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Putin and Xi agree deepened financial and trade ties, US overdose deaths top 100,000 for the third y͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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May 16, 2024


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The World Today

  1. Putin, Xi strengthen ties
  2. Russia’s Ukraine progress
  3. Debt fears for US
  4. Overdose deaths plateau
  5. Israel’s leaders argue
  6. Dutch government agreed
  7. Microsoft emissions up
  8. SA healthcare bill
  9. Mexico’s Michelin stars
  10. Milton in Arizona

The long history of the baobab tree, and the rise of cozy video games.


Putin and Xi’s tightening ties

Sergei Bobylev/Reuters

Moscow and Beijing agreed to deepen financial and trade ties, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on a trip to China to meet his most important ally, Xi Jinping. The announcement came during public talks in which both leaders railed against the US and its Western partners: Putin spoke of shaking off “the influence of third countries,” while Xi complained of “unilateral hegemony.” The pair did not provide details on the banking and payments deals they discussed, but the issue is a crucial one, with the US having imposed so-called secondary sanctions on banks around the world that help finance deals supporting Russia’s military, issuing particular warnings for Chinese lenders.

Putin’s visit reveals long-term geopolitical shifts, with the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center writing in The New York Times that “never since the fall of the Soviet Union has Russia been so distant from Europe, and never in its entire history has it been so entwined with China.” Indeed, The Jamestown Foundation noted, demand is booming for Chinese speakers in Russia, turning an old joke on its head: “In Soviet times, Russians joked that the optimists were learning English, the pessimists Chinese, and the realists Kalashnikov.”


US worried over Ukraine setbacks

Brendan Smialowski/Pool via Reuters

White House officials are reportedly increasingly worried that Moscow could soon make enough progress in its war in Ukraine to alter the conflict’s trajectory. The remarks by US and Western officials to The New York Times came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to give Kyiv the green light to step up its strikes inside Russia. Ukraine has previously complained that along with delays in delivering military support, restrictions from Washington have prevented it from making full use of materiel it has been supplied with. The shift appears driven by Russian battlefield successes: Moscow’s forces have won about 105 square miles of territory in the past week, according to AFP, their biggest gains in 18 months.


US’ overwhelming debt load

The US spent more servicing the interest on its debt over the past seven months than it did on national defense or health care for the elderly — and more than education, support for military veterans, and transportation combined. The figures were highlighted by a bipartisan Washington, DC, think tank, which noted that interest payments were the fastest-growing part of the US federal budget, and based on current trends would form the largest single line item by 2051. The US’ mammoth debt burden is increasingly a threat to its superpower status, experts say: “Any great power that spends more on debt service … than on defense,” the historian Niall Ferguson wrote, “will not stay great for very long.”


Faint progress in US opioid crisis

Drug overdose deaths in the US topped 100,000 for the third year in a row. Federal data showed that 107,543 people overdosed fatally in 2023 — actually a slight decline from the year before, and the first decrease since 2018, which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hailed as evidence that its efforts are working. The crisis began decades ago due to readily available, legal prescription pills, The Washington Post reported, and when those pills were restricted users turned to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin that caused nearly three-quarters of overdose deaths last year. A Biden-backed bill to stop the flow of fentanyl across the Mexican border was blocked last year by Republicans.


Cracks appear in Israel’s coalition

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Disputes within Israel’s top leadership erupted into public, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant demanding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rule out administering Gaza after the war. His remarks spurred a rebuke from Netanyahu, and far-right members of the government criticized the defense chief. Gallant’s views align with the Biden administration’s, and his comments bolster speculation he could replace Netanyahu, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote. The rift may also “boost Hamas’ confidence and make a hostage deal even more difficult to secure,” Haaretz’s military correspondent said. Netanyahu has insisted the fighting will not end until Hamas is eliminated, but that appears unlikely, with The Wall Street Journal noting the group’s shift to guerilla tactics heralds the beginning of “a forever war.”


Dutch populist agrees election deal

Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo/Reuters

The anti-immigration Dutch populist Geert Wilders announced a deal to form a government, six months after winning an election. Wilders has been an outspoken critic of Dutch immigration policy since 2006 from the opposition benches. In order to make the four-party agreement, he ruled himself out as prime minister, toned down his anti-EU and anti-Islam rhetoric, and dropped his opposition to support for Ukraine, Reuters reported. Wilders’ success in November’s vote was seen as a bellwether for the upcoming European elections, which are expected to reveal a populist surge — anti-immigration and anti-EU parties are forecast to top the polls in nine countries, and come second or third in a further nine, academics wrote in January.

For more on votes worldwide and their fallout, check out Semafor’s Global Election Hub. →


Microsoft’s AI and climate goals clash

Microsoft’s carbon emissions jumped almost 30% in three years despite efforts to go carbon negative by 2030. The software giant has invested hugely in artificial intelligence and cloud computing, which require energy-intensive data centers to run, Microsoft said in its annual sustainability report. The company’s direct emissions fell 6% between 2020 and 2023, but its supply chain — the manufacture of chips and data centers — accounts for most of its carbon footprint. Microsoft said it would require “high volume” suppliers to use carbon-free electricity and would invest $10 billion in renewable energy projects to keep its AI goals in line with its climate targets.


Ramaphosa signs health care bill

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law a bill that aims to provide universal health coverage. Although Ramaphosa hailed the move as a major step toward a more just society, critics said it amounted to little more than a gimmick ahead of presidential elections this month. According to polls, Ramaphosa’s African National Congress party may receive less than 50% of the vote for the first time since the end of white-majority rule in 1994. The ANC’s uninterrupted rule has become so unpopular with young South Africans — youth unemployment stood at 61% last year — that many have started to question the legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela.


Mexico’s new culinary status

Califa de Leon/Instagram

The Michelin Guide revealed its first-ever rankings for Mexico, awarding 18 restaurants its coveted stars. A hole-in-the-wall taquería in Mexico City, known for its $3 beef tacos, was among the winners. Michelin’s review highlights Mexico’s growing clout as a culinary destination, a quality that has attracted thousands of digital nomads to the country, notably to trendy neighborhoods in the capital. Although some locals have protested against the rising number of foreigners — claiming they’re pricing them out of some parts of the city — a Bloomberg columnist argued this amounts to little more than scapegoating foreigners for a housing crisis long in the making.


Milton’s handwriting found in Arizona

John Milton, print, William Faithorne the Elder

A rare 16th-century book once owned by the poet John Milton, and containing his handwritten notes, was discovered in a library in Phoenix, Arizona. Milton, author of Paradise Lost, was hailed as “the glory and the wonder of England” by the French writer Voltaire, but few of the books from his personal collection survive. The copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland — best known as a source for several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth — was brought to the US in 1942. In March, an academic noted a distinctively written “e” in the margin notes, similar to how Milton wrote them. It has now been confirmed as Milton’s. The poet also crossed out a racy passage about the mother of William the Conqueror, calling it “an unbecoming tale for a history.”

  • Bahrain hosts the 33rd Arab League Summit.
  • Thai pro-cannabis activists meet the health minister to protest against a government plan to reclassify marijuana as a narcotic.
  • The golf PGA Championship starts in Kentucky.
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21 million

The age in years of the baobab tree species, according to a recent study by a group of scientists in the UK and Africa. Their work also revealed that the “tree of life" originated in Madagascar, from where it traveled to mainland Africa and then onwards to other regions as far as Oceania. According to the authors, the trees — which can live for thousands of years on account of their capacity to store water throughout dry seasons — are endangered because of climate change and widespread deforestation.

Courtesy Max Inferno

A puzzle video game about organizing household items was on a list of the best “cozy games,” as the demand for gentler titles aimed at unwinding in the virtual world continues to grow. A Little to the Left — which involves arranging tools, stacking books, and removing labels from fruits — is “inherently satisfying while also being low-stakes,” wrote a reviewer in Polygon. Among the other recommended games were A Short Hike, Coral Island, and the fishing game Dredge, the latter for those who seek “a little bit of horror” in their coziness with the nightime appearance of “sea monsters, a strange occultist, and corrupted fish.”

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