Ever since the British voted to leave the European Union in 2015, the country has struggled to articulate a vision for its future. Yet, the recent revival of the alliance of democracies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has opened up an opportunity to redefine the nation as a leading member of the democratic coalition of states.
Meanwhile, defining the nation around its central role in democratization has the potential to transform its domestic politics.
The United Kingdom has been a monarchy and an empire, a federation and a member of the European Union. Yet, it has never been a single nation bound together by a state. This was the idea behind Brexit, but it was premised on a return to an imagined past, which as many commentators noted never existed.
In this sense, it was a naive project that was bound to fail, as most educated observers recognized. It was also a racist project that sought to preserve the nation by offloading its most ambiguous members. Yet, the real problem with Brexit lay in the way it exacerbated core social tensions.
Modern British history is a story of a monarchy transforming itself into an empire. Yet, it is also the story of an increasingly democratic nation, binding itself together around classically liberal ideals. In this way, its history is ultimately the story of a great contradiction, and it is a contradiction that Brexit was supposed to solve.
The contradiction is common to many empires.
Over the course of the modern era, citizens of the state enjoyed an ever increasing panoply of liberal rights and freedoms. However, the expansion in liberal rights and freedoms came coupled with brutal exploitation within the colonies. Then when the country needed laborers for reconstruction after the Second World War, it internalized its contradictions by recruiting the very same people it had been exploiting in the colonies. Suddenly, the empire had been brought home, and its vast diversity of peoples soon pervaded the sites and smells of storied cities, like London and Manchester.
Yet, at the very same moment, the country was relinquishing its empire.
The nation had long defined itself in relation to its imperial possessions, and this leant to it a sort of cosmopolitanism. The British could look out on a vast empire comprised of people from every corner of the globe, knowing that they were all bound together in one vast commonwealth. Great Britain was the universal nation, upon which the sun never set. Yet, it need not get too close to the peoples over which it ruled, nor look too closely at the crimes against humanity that were such an essential part of maintaining the empire.
When immigration picked up pace after the Second World War, the nation was thereby able to focus on its cosmopolitanism.
Now, it had shed its imperialism and united with cosmopolitan Europe. In this way, the UK became a great melting pot in which people from all over the world adapted to its well functioning institutions. However, as the number of immigrants increased, and as an increasing number of immigrants remained apart, the social system became strained. It was an uneasy social compact premised on an integration that required formally subject people to relinquish their own ethnic identities, which were often not easy to shed.
The strains were exacerbated by increasing inequality, brought about by a two generation long attack on social programs, like the National Health Service, which began in the eighties under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This hollowed out the middle classes, leaving everyone on the margins. The inequality meant that immigrants were often left with little nation into which they might assimilate. Meanwhile, the inequality led previously assimilated citizens to wonder why they suddenly felt left out in the cold.
It was a common story felt across the world, where neoliberalism would contribute to rising rightwing nationalism and fascism, as people the world over sought to unite around a core ethnic identity. Rising inequality was tearing every society apart, and in every major region of the world it was being blamed on the ethnic other. But the tensions were exacerbated in the UK by the interplay between high and low culture.
At least since the time of Shakespeare, one can identify a high and a low British culture. The high culture has been unusually refined and repressed; the low culture has been unusually uncouth and drunken. The two were always in tension, and the one could easily be seen to be a release from the other. High culture tended to hold the upper civilized hand, and it kept watch over British institutions, but low culture kept its haughtiness in check. At least this is how many writers depicted the society, and the dynamics can still be observed today.
Then Brexit smashed the social compact to pieces.
Brexit represented the victory of low over high culture, and it represented a victory of insular over cosmopolitan culture. This left immigrants marginalized, but to be a marginalized outsider to British culture is to be exploited, because that’s what the British did with marginalized outsiders over the course of hundreds of years of empire—and now they were reverting to form.
Suddenly, minorities came to assume the roles of exploited colonial peoples. Meanwhile, a drunken and rowdy low culture came to attack Britain’s refined high culture, which was increasingly defined by immigrant professionals, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by Britain’s strong institutions, and liberal members of the creative classes.
The dramatic cultural transformation also killed something far more deep and subtle.
British culture has long possessed a sensitive and quiet interiority. The interiority is both personal in the sense that the British can be reflective and often quite introverted. Yet, it also shows up in the intimate spaces of gardens and pubs. This sensitivity could be found in all dimensions of British culture. And while it is artfully depicted in everything from Jane Austin to Downton Abbey, the writings of John Stuart Mill to the poetry of Wordsworth, it is perhaps the most essential element of the culture that outsiders tend to miss.
Unfortunately, rowdy low culture cannot help but walk all over this quiet sensitivity, if only because it typically comes out when people are drinking. And outsiders who might have previously participated in it were pushed out. As a result, they began to overlook the quietness that remained, seeing instead the not so subtle manifestations of an all pervasive racism. And it was all the worse when covid came along, because masking and social distancing made it so hard to pick up on subtle social cues.
Hence, the problem for the British is not simply that their nation has been cast adrift in a search for itself that hardly anyone is up to. Their most laudable attributes have also been trampled upon by the very same people professing an undying love for the culture. Meanwhile, a vast population of minorities has been transformed into hostile outsiders, and inequality has only deepened the tensions. However, President Biden’s reinvigoration of the alliance of democracies, and its rebuke to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, may have provided an opening to a new path. Participation in a wider alliance of democracies can draw from the best British traditions while situating the country in a wider community of nations.
It can also give the nation a sense of purpose in the global fight to preserve institutions that it was often at the forefront of pioneering. And in fighting for democracy, the UK may be able to preserve some of its own, which Conservative rule has so often threatened since Brexit.
The UK can serve as bridge between the European Union and America by pulling closer to its wealthier former colonies like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Yet, it can also help integrate into the alliance a multitude of former colonies, which are now democracies. These include Ghana, Belize, Malta, Cyprus, Grenada, Botswana, Namibia, Malaysia, Barbados, Bermuda, South Africa, Honduras, Mauritius, Somaliland, the Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Meanwhile, India remains the crown jewel, whose democratic institutions in recent years have been weakened but far from spent.
In short, the UK can triangulate the US and EU while helping integrate a multitude of other states into the alliance. In this way, it can define itself as uniquely British while remaining part of a wider international project. And it can restate its relationship to its own minorities by once more embracing a more cosmopolitan identity. Finally, it can make these ties more concrete by using them to form a wider trading block.
In this way, even if the core of Great Britain breaks up through the loss of Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland, England will not simply collapse into its ethnocentric core. Rather, the story of Brexit will be like stepping back to get a running start in the leap into a richer and more cosmopolitan world.
The UK will never be an empire again, for the days of empire are thankfully long gone But it can be the lynchpin in a wider alliance of democracies, and it can use its position to redefine itself as essential to freedom in the world. Meanwhile, it can use the process of redefining itself as a means of reintegrating its minorities and renegotiating the social compact.
If that seems too visionary to be realized, that’s simply a measure of the delusion that Brexit has fostered. For the country is already a lynchpin to the association of democracies. All it need do now is recognize the importance of its role and redefine itself accordingly.
Victor Orban’s eyes may be bigger than his stomach
When Prime Minister Victor Orban recently spelled out his vision of Hungary’s frontiers, he joined a club of expansionist leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and members of the Indian power elite who define their countries’ borders in civilisational rather than national terms.
Speaking on Romanian territory in the predominantly ethnic Hungarian town of Baile Tusnad in Transylvania, a onetime Austro-Hungarian possession home to a Hungarian minority, Mr. Orban echoed the worldviews of Messrs. Xi and Putin.
Those views are on display in the South China Sea and Ukraine, as well as in statements by the Russian leader about other former Soviet republics.
It’s a worldview also embraced by members of India’s Hindu nationalist elite that endorses a country’s right to expand its internationally recognized borders to lands inhabited by their ethnic kin or territories and waters that historically were theirs.
Unlike the Russian and Chinese leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been careful to avoid public support for the civilisationalist concept of Akhand Bharat embraced by his ideological alma mater.
The concept envisions an India that stretches from Afghanistan to Myanmar and encompasses nuclear-armed Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.
Mr. Modi’s silence hasn’t prevented Mohan Bhagwat, head of the powerful ultra-Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS) or National Volunteer Organization, from recently predicting that Akhand Bharat would become a reality within 15 years.
Mr. Modi has been a member of the RSS since the late 1960s. However, he is believed to have last referred to the Akhand Bharat concept in an interview in 2012 when, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he suggested that “Hindustan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh should rejoin.”
However, in contrast to his more recent silence, Mr. Modi has approached Indian Muslims, the world’s largest minority and its largest Muslim minority, in much the same way that Mr. Orban envisions a racially and religiously pure Hungary.
The Hungarian prime minister sparked outrage in his July speech when he rejected a “mixed-race world” defined as a world “in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe.”
Mr. Orban asserted that mixed-race countries “are no longer nations: They are nothing more than conglomerations of peoples” and are no longer part of what he sees as “the Western world.” Mr. Orban stopped short of identifying those countries, but the United States and Australia would fit the bill.
Romanians may be more concerned about Mr. Orban’s racial remarks than his territorial ambitions, described by one Romanian Orban watcher as a “little man having pipe dreams.”
Romanians may be right. Mr. Orban’s ability to militarily assert his claims is far more restricted than those of his Russian and Chinese counterparts. Nevertheless, one underestimates at one’s peril.
Mr. Orban shares Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi’s resentment of perceived historical wrongs that need to be rectified irrespective of international law and the consequences of a world whose guardrails are dictated by might rather than the rule of law.
His speech seems to promise to reverse what he sees as an unjust diktat. His revanchism may explain why Russia’s alteration in Ukraine of national boundaries by force doesn’t trouble him.
Mr. Orban left no doubt that his definition of the Hungarian motherland included Transylvania and other regions in the Carpathian Basin beyond Hungary’s borders that ethnic Hungarians populate.
Insisting that the world owed Hungary, which eventually would call in its debt, Mr. Orban asserted that his country was driven by the notion “that more has been taken from us than given to us, that we have submitted invoices that are still unpaid… This is our strongest ambition.”
Mr. Orban implicitly suggested a revision or cancellation of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which deprived Hungary of much of its pre-World War I territory.
Two months earlier, Hungarian President Katalin Novak ruffled diplomatic feathers when she posted a picture of herself climbing a mountain peak in Romania’s Alba County, standing by a disputed milestone painted in Hungarian colours.
At the time, Ms. Novak advised Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu that it was her duty to represent “all Hungarians, regardless of whether they live inside or outside the borders” – a claim Romania rejected.
Mr. Orban’s grievance and racially driven nationalism may be one reason the Hungarian leader has been Europe’s odd man out in refusing to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine fully.
In a break with European Union policy, Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjarto met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on the eve of Mr. Orban’s speech to request additional gas supplies.
In contrast to the EU, which wants to remove Russia as a supplier of its energy, Mr. Orban insisted that “we do not want to stop getting energy from Russia, we simply want to stop getting it exclusively from Russia.”
Mr. Orban’s speech is unlikely to ease the task of Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s regional development minister and a former EU commissioner. Mr. Navracsics arrived in Brussels this week to persuade the EU to release €15 billion in covid recovery funds amid an unprecedented disciplinary process that could lead to the suspension of EU funding because of Hungarian violations of the rule of law.
So far, Mr. Orban’s support of Russia has isolated him in Europe with the de facto demise of the Visegrad 4 or V4 in its current form in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and the threat of an economic recession.
Grouping the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, the Visegrad 4 were united in their opposition to EU migration and rejection of what the Hungarian leader termed Europe’s “internal empire-building attempts,” a reference to the European Commission’s efforts to stop moves that hollow out Central European democracy.
Leaving Mr. Orban isolated, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger has pledged to use his current six-month presidency of the European Council to return the Visegrad 4 to the roots of its founding in 1991 as the four countries emerged from communism: respect for democracy and a commitment to European integration.
If successful, Mr. Heger’s V4 will likely be a V3 with Hungary on the outs.
Said Mateusz Gniazdowski, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies: “Attempts to ideologically use the V4 brand harm mutual trust and don’t contribute to building a strong Central Europe in the EU.”
The End of History, Delayed: The EU’s Role in Defining the Post-War Order
While the world is following the dramatic unfolding of the Russian aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Europe needs to start elaborating its vision for the post-war world. While a new Yalta might be needed, we all should realise that a peaceful world order has never existed outside the European Union. This in itself grants the EU the credibility – and responsibility – for arranging the post-war framework that secures the peaceful future of the continent.
By Dr.Maria Alesina and Francesco Cappelletti*
In the interconnected international society, war is not only a horrific and painful but also irrational choice. It is a zero-sum game, which sets into motion the domino effect of global repercussions. However, rational considerations have little to do with what stands behind the ongoing military attack on Ukraine. Russia’s war is not limited to Ukraine or aimed at a regime change to strengthen regional influence (as realists would say), nor does it represent an attempt to reinforce specific strategic interests (as a cognitivist analysis would suggest). It has emerged as something beyond traditional disputes: it is, as a matter of fact, an ideological war against the West. More than anything, it is Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”, although driven not by ideology or religion but by the two conflicting standpoints on human life – as a value and a non-value. This fundamental clash is happening now on the Ukrainian soil, and the battle is as fierce as it can possibly get.
The propaganda-driven “Rus-zism” rhetoric, missing any solid ideological basis or constructive meaning, consists of an overt anti-Western narrative aiming to establish a multi-polar world order and a vaguely defined concept of Russia’s “greatness”, entrenched in the shreds of evidence given by altered revision of events, such as the Great Patriotic War. A war that, in the eyes of the Russian establishment, has never ended. In the anti-Western rhetoric, the corroborating factor is a series of facts, events, convictions, beliefs, interests that support the leitmotif of the inevitability of “blocks”, an enemy, the “others”. A heritage of the Cold War. All this is grounded in the historical super Troika of the Russia’s foreign policy: fear of external threats, dispersed economic and political inefficiency, and focus on securing citizens’ support – by all means, ranging from propaganda to political repressions. This is a sheer exercise in power without purpose, control without vision, projected both internally and externally. This dynamic, although never fully dissipated, has been re-gaining momentum starting with Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference.
Today, in mid-2022, Russian aggression in Ukraine is only growing in atrocities and cynicism. In contrast, the EU politics still remain a palliative medicine, by definition unprepared to dealing with the concept of war. Political crises in several Member States – Italy, France, Estonia, Bulgaria – risk becoming a further destabilizing factor preventing the EU from fully standing up against Putin’s war plans. Meanwhile, the Europeans are becoming increasingly concerned with the upcoming ‘Russian winter’, recession, global food shortages, and a new migration crisis. As much as citizens advocated for support to Ukraine in the beginning, soon they might start demanding peace at any cost – most likely, Ukraine’s cost. This is the trap that Russia is orchestrating.
However, any simple, although desperately needed, ceasefire agreement risks only deepening the problem and postponing the solution. It will be a matter or years, if not months, when Russia restarts its aggression, possibly better prepared the next time around. The somewhat belated understanding of this simple truth should prevent us from re-engaging into the dilemma of prioritizing short-lived comfort and material gain over long-term solutions based on our fundamental, “civilizational” priorities. We need to remember that Europe’s prosperity has resulted from a prolonged period of peace – not vice versa. Those who threaten the peace, by definition threaten our growth and sustainability. Alongside building up its strategic autonomy for the 21st century, Europe must be prepared to do what it takes to secure a new long-term peaceful world order – not simply patch the old one.
Given that the ‘Russian factor’ will not disappear even after the overt military conflict is over, the Cold War II stands in the midst of diplomatic challenges anticipated for the post-war scenario. On the one hand, as Russia has acquired the official status of the world’s villain, dethroning China from this role, it will continue to face some extent of isolation. Regaining any level of trust will require years, and Moscow will struggle to find a credible audience to speak to when trying to redefine its external relations, while having to deal with a prolonged recession and a technological slowdown never experienced since 1991. On the other hand, without being naïve, we cannot expect any substantial regime changes to happen in Moscow. For centuries, the narrative ‘Russia vs. the West’ has constituted the very central axis of the national public discourse, even within the liberally-minded opposition circles. Such long-standing trends do not change quickly, if ever.
Although no notions of trustworthy diplomacy will bring Russia to the international negotiation tables for a long time, the need to guarantee security goes beyond this conflict and its territorial or ideological implications. The only viable solution is to find a way to contain Russia within a binding and comprehensive international framework. This means a pragmatic approach is needed in developing untouchable geopolitical, diplomatic, and security-related boundaries of the new order. The exact same boundaries that kept the first Cold War “cold”, with the difference that this time one of the great powers involved is – to use Kennedy’s word – declining.
The results of the potential Kyiv-Moscow talks will largely depend on the West’s willingness to avoid grey zones in the future security settlements. It is a matter of responsibility, especially for the EU, to provide a forum to assess, judge, clarify, evaluate, measure, and pragmatically set limits of the new post-war security system. While the US is interested, first and foremost, in slowly weakening Russia politically and economically, Europe’s long-term concern consists primarily in preventing its giant neighbour from disrupting the very basic principles of coexistence on the continent. A zero-trust model should be applied to Russia, while a new paradigm for debates should be developed from scratch: there is no more “balance of power” and “deterrence” to fit into the discourse. The world is now divided into nations that either care or not about commonly accepted principles, rights, and, above all, about the value of human life. The end of history, in 2022, is farther away than expected.
*Dr Maria Alesina and Francesco Cappelletti are Policy and Research Officers at the European Liberal Forum. Dr Alesina holds MA degrees in Political Science and EU Studies obtained in Ukraine, Germany and Belgium and a PhD degree in interdisciplinary cultural studies from Ghent University. She specializes in EU foreign, social, and cultural affairs. Francesco Cappelletti holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Florence and MA in World Politics from MGIMO. Member of Center for Cybersecurity in Florence. He focuses on cybersecurity, digitisation, Russian-Western relations and the relation between sustainability and technologies.
“No longer analyze Asia with European eyes”, says French expert in Bucharest conference
A 2-day academic hybrid conference organized in Bucharest at mid-July by MEPEI (Middle East Economic and Political Institute) and EuroDefense Romania, two Bucharest-based think-tanks, was the perfect venue to learn about the latest analyses on economic, geopolitical and security topics related to the Middle East and Asia, during which China was mentioned by all speakers as clearly playing a role in today’s international order. Entitled “Middle East in Quest for Security, Stability, and Economic Identity”, the conference was the 8th in a series of international conferences that annually gather well-known experts from all over the world to present their analyses and research on highly debated topics such as terrorism, Middle East, emerging Asian countries, the rising China, to which this year a new topic was added: the conflict in Ukraine.
Interesting ideas derived from the speakers’ presentations.
Adrian Severin, former Romanian minister of foreign affairs and EU parliamentarian, pointed out that “the conflict in Ukraine is actually one between Russia and the West, but economic sanctions never stop wars, and they even may lead to global disaster”. Severin considers it to be more and more difficult for NATO to defend its allies, with so many countries relying on NATO, and on the US, for their national protection, including non-European countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. When it comes to Asia, Severin sees “China to have a first rank role in shaping the world order.”
Teodor Meleșcanu, another former Romanian minister of foreign affairs, stressed that “Asia has the majority of the world’s population and lots and resources, and the future of Asia will assume the future of our civilizations.” Meleșcanu explained that “China wants to stabilize the world and to forge alliances, but not to fight with the West. Chinese trade is not interested in confrontation with Western partners by making alliance with Russia and it’s obvious why – because the West means more than 700 million people whereas Russia means only 114 million.” Meleșcanu suggested that the optimal solution in international relations is to operate with regional organizations in order to have dialogue, not directly with “the big boys in the garden.” Meleșcanu also encourages never-ending dialogue between the US-Russia-China, as the current situation proves it, in order to prevent such events that destabilize the world. He believes that the principles in Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion will always apply, as war does not actually mean conquering territories.
Lily Ong, host of the Geopolitics360 live show in Singapore, confirmed that regional organizations are vital for dialogue: “Had not it have been for ASEAN, Singapore would have been on the menu, not at the table.”
Foad Izadi from the University of Tehran informed that Iran signed a 25-year agreement with China, and a separate one with Russia, and said “Iran would welcome such 25-year agreements with European countries. It’s Europe’s decision if they really want to follow the US decisions, but the US interests are often not aligned with the European interests”, concluded Izadi.
Vasily Kuznetsov from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow reminded the audience that Russia and the West cooperated very well in Libya, in fighting against ISIS in Syria, and expressed his confusion about Europe’ militarized approach towards Russia. He stressed that “the current international situation will result into the strengthening of Asian centres of global power and global economics. China, as well as India and the Middle East as a collective actor become new great powers directly linked to each other, without the West.” At the same time, Kuznetsov sees “for China, a dilemma between pragmatic economic interest and global political ambitions, and for India, a choice between regional and global ambitions outside South Asia”, and he wondered whether “China can have a realistic foreign policy in the Middle East which is facing issues of internal reconfiguration, sovereignty and security.” For the US, Kuznetsov sees the biggest challenge in the effort “to preserve leadership without more engagement, to make American politics more successful and to combine values and pragmatism.”
“The rise of China is beneficial not only for China but for entire Asia”, believes Yao Jinxiang from China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) in Beijing. “The rise of Asia will rebalance the world.” Yao also stressed that “people are often biased about Asia. Let us not forget that, apart from the wars led by the US in Asia, Asia has been stable with no war for a long time. The self-control of the Asia countries ensures stability. It looks that it’s easier to attract Europe in a war than Asia. Asian countries try to solve problems by consensus. For example, China, Japan and South Korea step back because ASEAN is the leader. On the other hand, China has always been defensive. China does not want to claim hegemony or to replace the US, or another great power.” Yao equally explained the two terms used to refer to the same region: Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific: “Asia-Pacific reflects economic relations, whereas Indo-Pacific rather mirrors the political and military relations”, and he stressed that “China does not want to claim hegemony in this world or to replace the US or another great power. China is only interested in prosperity around the world and it watches carefully the Global Development Index and the Global Security Index”.
Pierre Fournié, French expert on Asia from SUFFREN International think-tank declared the Belt and Road Initiative, formerly One-Belt, One-Road (OBOR), to be “a magnificent project that could be pivotal in Europe” because “trade has always been a peaceful and fruitful relation among countries.” Fournié made clear that the war in Ukraine, inflation, migration, social discontent in Europe and the ongoing reconfiguration of the US society create conditions for Asian nations to become key partners in the post-war reshaping of Europe. “Thus, BRI, or the Indonesian Global Maritime Fulcrum are magnificent assets. Fournié also suggested that ”the current economic model creates tensions, and it’s time for people to apply mutual aid and to unite to create coo-petition, a term coined by himself, and not competition. He recommended people to “no longer analyze Asia with European eyes.”
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