What We're Watching: Biden-Putin summit, North Korea's food crisis, Tunisian constitutional reform

What We're Watching: Biden-Putin summit, North Korean food crisis, Tunisian constitutional reform

No fireworks in Geneva: Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden sat together for four hours on Wednesday, and as we anticipated in Signal, both leaders agreed to continue to cooperate where they can and to continue to pursue their national interests, as they see them. They're now expected to work together on nuclear disarmament. That's good, since these two countries still account for most of the world's atomic weapons. They're also open to exchanging prisoners, a welcome development. But more importantly, Biden and Putin set down their red lines: for the US it's the critical infrastructure that should be off-limits from hackers, and for Russia it's further expansion of NATO. US sanctions will remain in place. If the summit was a "success," it's only because expectations were low. Curb your enthusiasm indeed. For now, we'll be watching to see whether US-Russia ties enter a period, however brief, of the stable and predictable relations Biden says he wants, or if some new controversy triggers a new war of words.


North Korea has a food crisis: Kim Jong Un admits North Korea faces a "tense" food shortage problem. That warning is especially worrisome in North Korea, where it is highly unusual for the regime to report bad news — especially coming from the usually hardy Kim Jong Un. State media blames the current food crisis on a series of floods that destroyed crops, China's border closure over COVID, and crippling international sanctions. While the country's economy is in chronic bad shape, any mention of food shortages is a clear reason for alarm, given that a severe famine wiped out almost 20 percent of the population in the 1990s. UN food agencies believe the situation is not yet dire, but they warn North Korea may experience "a harsh lean period" by the fall if it doesn't get imports or aid soon. To address the crisis, Kim has ordered all state resources to be directed to farming. Interestingly, this time even the famously chubby Supreme Leader himself could be feeling the pinch: in recent photos he appears to have lost a lot of weight, though observers say it's likely a result of a voluntary diet to improve his (reportedly) poor health.

Constitutional do-over in Tunisia? Ten years after the Arab Spring revolution that paved the way for democracy and a new constitution in Tunisia, President Kais Saied has called for a debate on how to rework the country's political system. Tunisia has been mired in political deadlock for months as Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi squabble over who has what powers, including important portfolios like internal security. The current constitution, approved in 2014, created a mixed presidential-parliamentary system that has contributed to the confusion. Tunisia is the only country where the Arab Spring led to democracy, but the call to tweak the basic structures of that system comes at a dicey time: the North African country is struggling with economic malaise, coronavirus, and a recent surge of protests over police brutality.

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On Bank of America's That Made All the Difference podcast, Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch shares his journey and present-day work creating exhibits that inspire visitors to help our country live up to its ideals.

Listen: A deep dive down the bottle to examine the role alcohol has played in society, politics, and global summitry—from the earliest hunter-gatherer days to that memorable Obama Beer Summit in 2009. Joining Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast is philosopher Edward Slingerland, whose new book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way Into Civilization makes a compelling, if nuanced, case for alcohol's place in the world.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

A few weeks ago, a Signal reader emailed me to ask why so much of our coverage of the world is so damn dark. Aren't there any good news stories out there?

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There's a lot of doom and gloom in the world these days, and much cause for pessimism. Still, the advent of new technologies and scientific advancements has lifted billions out of poverty and increased quality of life for many over the last half century. Since 1990, global average life expectancy has increased by eight years to 73, while GDP per capita has also grown exponentially, doubling over the past decade alone. We take a look at how life expectancy and GDP per capita have evolved globally from 1960-2019.

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

Why can't President Biden order a vaccine mandate for all Americans?

Well, the reason is it's out of his powers. The one of the fundamental challenges in the pandemic is that the federal government has actually been fairly limited in the steps they can take to stop the spread of the virus. So, that's why you've seen President Biden order masks on transit, mass transit, airplanes, and the like. But he can't order masks in workplaces because that's not within his power. That power lies within state governments. State governments and other entities, like employers, can require vaccinations before you come into their buildings, or you come back to school, or you go to work in your office. But the federal government can't do that. What Biden is doing is, allegedly, supposedly going to announce a mandate for federal workers to get vaccinated.

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"Super Mario" takes his chances: Less than five months after becoming Italy's consensus prime minister, Mario Draghi's coalition government is on shaky ground over Draghi's proposed judicial reforms. "Super Mario" — as he's known for saving the Eurozone as European Central Bank chief during the financial crisis — wants to dramatically speed up Italy's famously slow courts. But his push to reduce judicial backlogs is opposed both by the populist 5-Star Movement, the coalition government's biggest party, and by prosecutors because many cases could be scrapped before reaching a verdict. Draghi, upset that this resistance is stalling his other initiatives to cut Italian red tape, has decided to roll the dice anyway: he'll put his plan to overhaul the courts to a no-confidence vote in parliament. If Draghi wins, he gets the reforms passed without debate; if he loses, the PM technically has to resign, but he'll keep his job because he has enough votes even if the 5-Star Movement bows out of the coalition.

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700: Roughly 700 people arrested for joining the unprecedented July 11 anti-government protests in Cuba are still being held by the regime. They may now face mass show trials as Havana continues to crack down on dissent following the biggest challenge to its power in decades.

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