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Updated: 1 month 6 days ago

The Amazon Comes to Rome

Mon, 25/11/2019 - 06:00

For three weeks in October, hundreds of Catholic bishops and priests mostly from the countries of the Amazon River basin convened at a special synod at the Holy See. The meeting signaled Pope Francis’s deep concern for the indigenous peoples of the South American rainforest. In his own words, the pope sought “drastic measures” to avert further harm to these communities. “Every kind of injustice and destruction,” he said, “has been practiced upon these people.” Francis knew this synod would upset some traditional believers who have little patience for his moral investment in the protection of indigenous groups. Although his opponents created audacious distractions, the pope persevered in advancing an agenda that facilitates concrete gains for officials, activists, and community leaders dedicated to saving the Amazon.

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The Fall of the Berlin Wall Almost Ended in War

Fri, 22/11/2019 - 06:00

Thirty years ago this month, the opening of the Berlin Wall ushered in the last great diplomatic struggle of the Cold War. As cheering crowds danced atop what was left of the Iron Curtain, the fate of Germany hung in the balance. In retrospect, it is easy to see that triumphal moment as part of an inevitable march toward German reunification. At the time, however, the future felt anything but certain. 

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Let Russia Be Russia

Tue, 15/10/2019 - 06:00

Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. president has come into office promising to build better relations with Russia—and each one has watched that vision evaporate. The first three—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—set out to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community and make it a partner in building a global liberal order. Each left office with relations in worse shape than he found them, and with Russia growing ever more distant.

President Donald Trump pledged to establish a close partnership with Vladimir Putin. Yet his administration has only toughened the more confrontational approach that the Obama administration adopted after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Russia remains entrenched in Ukraine, is opposing the United States in Europe and the Middle East with increasing brazenness, and continues to interfere in U.S. elections. As relations have soured, the risk of a military conflict has grown.

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The Tunisia Model

Tue, 15/10/2019 - 06:00

The story of how the Tunisian revolution began is well known. On December 17, 2010, a 26-year-old fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi from the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire outside a local government building. The man’s self-immolation—an act of protest against repeated mistreatment by police and local officials—sparked protests that quickly spread across the country. Within a few weeks, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had stepped down and fled the country after 23 years in power, offering Tunisia an unprecedented opportunity for a democratic opening. A massive wave of uprisings soon swept the country’s neighbors, reaching all the way to the Levant and the Persian Gulf. 

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What to Expect From Israel’s Election Re-Run

Fri, 05/07/2019 - 06:00

At the end of May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shocked Israel by calling for new national elections after he failed to form a governing coalition. Commentators dubbed the unprecedented new poll “Mo’ed B,” literally, a second scheduled date. The term also implies a second chance at success.

Despite failing to win a majority in the April elections, Israeli opposition parties of the center and the left didn’t seem to want a re-run; most of their lawmakers voted against the new elections. Ironically, it was the right-wing parties, who won a comfortable 65 seats (out of a total of 120), that voted themselves out of office. They clearly think they can do better. They may be right.

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Why Religious Tolerance Won in Indonesia but Lost in India

Wed, 03/07/2019 - 06:00

Asia’s two largest and most diverse democracies held national elections in recent weeks, and religious tolerance was on the ballot in both. Voters, however, delivered diametrically opposed verdicts. 

In Indonesia, the government of incumbent President Joko Widodo (widely known as Jokowi) won by broadcasting a message of pluralism. Jokowi preached an inclusive nationalism that transcended Islam, Indonesia’s dominant religion, and won reelection by a decisive margin. 

In India, victory also went to the incumbent, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but on very different terms. Modi, who heads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won in large measure by invoking his party’s vision of an India of and for the Hindus.

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Power and Paranoia in Caracas

Tue, 02/07/2019 - 06:00

On April 30, leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, among them National Assembly Chair and self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaidó, gathered before dawn on a three-lane highway in Caracas to proclaim the start of “Operation Freedom,” an uprising to liberate Venezuela. Liberation, however, proved fleeting. A smattering of supposedly mutinous secret policemen had gathered for the uprising, yet within two hours of its proclamation, they had piled into their vehicles and sped off. As one opposition member present at the time later recalled, “It was over before it began.”

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Xi Jinping’s Trade Conundrum

Thu, 20/06/2019 - 06:00

A month after American and Chinese negotiators failed to seal what was supposed to be a “slam dunk” of a trade deal, observers on both sides of the Pacific are still scratching their heads over what went wrong. But in Washington and Beijing, leaders already appear to be gearing up for a longer-term struggle, making a true deal—one that resets rapidly deteriorating bilateral ties—increasingly elusive.

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China’s Feminist Fight

Tue, 11/06/2019 - 06:00

As the #MeToo movement spreads around the globe, women’s rights advocates are looking for cases to cheer, stories of women standing up to sexual harassment and assault and saying, “Enough is enough.” Chinese women who are doing just that are the focus of Betraying Big Brother, a deeply affecting book by the journalist and China specialist Leta Hong Fincher. The main characters in her tale are a small group of relatively well-off, college-educated young women in China’s major cities who connect with one another through social media. Coming of age in an era of economic progress and promise, these women had high hopes for their lives and careers. But their aspirations were dealt a blow by widespread sexism. Beginning in 2012, they dared to take to the streets to engage in performance art, including forming flash mobs, and then posted videos of their activities online to promote discussion and raise awareness about gender among the general public.

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It’s the Institutions, Stupid

Tue, 11/06/2019 - 06:00

American democracy, most observers seem to agree, is in crisis. Some pin the blame on President Donald Trump, citing his assaults on the country’s democratic norms and institutions—the electoral system, the independent judiciary, the rule of law, and the media. “This is not normal,” former President Barack Obama declared in a September 2018 speech rebuking his successor. Others see Trump as merely the culmination of a long decline in American democracy, a story that began decades ago with growing political polarization, congressional infighting, and economic and social inequality. Whatever the precise cause, however, there is a consensus about the effect: a broken system.

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The Last War—and the Next?

Tue, 28/05/2019 - 06:00

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army published two volumes that amount to the most comprehensive official history of the Iraq war. They cover the conflict’s most important episodes: the U.S. invasion in 2003, the death spiral into civil war that took shape in the aftermath, the more hopeful period that began with the surge of U.S. forces in 2007, and the withdrawal that saw the last U.S. forces leave Iraq at the end of 2011.

Blandly titled The U.S. Army in the Iraq War and based on 30,000 pages of newly declassified documents, the study recounts a litany of familiar but still infuriating blunders on Washington’s part: failing to prepare for the invasion’s aftermath, misunderstanding Iraqi culture and politics and sidelining or ignoring genuine experts, disbanding the Iraqi army and evicting Baath Party members from the government, ignoring and even denying the rise of sectarian violence, and sapping momentum by rotating troops too frequently.

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Armies, Gold, Flags—and Stories

Mon, 27/05/2019 - 06:00

The eight-year-long cultural phenomenon of HBO’s Game of Thrones culminated on May 18 with the fiery destruction of the Iron Throne and the death of the formerly beloved Queen Daenerys. The show’s final season has produced an explosion of commentary on what it all means. What is the appropriate basis for political authority? Can Daenerys be both a feminist hero and a war criminal? Does might make right? Should it, in a time of war?

Among the foreign-policy intelligentsia, and society broadly, interpreting Game of Thrones (and the book series by George R. R. Martin that the show is based on) has become a cottage industry. Every political analyst, historian, or theorist has his or her take on what lessons can be drawn from the story for real-world foreign policy. This enthusiasm tells us something about the show’s political implications: fans and writers argue over Game of Thrones precisely because there is power in interpreting a story to support one’s own arguments about what is right and who gets to choose.

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France Faces Its Extremes

Fri, 24/05/2019 - 06:00

Charles de Gaulle famously asked how one can govern a country with 246 kinds of fromage. Historians could just as easily ask how one can understand a country with even more kinds of lieux de mémoire. A term coined by the historian Pierre Nora, a memory site is a shape-shifter. It points to those ideas or individuals, movements or monuments, literary works or legal texts which take on and take off different meanings over the centuries. In their three-volume work Les Lieux de mémoire, Nora and his colleagues applied the concept to a dazzling array of such sites, ranging from Verdun to Versailles, the Tour de France to the Tour Eiffel, the civil code to the paintings at Lascaux.

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The Elections That Will Decide Europe’s Future

Thu, 23/05/2019 - 06:00

The EU is many things, but sexy isn’t one of them. Obsessed with procedure, reports, and committees, the bloc has always been a bogeyman for governments both inside and outside it, a symbol of constitutional overreach and Kafkaesque bureaucracy meant to frustrate earnest national politicians trying to help their citizens.

There’s something to those claims. The EU’s setup is unlike that of any other government. The compromises its designers made to balance power between European capitals and Brussels have led to a mishmash of the traditional legislative and executive branches, with power divided unevenly between the European Commission (which proposes legislation), the European Parliament (which amends and approves it), and the Council of the EU (which does the same). The Council of the EU is not to be confused with the European Council, made up of all the heads of state or government of EU member countries, or the Council of Europe, a human rights organization unaffiliated with the EU.

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American Hustle

Tue, 21/05/2019 - 06:00

Robert Mueller III played lacrosse and majored in government at Princeton. He graduated in 1966 and soon thereafter volunteered for and was accepted into the Marine Corps. He won a Bronze Star for heroism in the Vietnam War and later attended law school at the University of Virginia. He has since spent nearly a half century in either private legal practice or law enforcement, including 12 years as director of the FBI. Mueller epitomizes the old WASP establishment.

Donald Trump graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. He dodged the Vietnam War, reportedly by asking a podiatrist to dishonestly attest to the presence of bone spurs in Trump’s heels. Trump sought fame and fortune in the private sector, entering his father’s successful real estate business, which he took from New York City’s outer boroughs to the glitzier, riskier precincts of Manhattan and the casino capital of Atlantic City. He tried his hand at running an airline and a get-rich-quick university before finally finding his true calling: playing a fantasy version of himself on a reality television show. Trump is as American as apple pie.

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Why a Comedian Won Ukraine’s Presidency in a Landslide

Wed, 24/04/2019 - 06:00

The global wave of protest populism that began with Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump reached new heights in Ukraine this weekend. A comedian outsider whose campaign served as an echo chamber for public discontent in Europe’s most consistently corrupt nation has won a landslide victory in the presidential race. Ukraine’s new president-elect, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is in many ways the ideal poster boy for the antiestablishment trend currently sweeping world politics. A media-savvy TV celebrity who has never previously held political office, he has made a virtue of his inexperience by posing as an everyman candidate untainted by the rot within the system. Zelenskiy’s stunning success—he won the Ukrainian presidency by a record margin and triumphed in all but one of the country’s 24 administrative regions—amounted to a vote of no confidence in the entire Ukrainian political class.

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The Religious Tensions Behind the Attacks in Sri Lanka

Wed, 24/04/2019 - 06:00

The series of suicide bombings at Christian churches and hotels in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, on Easter Sunday threatened to rip apart the country’s complex ethno-religious fabric. The government has blamed the attacks on two obscure Islamist groups called the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim and the National Thawheed Jamaat (NTJ). It appears the latter has links to jihadists outside Sri Lanka, including the Islamic State, or ISIS. If that attribution bears out, the attacks are likely to inflame tensions between the country’s Buddhist majority and its Muslim minority—and to promote sectarianism in the wider region, too.


Sri Lanka is no stranger to terrorism, having lived through a nearly three-decade-long civil war that pitted the majority Sinhalese against minority Tamil separatist organizations, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. During the war, the LTTE carried out dozens of suicide attacks. But last weekend’s carnage was unprecedented. The bombs killed over 300 people and injured at least 500 more.

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What’s Next for Sudan’s Revolution

Tue, 23/04/2019 - 06:00

On April 11, 16 weeks of non-violent popular protests in the streets of Khartoum and other major Sudanese cities culminated in a military takeover. The demonstrators had called for an end to economic austerity and the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir. Forced to choose between firing on the vast crowds, many of them sons and daughters of the country’s middle class and even of some army officers, and disobeying orders, soldiers chose the latter. The vice president and minister of defense Lieutenant General Awad Ibn Auf announced that Bashir had been removed from power.

That, however, was not enough to win over the opposition Coalition for Freedom and Change. Ibn Auf was Bashir’s ultra-loyalist heir apparent and he made no reference to conceding to the demonstrators’ demands. Rather, it appeared that a cabal of Bashir’s security henchmen had simply taken over.

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Why Trump Should Leave the Fed Alone

Tue, 23/04/2019 - 06:00

Monarchs of old used to clip currency. Shaving slivers of gold or silver off coins was a crude but effective way to acquire seigniorage—revenue from minting money—which they often used to finance unpopular foreign wars. Nations don’t do that anymore; there aren’t enough gold and silver coins left to make a difference. Instead, they generate seigniorage by printing money to finance debt and allowing the resulting inflation to erode the value of the currency in circulation and, if the inflation surprises markets, to erode the value of the pre-existing debt.

Which brings us to U.S. President Donald Trump and his plan—now hastily modified—to put both Herman Cain and Steven Moore on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. Trump has expressed extreme unhappiness—anger, even—over the actions taken by the politically independent Federal Reserve. He would like to clip its wings by placing sycophants like Moore (and, before he withdrew, Cain) on its board. Economists and businesspeople, almost to a man and woman, think this is a terrible idea.

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What Jokowi’s Reelection Means for Indonesia

Mon, 22/04/2019 - 06:00

On a sunny afternoon in Yogyakarta, many of the neighborhood women have gathered to share tea, exchange gossip, and select the president of the world’s fourth-largest nation. Whom have they picked? They can’t say: any type of electioneering—even so much as wearing a candidate’s T-shirt—is banned today. Not just at polling sites but throughout Indonesia. But the women find a sly way around the restriction. They hold up their ink-purpled forefingers to indicate that they’ve already voted—and to reveal their choice: “Number One” (that is, the first candidate on the ballot), President Joko Widodo. In case there was any doubt about their meaning, a few subtly angle their fingers toward a mural on the wall, showing all of Indonesia’s past leaders. Widodo (more commonly known by the nickname “Jokowi”) is in the lower right corner, looking slightly bemused to be in the company of such towering figures. Just as he does in real life. And that, perhaps more than for any policy position, is why the women at Voting Station 105 are so smitten by him.

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