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THE CONVERSATION
A network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers
Photo of Ai-Da sitting behind a desk and holding a paint brush
Future
Leah Henrickson and Simone Natale

Robot Artists And Us: Who Decides The Aesthetics Of AI?

Ai-Da is touted as the first bonafide robot artist. But should we consider her paintings and poetry original or creative? Is this even art at all?

Ai-Da sits behind a desk, paintbrush in hand. She looks up at the person posing for her, and then back down as she dabs another blob of paint onto the canvas. A lifelike portrait is taking shape. If you didn’t know a robot produced it, this portrait could pass as the work of a human artist.

Ai-Da is touted as the “first robot to paint like an artist”, and an exhibition of her work called Leaping into the Metaverse opened at the Venice Biennale.

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Rihanna pregnant in fur and denim
Society
Serena Dyer

How Rihanna Ripped Apart The Bland Victorian Rules Of Maternity Clothing

Barbadian singer and businesswoman Rihanna has proudly celebrated her pregnant belly in fun and revealing clothes. By doing so, she is breaking away from the unspoken rule that pregnant women should hide their baby bumps.

There is a stage in pregnancy where many women have to start thinking about switching out their clothes for maternity wear. Let’s be honest, the choices out there aren’t all too inspiring and women are often expected to give up on their sense of style in favour of comfort. Not singer Rihanna, though, whose refreshing approach to maternity fashion has rocked the world.

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Profile of Elon Musk with a black and white background
Ideas
Nolan Higdon

Elon Musk Wants Twitter For The Big Data, Not The Free Speech

Oligarchs of the ‘Second Gilded Age’ in the like of Elon Musk are already able to influence the public's minds through media ownership. But getting a hand on Twitter means having access to its users' data and exploiting it for financial purposes.

During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, and the early decades of the 20th century, U.S. captains of industry such as William Randolph Hearst and Jay Gould used their massive wealth to dominate facets of the economy, including the news media. They were, in many ways, prototype oligarchs — by the dictionary definition, “very rich business leaders with a great deal of political influence.”

Some have argued that the U.S. is in the midst of a Second Gilded Age defined — like the first — by vast wealth inequality, hyper-partisanship, xenophobia and a new crop of oligarchs using their vast wealth to purchase media and political influence.

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​Demonstrator are seen holding a giant Ukrainian flag at Bowling Green Park in New York City
Geopolitics
John Ciorciari

Ukraine War Geopolitics: The Growing Risk Of Nonalignment

From India to Brazil to South Africa, countries in the so-called "Global South" are leading a renewed movement of not picking sides in order to protect national interests that may make the new Cold War even more perilous than the last one.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought strong Western condemnation and sanctions, but many nations around the world have chosen not to join this united front.

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Dozens of governments outside Europe and North America have been reluctant to censure Russia, and many more have refrained from joining multilateral sanctions. China has tacitly supported the Kremlin since its February affirmation of a Sino-Russian friendship with “no limits.” A few others have backed Russia vocally, among them Belarus, which has served as a staging ground for the Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, other governments have sat on the fence. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said pointedly that his country “will not take sides.” Indian leaders have reaffirmed their policy of nonalignment, implying that their nation will seek to stay out of the fight. South Africa, Pakistan and numerous other nations are following a similar path.

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Rubles
Economy
Michael A. Allen and Matthew DiGiuseppe

Moscow Faces First Foreign Debt Default Since The Czar Was Ousted: Does Putin Even Care?

A default would be one of the clearest signals that the sanctions are having their intended effect on the Russian economy. But its impact on Russia’s ability to wage war in Ukraine may be another story.

Russia may be on the cusp of its first default on its foreign debt since the Bolsheviks ousted Czar Nicholas II a century ago.

Last week, Moody’s Investors Service warned the country’s decision to make payments on dollar-issued debt in rubles would constitute a default because it violates the terms of the contract. A 30-day grace period allows Russia until May 4 to convert the payments to dollars to avoid default.

A default is one of the clearest signals that the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries are having their intended effect on the Russian economy. But will it have any impact on Russia’s ability to wage war in Ukraine?

We asked Michael Allen and Matthew DiGiuseppe, both experts on political economy and conflict, to explain the consequences of default and what it would mean for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.

Why did Russia default?

The Russian government has a total of $40 billion worth of debt in dollars and euros, half of which is owned by foreign investors. Russia had an April 4 deadline to pay about $650 million in interest and principle to the holders of two bonds issued in dollars.

Russia has plenty of cash – it collects the equivalent of over $1 billion a day from its oil and gas deliveries alone – but has limited access to dollars because of sanctions imposed by the U.S. The Biden administration had been allowing Russia to use some of the foreign reserves it had previously frozen to make debt payments. The U.S. changed course on April 5, when it blocked Russia from using dollar reserves held at American banks to make the debt payments.

That gave Russia little choice but to try to make the payments in rubles, whose value has been very volatile since the invasion. If Russia doesn’t switch the payments to dollars by May 4, the government will be in default on its foreign obligations for the first time since 1918, when the Bolshevik revolutionaries took over Russia and refused to pay the country’s international creditors. Russia also defaulted in 1998 but only on its domestic debt.

The consequences

When a country defaults on a foreign loan, international investors typically become unwilling or unable to lend more money to it. Or they demand much higher interest rates.

Whether because of higher interest costs or an inability to borrow, this forces a country to cut spending. Less government spending reduces economic activity, increases unemployment and slows growth. While some of these effects, like weaker economic growth, are often short-lived, other consequences can haunt a country for years. Trade with other countries remains below normal for an average of 15 years after a default, while full exclusion from capital markets typically lasts just over eight years.

For example, when Argentina defaulted in 2001, the peso plunged, the economy shrank and inflation soared. Riots over food broke out all over the country, leading to the president’s resignation. Although Argentina’s economy had recovered by 2007, the country remained unable to borrow from foreign investors, which led to default again in 2014.

What does this mean for Russia? The country was already locked out of international borrowing markets because of sanctions. A government official recently said Russia would also avoid borrowing domestically, because a default would lead to “cosmic” interest rates.

But its significant revenue from sometimes-discounted sales of oil and gas may help offset the need for borrowing in the short term, especially if it can continue to find willing buyers like India and China. On April 14, 2022, Putin acknowledged sanctions were disrupting exports and raising costs.

A woman walks past a painting of Putin behind bars.

A graphic collage of Putin behind bars in Barcelona, Spain.

Paco Freire/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Maybe Moscow doesn't care

The Russian government has been trying hard to avoid default.

Until April 5, it was using its precious dollars to stay current on its bond payments. And before its invasion it had built up a significant reserve of foreign currency, in large part to allow it to continue to pay back debt borrowed in dollars and euros even amid sanctions. Russia has even threatened to take legal action if sanctions force it into default.

As odd as it may sound, Russia is likely worried about its reputation – at least among bond investors.

A default by a sovereign borrower establishes a bad reputation that can take years to rehabilitate, as Argentina’s experience shows.

And the long-term impact could be worse for Russia. The reason Russia is in this bind is because it chose to invade Ukraine, despite repeated warnings that doing so would result in severe economic and financial sanctions.

So creditors might wonder if Russia will always prioritize its foreign policy interests over the interests of creditors and raise borrowing costs permanently. If so, they may find it difficult to borrow for years to come.

Another risk is that a default may enable creditors to seize Russia’s overseas assets as a form of repayment. International sanctions have already enabled countries to seize or freeze Russian assets, which could be used to pay off outstanding debts.

One count suggests that 50% of creditors in recent sovereign debt cases have attempted to seize assets as an alternative to payment.

What it means for the war in Ukraine

As long as there has been debt, governments have waged wars with other people’s money. In fact, debt has become so vital as a source of power that countries rarely fight without it.

Around 88% of wars from 1823 through 2003 have been at least partly financed with funds borrowed from banks and other investors. This reality even bleeds into fantasy worlds, like “Game of Thrones,” in which financing from the Iron Bank of Braavos is vital to financing the wars of Westeros.

Our own research has shown that countries that have defaulted on their debts or have poor credit ratings find it difficult to build military capacity and, consequently, are more reluctant to take up arms against other nations. Related work has found that countries with lower borrowing costs tend to win wars – though this effect is stronger for democracies.

One reason is that borrowing allows countries to overcome the guns-versus-butter trade-off: More money spent on the military means less for its citizens’ welfare, which can hurt a government’s ability to stay in power. Foreign loans can help overcome this problem, but losing access to credit forces a government to choose.

In the short term, however, a default is not likely to alter the outcome of Russia’s war – or force Putin to make any unpopular trade-offs – especially if Russia is able to achieve its new and more limited military objectives in the eastern Donbas region quickly.

This will change the longer the war goes on. The war was expected to last only a few days, but a stronger-than-expected Ukrainian defense has pushed the conflict into its eighth week. Early estimates found that a prolonged war could end up costing Russia over $20 billion a day, including both direct and indirect expenses, like loss of economic output.

If Ukraine becomes a lengthy war of attrition, as some analysts expect, then Russia’s inability to borrow money will weaken its ability to sustain, supply and reinforce its position in Ukraine – especially if oil prices fall or the European Union boycotts or reduces its dependence on Russian fuel.

Roman statesman Cicero wrote: “Nervos belli, infinitam pecuniam,” which loosely translates as “Successful war-waging capacity requires unlimited cash.”

And that means borrowed money. Wars usually end quickly without it.The Conversation

Michael A. Allen, Associate Professor of Political Science, Boise State University and Matthew DiGiuseppe, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Leiden University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Photo of a young Ukrainian girl looking through camouflage she is knitting for her country's military
Society
Alexander Motyl

Kyiv Homework: Write What You'll Do When The War Is Over

Excerpts from essays by young Ukrainians, aged 15 to 17, yearning for peace in the middle of war.

A colleague from Kyiv, Ukraine, whom I’ll call N.M., sent me brief essays her students wrote on what they would do when the war ends. As both a scholar and a novelist, I knew that these voices, which expressed a beautifully straightforward and pure yearning for the simplest things that are lost in war, needed to be heard by the world.

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The essays were written in English, and N.M., who has a master’s degree in English language and literature, told me she made only “2-3 corrections.” The students attend the 10th and 11th grades at a Kyiv school, are 15 to 17 years old, and hail from the capital city and its suburbs. The essays were written between March 14 and March 18, 2022.

Several themes run through most of the essays. The teens yearn for peace and want to do ordinary things, such as meet family and friends, take walks, enjoy the city. Daily routines have become extraordinary after several weeks of war. All intend to stay in Ukraine. Despair is absent. The students expect the war to end with a Ukrainian victory, and they’re decidedly proud to be Ukrainian.

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Photo of ​Erdogan speaking at the Ukraine-Russia peace talks in Istanbul
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War
Massimo D'Angelo

Ukraine Peace Talks: Erdogan's Chance To Cement Turkey As Key Power Broker

After more than a month of fighting, a fresh round of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine has begun in Istanbul in the hope that progress can be made. Following weeks of fruitless talks in Belarus, negotiations were hosted by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who made a short opening statement telling both sides: “The world is waiting for good news, and good news from you.”

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The very fact that talks have moved from Belarus, a key Russian ally, to Turkey is an indication that things have changed and that Russia’s military position is not as strong as it had originally hoped for. Meanwhile, the decision to hold the meetings in Turkey make sense for a number of reasons.

It’s not the first time the two sides have met since the invasion on February 24. Turkey hosted a meeting in Antalya on March 10 between the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and his opposite number, Ukraine’s Dmytro Kuleba. The talks took place against a backdrop of worsening violence across Ukraine and were largely unfruitful, except as an opportunity for the two sides to send messages to the watching world.

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Photo of people eating inside a McDonald's restaurant near Moscow's Red Square
Economy
Julia Khrebtan-Hörhager and Evgeniya Pyatovskaya*

Mother Russia v. Big Macs And iPhones? Why Sanctions Are Bound To Fail

Western freedoms in Russia are only partially appealing, since historically, Russians never had them. Instead, the Russian people are patient, stoic and often irrationally devoted to their cruel motherland.

-Analysis-

While Russia is leading a merciless war in Ukraine that has resulted in millions of Ukrainian refugees’ fleeing to neighboring countries, Western brands are on the exodus from Russia.

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The closure of over 800 McDonald’s restaurants particularly stands out: McDonald’s was the first American restaurant to open in Russia, in 1990. Its arrival symbolized Russia’s new pro-Western era.

That era is rapidly ending, giving way to a quickly spreading revival of Russian nationalism. Such nationalism is a direct outcome of the country’s economic suffocation through sanctions and the West’s broad rejection of Russia and its war with Ukraine.

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photo of a man walking in front of Ikea store
Economy
Douglas Schuler and Laura Marie Edinger-Schons

Why Western Brands Are Dumping Russia So Quickly

More than 300 companies have announced plans to close stores, reassign staff or stop selling products in Russia since the Feb. 24 invasion. These decisions fit in with a recent trend of companies listening to customers, though the geopolitical factors are a new twist.

Many companies in the U.S. and elsewhere have been quick to sever ties to Russia – going well beyond applying the sanctions ordered by their governments.

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IKEA, Nike and H&M are temporarily closing their Russian stores. Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. paused the release of new films in Russia. Apple, Samsung and Microsoft stopped selling their products there. McKinsey, Ernst & Young and many other top accounting and consulting firms said they are leaving the Russian market – possibly for good.

In all, over 300 companies have announced plans to close stores, reassign staff or stop selling products in Russia since the invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022, according to a running tally by Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. Most recently, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Coca-Cola joined the list on March 8, 2022, announcing they would close stores and cease sales.

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photo of biden talking to mark miley
Geopolitics
Allison M. Prasch

State Of The Union, State Of The World: Biden's Hard Line On Putin

Less than a week after Russia's invasion of Ukraine triggered a new cleavage in international affairs, U.S. President Joe Biden outlined a vision for confronting Moscow as necessary for the pursuit of America's ambitions at home and abroad.

-Analysis-

It was a familiar scene.

The president of the United States strode down the aisle of the U.S. House of Representatives to deliver the State of the Union address, the only constitutionally mandated instance of presidential speech. Usually, it serves to lay out the White House’s policy agenda for the coming year, along with perceived accomplishments.

But as the nation tuned in for the prime time address on March 1, 2022, President Joe Biden had to do more than simply outline key domestic priorities such as relaxing COVID-19 restrictions for a pandemic-weary public, addressing the highest inflation rate since 1980, touting his nomination of the first Black woman to the nation’s highest court and mobilizing the Democratic party ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

On top of this, Biden also had to respond to an international crisis he did not choose, and one that could come to define his presidency: Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Echos of Cold War 

With horrifying images from Kyiv and Kharkiv circulating on social media and a rising death toll of Ukrainian citizens, Biden sought to articulate how the state of the union was linked to the current state of the world — and democracy’s ability to survive in that world.

As a scholar of Cold War presidential rhetoric, I know Biden’s choice of words echo themes of past chief executives who spoke to Americans amid tension in Eastern Europe.

Biden chose to stress the values that have historically united Americans

In this, his first State of the Union address, Biden spoke of national unity at a time of deep political polarization. He reminded his audience that they shared “a duty to one another, to America, to the American people, to the Constitution … [and] an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.”

By stressing a shared commitment to seeing freedom triumph over tyranny, Biden tapped into a common refrain of U.S. foreign policy rhetoric.

This theme was especially prevalent during the Cold War. President Harry S. Truman argued that the nation had a duty and responsibility “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Later, Ronald Reagan held up the United States as “a beacon … [and] a magnet for all who must have freedom.”

photo of a female u.s. soldier in Germany

U.S. soldiers in Germany

Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/ZUMA

Zelensky and Every Ukrainian

Biden also celebrated the courage and conviction of the Ukrainian people.

Just as John F. Kennedy declared in 1963 that “all free men” could identify as citizens of West Berlin, a city surrounded by a tyrannical government, Biden praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and “every Ukrainian” for “their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, [that] literally inspires the world.”

Indeed, the visual and embodied symbols of Ukrainian resistance filled the House Gallery, with some members of Congress dressed in yellow and blue – a deliberate nod to the vivid colors of the Ukrainian flag. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, was seated next to first lady Jill Biden in the balcony.

These references underscored what Biden described as Putin’s attempt to “shake the very foundations of the free world” and belief that he could “make it bend to his menacing ways.” But the Russian president had badly miscalculated, Biden said. “He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he met a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined.”

For both Biden and Zelensky, the strength of the nation is defined by individual citizens

By focusing on Putin’s unprovoked attack on democracy, Biden shifted the focus from partisan infighting and political division to a unifying theme around which his entire audience could rally: a renewed commitment to defending the “free world.” Indeed, the more than hour-long speech was light on criticism of Republicans, with no mention of Donald Trump nor the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol just over a year ago. Rather, just like during the height of the Cold War, Biden chose to stress the values that have historically united Americans.

Democracy's survival

To close, Biden declared that the “state of the union is strong – because you, the American people, are strong.”

This was America’s “moment of responsibility,” its “moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time … as one people.”

Although presidents almost always comment on the strength or health of the nation, this particular articulation also bore a striking similarity to another president, Ukrainian President Zelensky who just days earlier declared that “each of us is the president … because we are all responsible for our state.”

For both Biden and Zelensky, the strength of the nation – and the survival of democracy – was defined by individual citizens, not an isolated leader desperate for power and determined to elevate their own image.

Allison M. Prasch, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Politics and Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vladimir The What? Putin's Tsarist Vision Of A 21st-Century Russian Empire
Geopolitics
Emily Channell-Justice and Jacob Lassin

Vladimir The What? Putin's Tsarist Vision Of A 21st-Century Russian Empire

Vladimir Putin’s claims that NATO threatens Russia’s security, and that the only way Russia will back down is if NATO promises never to admit Ukraine, is a bait and switch. His long-term dream is to erase the idea of a Ukrainian nation on the road to his wider tsarist conquests.

As some Western observers have feared, Russian President Vladimir Putin has just proved that his aggression toward Ukraine was never really about NATO.

In a speech on Feb. 21, 2022, Putin recognized the occupied territories in Ukraine of Donetsk and Luhansk and moved Russian forces into them.

Putin’s speech showed that he has concocted his own view of history and world affairs. In his view, Ukraine’s independence is an anomaly – it’s a state that should not exist. Putin sees his military moves as a way of correcting this divergence. Largely absent from his discussion was his earlier emphatic grievance that an eventual spread of NATO to Ukraine threatens Russia’s security.

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Beijing 2022, An Olympics Mental Health Disaster
Society
MacIntosh Ross and Eva Pila

Beijing 2022, An Olympics Mental Health Disaster

This year’s Winter Games has exposed how little the IOC cares about the health and well-being of competitors, and its active role in the promotion of a psychologically damaging sociopolitical context for competition.

As the Beijing Winter Olympics draw to an end after two weeks, pictures of the Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva have made international news. The Russian athlete, who was considered the clear favorite for the gold medal in the women's single event, broke down in tears after ending up fourth following multiple falls during her routine.

Some argue the doping controversy surrounding the 15-year-old, who was cleared to compete despite testing positive for a banned heart drug , put her under tremendous pressure while others expressed concerns for the teenager's mental health.

But as MacIntosh Ross and Eva Pila write, Valieva wasn't the only athlete who faced an unusually stressful experience during these Games.

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