What We're Watching: Biden meets Boris, Iranian ships in the Atlantic, Argentinian president's mishap

U.S. President Joe Biden laughs while speaking with Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson during their meeting, ahead of the G7 summit, at Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain June 10, 2021

Biden hangs with Boris: On his first trip to Europe as US president, Joe Biden stopped first in the UK where he met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. While Biden is keen to reaffirm the close bond between the two countries, there are also some thorny issues on the agenda. The US president likely reiterated the importance of London safeguarding the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, and instructed Johnson to refrain from triggering a provision in the EU-UK post-Brexit trade agreement that would reestablish a land border separating Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. Indeed, on this issue, Johnson will have to find a middle ground in managing the warming temperature in Northern Ireland, and placating the US president, who he desperately wants to agree to a juicy post-Brexit US-UK trade deal. Also on the agenda: coordination on climate change and ensuring the smooth and safe reopening of US-UK travel after 16 months of chaos.


What's Iran up to in the Atlantic? Earlier this week, POLITICO reported that two Iranian warships, possibly carrying weapons, were making their way across the Atlantic Ocean. They seem to be headed for Venezuela, which received oil shipments from Iran last year, skirting US economic sanctions on fuel-starved Caracas. Iran's provocative move, sending "destroyer" vessels charting across international seas, is likely to spook many nations. Venezuela's neighbors, like Colombia for example, will be nervous to see strongman President Nicolás Maduro flushed with weapons at a time when the two states have severed diplomatic relations. (Colombia recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country's legitimate president.) The US, meanwhile, will not be pleased to see Iranian military vessels on its doorstep at a time when relations between Washington and Tehran are also extremely fraught. Some experts say this maneuver is performative, with Iran trying to flex its muscle after its biggest navy ship recently caught fire and sank near the Strait of Hormuz. Either way, there is little that the US or its allies can do right now to stop the ships advancing.

What We're Ignoring:

The Argentine president's literary and historical misunderstandings: "The Mexicans came from the Indians, the Brazilians came from the jungle, but we Argentinians came here on boats from Europe." Thus Argentine President Alberto Fernández's attempt to create a vibe with visiting Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at a presser earlier this week. But the observation, which he incorrectly attributed to Mexican poet Octavio Paz, managed to piss off people across the ideological spectrum. Right wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo (who are of Italian origin) bristled at the notion that they were from the jungle, while left wing Brazilians pointed out that more than half of Brazil's population identifies as descendants not of "the jungle" but of millions of slaves brought from Africa. And while it's true that the European immigration to Argentina was larger, as a percentage of the population than in Mexico or Brazil, almost a third of Argentines still claim indigenous blood. To top it off, literature buffs note that the actual quote attributed to Paz lands a bit differently: "The Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, the Peruvians descended from the Incas… the Argentines descended from boats." Fernandez has apologized.

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The Taliban’s never-ending crisis

Afghanistan has now become what the UN is labeling the planet’s worst humanitarian disaster. Indeed, last week the world body issued its largest-ever donor appeal for a single country to battle the worsening crisis there, caused by freezing temperatures, frozen assets, and the cold reception the Taliban have received from the international community since they took over last summer.

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Governments around the world are offering creative incentives for getting a jab.

If you happen to live in New York and are one of the city’s 18% of unvaccinated residents, now might be a good time to go get jabbed. But not just because of omicron.

In late December, now former NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio announced the city would start offering gift cards, free roller coaster rides on Coney Island and trips to the Statue of Liberty to those who get their shots. And it’s not just the Big Apple.

As infections jump, vaccination incentive programs have been brought back around the world. Officials in vaccine-hesitant Missouri have earmarked $11 million dollars for gift cards worth $100. Vermont is awarding schools with per-pupil bonuses if they hit rates higher than 85%.

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What We’re Watching: China's problems, UAE vs Houthis, Nord Stream 2 split

China's mounting problems. Xi Jinping is not off to a good start in 2022. First, Chinese economic growth slowed down to 4 percent in the last quarter of 2021, almost a percentage point less than the previous period. While annual GDP was up 8.1 percent year-on-year, beating government expectations, the trend is worrying for the world’s second-largest economy. Second, annual population growth fell in 2021 to its lowest rate since 1949, when the ruling Communist Party took over. Although Xi probably saw this one coming, he's running out of ideas to encourage Chinese families to have more children — which the government needs in order to sustain growth and support the elderly over the long term. Third, and most immediate: the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics canceled ticket sales for domestic spectators — foreigners were not invited — as the more transmissible omicron variant has driven up COVID infections in China to the highest level since March 2020. It's only the latest sign that Xi's controversial zero-COVID policy is setting itself up for failure against omicron without mRNA vaccines. What'll it take for China to reverse course?

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Hard Numbers: Tongan volcano, Ukrainian cyberattack, Zemmour fined over hate speech, NK-China border reopens

100,000: We're still waiting for news from the Pacific nation of Tonga, two days after a massive underwater volcanic explosion triggered a tsunami that was felt thousands of miles away and sent a plume of ash 100,000 feet into the sky. With communications mostly cut off, Australia and New Zealand have sent airplanes to assess the damage.

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Iran’s nuclear program runs hotter

Talks between Iran’s government and world powers over the future of Iran’s nuclear program continue. The US and Iran are still not communicating directly; Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia are shuttling between them.

The good news is that they’re all still talking. The bad news is that, after eight rounds of negotiations, the main players haven’t agreed on anything that would constitute a breakthrough.

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Omicron is here. The bad news is that it's more contagious. The good news is that mRNA vaccines work against death and hospitalization. COVID may soon become endemic in some parts of the world.

Not in China, where Xi Jinping's zero-COVID approach faces its toughest test to date with omicron. Why? Because China lacks mRNA jabs, and so few Chinese people have gotten COVID that overall protection is very low.

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January 6 laid bare "the deep divisions, the partisan infighting, the polarization within our society," says Fiona Hill, the former US senior director of the National Security Council. In a GZERO World interview, she spoke with Ian Bremmer about her concerns about the state of democracy in the United States.

Hill famously testified against her impeached boss, Donald Trump, who stayed in power after being acquitted by the Senate of abuse of power and obstructing Congress. She also notes that divisions actually make America look weaker on the global stage — particularly to someone like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

Watch this episode of GZERO World: American strife: Will US democracy survive? Fiona Hill explains post-Jan 6 stakes

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