The World Today for December 31, 2018

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Looking Both Ways

Business as usual was upended around the world in 2018.

US President Donald Trump sat down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June, a first-ever meeting that will go down in the history books.

The fruits of those talks have yet to be realized. North Korea has not dismantled its nuclear program. But the two leaders are expected to meet again in the New Year, a sign that armed conflict remains a distant possibility.

“They have not lived up to the commitments so far,” National Security Adviser John Bolton told the New York Times. “That’s why I think the president thinks another summit is likely to be productive.” (Kim reportedly sent a year-end letter to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in offering a new meeting in 2019 and a “conciliatory message” to Trump).

The US and China waged a trade war that threatened to destabilize the world economy. But the tensions appeared to be easing as the year came to a close. As the South China Morning Post explained, China agreed to loosen its prohibitions on foreign investment and Trump agreed to hold off on more tariffs while negotiators talk.

“I’m actually optimistic about US-China trade talks,” CNBC commentator Jim Cramer opined.

It’s hard to be so rosy about Europe.

Longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her plans to step down in 2021. She’s leaving to bolster her conservative party’s electoral fortunes against a tide of discontent that has manifested itself throughout the continent. (The Guardian looks at her legacy here.)

French President Emmanuel Macron also suffered a reversal in fortune as yellow-vest-wearing protesters staged violent protests that shut down roads and paralyzed Paris and other cities. The former golden boy found himself bending over backward to quiet things down.

EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger wasn’t impressed, telling Politico that the French president “lost authority” when he caved to the protesters’ demands for more spending.

But Oettinger’s comments could apply to many European leaders these days, including himself and others in Brussels who are now negotiating with Brits who want to exit the bloc and Italians who are thumbing their noses at EU rules.

The US, France and Britain launched airstrikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in April after a chemical attack in the town of Douma. Eight months later, Trump announced a withdrawal of American troops from the war-torn country, saying they could leave because they had defeated the Islamic State there.

The American move capped off a great year for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who oversaw a consolidation of Russia’s hold on Crimea and further bullied Ukraine with little pushback from the West in 2018.

“Donald is right,” said Putin during his annual news conference on December 20. In his Christmas and New Year letter to Trump, he also invited the US president to discuss “the most extensive agenda” next year.

Strongmen appeared to gain favor in Latin America, too.

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and admirer of the country’s former military dictatorship, won the presidential race after running on promises to “hobble violent drug gangs, cut through red tape to kick-start Brazil’s economy and go after the corrupt political class,” Reuters reported.

Crime and corruption were among the reasons why so many people from Central American countries like Honduras set off in caravans to the US in search of asylum from gangs and unemployment.

Those problems haven’t gone away. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that another migrant caravan with as many as 15,000 participants was slated to embark for the southern US border in January.

Welcome to the New Year.



“Farcical” Victory

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won re-election to a third term by a landslide Sunday in what opposition leaders have called a “farcical” election marred by vote-rigging, intimidation and widespread violence.

Hasina’s ruling Awami League party and its allies have won 288 of the 300 parliamentary seats, the BBC reported. Meanwhile, at least 17 people were killed in clashes between ruling party supporters and the opposition.

A spokesman for the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) alleged there were “irregularities” in 221 of the 300 seats being contested, the BBC said, adding that its own reporter observed ballot boxes that were already filled before the polls opened in Chittagong.

The government deployed 600,000 security personnel to prevent violence and shut down high-speed Internet access to prevent the spreading of rumors to incite strife.

The allegations of voting irregularities come as Hasina’s government faces increasing criticism for what opponents say is a mounting climate of authoritarianism in Bangladesh.


Building Confidence

The Shi’ite Houthi rebels fighting for control of Yemen on Saturday handed over the port city of Hodeida to the forces of the internationally recognized government, marking a significant step in the march toward a possible political settlement of the four-year civil war.

Currently, the Iran-backed Houthis control most of northern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, while the Saudi Arabia-backed government controls much of the south, including the Arabian Sea port city of Aden, the Associated Press reported. Hodeida, on the Red Sea, is vital both strategically and for humanitarian aid because 70 percent of imports arrive through its port.

While the handover is an important confidence-building measure, a second important agreement reached during the recent peace talks in Sweden – a prisoner exchange – has shown signs of falling apart. Government officials say the Houthis have denied that they’re detaining nearly 3,000 prisoners from the 8,500 whose names the government submitted for the planned swap.


Dodging the Bullet

As the US government once again shuts down, Italy dodged a similar bullet by passing its 2019 budget just ahead of the year-end deadline.

Lawmakers in the lower house on Sunday voted 313 in favor and 70 against the budget, which had already been approved by the Senate, Bloomberg reported. By slipping in under the Dec. 31 deadline, the populist government avoided a special procedure that would have re-imposed this year’s budget and likely caused market turmoil, the agency said.

Pushed through with the aid of restrictions on debate, the budget puts an end to weeks of worries over Italy’s spat with the European Union over spending proposals that violated the bloc’s restrictions on debt-burdened nations.

Politically, the development has strengthened Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Finance Minister Giovanni Tria, who successfully stood up to pressure from Deputy Premiers Matteo Salvini of the anti-migration League and Luigi Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, Bloomberg said.


Uninvited Guests

Fruit flies don’t like the cold, so the New Year’s Eve champagne is probably safe.

But anyone who has popped a cork outdoors on a warm day knows the pests have a knack for crashing the party.

Scientists finally think they know why: carbon dioxide.

The scientific consensus previously held that the gas repelled the flies, even though they feast on yeast, which produces CO2 as it ferments sugars.

“A long series of papers claimed that fruit flies are averse to CO2,” Professor Michael Dickinson told Sky News. “They’re basically the only insect for which that was reported.”

But in a wind tunnel experiment, researchers noticed that fruit flies were landing on platforms near where CO2 was emitted.

They also observed that the flies only flew near the gas source during their active state, and avoided it when they felt sleepy.

Co-author Floris van Breugel theorized that the latter behavior could be a defense mechanism to avoid becoming victims of predators attracted to CO2, like the terrifying parasitoid wasps.

Looks like it’s hard to keep away uninvited guests.

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