Welcome back to Axios World for tonight's 1,713-word (6-minute) global tour.
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Situational awareness: I've just tallied up the votes for the December special report. Apologies if you replied and I haven't responded yet — I'm working my way through! I'm once again blown away by how engaged, curious and kind our readership is.
- People of the world (41 votes) finished first, followed by the world in 2020 (28), foreign policy and the U.S. election (24), populism (23) and the U.K. election (11).
- I'll of course be covering the other four topics, along with many of your great suggestions, in the regular newsletter format (and perhaps in future special reports).
1 big thing: Cartel violence plagues Mexico
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared an end to Mexico’s war on the drug cartels when he took office nearly a year ago, but the gangs are only growing more aggressive.
Driving the news: Nine dual U.S-Mexican citizens — six children and three women — from a Mormon community were slaughtered on Tuesday near the U.S.-Mexico border.
- That massacre comes three weeks after the Sinaloa cartel violently took control of Culiacán, holding the city of 800,000 hostage until authorities agreed to release the drug kingpin son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
- While those high-profile incidents ratcheted up the pressure both in Mexico and from the U.S, cartel violence is a daily occurrence.
- The country is on pace for a record 37,000 homicides this year, and organized crime has been seeping into areas that had previously been spared.
The cycle of violence is driven by American demand — Mexican cartels are the top suppliers of heroin, fentanyl, meth and cocaine to the U.S.
- Those drug profits allow the gangs to pay off judges and politicians. Fewer than 1 in 20 homicides in Mexico are solved, per the WSJ.
Flashback: Mexico’s war on the cartels began in 2006 under then-President Felipe Calderón, whose strategy of taking out gang leaders spawned smaller warring groups.
- Homicides fell in the early years under his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, but began to climb once again in 2014. By 2018, they'd reached historic highs.
When López Obrador swept to office last year in a landslide, crime ranked behind only corruption in terms of voters’ concerns.
- He took a softer line, urging cartel members to think of their mothers and proposing anti-poverty programs, while also building a new national guard.
- “He wants to take a new approach to security, and power to him,” says Earl Anthony Wayne, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico (2011–2015). “Addressing the root causes is a wonderful thing to do. But in the short term, he still faces this day-to-day violence fueled by these criminal groups.”
Zoom out: Despite the continued rise in violence and a sluggish economy, a recent poll puts López Obrador’s approval rating at a remarkable 67%.
- Most Mexicans believe their president — a supremely talented politician — is “one of them,” says Wayne, adding that López Obrador recently asked for “one year to show results.”
- “We’ll see if they give him that year, but clearly people like him. They like the promises, and they’re desirous of change.”
The bottom line: López Obrador has massive ambitions to lift up the poor and remake Mexico from the ground up. The cartels are standing in his way.
2. Internet freedom around the world
Internet freedom is in decline around the world, with governments using social media to monitor their citizens and spread disinformation at home and overseas, according to an annual Freedom House report.
The big picture: "What was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation," the authors write of social media.
"Sophisticated mass surveillance that was once feasible only for the world’s leading intelligence agencies is now affordable for a much broader range of states."
Countries in decline:
- Sudan saw social media blocked during mass protests against now-former President Omar al-Bashir, and harsh repression during a lengthy state of emergency.
- Kazakhstan's government "temporarily disrupted internet connectivity, blocked ... news websites, and restricted access to social media platforms" during its stage-managed presidential transition.
- Brazil saw a rise of cyberattacks and "social media manipulation," mostly from supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro — who then hired consultants accused of "spearheading the sophisticated disinformation campaign."
- Bangladesh's government, in response to protests over road safety and electoral irregularities, "resorted to blocking independent news websites, restricting mobile networks, and arresting journalists and ordinary users alike."
- Zimbabwe became a more difficult place to access the internet, both because of economic chaos and crackdowns from the government.
The flipside: Ethiopia was one of the few countries in which internet restrictions were loosened this year, under reform-minded Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Improvements were also seen in Malaysia and Armenia.
Superlatives: China is "the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom" while Iceland is "the world's best protector."
3. Global news roundup: Breathing, eating, living
1. Schools have been closed, flights canceled, cars limited and all construction halted in New Delhi — India's capital and one of the world's largest metropolises.
- The reason: Air pollution. The smoke and haze blanketing the city — which already struggles from poor air quality for much of the year — is mostly due to farmers burning "crop stubble" to prepare their fields, per CBS News.
- Why it matters: "Air pollution is the leading cause of premature death in parts of the world. It already accounts for more than a quarter of deaths from lung cancer and heart disease," per The Atlantic.
2. Climate protests are growing increasingly disruptive in Australia, and the conservative government has responded by threatening to ban them, Axios' Rashaan Ayesh writes.
- "Defending coal has come to be equated with defending the country" for some politicians, per the NY Times.
- A recent report found that if Queensland doesn't cut its carbon emissions, most of the Great Barrier Reef will be extinct in 12 years.
3. China's increasingly carnivorous appetites — the country now consumes 28% of the world's meat — are posing environmental and economic challenges.
- Enter fake meat. Big U.S. players Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are looking to enter a growing Chinese market that is already bigger than America's, Axios' Erica Pandey reports.
4. Italy is the first country in the world to mandate that all public schools include climate change in curricula for all ages. Go deeper.
Bonus: China's big business boom
4. Data du jour: Danger and safety in the world's neighborhoods
Singapore tops Gallup's annual Law and Order index — based on respondents' confidence in local police, sense of safety in their neighborhoods, and recent experiences with crime — while Afghanistan scores far below even Venezuela.
- Top: Singapore, Tajikistan, UAE, Norway, Turkmenistan.
- Bottom: Afghanistan, Venezuela, Gabon, Liberia, South Africa.
Zoom in: Just 13% of Afghans said they felt safe walking alone at night in their neighborhoods, down from 20% last year.
- All other countries near the bottom on that scale are in Latin America (Brazil, 34%), the Caribbean (Dominican Republic, 37%), and sub-Saharan Africa (Botswana, 34%).
- 72% of Americans said they felt safe, far below most Western European countries like Norway (93%) and Switzerland (89%).
My thought bubble: While the U.K. scores quite high on the law and order index, on par with Canada, that didn't stop a thief from running off with my phone last week.
5. 30 years after Berlin Wall, East looks to far-right
Why it matters: The legacy of 1989 is the power of citizens to bring about change, but today faith in democracy is falling.
- Although Chancellor Angela Merkel is from the former east, voters there are rejecting mainstream political parties and turning in greater numbers to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Where it stands: The Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up, yet the five states in the former German Democratic Republic are still playing catch-up despite $2 trillion in regional investment.
- Wages are approximately 15% lower, and a brain drain has left much of the east bereft of young people, especially young women.
- According to Zeit Online, nearly a quarter of East Germany’s population has left since reunification.
The impact: The AfD is now present in all of Germany’s 16 state legislatures but has found its stronghold in the former east.
- The xenophobic party, whose leaders have relativized the Holocaust, racked up roughly a quarter of the vote during recent state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia.
The bottom line: On the surface, it may seem difficult to differentiate Germans once tagged as either Wessis or Ossis, but differences remain. The former east's far-right swing could now make it harder to spur the political and financial changes needed to close the gap.
Go deeper: Berlin Didn’t Want a Reagan Statue—but It’s Getting One Anyway (WSJ)
6. What I'm reading: Macron's fears for Europe
French President Emmanuel Macron referred to NATO as brain dead and questioned whether the alliance is still fit for purpose with America's commitment in question in an interview with The Economist.
1. The consensus behind the trans-Atlantic alliance is obsolete.
"Europe was basically built to be the Americans’ junior partner. ... And this went hand in hand with a benevolent United States, acting as the ultimate guarantor of a system ... based on the preservation of world peace and the domination of Western values. There was a price to pay for that, which was NATO and support to the European Union."
2. Europe could "disappear geopolitically" due to...
- America's shifting strategies — first Obama's pivot to Asia and now Trump's disregard for alliances.
- The "bipolarization" of the world between the U.S. and a rising China, which "clearly marginalizes Europe."
- "The re-emergence of authoritarian powers on the fringes of Europe," namely Turkey and Russia.
- "An internal European crisis" that has raged for a decade.
- His bottom line: Europe needs to assert itself as a global power in its own right, or slide into irrelevance.
3. Europe is playing catch-up.
- Macron said Europe's "trade-maximizing" mindset was based on the belief "there will be no more great wars, tragedy has left the stage, all is wonderful."
- Now the world is "breaking up again" and the U.S. is turning its back on the alliance and the world order it shaped.
- That reality requires European autonomy, Macron argues. In his view, that means integration but not EU expansion (France controversially blocked accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania).
4. France must be a "balancing power," with "the right not to be outright enemies with our friends’ enemies."
"We can speak to people and therefore build balances to stop the whole world from catching fire."
5. Russia should be a partner.
- Macron argues that Russia probably can't rebuild itself as a go-it-alone superpower and is unwilling "to be China's vassal," so it must therefore move toward "a partnership project with Europe."
- He admits that's based on logic, not on Vladimir Putin's behavior. But he asserts nonetheless: "we have the right to autonomy, not just to follow American sanctions, to rethink the strategic relationship with Russia."
7. Stories we're watching
- Pompeo warns of Iranian nuclear "breakout" potential
- Trump confirms Turkey's Erdoğan will visit next week
- Saudis announce peace deal between Yemen and southern separatists
- Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia
- Expert Voices: Stakes of U.S. exit from Paris accord
- Italian Holocaust survivor under police protection amid anti-Semitism debate
- Legendary Beijing bookstore The Bookworm closes
"One day when the diplomatic history is written people will wonder what happened here and why officials didn’t do more to stop it or at least speak out more forcefully to blame Turkey for its behavior."— William Roebuck, the top U.S. diplomat in Northern Syria, in a blistering memo that leaked to the NY Times.