2021
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Monitor Daily Podcast

June 16, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Plumbing the mystery of China’s wandering elephants

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

You’ve probably seen news reports about the 15 elephants trekking across southwest China’s Yunnan province. These peripatetic pachyderms have traveled 300 miles over the past year and are now on the outskirts of Kunming, a city of 4.5 million people. 

China just recently started 24-hour monitoring. More than 300 people and 18 drones have been deployed to track the herd, set up roadblocks, and lately, leave food (pineapples and corn) in an attempt to steer them away from urban areas. Some 3,500 people were evacuated from their homes Saturday as the elephants approached, the Xinhua news agency reported.

No one knows why these Asian elephants are migrating so far. Wildlife experts suggest the unusual behavior could be a lack of food, overcrowding in their home preserve, or a loss of habitat. 

Still, this fascinating cross-country stroll is a source of endless amateur speculation. Maybe this herd just needed to stretch its legs and take in a few sights. Perhaps, it’s a case of enduring curiosity or a journey of self-discovery. Or, communal wanderlust.

When I asked my 8-year-old niece what was going on, she pondered and, after a moment, smiled. Her answer was as plausible as any biologist’s. “Why did the elephants cross road after road?” she asked. “Because they weren’t chicken,” she giggled. 

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Biden-Putin summit: At frosty moment, ‘glimmers of confidence’

The conversation between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin was “constructive,” said the Russian president. Ultimately, it may amount to little. Or, it may be a modest start for progress on nuclear arms control and cybersecurity.

David
Denis Balibouse/AP
U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the start of their summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, June 16, 2021.

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The much-anticipated summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had little sense of unity or common purpose. Yet despite the absence even of a concluding joint press conference, U.S. officials say the two leaders’ three-plus hours of talks laid the groundwork for areas where the two adversaries can work together.

As a sign that both sides see a need to try to put tense relations back on better footing, the leaders agreed to return their respective ambassadors to Washington and Moscow.

Some in the United States had judged the summit to be premature and likely to primarily serve Mr. Putin’s interests. Mr. Biden has no illusions about the challenges of working with Mr. Putin, White House officials say, but he concluded that airing differences was still the better course.

“It’s always better to meet face to face,” Mr. Putin said while seated alongside Mr. Biden before their first meeting. Mr. Biden agreed, declaring at his closing press conference, “There is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue between leaders, none.”

The Russian president, at his press conference, characterized the discussions as constructive, and said he considers “the glimmers of confidence I saw between us the principal result of this meeting.”

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Biden-Putin summit: At frosty moment, ‘glimmers of confidence’

To see the alternating American and Russian flags fluttering in unison on both sides of Geneva’s famed Pont du Mont Blanc – the city’s signature white swans peacefully plying the clear lake waters below – is to imagine the two countries represented by those national symbols seeing eye to eye and finding common ground on pressing global issues.

But looks, as everyone knows, can be deceiving.

The much-anticipated summit held in this city at the base of the Swiss Alps Wednesday between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin – the final event of Mr. Biden’s weeklong European tour and first overseas trip as president – had little sense of unity or common purpose.

Yet despite the absence of broad smiles, Russian bear hugs, or even a concluding joint press conference, U.S. officials say the two leaders’ three-plus hours of talks laid the groundwork for areas where the two adversaries can work together in the interest of both world powers.

“It’s always better to meet face to face,” Mr. Putin said while seated alongside Mr. Biden before their first meeting. On that score Mr. Biden agreed, declaring at his closing press conference, “There is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue between leaders, none.”

The Russian president, at his press conference, said there was no “hostility” between the two leaders. He characterized their discussions as constructive, and said he considers “the glimmers of confidence I saw between us the principal result of this meeting.”

As a sign that both sides see a need to try to put tense relations back on better footing, the two presidents agreed to return their respective ambassadors to Washington and Moscow. Both governments had recalled their top diplomatic representatives earlier this year.

In addition, the two leaders tasked their foreign policy teams with reviving the moribund dialogue between the two countries on two critical issues: “strategic stability” concerning nuclear stockpiles and proliferation, and cybersecurity.

Putting Russia on notice

U.S. officials had said the summit, which some in the United States judged premature and likely to primarily serve Mr. Putin’s interests, would allow Mr. Biden to put Russia on notice that malign activities – like cyberattacks on critical infrastructure – will be met with a swift response.

And indeed, Mr. Biden announced that he presented his Russian counterpart with a list of 16 “critical infrastructure” areas – including water systems, energy, and hospitals – that should be “off limits” and warrant agreed protections.

The summit, in an 18th-century villa with views of Lake Geneva, had little of the historic heft of another Geneva summit 36 years ago between presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. That meeting is now seen as having set the stage for the end of the Cold War.

No one expects Wednesday’s summit to have such legs. In fact, some worry it might end up doing little more than elevating Mr. Putin’s global standing.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks at his post-summit news conference at Villa La Grange in Geneva, June 16, 2021.

Even if the summit managed to reach some consensus on Afghanistan security after a planned U.S. exit, “that’s still not big game-changing stuff, so I’m not sure what we get from something that really elevates Mr. Putin when he hasn’t changed a single behavior,” says Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs in George W. Bush’s administration.

The White House insisted the summit was about giving “security and stability to our relations, but the Kremlin’s entire policy is based on insecurity and instability, so it’s hard to see how we get from there to alignment on any issues,” adds Ms. Conley, now director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Yet while Mr. Biden has no illusions about the challenges of working with Mr. Putin, White House officials say, he concluded that airing differences and testing the waters of engagement was still the better course.

Biden’s three basic aims

The shorthand for what senior aides said were Mr. Biden’s three basic aims in sitting down with Mr. Putin might read: arms control, cyberattacks, Aleksei Navalny.

As a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday, President Biden wanted the summit to, first, have laid the groundwork for a set of “taskings” for areas where sustained U.S.-Russia cooperation can “advance our national interest and make the world safer.”

At the top of that list sits arms control. Although the two leaders did earlier this year extend the New START Treaty for five years, nuclear proliferation experts worry that unless sustained and comprehensive arms reduction talks get underway soon, the world’s two largest nuclear powers could find themselves in an arms race with no limits by 2026.

Second, Mr. Biden sought to clearly lay out for Mr. Putin the areas of vital national interest where “Russian activities that run counter to those interests will be met with a response,” the official said.

One of those areas is the cyberattack activity that – whether launched by Russian government entities or by criminal malware gangs that the U.S. says are harbored in Russia – has hit both U.S. elections and vital infrastructure over the past year.

And third, Mr. Biden envisioned the summit as an opportunity to explain to the Russian leader his vision for American values and how they fit in his conception of U.S. foreign policy.

That includes U.S. support for human rights and democratic governance around the world. It is in that context, senior aides say, that Mr. Biden intended to cite the case of Mr. Navalny, the jailed leader of a prominent opposition group who was poisoned last year (by Russian agents, the U.S. has concluded) and nearly died.

At his press conference, Mr. Biden insisted he had advanced all three criteria for the summit, but added that the “proof will be in the pudding.”

Patrick Semansky/AP
President Joe Biden puts on his sunglasses toward the end of his news conference after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, June 16, 2021.

For his part, Mr. Putin had made it clear in the run-up to the summit that while he was happy to engage with Mr. Biden on points one and two, he considered domestic politics off limits.

“Views on our political system can differ,” Mr. Putin told a group of international journalists he met with last week. But “give us the right, please,” he added, “to determine how to organize this part of our life.”

On the other hand, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, also told journalists recently that Mr. Putin intended to bring up the “human rights” of the protesters at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6.

The two leaders did not appear to narrow their wide differences over human rights. Mr. Biden said he explained why cases like Mr. Navalny’s and American values are linked, but an unfazed Mr. Putin dismissed the political opposition leader as a lawbreaker and foreign agent.

A “strategic stability” reset?

On arms control, both sides say they are interested in resetting the concept of strategic stability that governed post-Cold War arms control diplomacy and agreements – until crumbling and falling into disuse over recent years.

The problem, arms control experts say, is that the world’s two biggest nuclear powers remain far apart on just what 21st-century strategic stability should mean.

“Both sides have expressed a common interest in renewing a serious dialogue on maintaining strategic stability, [defined as] ensuring that neither side has an incentive to use nuclear weapons first or has an incentive to build up its nuclear forces,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

Beyond that broad accord, “each side has a different view on what threatens strategic stability and what issues should be the focus of such talks and future potential arms control arrangements,” he adds.

Senior Biden administration officials have said that any talks should at least initially focus on the “very complex set of nuclear arms issues” facing the two countries, Mr. Kimball notes, while Russia wants a “comprehensive approach” that according to Mr. Lavrov would include “nuclear and non-nuclear, and offensive and defensive weapons” from the start.

Administration officials say the U.S. could be open to more comprehensive discussions down the road, but that both sides need to focus on the nuclear issue given the final expiration of New START in 2026.

Mr. Kimball says he is heartened that the two leaders reconfirmed the idea that their predecessors agreed to nearly 40 years ago, that a nuclear war cannot be won. Yet noting that both countries are spending “tens of billions a year modernizing and upgrading their massive nuclear stockpiles,” he says the need is urgent for dialogue that is “regular, frequent, and comprehensive” and “sets the stage for actions and agreements that meaningfully reduce the nuclear risk.”

Whether or not the two nuclear powers get there anytime soon may not be known for a while. In the meantime, the two leaders’ separate press conferences were symbol enough that – despite those fluttering flags on the Pont du Mont Blanc – the two countries remain far apart.

A deeper look

Belarus is becoming Europe’s ‘North Korea.’ What can EU do about it?

Last summer’s popular pro-democracy protests have faded. With Russian help, and a weak response from Europe, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has strengthened his crackdown on the opposition. But there are a few creative, resilient pockets of resistance.

David

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The May 23 hijacking of a passenger plane by Belarus to seize a critic of President Alexander Lukashenko may have stirred the European Union to react to the man called “the last dictator in Europe.” But for many months, Belarus has steadily been shifting into de facto martial law.

Thousands have been detained in connection with protest activities, and nearly 500 political prisoners are behind bars. Poland and Lithuania shelter many who fled. Those left in Belarus live in a climate of fear. Analysts question whether fresh sanctions will actually help the situation.

And while the EU responded quickly to the Ryanair flight’s interception and the arrest of a Belarusian journalist onboard with condemnations and flight bans, analysts say that the bloc has been largely ineffective at constraining Mr. Lukashenko. Germany and other European countries have never refrained from buying Belarusian oil, potash, and related products that directly fund the regime. And preventing European companies from selling in Belarus would potentially allow Turkish and Russian companies to step into the vacuum.

“Restrictions alone have never been an ultimate magic wand,” says independent analyst Pavel Hanchuk. “A combination of external pressure and internal national mobilization is the key. The future of Belarus can be determined only by its citizens.”

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Belarus is becoming Europe’s ‘North Korea.’ What can EU do about it?

Mindaugas Kulbis/AP
A woman holds a banner reading "Lukashenko = terrorist" while standing next to an old Belarusian flag – whose red-and-white colors are now banned in Belarus as symbols of protest – near Medininkai, Lithuania, along the Belarusian border, June 8, 2021.

Under the glare of both spotlights and a Belarusian state television presenter, detained journalist Raman Pratasevich breaks down in tears. He says he wants to quit politics and have a normal life.

In statements family and friends later described as coerced, he confesses to the crime of organizing unauthorized mass protests. He calls Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who put him in this situation, a man who has been unfairly criticized. “Rallies in support of me will come to naught,” he tells the presenter.

He may be right. Mr. Pratasevich is not the first dissident to face harsh treatment by Belarusian authorities, but he is the first valued enough to warrant the hijacking of a Ryanair jetliner traveling between two European NATO member nations, with more than a hundred other passengers on board. And he has become a powerful reminder of the brutal repressions unleashed on the Belarusian people by their leader, after unfair elections sparked popular protests last August.

Mr. Lukashenko’s forcing down of a passenger plane on May 23 marks a turning point for the West. In recent months, Belarus has been steadily morphing into what many describe as the “North Korea of Europe.” Thousands have been detained in connection with protest activities and nearly 500 political prisoners are behind bars. Poland and Lithuania shelter many who fled. Those left in Belarus live in a climate of fear. Analysts question whether fresh sanctions will actually help the situation, but they find hope in the resilience of Belarusians themselves.

“There’s probably not a single family left whose relatives or families have not been touched by the regime in terms of persecutions, imprisonment, repression,” says Veronica Laputska, co-founder of the Warsaw-based Eurasian States in Transition Research Center. “The country is locked and it’s practically impossible to leave.”

Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/Reuters
Jailed Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich speaks at a press conference about the forced landing of the Ryanair passenger plane on which he was traveling, in Minsk, Belarus, June 14, 2021. His family and friends say his comments appeared coerced.

Lukashenko expands his reach

The country wedged between Russia and Europe is currently under de facto martial law, analysts say.

Television and radio is completely state-run, while Mr. Lukashenko recently shut down the largest independent website in the country. The circle of people willing to speak up is shrinking, as protests that once mobilized over a million people have fizzled into small, ethereal acts of defiance. Government opponents and media professionals risk being labeled terrorists, while social media habits – monitored by random police checks – can land Belarusians in detention where beatings and torture are common.

Analysts say that the Ryanair incident was a show of government strength for a domestic audience, as it required coordination between various Belarusian security and military units, and the Russians may have been involved. The message to the West appeared to be: No one can stop me. Whether Mr. Lukashenko’s decision to try to silence critics outside Belarus was a miscalculation, or a deliberate move taken with confidence that Russia would provide cover from consequences, is unclear, analysts say.

What is clear is that “Lukashenko has expanded the limits of his terror, which was mainly used internally,” says Siarhei Kharytonau, a New York-based media expert at iSANS, a think tank monitoring Belarus and Eastern Europe. “It was an act of revenge, very personal revenge. ... Nobody expected it would cause so many implications.”

Mr. Pratasevich, the arrested journalist, is a co-founder of Nexta, a Telegram-hosted media channel that covers and coordinates protests from the relative safety of Poland. His “real” crime, says Mr. Kharytonau, was in challenging state propaganda and unveiling the extent of public opposition to Mr. Lukashenko. His actions “humiliated” Mr. Lukashenko in front of subordinates who are repeatedly told by state media that the regime is in control, that “people are happy, that the protests that took place in August were not popular, and that they were part of a blitzkrieg from Poland and Lithuania who wanted to occupy Belarus,” says Mr. Kharytonau.

In power since 1994 and known as Europe’s “last dictator,” Mr. Lukashenko has been emboldened by years of Western inaction, says Mr. Kharytonau, and he’s ignored the global outcry that followed Mr. Pratasevich’s arrest. In recent weeks, Mr. Lukashenko signed even harsher laws to deter “illegal” demonstrations, their media coverage, and “extremist activities,” taking actions similar to those used by Russia in cracking down on pro-democracy and anti-corruption activists such as Alexei Navalny.

“Real sanctions will cost Europe money”

After the Ryanair jet landing, European Union leaders quickly banned Belarusian carriers from flying in EU airspace and threatened to pass further sanctions.

Past EU sanctions have failed to pack a punch, analysts say. That’s because the creation of these lists of people and companies is undermined by politicking and economic calculations. Travel bans and asset freezes have long been instituted for top-ranking Belarusian officials (though Mr. Lukashenko himself was only added at the end of 2020). But more punishing packages typically failed to secure a broad consensus among EU member states.

Press Service of the President of the Republic of Belarus/Reuters
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko delivers a speech in Minsk, Belarus, May 26, 2021, a few days after Lukashenko critic Raman Pratasevich was seized from a Ryanair flight forced down as it was flying over Belarusian airspace.

“Europe introduces symbolic sanctions,” says Stanislav Shushkevich, the former Belarusian head of state in the 1990s. “They sound good, they support democracy, but to [really] do something one shouldn’t spare money. Real sanctions will cost Europe money.”

Germany and other European countries have never refrained from buying Belarusian oil, potash, and related products that directly fund the regime. And preventing European companies from selling in Belarus would potentially allow Turkish and Russian companies to step into the vacuum. So there’s a clear conflict between policy and profits.

“There is the EU and then there are interests of concrete companies that invested into Belarus and expect profits,” says Anton Semyonov, a Belarusian citizen who works at an insurance company in Minsk. “Our head of state does understand that; he has fantastic intuition.”

Further, Mr. Lukashenko has established good commercial relationships with many European businesspeople. They provide cover and facilitate access to the European market, according to Yaroslav Romanchuk, an economist and president of the libertarian think tank Scientific Research Mises Center in Minsk. “During the last round of sanctions, a few businesspeople from Lukashenko’s close circle were removed from the sanctions list by their European partners.”

There is also a limit to the EU’s clout. The bloc took only about a third of Belarusian exports even during the most flush years.

The United States has acted strongly against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises, which has raised hopes that Europe may follow suit. “We’re working on the EU to follow American lead and to be more forceful and to be more practical, ... to have measures that would be impactful on the behavior [of Mr. Lukashenko],” says Mr. Romanchuk.

“Restrictions alone have never been an ultimate magic wand,” says independent analyst Pavel Hanchuk. “A combination of external pressure and internal national mobilization is the key. The future of Belarus can be determined only by its citizens.”

Belarus’ silent partner

Complicating the EU’s ability to act is Russia, a close ally of Belarus. Some EU member states believe consolidating action against Mr. Lukashenko would hurt the bloc’s already sensitive relations with Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia has been willing to back up Mr. Lukashenko, evidenced by recent tit-for-tat moves complicating European airlines’ access to Russian airspace, which is now needed to avoid flying over Belarus. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Mr. Lukashenko on his boat right after the Ryanair incident, and Moscow appears to have no problems with the detention of Sofia Sapega, Mr. Pratasevich’s girlfriend and a Russian citizen, who was also taken from the flight.

“If not for Kremlin’s support, [the] Lukashenko issue would have already been solved,” says Yevgeny Ogurtsov, a journalist and political writer in Minsk.

After the incident, Russia agreed to unlock $500 million for Belarus, marking the second installment of a $1.5 billion loan that Moscow promised Minsk as part of the effort to help stabilize its neighbor after the disputed 2020 elections. Russia is the top trading partner for Belarus – the EU is No. 2 – and plays a key role in its economy.

Sergei Ilyin/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin, shown here with Alexander Lukashenko (left) on a boat trip off Sochi, Russia, May 29, 2021, has stood by his Belarusian counterpart as he faces increasing pressure from the West.

“Russia’s dominating role in the Belarusian economy is something unquestioned,” says Maksimas Milta, head of the Communication and Development Unit at the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in exile in Vilnius. “Effectively speaking, you can hardly find any sector of the Belarusian economy right now which would not be dominated by Russia except for the IT sector.”

The EU has offered twice as much as Russia – a $3.6 billion package in grants and loans – on condition that Belarus joins the ranks of Western democracies. But former Belarusian head of state Mr. Shushkevich rejects the idea that Belarus should have to choose sides politically or economically.

“Why should it be one or another – Europe or Russia?” asks Mr. Shushkevich, who led Belarus after its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. “Belarus should neither be in Europe nor in Russia, but an independent neutral state. Armed neutrality and friendly with everyone.”

Others believe soft power – via young Belarusians seeing the way of life in Europe, for example – will yield better results than any combination of sticks or carrots to persuade authorities. “Belarus will not join Europe. We have to build Europe inside Belarus ourselves ... if people could get rid of the fear,” says Mr. Ogurtsov, the political writer in Minsk.

Not looking for democracy?

For now, the loudest acts of protest are coming from outside the country. In Belarus, the average citizen cares more about food in the fridge than the political dramas unfolding on state television, says Mr. Semyonov, the insurance worker. “Authorities will stick to power by all possible means,” he says. “There is a complicated period for Belarus ahead.”

Mr. Romanchuk notes a recent opinion poll found that fewer than 42% of Belarusians believe democracy is the best way to run the country, with support for a free market even lower. “People don’t like Lukashenko because he’s cruel ... but they believe that somebody else with the same kind of power would be OK,” he says.

Michael Sohn/AP
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (rear right) holds a portrait of an arrested Belarusian man with a baseball cap at the Berlinale Summer Special film festival in Berlin, June 11, 2021.

The huge street rallies of the fall are now too dangerous to repeat. Even wearing red-and-white socks, the colors of the banned Belarusian flag, is sufficient grounds for a fine. Still, Belarusians are finding small ways to voice their discontent. Printed leaflets are distributed on the sly and random groups film themselves marching in unison to signal discontent before quickly dispersing to avoid arrest.

“The most important role in resolving this crisis stays with the people, with Belarusians,” says Valery Kavaleuski, the foreign affairs representative of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. “It’s not easy to find hope in the atmosphere of despair and fear, but people are stubborn. People are resilient. People find ways to [seek change] safely.”

Some protest acts are scheduled at 23:34 (11:34 p.m.) in a nod to the digits of an administrative code that penalizes mass protest. On March 25, Belarusians unleashed a fireworks display at that time to celebrate Independence Day, according to Mr. Kavaleuski. People are starting to boycott state-produced goods such as tobacco and alcohol, which are heavily taxed and feed regime coffers.

Mr. Kavaleuski reminisces about the fall demonstrations that prompted Mr. Lukashenko’s recent crackdowns. They were joyful, peaceful, and enthusiastic. People are still holding on to those emotions, just waiting to be sprung.

“I would dare to say that if the police are withdrawn from the street, if they go back to their barracks, there will be huge numbers of people immediately,” says Mr. Kavaleuski. “Just give us our cities for 24 hours. You will see how resolute people feel about this situation.”

Patterns

Tracing global connections

Where Biden’s global democracy drive is vulnerable: The home front

While G-7 nations welcomed the U.S. back into a global leadership role, our London columnist observes they are skeptical that America’s fractured democratic system can deliver on President Biden’s promises on climate, infrastructure, and governance. 

David

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It’s a tough job that President Joe Biden has set for himself and America: to lead the way in promoting democracy against autocracy on the international stage.

He found U.S. allies receptive to the idea when he met them in Europe this week and last, but his trip has made another message clear. His task will not be easy.

That’s largely because many foreign leaders and their citizens are voicing skepticism about America’s democratic health. One recent global poll found that while 75% of respondents trusted Mr. Biden to “do the right thing” on international affairs, only 17% thought  America was setting a good example for democracies worldwide.

To promote democracy, Mr. Biden will have to prove that it meets people’s needs, that it works. He has set before Western nations ambitious goals on climate change and building new infrastructure for poor countries.

The trouble is that the domestic American version of these goals, the American Jobs Plan, is currently mired in congressional gridlock.

That raises a question. How can an American president convince the world that democratic governance can deliver effective and ambitious policy if he’s unable to make good on that promise at home?

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Where Biden’s global democracy drive is vulnerable: The home front

Brendan Smialowski/Reuters
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and U.S. President Joe Biden attend a working session during the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 12, 2021.

It’s an ambitious goal that President Joe Biden has set himself and his nation to lead the way in what he sees as the central international challenge of our age: the repair and reinvigoration of democracy as an ideal model of government.

It’s a real-life “contest,” the president told reporters at the end of last weekend’s meeting in Britain of the G-7 group of advanced economies. Ranged on the opposing side were the “autocratic governments around the world,” chiefly, an ever more ambitious and assertive China.

Yet while Mr. Biden has found key allies receptive, his first overseas trip as president has made another message clear.

His task is not going to be easy.

That is largely because many foreign leaders and their citizens are skeptical about the health of America’s own democracy, unsettled by the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January and the return to partisan warfare and legislative gridlock in Washington in the months since then.

Allied heads of government remain skittish over the possibility that a Trump-like “America first” populist, or even former President Donald Trump himself, might reclaim the White House next time around. And two new opinion surveys show how deeply international public skepticism about Washington runs.

Matt Dunham/AP
British newspapers, with front pages reporting on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, are displayed for sale outside a store in London, Jan. 7, 2021. Many foreign leaders and their citizens are skeptical about the health of American democracy.

Last week’s annual report on America’s standing in the world by the Pew Research Center drew attention to the recent meteoric improvement in global public sentiment about America and its president. Across the 16 nations polled, a median of 75% said they trusted Mr. Biden to “do the right thing” internationally – a leap from the 17% rating Mr. Trump garnered in 2020.

But beyond the support for Mr. Biden, the survey found far lower confidence in America’s democratic system itself.

A median of only 50% felt U.S. democracy was working well. Just 17% of those polled said America was setting a good example for democracies worldwide.

A broadly similar picture emerged from an opinion poll in 12 European countries carried out by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

In only three nations – Italy, Hungary, and Poland – did more than half of respondents feel that America’s democratic government was working well. Elsewhere, most respondents judged U.S. democracy to be either somewhat or completely “broken.”

And Mr. Biden himself seems keenly aware that this is not just a public relations challenge.

If America is going to lead – much less win – a contest between democracies and autocracies, he knows that America and its allies are going to have to meet a critical practical test: to demonstrate that their system of government can actually meet the needs of their own people and those of the wider world.

Two related policy challenges are shaping up as key tests: climate change and a broad, 21st-century vision of infrastructure that includes clean energy and high-tech innovation as well as major brick-and-mortar projects.

Internationally, that’s intended as an explicit challenge, above all, to China.

On climate change, Mr. Biden hopes to encourage and spearhead the newly ambitious low-carbon targets that the G-7 nations have set when the world meets in Scotland later this year to follow up on the Paris climate accords. On infrastructure, he wants to create an alliance of advanced democracies that will provide poorer countries with the money and expertise they need for their development projects. That’s intended as an alternative to the nearly $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative China has put in place across Asia, the Mideast, Africa, and Latin America. 

But while he’ll have taken encouragement from his G-7 partners’ initial response, Mr. Biden knows that they’ll also be watching events in Washington when he returns later this week.

Both of the challenges he laid out at the G-7 are also on America’s domestic policy agenda, in the shape of his “American Jobs Plan,” a comprehensive infrastructure and green energy proposal with a price tag of around $2 trillion.

The president’s aspiration, when he unveiled it nearly two months ago, was that it would provide a homegrown showcase of how to tackle the tasks he has highlighted at the G-7 summit. It would be an example of how, despite the challenge in recent years from authoritarianism and strongman populism, democracies actually work best. That they can rise to the policy challenges of the 21st century and still do big things well. 

The problem, though, is that this is not how things are playing out at the moment. At least as things now stand, President Biden is struggling to rally bipartisan support for his vision in Congress, which is mired in gridlock. 

That raises a critical question. How can an American president convince the world that democratic governance can deliver effective and ambitious policy if he’s unable to make good on that promise at home?

Points of Progress

What's going right

For a warming world, solar-powered schools and city ‘heat officers’

In our progress roundup this week we see women taking key leadership roles in the Louvre, the Pentagon, and as Miami’s first chief heat officer. We also see how a head-start program boosts survival rates for Australia’s endangered wallabies.

David
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For a warming world, solar-powered schools and city ‘heat officers’

Highlighted this week are women making leadership debuts at the Pentagon, the Louvre, and in Miami-Dade County, which initiates a new job title – one that deals with extreme heat and climate change.

1. United States

The Senate unanimously confirmed the country’s first female Army secretary. Christine Wormuth is the first woman to achieve the top civilian position in the land service branch, and the second woman the Biden administration has appointed to a top Defense position, historically dominated by men. The first was Kathleen Hicks, who took over as deputy defense secretary.

Ms. Wormuth most recently worked as director of the Rand Corp.’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, and has a long career at the Pentagon, including a two-year stint as the undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration. She also led President Joe Biden’s transition team at the Pentagon. Ms. Wormuth steps into this new leadership role at a pivotal moment for the Army, which is under pressure to change its handling of sexual assault and other violent crimes.
The Associated Press, Army Times

Andrew Harnik/AP
Christine Wormuth is the second woman the Biden administration has appointed to a top Defense position.

2. Chile

Chile’s legislature passed a historic law banning hard-to-recycle plastic items from the food industry, among other changes. Stemming from a 2019 report by environmental groups Plastic Oceans Chile and Oceana Chile, the bill seeks to move the coastline country toward a low-waste, circular economy. It targets single-use plastic items that often end up in oceans, such as plastic plates, straws, foam to-go containers, and stirrers. The legislation also establishes a certificate program for identifying and labeling compostable materials, and requires all establishments selling drinks to offer reusable alternatives to disposable bottles. Advocates say these changes will reduce plastic waste by more than 23,000 tons annually across the country.  

Bans are set to go into effect by the end of the year, and the rest of the program will roll out within the next three years. “The approval of this project, supported across the board by parliamentarians and civil society, is a milestone in the care and protection of Chile’s environment,” said Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt. Chile was the first Latin American country to ban plastic bags in 2018.
Ecowatch

3. France

Laurence des Cars has been appointed as the Louvre’s new president-director, making her the first woman to lead the museum in its 228-year history. Few women have helmed France’s major museums. Both the Palais de Tokyo and Centre Pompidou have each had one female president, and Ms. des Cars became the second woman to lead the Musée d’Orsay when she took over in 2017. She will now replace Jean-Luc Martinez in overseeing one of the most-visited museums in the world.

Matthias Balk/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP/File
Laurence des Cars will take over as president-director of the museum later this year.

Ms. des Cars, whose tenure begins Sept. 1, is known at the Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie for launching collaborative exhibitions that push back on stereotypes about 19th-century art. This includes the 2019 show “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” created in partnership with New York’s Wallach Art Gallery, which highlights Black figures in French art. She was also involved in the development of Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. She hopes to continue making changes at the Louvre, such as extending evening hours to attract younger crowds and collaborating with contemporary filmmakers, musicians, and designers.
The New York Times, ArtNews

4. India

West Bengal’s Sunshine Schools project is helping bring reliable energy to thousands of classrooms and reduce carbon emissions. Around 70% of India’s electricity currently comes from fossil fuels, according to government reports. Installing a mini solar power plant can reduce a school’s emissions by 10 metric tons a year.

Run by the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency, the Sunshine Schools project has helped 1,800 schools make the switch so far, and plans to install another 1,000 mini plants every year until it reaches 25,000 throughout the Indian state. These systems produce electricity more reliably than the traditional power grid, and can result in significant cost savings when the surplus solar power is fed back into the grid, offsetting whatever energy schools consume on cloudy days. Since installing solar panels, one high school in the Bankura district has used its energy savings on teacher salaries, sanitation, and planting trees.
Thomson Reuters Foundation

5. Australia

Conservation scientists have boosted survival rates of endangered wallabies by using the so-called head-start strategy. The bridled nailtail wallaby population in Queensland was near extinction when a University of New South Wales team decided to collect all the wallabies under 3 kilograms, or around 6.6 pounds, and relocate them to a 25-acre area protected from feral cats, which studies have shown kill more than half of the area’s wallabies before they reach adulthood. Researchers found that 89% of the wallabies raised in Avocet Nature Refuge from 2015 to 2018 survived to grow large enough to be released back into the wild, according to their recent article in Current Biology. By excluding this one particular predator from the young marsupials’ environment, the project nearly tripled the local population of bridled nailtail wallabies.

Dave Watts/NHPA/Photoshot/Newscom
Protecting small bridled nailtail wallabies from feral cats in Queensland in Australia is critical to increasing the species' population.

The head-start method had been used with varying success on reptiles, fish, birds, and seals, but this was the first time applying the technique on a land mammal, offering hope that the intervention could help other endangered species. “One of the great things about headstarting is it’s relatively cheap, [and] doesn’t interfere too much with animals’ awareness of predators,” said lead author Alexandra Ross. “Any species that is particularly vulnerable in the early life stage could potentially thrive under a headstarting strategy.”
University of New South Wales

World

Cities are creating the leadership position of chief heat officer to manage risks associated with heat waves, a sign of growing recognition of the dangers of climate change. 2020 was the planet’s hottest year on record, according to NASA data. In addition to being the lead cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., heat waves cause disruption from grounded planes to warped train tracks, and have long-term effects on urban quality of life.

Climate researchers are increasingly pushing cities to prepare for high temperatures. Florida’s Miami-Dade County, a founding member of the City Champions for Heat Action initiative, recently appointed the city’s former chief resilience officer, Jane Gilbert, as the world’s first chief heat officer. She will coordinate efforts to raise public awareness of heat risks, correct gaps in heat data, and develop more equitable and heat-resistant infrastructure. CCHA founders Athens, Greece; and Freetown, Sierra Leone, have also committed to hiring chief heat officers, and other cities are expected to follow.
Thomson Reuters Foundation, Cities Today

Books

An ‘everyday’ life in dance proves something quite extraordinary

In this interview with Gavin Larsen, author of “Being a Ballerina,” she looks at success from the perspective of the “worker bee” dancer. She also debunks some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding ballet.

David
Scott Treadway/University Press of Florida
Gavin Larsen has danced with well-regarded ballet companies in the United States and in Canada. She was a principal dancer for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Her memoir looks at the strength, skill, and dedication needed to succeed in dance.

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Gavin Larsen’s commitment to dance started early and carried her through a rewarding, nearly two-decade career. In her memoir, “Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life,” she upends pop-culture narratives about big-name stars and competition among dancers, revealing the everyday moments that build a life in dance. 

Her memoir honors the day-in, day-out dedication of thousands of dancers, and their mutually supportive community. 

In sharing her insights, Ms. Larsen wants to demystify dance and make it more accessible. “I hope the book gives ballet a more universal appeal. Everyone can dance, and everyone should dance,” she says. 

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An ‘everyday’ life in dance proves something quite extraordinary

In her memoir, “Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life,” Gavin Larsen calls herself an “everyday” ballerina. Before retiring in 2010, she danced professionally in a number of well-regarded companies in the United States and Canada, including Oregon Ballet Theatre, where she was a principal dancer. In the book, she relates episodes from her childhood training at the School of American Ballet in New York all the way up through her successful 18-year career. She illuminates what it means to dedicate oneself to an art form – the daily navigation between pain and joy, between total immersion and having a balanced life. Unlike the gossipy celebrity tell-all, “Being a Ballerina” is a personal chronicle of a professional dancing life that is as accessible as it is engaging. 

Q: The vast majority of aspiring young dancers don’t become superstars, which makes your story so relatable. Despite notable success as a principal dancer, you still call yourself an “everyday” dancer. Why?

I wanted to highlight the thousands of [dancers] who rose to success, but are not superstars, who straddle these two worlds – in [this] exalted place, but as kind of worker bees. That crew of us is the untold story. So many dancer memoirs are by the famous names who had hardship and remarkable elements to their stories, and I had none of that. I felt the drama of a life in dance lies in the everydayness of it, the extraordinary in the ordinary. This is an interesting subset of ballet culture that nondancers are not really aware of.

Q: I don’t think most people realize that ballet demands not just strength and technical facility but incredible stamina. You write of dropping to your knees in the wings after one particularly rigorous performance. How difficult was it?

That’s another element I really wanted to hit home. Ballet is bone-crushingly hard, physically and mentally. People have an impression of a ballerina that it’s lovely and fun and your toes bleed, but that’s not really it. It’s really the highest echelon of athletic training and performance as well as an art form. I wanted to be detailed, take readers through what you do with your body minute by minute working through a piece of choreography.

Q: You’re quite candid about performance mishaps. When you know that one misstep can be career-ending, how do you let go of that fear of physical failure to dance full out, to take risks?

It’s really hard, and honestly you can’t always do it. As the years went on, it got harder, and that was a big mental component to stopping when I did. But you’re so skilled by that point that you’re used to feeling how to make it work. We used to say “We’ve gotta go make it happen” instead of just letting it happen.

Q: Pop culture sensationalizes the competition aspects of ballet. What was your experience?

That’s another common misperception that I really despise. Yes, there’s built-in competition, in that there are many more dancers than jobs and coveted roles, and you’re always measuring yourself up against other dancers. But, and I daresay 95% of dancers would agree, the majority of us experience an incredible support system. It’s this community and we all understand each other. The camaraderie in a ballet company is as strong as a military bond – it’s that tight and supportive. And that crew mentality extends beyond the dancers. There really is this neat web of people that all come together to make this one thing happen. The applause is not all for me.

Q: You don’t divulge much about your personal life until the end. Was that deliberate?

I wanted to highlight the dancing life. I did add some personal [elements] late in the book and was more forthcoming. But I was unique in having an extra heightened degree of single-mindedness – I didn’t get married, have children, or go to school while dancing. But I also didn’t eat, drink, and sleep ballet 24 hours a day. 

Q: How have you adjusted to retirement, which you refer to as “a small death”?

Writing this book helped a lot. It unfolded over 10 years, helping ease me out of a performing identity. That ballerina is still there; she’s just quiet right now. There are so many things about the performance life and the work that I don’t miss. Any moment I feel a pang for the exhilaration of performing, I think of how fleeting those moments are.

Q: What’s your best advice for aspiring ballet dancers?

If you really, really feel that pilot light in you, you can find a way to make it your life. I’ve seen too many people give up. There’s a job out there for every dancer. It may take more tenacity or time, but be stubborn and keep dancing.

Q: You now live and teach in Asheville, North Carolina, and end the book with a chapter about teaching avocational dancers, making ballet more accessible. How does the book relate to that?

I love teaching adults and recreational dancers. I hope the book gives ballet a more universal appeal. Everyone can dance, and everyone should dance. 

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A turbulent 2020 saw a rise in giving

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Reports out of Myanmar indicate a country on the verge of economic collapse and possible civil war. Yet despite this adversity, the people of Myanmar are living up to their reputation as one of the world’s most altruistic people. According to other reports, they have stepped up donations of food and money for both poor people and the protesters.

The Southeast Asian country is just the latest example of lovingkindness rising to the occasion in turbulent times. In the United States, which last year saw three great upheavals – a recession, the pandemic, and racial justice protests – charitable giving reached record levels. Americans gave $471 billion, or a 3.8% increase over the previous year when adjusted for inflation.

Worldwide last year, more than half of adults helped someone they didn’t know – the highest level ever recorded – according to the 2021 World Giving Index.

“The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens,” 19th-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville remarked after observing American society. But a society’s future can also be judged on its ability to respond to adversity with compassion and generosity.

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A turbulent 2020 saw a rise in giving

AP
A woman takes bread at the Porchlight Community Service food pantry in San Diego, Calif., in May.

Reports out of Myanmar indicate a country on the verge of economic collapse, a result of a military coup four months ago that has led to mass dissent, a violent crackdown, and a possible civil war. Yet despite this adversity, the people of Myanmar are living up to their reputation as one of the world’s most altruistic people. According to other reports, they have stepped up donations of food and money for both poor people and the protesters.

“They are happy when we donate food. Some even cry,” one volunteer at a new food bank in Yangon, told Agence France-Presse. The bump-up in charity comes out of Myanmar’s tradition of religious-based giving and mutual aid, known as parahita. “Our greatest weapon is the strong desire of the people. No other weapons are necessary,” a member of the Get Well Soon charity group told Myanmar Today.

The Southeast Asian country is just the latest example of lovingkindness rising to the occasion in turbulent times. In the United States, which last year saw three great upheavals a recession, people’s lives upturned by the pandemic, and racial justice protests – charitable giving reached record levels. Americans gave $471 billion, or a 3.8% increase over the previous year when adjusted for inflation, according to the “Giving USA” report from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

During most recessions, giving in the U.S. goes down. But with the stock market up and Americans responding to both COVID-19 and the call for racial justice, they reached for their checkbooks and Venmo accounts to donate. In particular, charities that focus on basic needs saw an 8.4% jump in giving. Food banks saw a doubling in donations. And, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, the overall number of individual donors grew by 7.3%.

The rise in giving came even as the percentage of Americans who belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque went below 50% for the first time. Among 18- to 30-year-olds, the rate of donations to causes doubled in 2020 compared with the three previous years, according to a survey by the group Cause and Social Influence.

Worldwide last year, more than half of adults helped someone they didn’t know – the highest level ever recorded – according to the 2021 World Giving Index. And the level of donations was higher than in the previous five years.

“The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens,” 19th-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville remarked after observing American society. But a society’s future can also be judged on its ability to respond to adversity with compassion and generosity.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Looking to God for ‘satisfying’

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Understanding and living the truth of what we are as children of God, divine Love, brings a satisfaction that materialism can never match.

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Looking to God for ‘satisfying’

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

A year of global lockdowns has had a number of unwelcome side effects. Among these is an upturn in bingeing, including a ramping up of the more sensual forms of self-indulgence, such as consumption of alcohol and pornography. Invariably, such activities paper over a far deeper need, and often spiral into addiction.

That deeper need is to realize that at our core, we are so much more than a bundle of material impulses, capable of feeling only fleeting satisfaction. We are, in fact, the creation and expression of infinite divine Love, God, and our only need is to discover just how capable we are of experiencing and living this deeply satisfying and joyful identity.

The unchecked inclination to indulge feelings of loneliness, boredom, anxiety, dissatisfaction, or anger is actually sensuality’s veil, which would keep us from seeing and feeling the very thing that frees us from these mental states: our oneness with divine Love, God. This oneness isn’t optional; it is the underlying fact of our identity as the reflection of God’s nature.

Uncovering this loving outlook in ourselves uplifts our thoughts of, and behavior toward, others. It also reaps the richest of rewards – companioning with God. As the Psalmist describes it, “As I walk with You, the pleasures are never-ending, and I know true joy and contentment” (Psalms 16:11, The Voice).

This deeply satisfied joy is natural to everyone as God’s spiritual creation. Traits that can stem from self-absorption such as impatience or even aggression lose their hold as we awaken to the truth of our identity, grounded in God’s ceaseless goodness.

From this spiritual vantage point, we can discern the downside of preoccupation with sensual pursuits. Sensuality obscures our real identity, taints our perception of others, and makes God, good, feel distant. Sensual appetites steer us away from expressing and enjoying reality as the reflection of God’s healing love.

In this genuine reality, God, good, is not part of existence, but the whole. This wholeness leaves no place for a sinful, material self to impinge on anyone’s native consciousness of God and His creation. So when self-indulgence appears to obscure our spirituality, we can recognize this as untrue. Spirituality is true, and understanding this arrests sensual impulses. We shift the balance to the right side – where “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, English Standard Version) – by grasping what’s spiritually true, which is that God, good, is All, and that we each reflect this divine goodness. It’s this infinitude of God’s flawless goodness that truly defines us, whatever we might have been tempted by.

Accepting this to be true, we see that we are not sensual and never truly have been. The gospel record of Christ Jesus’ life shows that we are not alone when striving to recognize this as our reality – that the powerful help of Christ is always with us to illumine the spiritual reality right where we might seem to be struggling with sensuality.

Every glimpse of this truth refines our aspirations and actions and increasingly frees us from sensual habits. It brings out in us more of the qualities Jesus so consistently expressed, which include the opposite of loneliness, boredom, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and anger: patience, forgiveness, abiding faith, and affection.

This kind of transformation is illustrated throughout the archives of the Christian Science periodicals. A wonderful example is “No longer addicted to pornography” (Christian Science Sentinel, January 2, 2012). Step by step, a man found that gaining God’s view of his true identity overturned a physical sense of existence and satisfaction and dismissed the long shadows it had cast over his life.

Such is the healing promise of rising above the bondage of the false, finite senses, whether they are moderately or overwhelmingly misconstruing pleasure as material rather than spiritual. The discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, said, “Christian Science and the senses are at war” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 101). Battles in this war are won every time it dawns on us in prayer that Spirit, God, is All, so spiritual sense is our only sense. To this true sense, there are no self-indulgent mortals, only God’s spiritual expressions motivated by unselfed love. As sensuality yields to this reality, we walk with God ourselves and can help others do the same.

We’re each created to enjoy and express the fullness of God’s goodness, which is more than enough. We don’t need to turn elsewhere for “satisfying.” We can look into our hearts and affirm the sufficient, abundant joy of walking with God. And we can recognize in others who may be struggling with sensuality that this endless and satisfying joy forever belongs to them, too.

Adapted from an editorial published in the March 19, 2021, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

Looking for more timely inspiration like this? Check out the “Related stories” below; explore other recent content from the Monitor’s daily Christian Science Perspective column; or sign up for the free weekly newsletters for this column or the Christian Science Sentinel, a sister publication of the Monitor.

Viewfinder

Hoping for a good harvest

Dar Yasin/AP
A Kashmiri farmer plucks cherries in an orchard in Waliwar village, northeast of Srinagar in Indian-controlled Kashmir, on June 16, 2021. Cherry farmers in Kashmir, who were not able to get most of their produce to the markets last year because of the pandemic, are hoping for good returns this year.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re reviewing two films that look at the childhoods of famous athletes. 

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