to the US to uphold a regional liberal order. Trump has skipped multilateral meetings, incorporating the 2017 East Asia Summit (EAS), the 2018 APEC summit and the 2018 EAS, leading to Asian countries questioning the US reliability as a regional strategic partner.  To gain back Asia’s trust, the Biden administration needs to be present consistently at the meetings and to convince countries that other domestic and international priorities will not sway the US focus on Asia. Biden could make the most of the G20 in the year 2022 to consolidate multilateral cooperation with many emerging economies.  By involving in these multilateral institutions, the US would be able to show countries, not just those in Asia, its willingness to shape global rules. Furthermore, Washington should initiate talks on possible Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) participation and other free trade agreements (FTAs) with Asian countries. Such FTAs would be beneficial to the US and the region in the long term as Southeast Asia is estimated to become the 4th largest economy in the world by 2050. 

In the meantime, the US shall not force any Asian country to choose one side between the US and China, or blatantly at odds with China. ASEAN is still pursuing equidistant diplomacy by staying neutral and avoiding to favor one country over another. Southeast Asian countries have sought to keep the US’ engagement to counteract China’s increasing strategic assertions, but at the same time, China becomes the biggest trading partner in the region. Therefore, such states do not want to pick sides while being sandwiched between these two powers, nor will they abandon their economic links with China. Yet, what the US could do is to let them continue to diversify their strategic connections with major regional powers to preserve their autonomy, and at the same time offers a constructive bilateral relationship with many of them. In recent years, the US has been developing a friendly relationship with Vietnam, with the establishment of a comprehensive partnership in 2013 and pledging to elevate their cooperation into a strategic partnership in the near future. What’s more, offering aid to Southeast Asia also paves way for Washington’s engagement, such as coordinating projects for the Mekong-US Partnership, from COVID-19 response, from human trafficking to anti-drought measures. Instead of directly counterweighing China’s influence, this will help secure the US’ position in the region.

The challenges Biden shoulders will be immense. The region’s continued stability hangs on America’s presence and mutual strategic embrace with its Asian partners. Yet right now, Asian countries are sharing the question of what kind of relationship the US will establish with them and how the US will exert its power in the region. To rebuild Asia’s confidence, Biden will need to demonstrate his iron will to break away from isolationism from Trump’s “America First”, and convey to the region with firm actions that the US is here to stay.  

Esther M. Sit holds a Master's degree in International Politics and East Asia from the University of Warwick. Her research interest focuses on International Relations of the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in security aspects.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success

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This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.

The indictment of businessman Thomas  J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.

It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.

A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.

The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.

The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.

In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.

The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”

Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.

“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.

The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.

Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.

Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.

The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.

In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.

Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.

“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.

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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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