What we’re watching: US presidential debate, Yemeni prisoner swap, “illiberal” rule of law watchdog

President Trump and Joe Biden will face off in the first US presidential debate on September 29. Art by Annie Gugliotta

The US debate, round #1: US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden will clash tonight in Cleveland in the first presidential debate of the 2020 cycle. The debate will, as always, provide a first opportunity to see the two candidates speak directly to (or over) one another, and Trump's line of attack will be interesting to watch. Will he hammer away at Biden's career as a DC insider in order to hurt the former vice president's support among working-class folks? Or will he try to knock Biden off balance with shots at his mental acuity? And Biden will need to come prepared to parry Trump if the president distorts facts or tells lies about his record. Surely the most anticipated moment will be Trump's response to the New York Times' bombshell weekend report on his tax returns. Will Biden use those revelations to attack Trump as a failed businessman, a tax cheat, or simply as a person with privileges that few voters enjoy? The event will certainly be a big spectacle, but barring a big surprise, its impact on the race itself might be smaller than you'd think: there appear to be few undecided voters this year, and neither man is a mystery at this point. According to a recent poll, less than 30 percent of Americans say the debates have mattered to them when casting their vote over the past twenty years.


Another chance for peace in Yemen? Over the weekend the warring parties in Yemen's five-year long civil war agreed to exchange more than 1,000 fighters in the largest prisoner swap since the war began five years ago. The deal raises fresh hopes for a UN-brokered ceasefire in a brutal conflict that has led to widespread famine and the "world's worst humanitarian crisis." Since 2015, the Yemeni government — with support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia — has been battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have taken over large swaths of the country. A ceasefire would allow the opening of roads and ports that are needed to get food and medicine to a population that depends overwhelmingly outside aid. Still, ceasefires and prisoner swaps have been agreed before in the Yemen conflict, only to run aground over disagreements on the sequencing of the steps that each side is meant to take, as well as violations on the ground. We are watching to see if this deal really opens the way towards peace, or whether one of the world's most brutal conflicts will continue to grind on.

What we're ignoring

Hungary and Poland's "rule of law" monitoring: In recent years, the avowedly "illiberal" nationalist governments of Hungary and Poland have come under fire from Brussels over their moves to pressure independent media and courts. As a result, both countries —which signed up to respect democratic norms when they joined the EU in 2004 — have faced the prospect of internal EU sanctions or reductions in the generous handouts they receive from Brussels. Now, Budapest and Warsaw say they plan to set up a joint "rule of law" institute that is meant to point out "double standards" in "rule of law" elsewhere in the EU. Let's be clear — more scrutiny of rule of law and adherence democratic norms is always a good thing, but somehow this feels more like an I know you are, but what am I? strategy than a good-faith effort to reinforce democratic principles in the EU.

Building on its previous commitment, Walmart is investing an additional $350 billion in products made, grown and assembled in America - supporting more than 750,000 new jobs by 2030. This pledge will aim to avoid more than 100M metric tons of CO2 emissions, advance the growth of U.S. based suppliers, and provide opportunities for more than 9,000 entrepreneurs to become Walmart suppliers and sellers through Walmart's annual Open Call.

"The people are stronger," pro-democracy demonstrators chanted as news broke that the Sudanese military had staged a coup Monday, overthrowing the joint civilian-military government and dashing hopes of democracy in the war-torn country.

The backstory. In 2019, Omar al-Bashir – a despot who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for 30 years – was deposed after a months-long popular uprising.

Al-Bashir was a bad guy: he cozied up to terrorists like Osama bin Laden and dropped barrel bombs on his own people. He also embezzled truck loads of money from oil production while millions of Sudanese went hungry, and oversaw a genocide in the Darfur region that left 300,000 people dead and displaced 1.6 million.

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As COP26 nears, the need for real climate action has never been more urgent. There are reasons for hope, but many scientists believe the ambitious goal of net zero emissions by 2050 is unattainable without immediate and significant change. Governments, financial institutions, and private sector companies alike have all recognized the need for a multistakeholder approach to solving this crisis of a lifetime.

Watch "Climate Crisis: Is net zero really possible?" a one-hour virtual livestream, hosted by GZERO Media and Microsoft as part of the Global Stage series, to hear scientists, corporate leaders and policymakers debate this question and offer critical perspectives on the way forward. Live on Tuesday, November 2nd at 11am ET, we'll break down what "net zero" means, take stock of where the world is on the path to carbon neutrality, and discuss critical steps needed to make real progress.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hey everybody and happy Monday. Back in the office, getting a little cool. So I've got my sweater going on. It's the first time I've had a sweater on. What do you do with that? Discussing fashion, as I talk to you about what is on my mind this week?

And what's on my mind this week, Facebook. Facebook is on my mind. It's a tough week for Facebook. There are all sorts of whistleblowers out there. There's testimony going on. There's calls for regulation. Everybody seems unhappy with them. Indeed, you even got the government relations types, Nick Clegg, who I've known for a long time back when he was a policymaker in the UK saying that the headlines are going to be rough, but we're are going to get through it. But I will say, first of all, I'm kind of skeptical that any of this goes anywhere in terms of impact on how Facebook actually operates.

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Turkey's Erdogan ups the ante with the West: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared diplomats from 10 Western countries "persona non-grata" after the group — which includes the US, France, and Germany — called on Ankara to release Osman Kavala, a Parisian-born Turkish businessman who's been held in jail since 2017 but hasn't been charged with a crime. Erdogan says that Kavala was involved in an attempted coup against the government in 2016. This latest move is a sign of Turkey's authoritarian drift in recent years, which has seen Erdogan's government increasingly crack down on opposition members as well as journalists. It also reflects Turkey's increasingly fraught relations with the West: things got particularly bad between Washington and Ankara after Turkey purchased missile defense systems from the Russians in 2019. The Council of Europe (the EU's leading human rights organization) had previously warned that Ankara has until November to release Kavala or it would impose "infringements," though it's unclear what those would be.

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ASEAN gets tough(ish) with Myanmar: The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet Tuesday for their annual summit with one notable absence: the head of Myanmar's military junta. It's a rare snub from ASEAN, a regional bloc that's gotten a lot of heat in the past for giving tyrants a free pass. The junta says ASEAN violated its traditional principles of deciding by consensus by disinviting its leader, and non-interference in domestic affairs for demanding the bloc's special envoy meet detained former leader Aung San Suu Kyi. For their part, the other ASEAN members have grown visibly alarmed at Myanmar's rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation since the February coup, and they're worried about the spillover effects of Myanmar becoming a failed state. More importantly, Myanmar is a big thorn in ASEAN's side as it walks a fine line between keeping warm ties with the US — which most members want cash and security from — and getting along with China, one of Myanmar's few remaining friends and viewed with suspicion by most ASEAN members over its South China Sea shenanigans.

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149: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record-high 413.2 parts per million in 2020, 149 percent above pre-industrial levels. A new report by the UN weather agency released ahead of the COP26 climate summit found that last year's lower emissions due to COVID-related lockdowns had no impact on the overall amount of greenhouse gases causing global warming.

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

Why should all eyes be on the Virginia suburbs?

I'm here in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia, where the state will be having a gubernatorial election on November 2nd. The Virginia governor election is held in the year after the US presidential election typically, and is generally seen as a bellwether for how popular the incumbent president of the United States is. In 2009, the Republican candidate won by a commanding 16 points despite the fact that Virginia has been trending more and more Democratic in recent years due to the population growth here in the suburbs, which tend to be more blue than rural areas of the state.

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