The stories you should be paying attention to – and the ones you might have missed.
With 1,187 career wins and a record 45 grand tournament victories, Hakuho Sho is often described as the greatest sumo wrestler of all time. His retirement ceremony in 2021 was attended by dignitaries including a former Japanese prime minister and the president of the Toyota Motor Corporation. But Hakuho is not a typical yokozuna (those who have achieved the highest rank in sumo).
Born Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal in 1985 in Ulaanbaatar, he emigrated to Tokyo at the age of 15 to follow his dream of becoming a sumo wrestler. In 2011 he returned to his homeland as Hakuho Sho, national sumo champion, to launch the Hakuho Cup, a competition encouraging a new generation of Mongolians to embrace Japan’s national sport. Sports Nippon described the competition as “a bridge for friendship” between the two countries – a bridge of which Hakuho is a steadfast cornerstone.
Who vs who: Russia vs Bulgaria
What it’s about: Russia has summoned Bulgaria’s ambassador in Moscow to a meeting without caviar after Sofia threw out the head of the Bulgarian franchise of the Russian Orthodox church. Bulgaria accused Archimandrite Vassian – and two Belarusian clerics retained by Sofia’s church of St Nicholas the Miracle Worker – of attempting to “influence the social and political processes in Bulgaria in favour of Russian geopolitical interests”.
What it’s really about: Bulgaria’s recently elected prime minister, Nikolai Denkov, has made a point of reckoning with Russia’s long-standing meddling in Bulgaria. It is not impossible that, as one Bulgarian MP has suggested, Archimandrite Vassian is “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe”. Possibly not coincidentally, the major opposition party to Denkov’s coalition is an out-and-proud pro-Kremlin operation.
Probable resolution: Russia will huff and puff (it has already described Bulgaria’s move as “blasphemous”). It is sadly unlikely, however, that Russia will pause to wonder why pillaging one of its Western neighbours on an absurd pretext has not enticed the rest of the former Soviet sphere to re-embrace Moscow.
It is not fashionable to sympathise with politicians but making The Foreign Desk often prompts gratitude that I have my job, not theirs. I shake their hands after interviews at some summit or conference and toddle off to an agreeable dinner with colleagues, while they go back to attempting to ensure the security of Europe, or some such task. Possibly during such a dinner, we decided that if we couldn’t exactly organise it for listeners to walk a mile in the shoes of these decision-makers, we might be able to have them spend half an hour at their desks.
We recently aired a three-episode season under the sub-heading “In The Room” (wherever you get your podcasts, etc). We sought out people who had, at pivotal moments in recent history, been in the room – or, as the case might have been, aboard Air Force One as it flapped frantically about the US attempting to evade terrorists, or on the bridge of a Royal Navy frigate as the order was given to abandon ship. We considered three events: September 11, the Falklands War and the secret meetings that preceded the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. The intention was to remind our listeners, and ourselves, that human affairs are more often than not directed by people sitting around a table asking themselves and each other frantic variations on, “What the hell do we do now?” Even – especially – in such circumstances, our leaders are obliged to maintain a façade of implacable calm. It is usually only off the record, or after the event, that politicians will admit what a strange and terrifying thing it is to find yourself actually sitting at that table.
If there was one representative moment of some extraordinarily illuminating (and humbling) conversations, it was when we asked Andrew Card, former chief of staff to US president George W Bush, to recall the morning of 11 September 2001. There was a point at which Card knew that a second hijacked aeroplane had hit the World Trade Center – at which, indeed, much of the world knew that America was indisputably under attack – but the President of the United States, reading a book to an elementary school class, did not. Card had seconds to decide what to say and how to say it. His boss, it can reasonably be argued, went on to make decisions that seemed to many at the time like lousy ones – and proved every bit as regrettable as predicted. But he made them, as all leaders do, with incomplete information, against a backdrop of shifting circumstance and with little knowledge or control of their consequences. History is a much easier thing to judge when we know how it turned out.
Mueller is the host of Monocle Radio’s ‘The Foreign Desk’.
Invitations to September’s g20 summit in New Delhi were signed off by the “president of Bharat”. A mix-up in the mail? Not quite. While India is the country’s official moniker in international parlance, Bharat is its Hindi name. Commentators have interpreted the news as a sign that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi intend to change the country’s name (as represented in English) in the UN register. This, it is believed, would appeal to its Hindu nationalist voter base.
But politics aside, what would such a name change actually entail? “The names of countries in local languages are usually laid down in constitutions,” says Pierre Jaillard, chair of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names. Once a name change is constitutionally formalised, “the country can notify the UN by means of a simple note,” he adds. “It is then immediately entered into the UN terminology database.”
"Each people has the right to speak its own language, even when referring to other people or foreign places"
In the Indian constitution, English and Hindi are both cited as official languages, while both India and Bharat are used to refer to the country (though the latter is only used once). So, in theory, the name change would be straightforward.
However, Jaillard notes that the UN’s terminology database doesn’t mean much on its own. For one, every country has its own national authority on place names, which have no obligation to align with the UN. Furthermore, the real aim of changing a place name is not to alter a database entry but to have it reflected in general usage. “This might take years of diplomatic effort,” says Jaillard. “And even then it might never succeed.” The nation formerly known as Swaziland is one example. When it changed its name to Eswatini in 2018, most countries updated their charters and common usage to reflect this. However, in Jaillard’s home country of France, the name Swaziland – a remnant of British colonial rule – persists. And there’s not much that Eswatini can do about it.
“On the one hand, each people has the right to decide on its own name and the names of places that belong to it,” says Jaillard. “But on the other, each people has the right to speak its own language, even when referring to other peoples or foreign places.” He admits that this is a contradiction but it is not his job to weigh in on which of these rights is more important – that is up to each country and each individual’s conscience. “The balance remains to be defined,” he says. And that is something for the advocates of “Bharat” to consider.
Seoul’s metropolitan government has announced that the “Climate Card”, a new multi-use public transportation pass, will be available from 2024. For a monthly fee of 65,000 won (€46), cardholders will have unlimited access to Seoul’s vast network of subway and bus lines, bike-share system and, when the Han river water bus launches next year, boat services too. The card will be available to purchase next summer, after a five-month pilot programme. The impetus is twofold: it is intended to mitigate rising costs of living and reduce carbon emissions by decreasing car use.
In 2022, Seoul’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon, also introduced a five-year climate plan that included replacing half of the city’s public buses with electric vehicles and building 181km of cycle paths. These initiatives are part of a broader push by the South Korean government to tackle climate change. Last year newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol reaffirmed the previous administration’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Much will depend on a nationwide reduction in coal use but action within Seoul, the country’s most populous city as well as its economic and political hub, is crucial. With transportation accounting for 17 per cent of the city’s greenhouse- gas emissions, the Climate Card is a positive step.