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Sensemaker: Biden-Putin summit

Thursday 17 June 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The House of Representatives voted to make Juneteenth – 19 June, the end of slavery in the US – a federal holiday.
  • Boris Johnson called health secretary Matt Hancock’s performance during the Covid crisis as “totally f***ing hopeless”, according to messages leaked by the prime minister’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings.
  • China launched three astronauts into orbit to man their new Tiangong space station, in its first crewed space mission since 2016.

Biden-Putin summit

“Now, this is not the first rodeo for either of them,” body language expert Mary Civiello told the BBC about Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin’s handshake at yesterday’s Geneva summit. “So you could tell immediately, from the get go, that they know each other, they’re not exactly friendly.” At least, Biden tried. He gave Putin a pair of custom aviator sunglasses, the kind he wears, and a crystal sculpture of a bison but, reportedly, received nothing in return.

The talks lasted around three hours, which was less time than scheduled. Afterwards, at separate news conferences, Biden called the summit “positive” and Putin called it “constructive”. Here’s what they agreed on:

  • Returning ambassadors to each other’s capitals. Russia had recalled its ambassador to Washington DC in March after Biden called Putin a “killer”, and accused Russia of interfering in the 2020 presidential election. The US withdrew its ambassador in Moscow in April. Diplomatic relations are set to resume.
  • The leaders agreed to start consultations between the US State Department and the Russian foreign ministry on New START, a bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty the two states had signed, in an attempt to find a follow-on pact.
  • Putin and Biden also agreed to start consultations on cyber-security, one of the summit’s most contentious topics. But don’t hold your breath: Putin denied that Russia was behind recent cyber attacks on US institutions and firms, and declined Biden’s proposal to make cyber attacks on critical infrastructure off limits in peacetime. “I looked at him and said: ‘how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields?’” Biden said at his news conference. “He said it would matter.”

Plus ça change, the Geneva mayor who hosted the summit might have said. During the Cold War, it was nuclear bombs that set mutually assured destruction. Now, it’s ransomware.

The leaders didn’t agree on a range of other important issues, including Ukraine, imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the right to protest and human rights in general. When Putin was asked at his news conference why young Russians weren’t allowed to protest against his government, he said that didn’t want disturbances in his country like the Capitol riots or the Black Lives Matter movement. Biden called the comparison “ridiculous”.

One criticism of the summit was that it allowed Putin to present himself as Biden’s equal, as a normal leader rather than an autocrat.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Adaptation failure
Britain’s land temperature increased by around 1.2°C from pre-industrial levels, its sea levels rose by 16cm since 1900, and severe heat waves have become more frequent. All bad news. Can it get worse? Yes: hundreds of thousands of new homes have been built in the UK that aren’t resilient to the impact of heatwaves – and a further 1.5 million such homes are due to be built in the next five years. Many hospitals and care homes are unable to remain cool. The analysis comes from the Climate Change Committee, an independent body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the government. “These risks will not disappear as the world moves to Net Zero,” said Baroness Brown, who chairs the committee’s climate adaptation work, “many of them are already locked in.”


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

North Korean hunger
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un convened the Central Committee of his Workers’ Party, and told them, “the people’s food situation is now getting tense as the agricultural sector failed to fulfil its grain production”. He blamed the food shortage on typhoon damage, but it’s more to do with his “prolonged emergency anti-epidemic situation” that saw the country almost completely cut off from imports, even those from its allies. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned of a “harsh lean period between August and October” unless the autarkic country accepts foreign aid and imports. At his committee meeting, observers noted that Kim appeared slimmer. Weight loss estimates since his last photographed appearance ranged from 10 to 20 kilograms. But unlike his starving people, experts think Kim’s weight loss is likely an attempt to improve his health.


New things technology, science, engineering

Amazonia
Big investigation in the New York Times ($) on Amazon’s ‘Employment Machine’. Journalists interviewed nearly 200 current and former employees and reviewed various documents. Their focus was a fulfilment centre in New York City, JFK8, during the pandemic. Their main findings follow. Amazon, during three months in 2020, hired 350,000 workers – a hiring surge unprecedented in American corporate history. Why? It was losing about 3 per cent of its “hourly associates” each week – at that rate, the company had to replace its entire workforce every eight months. Over 25 current and former Amazon employees told the journalists that buggy human resources software caused associates to lose their benefits and jobs in error. The company’s strict monitoring of associates, which lets workers know they’re constantly being audited for performance, created a “culture of fear.” More than 60 per cent of its associates at JFK8 are Black or Latino – Black associates were almost 50 per cent more likely to be fired than their white peers. And, finally, many of the company’s most contentious policies stem from Jeff Bezos. An entrenched workforce, Bezos believed, created a “march to mediocrity”.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Summit spike
Cornwall, where the G7 leaders met last weekend, has seen a spike in Covid cases thought to be linked to the summit. It registered 106 new Covid cases on the summit’s last day, in comparison to 91 new cases for the whole of May. In St Ives, a resort town, increased traffic delays and cancelled deliveries due to the summit had already forced some restaurants to shut. The recent Covid spike has forced them to extend their closures, and has made it harder for them to reopen before the summer peak. “It’s just another blow in what’s already been a difficult 18 months for the community,” local business owner Lisa Taylor told the Independent. “St Ives is a small town and many individuals rely on the hospitality industry for their income.”


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Price rise
The Federal Reserve raised its forecast for inflation to 3.4 per cent by the end of this year. It’s a big change by the central bank, which predicted a rate of 2.4 per cent in March. Accelerating inflation both in the US and UK opened up a debate on whether rising prices are a temporary or structural issue. Some, like former Bank of England governor Mervyn King, think inflation may keep rising because of excessive fiscal stimulus, supply shortages, and weak political resistance – that is, politicians feeling pressured to keep spending. But Fed chair Jerome Powell‘s view is that rising inflation is down to specific supply shortages: car prices, car rentals, airline tickets, and hotel rooms. All these – except car prices, which are rising because of the global microchip shortage – reflect pent-up demand as people exit Covid restrictions. Whether politicians will feel pressured to continue spending is hard to say, but as employment and growth continues to pick up, as Powell predicts, that pressure will ease and interest rates will rise.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Sophia Sun
@SophiaaSun

Photographs by Getty Images


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