The World Today for December 29, 2017


Looking Back

Regimes changed in 2017.

A new president entered the White House, with ramifications from North Korea to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and beyond.

Writing in the Washington Post, Woodrow Wilson Center Vice President Aaron David Miller and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Senior Fellow Richard Sokolsky argued that Donald Trump has harmed American interests abroad. “‘America first’? So far, Trump’s foreign policy mostly puts America last,” was the headline of their opinion piece.

But CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen was more generous, arguing that Trump had scored successes on the international stage, citing his decision to fire missiles at Syria after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. The strike set an important precedent, argued Bergen. “The enforcement of the important international prohibition against the use of nerve gas is certainly an achievement for the Trump administration,” he wrote.

In the Middle East, the fall of the Islamic State was undoubtedly the big development. Three years ago, the jihadists’ blitzkrieg rise – seemingly out of nowhere – shocked the world. Now their formerly expansive caliphate in Syria and Iraq has been reduced to a 15-square-mile enclave along the Euphrates River.

Robert Mugabe left office after 37 years as leader of Zimbabwe as did other long-lasting African dictators such as José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, who left after 38 years. But strongmen in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and elsewhere consolidated their power. They often did so through democratic means, raising questions about whether the world will continue in the future to look on the US and the West for models of governance.

“As American and European power recedes, a global resurrection of non-Western attitudes is taking place,” Kishore Mahbuban wrote in the New York Times in September.

Similarly, populism surged in Europe amid the Syrian refugee crisis. But moderates won or kept the top offices in France and Germany, pushing back the populist tide for now, as Xinhua reported.

But perhaps the greatest change of 2017 were the revelations about rampant sexual harassment that undermined men’s dominance of societies around the world.

In October, for example, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström joined the #MeToo movement, saying she had experienced sexual harassment at a meeting of European political leaders, reported Deutsche Welle. A victim of domestic abuse when she was in her 20s, Wallström is now pursuing what she calls a “feminist foreign policy” that has made worldwide gender equality a top Swedish priority.

Few expected such widespread changes. Dealing with them is the world’s task for 2018.



Pardon Me?

The head of Brazil’s Supreme Court partially suspended Christmas pardons granted to convicted criminals by President Michel Temer, after the country’s top prosecutor argued some of them were unconstitutional and threatened the country’s long-running graft investigation.

In a break from tradition, on Dec. 21 Temer loosened the rules for granting pardons, extending them to include people convicted of corruption-related crimes, Reuters reported. The move was widely criticized by public prosecutors and on social media.

Justice Minister Torquato Jardim told Reuters that the ministry would seek to rejig the pardons to allow them to go into effect, despite the judge’s ruling.

Temer’s decree reduced the portion of their sentence that non-violent, first-time offenders must have served before being eligible for a pardon from one-quarter to one-fifth of the total sentence. And he extended the rules to include prisoners who have been sentenced to terms longer than 12 years.

In a newspaper editorial, Jardim claimed the changes were intended to allow pardons for people like the more than 70,000  jailed for theft and not the 50 or so imprisoned for corruption.


Patching Things Up

Turkey and the US resumed visa services, three months after they were suspended in a rift over Turkey’s arrest of a local employee of the US Consulate in Istanbul and America’s refusal to extradite the US-based cleric that Turkey blames for a failed coup in July 2016.

The announcement pushed the Turkish stock market to a record high, Bloomberg reported. Nevertheless, the US Consulate employee remains incarcerated on terrorism-related charges, and Turkey has disputed the US claim that it offered assurances that no other local employees were under investigation and that local staffers wouldn’t be detained for doing their jobs.

Along with the refusal to extradite US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, US-Turkey relations have been tested by Washington’s support for Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, whom Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls terrorists linked to a separatist movement in his country.

The resumption of visa services comes after Erdogan reversed track and resumed his insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has no place in Syria’s future government. Erdogan also signaled a rapprochement with other European leaders, the New York Times reported.


Back to the Polls

Italy’s president dissolved the parliament on Thursday, paving the way for elections  on March 4.

The general election will be Italy’s first since 2013, when the government led by the center-left Democratic Party succeeded the caretaker administration of Mario Monti, who’d stepped in after former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation, the New York Times reported.

It should provide a thermometer reading of sorts for Europe, where center-left parties have faltered to the benefit of populist and far-right parties, the paper said. In Italy, both the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League party have been steadily gaining in opinion polls in recent months.

The pro-Russia Five Star Movement — which prides itself on using outsider rather than professional politicians — is currently Italy’s most popular political force. But a new electoral law that favors broad coalitions was approved last fall, making it unlikely that they will take power, since the party has insisted that it will refuse alliances with traditional parties.

The right-wing, anti-immigration League, currently polling at 12 percent, has a better chance due to the possibility of an alliance with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.


Watch the Bubbles

New Year’s Eve is a night of excess, and popping a bottle of bubbly at midnight is de rigueur to usher in the new year.

But if you’re springing for the expensive stuff, keep an eye on the bubbles.

University of Texas at Austin researchers recently conducted an experiment on Californian Brut and Moët & Chandon Imperial champagnes to see if quality and price point had any impact on the bubble content of this decadent drink.

Using hydrophones, or underwater microphones, the researchers measured the sound of bubbles forming while pouring the champagnes into glasses. Their results revealed that pricier champagnes actually formed smaller bubbles, a testament to their quality, the Guardian reported.

“The bubbles in the fancier champagne were smaller,” said Kyle Spratt, one of the researchers who conducted the study, adding that “there is less variation in bubble size and that there was more bubble activity in general,” in higher-quality champagnes.

Even so, a few variables can affect that perfect sip: The type of glass or container, such as plastic cups, can affect the size of the bubbles, and the researchers admit bubbles that formed on their hydrophone could have skewed their results.

At any rate, to toast in style, remember: It’s all about the bubbles.

CORRECTION: Yesterday’s Discoveries item, A Passion for Games, incorrectly identified the capital of Nigeria. Abuja replaced Lagos as the country’s capital in 1991. We regret the error.

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