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World roundup: June 19-20 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY (AND YESTERDAY) IN HISTORY
June 19, 1097: The Siege of Nicaea ends
June 19, 1821: An Ottoman army defeats a group of fighters from the Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends), a Greek independence movement, in battle near the town of Drăgășani (in modern Romania). This was one of the earliest battles of the Greek War of Independence, so clearly the Greeks’ fortunes picked up afterward.
June 20, 1631: Algerian pirates sack the Irish village of Baltimore. They carted off 107 captives, of whom only three ever made it back to Ireland.
June 20, 1789: Members of the French Third Estate take the Tennis Court Oath, in which they pledged not to dissolve under royal pressure. This was one of the first serious acts of defiance in the French Revolution and helped establish the power of the National Assembly.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
There’s been a recent flurry of bad climate news, which mostly seems to stem from the onset of a new El Niño event in a world that’s considerably warmer than it was the last time that phenomenon hit in 2019. But even people who study climate and were expecting rough times seem to be surprised by some of the data they’re seeing in terms of temperatures, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and the disappearance of sea ice. That seems bad, but what do I know? Ocean surface temperatures around Ireland and the UK seem to be particularly out of kilter for this time of year. Europe in general is now apparently the “fastest warming continent of the world,” according to a new report from the European Union’s Copernicus Program and the World Meteorological Organization. Europeans experienced a sweltering summer last year that contributed to over 1100 deaths, and that was without El Niño’s boost.
The United Nations on Monday adopted the High Seas Treaty, which seeks to protect ocean ecosystems and biodiversity in areas beyond the reach of national territorial waters. UN members will have the chance to sign the treaty during September’s General Assembly session, then the next step will be ratification. The treaty is considered a fairly significant one in terms of ecological protection, though of course it’s as unenforceable as everything else the UN does.
An apparent Turkish drone strike killed three people in northeastern Syria on Tuesday. The Syrian Kurdish administration in the region identified them as two civilian political officials and their driver. There’s been no direct comment from Turkish officials but Turkish media did report that Turkish forces had “neutralized” a Kurdish YPG militia commander on Tuesday. The name they released does not correspond with any of the names Syrian Kurdish officials released, so either one of the victims used a nom de guerre or something else is going on here.
An Israeli arrest raid turned into a full-blown military offensive in the West Bank city of Jenin on Monday, when Israeli forces backed by helicopter air support killed five Palestinians (a sixth died on Tuesday) and wounded dozens more. Israeli officials say their personnel came under attack while attempting to arrest two suspected militants. Several Israeli soldiers were wounded and the helicopters were apparently brought in to cover their extraction, but the escalation also drew in more Palestinian fighters from around Jenin and thus extended the firefight. Another Palestinian was killed and two more wounded by Israeli forces near Bethlehem later on Monday.
On Tuesday, Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis at the Eli settlement, south of Nablus. At time of writing Israeli forces had killed two Palestinians in connection (apparently) with this incident, though I should note that the situation still appears to be developing so some of these details may be inaccurate or could change by the time anyone reads this.
The Kuwaiti royal family rolled out its new cabinet on Sunday, with Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah remaining as prime minister. Several ministers appear to have rolled over from the previous government, though there were changes stop the oil and defense ministries. The dust has settled somewhat following this month’s snap parliamentary election and it sounds like the legislature is still controlled by opposition politicians, 29 of which were elected to the 50 member National Assembly. This likely means a continuation of the turmoil that’s been the predominant feature of Kuwaiti politics for the past several years.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar reopened their mutual embassies on Monday, formally ending the diplomatic rift they opened back in 2017, when the Emiratis joined Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt in imposing a boycott on Qatar. The boycott ended in January 2021 but it’s taken time to sort out full rapprochements between the Qataris and each of those four states.
The Canadian government blacklisted seven Iranian judges on Monday for alleged human rights abuses.
By the time you read this, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will either be on his way to or have already arrived in Washington for a state visit, the main thrust of which from the US perspective will be bringing India more firmly into Washington’s diplomatic and military orbit. Perhaps the biggest hurdle in that regard is India’s relationship with Russia, and in particular its military aspects. New Delhi gets a significant amount of commercial benefit from that relationship—especially lately now that it’s buying lots of Russian oil at a discount—but the tie that really binds is that the Indian military is heavily dependent on Russian arms and support going back to the Cold War, when Pakistan was the preferred US partner in South Asia. But Indian imports of Russian weaponry have been on the decline for the past few years, and I imagine the Biden administration will be offering some swanky US hardware to try to speed that decline up.
A new report from a Nepalese research institute paints a very grim environmental picture for the Himalayan region:
Glaciers in Asia’s Hindu Kush Himalayas are melting at unprecedented rates and could lose up to 75 percent of their volume by century’s end, scientists have said, warning of dangerous flooding and water shortages for the nearly 2 billion people who live downstream of the rivers that originate in the mountainous region.
The report from the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on Tuesday warned that flash floods and avalanches would grow more likely in coming years if greenhouse gases are not sharply reduced.
It said that the availability of fresh water would also be affected for the 240 million people who live in the Himalayan region as well as a further 1.65 billion who live downstream of the 12 rivers that originate in the mountains.
“The people living in these mountains who have contributed next to nothing to global warming are at high risk due to climate change,” said Amina Maharjan, a migration specialist and one of the report’s authors.
“Current adaptation efforts are wholly insufficient and we are extremely concerned that without greater support, these communities will be unable to cope,” she said.
As it turns out, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China may have actually exceeded expectations by wrapping up on a positive, if ambiguous, note. Blinken met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday—as late as Sunday it wasn’t clear that he would get an audience with Xi—and they agreed on the need to “stabilize” US-Chinese relations. Like I said, ambiguous. Chinese officials also turned down Blinken’s biggest request, for a resumption of regular military-to-military contact, so the trip wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops. And there’s no indication Blinken made any substantive progress on resolving any of the multiple bilateral tensions, though that was never really on the agenda anyway. Still, after a period of almost no direct interaction between the two governments it sounds like the relationship is starting to normalize.
On the other hand, Joe Biden decided to refer to Xi as a “dictator” who suffered “embarrassment” because of the Chinese Balloon of Death fiasco during a political fundraiser on Tuesday, so scratch everything I said above. I’m exaggerating a little, but it would be surprising if these comments don’t draw an angry retort from Beijing that undermines a bit of the progress Blinken seemed to make. The system works!
Although news from Sudan’s Darfur region continues to be spotty, there are indications that some sort of massacre might have taken place in the West Darfur capital of Geneina last week. According to Reuters, citing “a resident” of the city, a large group of civilians attempted to take refuge at a local army base on Wednesday but were attacked by “militias,” presumably aligned with the Rapid Support Forces. Doctors Without Borders claimed on Monday that it had tracked some 15,000 people fleeing Geneina over the previous four days, which tracks with a major violent incident, and it said that many of the people who fled reported having seen many people killed. The killing of the governor of West Darfur state last week, likely by the RSF or its tribal affiliates, may have precipitated the exodus. According to the UN, some 2.5 million people have been displaced across Sudan since the RSF and military began their conflict back in mid-April.
A battle broke out on Tuesday in the capital of Somalia’s Puntland region, Garowe, apparently connected to a bitter political dispute in the local parliament. The legislature was debating proposed changes to electoral law that critics claim would help regional President Said Abdullahi Deni fend off potential challengers. At least 26 people were killed in the fighting, at least 16 of them combatants, and another 30 were wounded. Also on Tuesday, multiple bombs killed at least ten people in a village in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. There’s no indication as to responsibility but it’s probably safe to assume al-Shabab was involved.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The British government on Monday blacklisted two militant leaders based in the eastern DRC—the CODECO militia’s Desire Londroma Ndjukpa and Mai-Mai Yakutumba’s William Yakutumba. Also newly sanctioned are Syrian Defense Minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas and military chief Abdel Karim Mahmoud Ibrahim. All are facing the usual package of asset freezes and travel bans.
In Ukraine news:
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar claimed on Monday that Ukraine’s counteroffensive had recovered an eighth village since kicking off earlier this month. She went on to say that “the biggest blow is yet to come.” I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean but the bar has not exactly been set high so far. If that “biggest blow” involves using Western-supplied arms to strike at Russian-occupied Crimea, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu threatened on Tuesday to retaliate by striking Ukrainian “decision-making centers.” There is currently no indication that the Ukrainians are planning something like that, but if they really intend to try to regain control over the peninsula it stands to reason they’ll have to attack it at some point. Perhaps they’ll stick to domestic arms in that case—Ukrainian officials claimed on Tuesday that they’ve manufactured a domestic drone with a 1000 kilometer range. There’s no confirmation of that.
The Russian military bombarded Ukraine with some 35 explosive drones early Tuesday. Ukrainian officials claim their air defenses shot down 32 of them. Most of the projectiles targeted Kyiv, but a few were able to make it as far west as Lviv which indicates a failure of those same air defenses.
The Ukrainian government on Tuesday repatriated three POWs out of a group of 11 who were released by Russia into the custody of the Hungarian government earlier this month. Details on this are spotty but the Ukrainians complained on Monday that they’d gotten no response from Budapest to their inquiries about the 11 individuals. It’s unclear why the Russians handed them over to Hungarian authorities and it’s conceivable the POWs themselves requested it for some reason. One could imagine scenarios under which those POWs were expecting a hostile reception in Ukraine, for example. Likewise it’s unclear why these three were handed over to the Ukrainians on Tuesday.
The Pentagon has miraculously found another bank error in its favor. After determining back in March that it had overvalued the materiel it had sent to Ukraine by some $3 billion, potentially freeing up that much money for new arms shipments, on Tuesday the department announced that, can you believe it, they actually overvalued the equipment by $6.2 billion. That could mean another $3 billion or so freed up for more guns and the like. How fortuitous.
The Finnish parliament on Tuesday confirmed the country’s new right-wing government, led by National Liberal Party boss Petteri Orpo as prime minister. Orpo’s coalition includes the far-right Finns Party and intends—this is a real shocker—to block immigration and asylum seekers while instituting spending and tax cuts.
A new poll from El Pais has Spain’s conservative People’s Party winning between 128 and 142 seats in next month’s parliamentary election, pulling comfortably ahead of the ruling Socialist party’s 99-109 seats. With the far-right Vox party polling between 37 and 41 seats the path to a 175 seat majority and thus to Spain’s furthest right government since Francisco Franco seems pretty wide open.
The Wall Street Journal has shifted from fearmongering about a potential Chinese spy installation in Cuba to fearmongering about a potential Chinese military training facility in Cuba that could include quarters for Chinese soldiers and some sort of spy unit within it. Needless to say, the lives of you and everyone you’ve ever loved are in imminent danger either way. According to the WSJ report, the Biden administration is trying to convince the Cuban government not to go forward with the plan, and given how much goodwill the US government has established with its Cuban counterpart over the years I have to assume Havana will definitely be receptive to that message.
Finally, at Foreign Affairs economist Branko Milanović argues that while inequality within nations continues to rise, global inequality is declining—which has some powerful implications for the West:
We live in an age of inequality—or so we’re frequently told. Across the globe, but especially in the wealthy economies of the West, the gap between the rich and the rest has widened year after year and become a chasm, spreading anxiety, stoking resentment, and roiling politics. It is to blame for everything from the rise of former U.S. President Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to the “yellow vest” movement in France and the recent protests of retirees in China, which has one of the world’s highest rates of income inequality. Globalization, the argument goes, may have enriched certain elites, but it hurt many other people, ravaging one-time industrial heartlands and making people susceptible to populist politics.
There is much that is true about such narratives—if you look only at each country on its own. Zoom out beyond the level of the nation-state to the entire globe, and the picture looks different. At that scale, the story of inequality in the twenty-first century is the reverse: the world is growing more equal than it has been for over 100 years.
The term “global inequality” refers to the income disparity between all citizens of the world at a given time, adjusted for the differences in prices between countries. It is commonly measured by the Gini coefficient, which runs from zero, a hypothetical case of full equality in which every person earned the same amount, to 100, another hypothetical case in which a single individual made all the income. Thanks to the empirical work of many researchers, economists can draw the overall contours of the change in estimated global inequality over the past two centuries.
From the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century to about the middle of the twentieth century, global inequality rose as wealth became concentrated in Western industrialized countries. It peaked during the Cold War, when the globe was commonly divided into the “First World,” the “Second World,” and the “Third World,” denoting three levels of economic development. But then, around 20 years ago, global inequality began to fall, largely thanks to the economic rise of China, which until recently was the world’s most populous country. Global inequality reached its height on the Gini index of 69.4 in 1988. It dropped to 60.1 in 2018, a level not seen since the end of the nineteenth century.
Progress toward greater global equality is not inevitable. China has now grown too wealthy to help meaningfully reduce global inequality, and big countries such as India may not grow to the extent necessary to have the kind of effect China did. Much will depend on how countries in Africa fare; the continent could power the next great reduction in global poverty and inequality. But even if global inequality falls, that does not mean that the social and political turmoil in individual countries will diminish—if anything, the opposite is true. Because of vast differences in global wages, poor Westerners for decades have ranked among the highest-earning people in the world. That will no longer be the case as non-Westerners with rising incomes will displace poor and middle-class Westerners from their lofty perches. Such a shift will underscore the polarization in rich countries, between those who are wealthy by global standards and those who are not.
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