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Over the past few months, US officials have become increasingly alarmed about a new type of killing machines called "hypersonic weapons."
The top US General, Mark Milley, said that China's successful test of an advanced hypersonic weapon earlier this year was "very close" to a "Sputnik moment" – referring to the Soviet Union's surprise launch of the world's first artificial satellite in 1957, which raised fears that the US was lagging behind a formidable technological rival.
Should you be worried? Yes, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.
First, what are hypersonic weapons? When people talk about hypersonic weapons today, they're generally referring to two things:
Jet-powered missiles that fly at extreme speeds. These missiles travel very close to the surface of the earth. Most of today's cruise missiles do this too, but they do not travel faster than sound. Hypersonics, by contrast, travel at a minimum of five times the speed of sound.
Hypersonic glide vehicles, which have no engines of their own. They are carried high up into the atmosphere by another rocket and then released to glide, like hypersonic paper airplanes, until they strike their targets.
These weapons can be armed with nuclear warheads, and their main, terrifying new feature – besides their speed – is their maneuverability.
Unlike most of today's missiles, which travel along a predictable trajectory after launch, hypersonics can zig and zag. In baseball terms, it's the difference between a long throw from an outfielder, which you can line up and catch, and a knuckleball that dances through the atmosphere like a butterfly before destroying your aircraft carrier.
So far, only three countries have advanced hypersonic weapons programs. China and Russia have successfully tested, and likely deployed, hypersonics, some of which are nuclear capable. They say that these programs are a direct response to US missile defense systems, which Washington has been building for more than twenty years. The United States itself is also developing hypersonic missiles, with a focus on non-nuclear ones which actually have to be more precise. So far the US has deployed nothing. India, France, Australia, Germany, and Japan all have earlier stage hypersonic programs as well.
Why are people worried about these weapons? Some have pointed out that hypersonic weapons can easily evade missile defense systems. This is because their flight patterns are more unpredictable, and because their low altitudes make them harder to detect than ICBMs, which trace big high ballistic arcs that can be seen from thousands of miles away .
But the truth is that a missile defense system like the US' already fails 6 out of 10 times even in highly controlled tests with ICBMs. In other words, the existing Russian and Chinese arsenals of ICBMs are more than sufficient to overwhelm any missile defenses. Still, the US insistence on continuing to build missile defense capabilities is one reason why the Russians and Chinese are so keen to develop evasive new hypersonic weapons in the first place.
As a result, nuclear deterrence is still based on the idea of mutually assured destruction. "We can't stop you from hitting us. But we can hit you back and destroy you, so don't do it."
There are, however, two big worries with hypersonics.
They make catastrophic miscalculations much more likely. Because they arrive so much faster and more unpredictable than conventional ballistic or cruise missiles, they give officials and generals less time to assess a threat and decide on an appropriate response. That not only increases the stakes – and risks – in the heat of the moment, it also makes wary countries more likely to strike first so that they don't get caught off-guard by a hypersonic attack, nuclear or not.
Also, there are no global rules for hypersonic weapons. Current arms control treaties have nothing to say about them. Like other frontier military technologies – such as artificial intelligence weapons or cyberattacks – there are no limits on testing or deployment, no understandings about proportional retaliation, and no mechanisms in place to exchange information about who has what weapons and where.
The New START pact between Russia and the US, for example, is the last significant strategic arms control agreement in the world: it doesn't cover hypersonics. Even if it did, China has not signed it.
Looking back. The world lived through decades of duck-and-cover fear before exploring sensible nuclear arms control deals, and even that took a near-miss like the Cuban missile crisis.
Looking ahead. We are still only in the earliest days of the hypersonic weapons era. Will it take a new missile crisis to get world leaders to make rules for these things?
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The supply chain mess is hitting all of us. Inflation is now the highest it's been in over 30 years.
The costs of food, gas and housing are going through the roof. What's more, almost everything made outside of America is now in short supply — like semiconductors for our cars.
Why is this happening? A lot of it has to do with the pandemic. Asian factories had to shut down or thought there would be less demand for their stuff. So did shipping companies. But then online shopping surged, and now there's a lot of pent-up demand to spend all the cash we saved during COVID.
But it's not just the pandemic. Before COVID, companies kept limited inventories to save costs and fatten up profit margins. And now we're all suffering the consequences.
Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Inflation nation: What's driving US prices higher?
Subscribe to GZERO on YouTube to be the first to see new episodes of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: http://bit.ly/2TxCVnY
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November 24, 2021
Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:
What is Facebook planning with the metaverse?
Well, my sense is that Facebook mostly prefers a virtual reality over the actual situation the company is in, with overwhelming criticism about the many harms to people it is causing all over the world. The metaverse at launch would be added to a number of services and experiences online in a more virtual and augmented reality setting. Think about what the gaming sector has done, but now, also, other big tech firms are jumping on the bandwagon. The thing to remember is that the user experience would be more immersive.
What have responses been to the metaverse, which Mark Zuckerberg announced?
Well, as one might expect, the responses were mixed. Some compared it to the hyped and eventually failed Second Life experience, but others, like Microsoft, announced their own more soft version with the option to use an avatar to participate in Teams video calls. Now, if you are like me, I have had more than enough of those during the pandemic, but let's see what happens to this gamification of the online experience. Certainly, some investors are sniffing opportunities, so they are probably playing up the potential of virtual and augmented realities. I'm personally most excited about seeing people in real life again, so checking out and going offline.
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November 24, 2021
Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:
Why did President Biden renominate Jay Powell to be the chairman of the Fed, and who's his No.2, Lael Brainard?
Well, Powell by all accounts has done a pretty good job of managing the Fed through the coronavirus pandemic. He dusted off the playbook, first pioneered by Chairman Bernanke during the financial crisis, and he's largely continued the relatively easy monetary policy of his predecessor at the Fed, now Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen. With inflation growing the way it has over the last several months, Biden now owns the policies of the Fed and is essentially endorsing what Powell has been doing and giving Powell the political cover to continue to keep rates low for longer, or as many people expect, raise them slightly over the next 12 months in order to fight inflation.
Who is Lael Brainard? Well, she's a longstanding member of the Board of Governors. She was thought to be the favorite to replace Powell if President Biden decided to replace him, but instead Biden gave her a promotion to vice chair. The vice chair has sort of an amorphous role. The last Vice Chair, Rich Clarida, who leaves this post in February, had a significant role in rethinking how the Fed approaches periods when inflation runs a little bit hotter than they want it to, which means that structurally we're going to have more loose monetary policy for a longer period of time. Biden also has three other seats to fill on the board, including the vice chair over supervision, who if Biden follows in the footsteps of other financial regulators they've appointed, is likely to appoint somebody who's going to be tougher on banks, more skeptical of cryptocurrency and tough on things like fintech and payments. But those guys might face a hard time getting confirmed, unlike Powell and Brainard, who are likely to cruise to an easy confirmation sometime in the next couple of months.
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November 23, 2021
When Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who created the "1619 Project" tweeted: "In this country, you can even kill white people and get away with it if those white people are fighting for Black lives. This is the legacy of 1619." In an upcoming interview with Ian Bremmer, she explains why she saw the verdict as a consequence of this country's long history of double standards when it comes to racial justice. "The fact that we own more guns in this country than any other country is certainly a legacy of 1619" Hannah-Jones says. "This idea that white Americans can patrol, that they have the right to open carry, this is not something that Black Americans can engage in, in the same way." Watch her full conversation with Ian Bremmer in an upcoming episode of GZERO World.
Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at Peng Shuai's public appearance, El Salvador's "Bitcoin City," and Americans' Thanksgiving celebrations.
Why has China silenced its famous tennis player, Peng Shuai?
Well, they haven't completely silenced her in the sense that the head of the IOC, the International Olympic Committee with Beijing Olympics coming up, basically told the Chinese government, "hey, what is the absolute minimum that you can do so that we can get Beijing Olympics back on track?" And they did the absolute minimum, which was a half an hour phone call with her that felt like kind of a hostage phone call. But nonetheless, she says that she is fine and is private and doesn't want to talk about the fact that she had accused the former Vice Premier of sexually assaulting her. That is a fairly heady charge. It was clear, going to get a lot of headlines in the run-up to the Olympics. And she wasn't heard from after that. So big problem for the Chinese in the run-up to the Olympics.
What's the deal with the planned "Bitcoin City" in El Salvador?
Where they announced they're going to have this city, that's going to be financed by Bitcoin and it's going to be powered by a volcano and that's how they're going to do the mining in El Salvador. The first country in the world that is moving towards Bitcoin as currency, because they want to get away from their peg to the dollar. And because they're having a problem with the ability to get any more money from the IMF. It's hugely popular. This President, Bukele who has about 90% approval, young guy, kind of a tech bro, calls himself CEO of El Salvador, as opposed to President, whatever. This is really just a bet on Bitcoin. He is literally betting the future of the country on the notion that Bitcoin is going to go to the moon. And we all know that's not true, that's Dogecoin, right? But anyway, I wouldn't be playing casino with my national bank reserves, but I'm not CEO of El Salvador. So let's see how that works out for him.
It's Thanksgiving week in the US this week. This year, what should Americans be thankful for?
How about those of us that ordered turkey early? Huh? Yeah. Be thankful about that. Because we got those turkeys. When the people that didn't get their act together, they're going to get stupid scrawny turkey. You're going to get pork. You're going to get lamb. It's going to be horrible. But hey, we're with family, with friends, we're getting through COVID and I'm glad we're all here.
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What We're Watching: Biden's oil dilemma, Abiy Ahmed takes up arms, Iran nuclear talks on life-support
November 23, 2021
Biden's oil dilemma. The Biden administration says it will release some 50 million barrels of crude from US stockpiles in a bid to reign in soaring gasoline prices. Similar moves were made by Japan, South Korea, and China in recent days as global energy prices rise and supplies remain scarce in many places amid the ongoing economic recovery. Pain at the gas pump and broader inflation concerns in the US have contributed to Biden's tanking poll numbers. With Republicans poised to do well in next year's midterm elections, the president is under pressure to turn things around fast. But Biden has already come under fire from environmental groups, who say the president's move flies in the face of his Glasgow commitments to reduce rather than boost fossil fuel consumption. But in domestic politics, bread-and-butter issues are paramount, and if Biden doesn't "fix" the gas problem hurting American families, the Democrats could suffer a beating at the polls. What's more, Biden has also angered the 23-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which worries that extra US oil on the market will bring down prices for their own crude. Now the organization is warning that it might renege on an earlier promise to produce more oil.
Abiy Ahmed takes to the battlefield. Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has also been accused of leading a civil war where crimes against humanity have been committed, says he will personally lead the army "on the battlefield" as the rival Tigray People's Liberation Force make inroads towards the capital Addis Ababa. Abiy has called for "martyrdom" in his year-long conflict with the TPLF, who dominated Ethiopian politics for decades before Abiy took power in 2018. Abiy, a former soldier who recently called on all able people to fight, is not messing around: he said that regional and national government officials will take over his duties while he takes up arms. This latest development in a civil war that's killed tens of thousands and displaced some 2 million people comes just weeks after reports that Tigrayan rebels captured key territory around the capital and suggests that Abiy's (political) days may be numbered.
Are Iran nuclear talks collapsing? An Iranian delegation will meet with European, Russian, and Chinese counterparts in the upcoming days for the first time since Iran's hardline President Ebrahim Raisi took office this summer. The Americans will be in Vienna too, but they won't attend face-to-face meetings with the Iranians. Six months ago, the Biden administration was optimistic that it could revive the 2015 nuclear deal, but that's in doubt now, as the sides remain very far apart. Iran continues to enrich uranium to near bomb-making levels, while denying access to international inspectors. Meanwhile, the Biden administration won't lift sanctions until Tehran stops enrichment and has balked at Iran's (impossible) demand for guarantees that future US administrations won't impose economic sanctions. With prospects for a comprehensive deal fading, the US is reportedly already considering alternatives, including an interim deal that would simply freeze the status quo. That might be better than nothing, but according to some estimates, Tehran is already just weeks away from being able to develop a nuclear weapon meaning that the status quo is a dangerous one.
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