Sep 19, 2019

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. Buckle up for a 1,590-word (6-minute) journey.

  • Thanks for joining me! Please tell your friends and colleagues to sign up, and I'd love your tips and feedback:
1 big thing: Liberal stars are fading

Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

If you were scouring the world for counterpoints to the global march of populism you would, at various points over the past few years, have singled out Justin Trudeau in Canada, Mauricio Macri in Argentina and Pedro Sánchez in Spain.

  • All 3 are in the headlines this week for the wrong reasons.

1. Trudeau's popularity was already deflating under the disillusionment that hampers many incumbents, particularly on the idealistic left, before 2 controversies that seemed almost unimaginable given his high-principled public image: first an ethics breach, and now a racism scandal.

  • Since a 2001 photo of Trudeau in brownface at an Arabian Nights party was published Wednesday by TIME magazine, 2 prior instances in which he wore blackface have come to light.
  • Speaking today, Trudeau apologized repeatedly but admitted, when pressed, that he was "wary of being definitive" about whether other images might surface.

The big picture: Trudeau’s Liberals had been neck-and-neck with the Conservatives ahead of the Oct. 21 election.

  • “But the Liberals were running a very specific campaign,” says Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. They “demonized" Conservative candidates by surfacing past indiscretions as evidence the Conservatives were "intolerant and out of touch with where Canada is going.”
  • The blackface scandal "takes this well-crafted weapon the Liberals had created over a long period of time out of their hands," Bricker says.
  • "They've also opened up the opportunity for the New Democrats," he adds. That party's leader, Jagmeet Singh, is a turban-wearing Sikh who has spoken passionately about the difficulties facing minority communities.

What to watch: If 1–2% of Liberal-leaning voters in swing districts switch to the left-wing New Democrats that could tilt the election toward the Conservatives.

  • So could low turnout. Trudeau won in 2015 by bringing in new voters, many of whom were young or from minority backgrounds.

2. Macri, a centrist reformer, was also elected in 2015 on a wave of optimism that has since evaporated. Argentina's Oct. 27 election comes amid a deep economic downturn.

  • "It's pretty much hopeless for Macri at this point," Martin Aguirre, editor-in-chief of Uruguay's El Pais newspaper, emails from Montevideo. "His only hope is that fear of a Peronist win will induce some people to put their anger aside."
  • Macri's populist predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is now running for vice president alongside front-runner Alberto Fernández, who's considered a more pragmatic figure within the left-wing Peronist movement.
  • "Alberto Fernández has been quite successful in hiding Cristina Kirchner, and giving the impression they won't return to the policies of the past," Aguirre says. Argentina defaulted on its debt under Kirchner, who also faces numerous corruption allegations.
  • "Businessmen I have talked to seem confident it won't be a return to the bad old days," Aguirre writes. He adds: "Argentineans tend to have very short memories."

3. Sánchez won what appeared to be a thumping victory in April's election, but after failing to cobble together a coalition, he'll now have to contest another on Nov. 10.

  • After leading his center-left Socialists to power last year, Sánchez was seen by some as just the sort of charismatic leader Europe needed during its ongoing identity crisis.
  • He's betting the Socialists can win a more emphatic victory in November, but Spanish politics are fractured and unpredictable.

The bottom line: A breath of fresh air can turn stale pretty quickly.

2. Middle East: Bibi scrambles to stay afloat

Netanyahu addresses supporters on election night. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

If the Benjamin Netanyahu era is coming to an end, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is going out swinging.By the numbers: Netanyahu’s Likud party is on course for 31 seats after Tuesday’s election, with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party winning 33, per Haaretz. But Gantz’s center-left bloc (57 seats) and Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc (55) are both short of the 61 seats needed for a majority.

  • The remaining 8 seats belong to a party led by Avigdor Lieberman, formerly Netanyahu’s defense minister.
  • Now a kingmaker, Lieberman wants a “national unity” government involving both Likud and Blue and White, but excluding Arab parties on the left and ultra-Orthodox parties on the right.
  • Netanyahu is now leading the call for a unity government, an outcome he would have scoffed at before the election but has suddenly embraced with his political and legal future looking uncertain. He’s hinting at a possible rotating premiership.
  • Gantz says he’d support a unity government, but only with him as prime minister. He says he won’t serve under Netanyahu, who faces 3 pending corruption indictments and has made securing immunity his top legislative priority.
  • Gantz, 60, is a former military chief but a political novice. He’s campaigned as the steady, moderate alternative to the fiery Netanyahu.

What’s next: After consultations with the parties, President Reuven Rivlin will select a candidate to attempt to form a government. If no solution is reached, new elections are possible.

  • President Trump reacted coolly to the possible loss of his closest international ally. America's relations, he said, "are with Israel."
3. Latin America: Venezuela crisis overwhelms Colombia

Crossing the Simon Bolivar bridge into Colombia. Photo: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP/Getty Images

Colombia expects the number of Venezuelan refugees within its borders to rise to 3 million by 2021 if the current crisis continues, Ambassador Francisco Santos told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday, adding, “to be very sincere, if it goes to 3 million, we don’t have the money.”The big picture: Venezuela’s exodus now rivals Syria’s, and countries including Ecuador and Peru are taking steps to stem the flow of refugees. Not Colombia. “With this government, with this president, that’s going to be the policy: open doors,” Santos says.

  • While he said Colombia's handling of the crisis should be an example for the world, it's “causing huge problems, especially in the health budgets, the education budgets.”
  • “Even the smallest town in Colombia has Venezuelan migrants, and a lot of them,” he says. In big cities like Bogotá, “the musicality of the language in the streets is changing.”
  • “I’m greatly surprised at how people have received them. I think the solidarity has been huge. But I also think that the tension is beginning to increase because of the numbers. You’re starting to hear a different discourse.”

The bottom line: “We don’t know,” Santos admitted when asked how Colombia will handle this in the longer term. He said more aid was needed from the U.S. and in particular from Europe, as well as from international organizations.

4. World news roundup

1. It emerged during Santos’ briefing that Trump had selected a new national security advisor, Robert O’Brien. Santos was elated at the news, saying he’d worked with O’Brien in his capacity as Trump’s hostage negotiator and found him “very diplomatic. A big change [from John Bolton].”

  • “With O’Brien’s scant government experience, his elevation all but ensures that [Mike] Pompeo will have no major rival in the White House jockeying with him to influence Trump,” Foreign Policy notes.
  • But while O'Brien's style is “quiet and lawyerly,” Eli Lake writes for Bloomberg, he “has a long history of conventional Republican Party hawkishness.”
  • Bolton, meanwhile, reportedly bashed Trump’s policies on North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran at a private lunch.

2. A U.S. drone strike targeting the Islamic State Wednesday in Afghanistan instead “killed at least 30 civilians resting after a day’s labor in the fields” and injured at least 40 more, per Reuters.

3. Trump’s communications with a foreign leader over the summer included a “‘promise’ that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint,” the Washington Post reports.

  • “But acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to share details about Trump’s alleged transgression with lawmakers," prompting "speculation that the spy chief is improperly protecting the president,” per the Post.

4. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian dictator toppled in the Arab Spring, died today in Saudi Arabia at the age of 83.

5. Saudi attacks test Trump's willingness to use force

Pompeo with MBS Wednesday in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who labeled recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities an “act of war” and placed the blame squarely on Iran — appeared to soften today, saying President Trump had tasked him with building an international coalition to seek a “peaceful resolution.”

The big picture: The attacks proved Iran's destructive capabilities while testing American resolve to remain militarily active in the Middle East, Amy Myers Jaffe of the Council on Foreign Relations writes for Axios Expert Voices:

  • The attack marks a major escalation of the proxy war between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran that has raged since 2015, though there have been previous acts of sabotage on oil facilities.
  • Its success shakes confidence in Saudi Arabia's status as the global swing producer of spare oil supply, a role that has afforded Riyadh substantial influence.
  • Iran's rulers are gambling that they can survive any punitive attack on their own military installations and that subsequent attacks by Iran or its proxies would hurt the legitimacy of those Arab governments more than its own.
  • The complexities of the situation create a vast political dilemma for President Trump ahead of the 2020 election. His rhetoric about being tough on Iran is already ringing hollow, and initiating military action would likely meet even less popular support.

What to watch: The U.S. would need to spring into diplomatic hyperdrive to build a coalition at the United Nations and beyond for a unified approach.

6. Data du jour: Flight shame in Sweden

Greta sails into New York. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Sweden appears to be the only country in the world, or at least in Europe, where fewer people are flying for environmental reasons, the Telegraph reports.

Why it matters: Flying is a massive contributor to carbon footprints in developed countries, but based on the total number of travelers, air travel has increased this year in 38 of 42 European countries, the Telegraph notes.

  • Drops in air travel in Iceland, Turkey and Bulgaria can be explained by economic or demographic causes, but the same can't be said for Sweden — home of climate activist Greta Thunberg and the "flygskam" (flight shame) movement.

Zoom in: The number of air travelers in Sweden dropped by 4.1% in the first half of this year. The trend "first manifested itself at the beginning of 2018 but really kicked into gear at the end of last year," per the Telegraph.

Zoom out: Air travel across Europe increased by 4.3% in the first half of this year. The smallest increases came in Sweden's Scandinavian neighbors — Denmark and Norway. The biggest jumps were in Ukraine and Austria.

7. Stories we're watching

Pro-democracy protesters wave laser pointers in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

  1. Global child mortality rate continues decline.
  2. The real-world trade war impact
  3. Juul products pulled in China
  4. U.S. sues Snowden for profits from memoir
  5. Saudi Arabia says oil output to be restored by month's end
  6. Bogus Putin interview reveals a real deepfake threat
  7. Expert Voices: Indian states ending coal expansion


"They did that with the president on a couple of occasions, to persuade him that, ‘We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys.' We later exposed it to the president so he understood, ‘You’ve been played.' It bothers me that an ally that’s that close and important to us would do that to us."
Rex Tillerson on Netanyahu using "misinformation" to influence Trump
Dave Lawler