Jul 27, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World, coming to you this week from Cape Cod.

  • If Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is a World reader, he should know that I've just tested negative for COVID-19 and thus won't be paying the $500/day (!) fine for failing to quarantine.

Data lovers should enjoy tonight's edition, which is 1,778 words (and numbers) and should take about 6.5 minutes of your time. New readers can sign up here.

1 big thing: Who's following America's lead?
Data: Gallup; Map: Naema Ahmed/Axios

America has an image problem. A Gallup poll of 135 countries finds virtually equivalent rates of approval for U.S. (median of 33%), Chinese (32%) and Russian (30%) global leadership.

Breaking it down: The U.S. approval rate is down from 48% in 2016, and it slides even lower among democratic allies like Canada (20%) and Germany (12%). Any significant improvements, the report notes, have tended to come in "some of the world's least democratic societies."

  • Approval of German leadership, meanwhile, has jumped to 44%, though Germany plays a more limited global role than the U.S. or China.

In Europe, approval of U.S. leadership has fallen by nearly half since President Trump took office, though it remains higher than at the end of George W. Bush's tenure (18%).

  • By the numbers: Germany (56% approval), U.S. (24%), China (23%), Russia (19%).
  • The big picture: The U.S. sits at or below 30% in 30 of 39 countries, including allies like the U.K. (25%) and many NATO countries that are deeply reliant on America's military strength.
  • Highest: Kosovo (82%) and Albania (67%), both Balkan countries that have benefitted from U.S. support, followed by two countries — Poland (59%) and Hungary (47%) — that have clashed with Brussels over rising authoritarianism but have been embraced by Trump.
  • Lowest: Iceland (9%), Austria (11%), Sweden (12%) and, unsurprisingly, Russia (11%).

In the Americas, approval of U.S. leadership plummeted from 49% to 24% in Trump's first year in office, but it has ticked upward since.

  • By the numbers: Germany (35% approval), U.S. (34%), China (32%), Russia (28%)
  • The big picture: America's neighbors — Canada (22%) and Mexico (17%) — view its leadership very unfavorably. Colombia (41%), Venezuela (39%) and Brazil (38%) are more favorable.
  • Support is low in two relatively wealthy South American countries — Chile (16%), Uruguay (19%) — and highest in the Dominican Republic (56%) and El Salvador (44%).

In Asia, particularly in the Middle East, views of U.S. leadership have long been mixed, though disapproval (39%) has now surpassed China's level (37%).

  • By the numbers: Germany (39% approval), U.S. (32%), China (31%), Russia (30%).
  • The big picture: Approval of U.S. leadership is worryingly low in Afghanistan (17%), almost nonexistent in Iran (6%), Yemen (10%), and the Palestinian territories (10%), and sky-high in Israel (64%).
  • Highest: Israel, Turkmenistan (62%), Mongolia (62%), Philippines (58%), Nepal (54%), Myanmar (53%).
  • Other notables: Australia (23%), India (34%), Indonesia (21%), Iraq (27%), Japan (34%), Pakistan (27%), Turkey (12%).
  • In Hong Kong (31%) and Taiwan (40%), two territories looking to the U.S. for protection from China, more respondents disapprove than approve of the state of American leadership.

African countries tend to welcome engagement from both the U.S. and China, though approval of U.S. leadership sloped down dramatically during Obama's tenure, from 85% in 2009 to 53% by 2016.

  • By the numbers: U.S. (52% approval), China (51%), Germany (46%), Russia (40%).
  • The big picture: U.S. leadership is very unpopular in Libya (20%), where America intervened militarily in 2011, but not in the Sahel — Niger (65%), Mali (64%) — where the U.S. is involved in counterterror operations.
  • Approval tends to be high in sub-Saharan Africa and lower in North Africa.

Worth noting: Some of the numbers are skewed by very high "don't know/refuse" rates, which were above 40% in countries ranging from Bulgaria to Panama to Vietnam to Botswana. Laos was an outlier, with 86% "don't know."

  • Those rates were typically under 20% in Western Europe and the Americas.
2. State of the outbreak: In for the long haul
Data: Kekst CNC; Note: ±3.3% margin or error; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

In early April, most Americans — and nearly as many Germans and Swedes — thought the coronavirus pandemic would be behind them by the time summer was out.

Breaking it down: Like swimming against the tide, the longer people are stuck in the pandemic, the farther it seems to stretch out in front of them.

Consider this: 42% of Germans once expected the effects of the pandemic to end this summer.

  • Now, 66% expect it to carry on through next summer — one year from now — according to polling from strategic consulting firm Kekst CNC, shared with Axios.
  • Brits have long been most prepared for the long haul. 53% expect the country to be grappling with the pandemic two years from now, compared to 35% in Japan.
  • That view is less common in France (28%), Germany (21%), Sweden (24%) and the U.S. (25%).

Concerns about the pandemic's impacts on household finances and job security have fallen significantly since the spring, particularly in the U.S., indicating government rescue packages have had their intended effects.

  • With spending likely to be dialed back, worries are starting to tick back up in the U.K. and Japan, though Swedes and Germans remain the least concerned.
  • Japanese people are easily most likely to believe they will lose their job (38% vs. 20% in the U.S.), though relatively few say they already have (9% Japan, 16% U.S., 16% Sweden, 15% France, 10% Germany, 6% U.K.).
  • Japanese people are also by far the most critical of the support their government is offering businesses.
3. State of the outbreak II: Merkel-mania
Data: Kekst CNC; Chart: Axios Visuals

The lack of confidence in the government's economic response may explain Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's truly terrible ratings, with 34% more Japanese people disapproving than approving of his handling of the pandemic.

The flipside: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is lapping the field, with her government winning high marks on both the public health and economic fronts.

  • French President Emmanuel Macron fares far worse, but his numbers have ticked up from -17% last month.
  • Everyone else is heading in the wrong direction, including U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for whom an initial boost in popularity has long since evaporated.
  • 64% of Brits think the government lifted lockdown too early, and 67% think the government is just making things up as it goes along.
  • The U.K's beloved National Health Service scores a whopping +85% approval for its pandemic response, however.
  • In Sweden, confidence in the government's unorthodox approach is fading slightly though still relatively strong (+8%).

Worth noting: Just 14% of Swedes say they’re wearing masks indoors in public spaces, compared to 47% in the U.K. and big majorities in France (74%), the U.S. (75%), Germany (79%) and Japan (84%).

4. Europe: People in the streets

Protests and architecture in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: Jodi Hilton/NurPhoto via Getty

1. For the third weekend in a row, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk.

Why it matters: These sorts of scenes are rare even in Moscow and almost unthinkable for a medium-sized city 4,000 miles away.

  • The protests began after the governor, Sergei Furgal, was arrested on 15-year-old murder charges. His real crime appears to have been tapping into pent-up frustrations to defeat a Kremlin-backed candidate.
  • The protests have become less about Furgal and more about a system that is so transparently rigged that the Kremlin wins even when it loses.
  • Protesters chanted “Russia, wake up!” and even "Putin resign," per the NYT. That sentiment is even more dangerous than loyalty to a toppled regional official.

2. A Cabinet reshuffle has not satisfied protesters in Bulgaria, who continue to demand Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's resignation.

Setting the scene: The protests began with a bizarre episode that seemed to Bulgarians to sum up their nation's corrupt politics.

  • Hristo Ivanov, leader of an anti-corruption party, landed by boat on a public beach — only to be pushed back into the water by state security agents.
  • The agents were securing a public beach for a wealthy private citizen. When that odd arrangement was exposed by Bulgaria's president (who is not from the ruling party), police quickly got down to work — by raiding the president's office and arresting two of his aides.
  • Then came the protests. Ivanov's nautical stunt could well bring down the government.

3. Unrest has continued in Belarus, where longtime dictator Alexander Lukashenko faces a tougher-than-expected task to hold onto power on Aug. 9.

  • The elections won't be fair, but they are worth watching. The run-up to election day has been marked by protests and crackdowns.
5. Central Asia: Despots and disease

On guard for "dust" in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty

Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive states, claims to be entirely COVID-free.

So how does the government convince people to wear masks without contradicting the dictator? Simple: Tell them they're to protect against dust.

Zoom out: Central Asia is being hit by a second wave, and some countries in the region — which is dominated by strongman leaders — are being a bit more transparent about the threat, per the Economist.

  • "In Kazakhstan officially diagnosed cases have rocketed by around 1,400% since the easing of a stringent lockdown in May."
  • "Kyrgyzstan recently adjusted its statistics to include probable covid-19 cases previously classified as pneumonia, causing the number of infections to double overnight and fatalities to jump almost fivefold."
  • "Uzbekistan has reimposed a lockdown it began easing in May, although its government is still attempting to lure tourists with a promise to pay them $3,000 should they catch the coronavirus during their visit."
6. What I'm reading: The doomed romance of Big Business and Beijing

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Adam Tooze argues in the London Review of Books that U.S.-China relations are deteriorating so quickly that even the most robust analyses of this new era — including books published just months ago — “seem to speak from a world we have lost.”

Driving the news: The last 10 days have seen forced consulate closures in Houston and Chengdu, and speeches from top U.S. officials warning that if America's allies and corporations don't confront China, they risk becoming utterly beholden to it.

Zoom out: Tooze looks back on the integrationist approach to China that predated Trump and sees not naivete, but clear-eyed calculations based on the interests of America's corporations.

  • "In 1949, ‘Who lost China?’ was the question that tortured the American political establishment. Seventy years later, the question that hangs in the air is how and why America’s elite lost interest in their own country."
  • "Coming from Bernie Sanders that question wouldn’t be surprising. But it was more remarkable to hear William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, describe American business as ‘part of the problem’ because its corporate leaders ... have lost sight of the ‘national view’ and the need to ensure ‘that the next century remains a Western one.'"
  • "This is all a long way from the 1990s, when America’s corporate leaders could confidently assume that their way of seeing the world was so deeply entrenched in the US political system that their desired version of integration with China would go unchallenged."
  • "Today, that wager on the world as a playground of corporate strategy is unravelling."

My thought bubble: Tooze is right about the relentless pace of this confrontation. I spoke with him in January at the World Economic Forum for our report on the "U.S.-China tightrope" walked by countries and multinational corporations.

  • It all still felt somewhat theoretical then. Not anymore.

Read Tooze's piece

7. Stories we're watching

A diving competition on Sunday in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Damir Sagolj/Getty Images

  1. O'Brien tests positive, Bolsonaro tests negative
  2. Ceasefire in Ukraine
  3. North Korea's COVID lockdown
  4. China, Iran, Russia seen as meddling threats
  5. Singaporean spying for China pleads guilty in D.C.
  6. China and Silicon Valley drift apart
  7. In photos: Worshippers pray at Hagia Sophia


"My mustache, for some reason, has become a point of some fascination here."
— Harry Harris, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, on a mustache that looked quite distinguished to me but prompted comparisons to colonial-era Japanese leaders. He has shaved it off.

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