Jul 16, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. We're starting with a look at our surprisingly static globe, before sending you into the weekend with an examination of the tools that could destroy humanity.

1 big thing: No new countries

This sort of thing used to happen much more often. Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This week marks nine years since South Sudan was admitted to the United Nations, becoming the 193rd and most recent entrant into the club of internationally recognized countries.

The big picture: This is the longest period in modern history during which the world map has remained unchanged.

  • Simply relabeling three small countries — Cape Verde to Cabo Verde, Swaziland to Eswatini, Macedonia to North Macedonia — would bring a world map from Barack Obama’s first term up to date.

By the numbers: The UN added 44 members (most of them newly independent African nations) in the 1960s, 26 in the 1970s, seven in the 1980s, and 26 in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia fractured.

  • Since 1995, there have been five island countries — Tonga, Kiribati, Nauru (all 1999), Tuvalu (2000) and Timor-Leste (2002) — added to the UN roster, while Serbia and Montenegro split in two in 2006.
  • In the 2010s, South Sudan stands alone. The young country’s tumultuous history seems to reinforce the view that new countries will be inherently fragile.

How it happened: In his 2018 book “Invisible Countries,” Josh Keating writes that we're living through a period of “cartographical stasis," unique in history.

  • “When I was growing up — late '80s, early '90s — it seemed like new countries were being created all the time,” Keating told Axios in an interview.
  • “If you look back at international relations scholarship at that time, there was sort of an assumption that that would keep going. That self-determination movements would just keep succeeding and the world would keep being carved up into smaller and smaller national units.”
  • Instead, the world’s borders — many of them drawn by colonial powers and maintained after independence — have locked into place.

Existing states and multilateral institutions nearly always oppose border changes and separatist movements.

  • Even when there’s little chance of warfare or ethnic cleansing — as in Scotland or Catalonia, for example — the world tends to line up behind the status quo.
  • Other recent movements toward statehood, as in Iraqi Kurdistan, have stalled.
  • We're seeing fewer fights for independence, Keating says, and more movements for greater autonomy at a subnational level, as in Ethiopia.

The flipside: By fueling frozen conflicts and annexing Crimea, Vladimir Putin's Russia has proved a glaring exception in this age of immovable borders.

  • But elsewhere, rising nationalism has expressed itself not as "a challenge to existing borders" but an effort "to build those borders up and keep the rest of the world out," Keating says.

What to watch: The UN could gain a new member if Kosovo — already recognized by around 100 countries — ever reaches a deal with Serbia.

  • Tensions over Taiwan's status are also increasing, with the U.S. redoubling its support to the self-ruling island as China threatens reunification, by force if necessary.
  • Palestinian statehood continues to be debated and to move no further than that.

The bottom line: “I don’t see any candidates for independence on the horizon," Keating says.

2. Berlin goes soft on Beijing

Photo: Popow/ullstein bild via Getty Images

While countries including the U.S. and U.K. grow increasingly willing to challenge China on everything from Hong Kong to Huawei, Germany has steered clear of confrontation with Beijing.

Why it matters: Despite Chancellor Angela Merkel's reputation as a champion of democratic values, her critics contend that when it comes to China, any such concerns are trumped by the economy.

Driving the news: While the U.K. this week joined the U.S., Australia and others in labeling Huawei's links to the Chinese government an unacceptable security risk, Merkel has leaned the other way (though she hasn't announced a final decision on the company's role in Germany's 5G networks).

  • She has also said little about the crackdown in Hong Kong or China's mass detentions in Xinjiang.

What they’re saying: German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier expressed a view of China this week that is only heard in Washington these days when paired with a tone of derision — mocking the misguided claims of decades past.

“I have always been convinced and I still believe that change can be achieved through trade.”
— Peter Altmaier, a close Merkel ally, to Politico

Between the lines: His logic — that economic ties provide Germany with leverage over China, which would be jeopardized by criticism over Hong Kong — is up for debate.

  • Germany’s deep economic ties to China are not. China's market is particularly vital to Germany's auto industry and other advanced manufacturing.

What to watch: Merkel’s refusal to criticize China “is increasingly out of step with the rest of Germany’s political establishment," the Economist reports.

  • Merkel’s defenders say there’s more to it than meets the eye. Rather than engaging in zero-sum competition across the board, she wants to compete where necessary, cooperate where possible, and avoid a damaging decoupling.

With Merkel stepping down next year, her successor may well see things differently.

3. Barr warns U.S. businesses over China ties

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images and Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Attorney General Bill Burr today accused U.S. tech and entertainment firms — several of them by name — of collaborating with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Zoom in: “[I]f Disney and other American corporations continue to bow to Beijing, they risk undermining both their own future competitiveness and prosperity, as well as the classical liberal order that has allowed them to thrive."


  • “America’s corporate leaders might not think of themselves as lobbyists. You might think, for example, that cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship is … necessary to do business with [China].”
  • “But you should be alert to how you might be used, and how your efforts on behalf of a foreign company or government could implicate the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”

The backdrop: Barr’s was the third in a series of speeches from top Trump administration officials on China.

  • It followed remarks by national security adviser Robert O’Brien and FBI director Christopher Wray. Barr said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be up next.

What to watch: The NYT reports that the administration is considering a sweeping travel ban on CCP members and their families.

Go deeper: Pompeo announces visa restrictions on Huawei employees

4. Data du jour: The (shrinking) world in 2100
Data: Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study; Table: Axios Visuals

We’re just 44 years away from “peak human” — when the world’s population will begin to decrease, according to new projections published in The Lancet.

Breaking it down: By 2100, the populations of China, Japan and Italy are expected to be half of what they are today, while sub-Saharan Africa will be home to three times as many people.

  • This forecast puts the global population in 2100 some 2 billion below the UN’s estimate of 11 billion, with the peak also expected much sooner.
  • It factors in greater decreases in fertility rates due to increased access to education and contraception.
  • Immigration patterns and climate change will change the outlook, the authors note.
  • As birth rates fall and life expectancies climb, the world's population will get much older.

The big picture: The global population rose over the last 80 years from around 2.3 billion to 7.8 billion. If that rate of growth continued for another 80 years, it would rise to 26 billion by the turn of the next century.

  • Instead, if these forecasts hold up, we’ll be on the downslope from the global peak.

Worth noting: Some of the spikes projected in Africa by 2100 are mind-boggling. Niger's rise from 21 million to 185 million is like starting with New York state and then adding California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, plus all of Canada, over the course of 80 years.

5. State of the outbreak: Cases continue to climb

Members of the Pataxo indigenous tribe who were moved to the city of Belo Horizonte when a dam collapsed in 2019. Indigenous people in Brazil have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Photo: Pedro Vilela/Getty Images

Nearly one-quarter of all coronavirus cases recorded to date came in the first 15 days of July, when 3.1 million were tallied worldwide.

Breaking it down: Compare that to 2.4 million over the prior 15 days, or 1.8 million in the 15 days before that.

  • Two-thirds of the cases recorded worldwide yesterday came in the U.S. (60,711), Brazil (41,857), India (32,695) and South Africa (12,757).
  • Testing rates are increasing in some countries, but still vary incredibly widely.

The flipside: While case counts continue to rise, the global death rate has been relatively flat in recent weeks and is still well below April's peak.

  • At that time, the U.S. and a number of European countries were recording far more deaths than they are now.
  • While India is approaching 1 million cases — 4x the number recorded in Spain — its 24,915 deaths are actually below Spain's total.

What to watch: Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Institute of Public Health, told the BBC World Service he expects single-day tallies of over 1 million cases before the pandemic is over.

6. This day in history: World's most dangerous test

The mushroom cloud of the Trinity atomic bomb test, 10 seconds after detonation. Photo: Corbis via Getty

The Trinity nuclear test 75 years ago represented our first reckoning with a technology that could potentially destroy us, Axios' Bryan Walsh writes.

The big picture: The Trinity test represents a hinge in history: for the first time, humans had the power to destroy themselves.

  • That is the lasting legacy of the Trinity test 75 years later: How do we control what science can produce when even scientists themselves can't always predict how their discoveries will be used?

What's happening: Emerging technologies like synthetic biology and AI present new questions of control and new challenges to our future survival.

  • And as they advance, they become easier to use for small groups and even individuals, something that has thankfully never been true of nuclear weapons.
  • It may one day be as easy to engineer a deadly virus as it is now to program computer malware. Dangerous AI could eventually be unleashed — accidentally or on purpose — by a single company, or even a band of programmers.

Flashback: At 5:29am on July 16, 1945, the first nuclear bomb was tested at Trinity Site, in a New Mexico desert valley called Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead.

  • For the authors of the bomb, "Trinity rapidly shifted their understanding of what they had made," nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein said on a recent podcast. "Many of these scientists were ecstatic about Trinity, but then they had a comedown when they realized what this thing would do if you used it on people."
7. Stories we're watching

Remember this feeling? Approaching Sydney from the sky. Photo: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

  1. The CIA's new license to cyberattack
  2. U.S.-China trade war quietly escalates
  3. U.S. pushes homegrown drones in China battle
  4. Russia accused of trying to steal vaccine research
  5. Apple scores win in tax battle with EU
  6. OPEC's COVID balancing act
  7. Canada poaches tech talent from the U.S.


"My first impression of the explosion was the very intense flash of light, and a sensation of heat on the parts of my body that were exposed. Although I did not look directly towards the object, I had the impression that suddenly the countryside became brighter than in full daylight."
— Enrico Fermi's account of the Trinity explosion

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