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Apr 4, 2019

Axios World

Welcome to Axios World, where two evenings a week we break down what you need to know about the big stories from around the globe.

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1 big thing: NATO turns 70

Portuguese troops mark the 70th anniversary of NATO's founding. Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Washington has this week been toasting NATO, which turns 70 today. Congress greeted NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg with bursts of bipartisan applause, and foreign ministers from the 29 member countries gathered today to reaffirm their mutual support.

There’s a lot to celebrate. As former Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis writes in TIME: “Perhaps NATO’s greatest accomplishment is not even its unblemished record of deterring attack against its members but rather the fact that no alliance nation has ever attacked another.”

  • Stavridis notes that “there is no other place on earth where the U.S. could find such a significant number of like-minded nations" with which to ally. Stoltenberg put it more simply: “It is good to have friends.”
  • In recent years, NATO has in some ways been rejuvenated by Russian aggression. Members are committing more troops in Eastern Europe and modernizing command structures. Support for the alliance generally remains high in Europe and in the U.S.

The flipside: Despite the united front this week in D.C., there are growing schisms. Some, like trade wars or the Iran nuclear deal, are political. Others, like creeping authoritarianism and doubts over collective defense, feel more existential.

  • Meanwhile, the alliance’s role as the U.S. looks away from Europe and toward a rising China is still to be determined. That’s particularly true under a U.S. president who thinks America is being ripped off.

Vice President Pence nearly spoiled the birthday party yesterday, targeting Germany and Turkey with some of the Trump administration's most stinging criticisms of NATO allies so far.

  • Pence said several countries were falling short on defense spending, "Germany chief among them." He scolded: "It is simply unacceptable for Europe’s largest economy to ignore the threat of Russian aggression and continue neglecting its self-defense."
  • Pence then turned to Turkey’s decision to buy an advanced S-400 missile defense system from Russia. "Turkey must choose,” he warned. "Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?"

Between the lines: Pence’s remarks didn’t go over well with the audience of security experts and diplomats, but they contained uncomfortable truths.

Germany’s long-standing reluctance to play a leading role on defense has been compounded by delicate coalition politics.

  • The Social Democrats, junior partners to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, want to shift funds away from defense and onto domestic priorities. If that means picking a fight with Trump, all the better — he’s enormously unpopular in Germany.
  • German statements on defense spending this week have been tinged with doublespeak. The key claim is that, “True solidarity is measured in terms of commitment, not euros.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, is intent to show Turkey’s defenses don’t run through Washington, let alone Brussels.

  • Speaking before Pence at the same conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the purchase of the Russian system, which the Pentagon says could endanger NATO infrastructure, is a "done deal.”
  • “We are not choosing between Russia and any other allies,” Cavusoglu added. That’s a pretty remarkable statement at a NATO conference.

The bottom line: NATO’s birthday could have been far worse. Both Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warm words for the alliance. All was quiet on the Trump Twitter front. A 30th member, North Macedonia, is anxious to join. Overall, NATO looks pretty good for its age.

Worth noting: As Axios’ Jonathan Swan has pointed out, Pence is a central force in the Trump administration’s foreign policy and in many cases — Venezuela, China, Iran — drives hardline positions. He occasionally sets the pace on these issues, even if he does it while praising the wisdom and strength of his boss.

2. Upcoming elections around the world

Netanyahu (L) and Putin balance a small painting today at the Kremlin in a ceremonial gesture of friendship (not really). Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images

1. Israel (April 9): Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the polling momentum and a last-minute boost from Russia's Vladimir Putin, whom he visited today in Moscow. He also has three indictments hanging over him.

  • Between the lines: Netanyahu and Putin are both fierce nationalists who like to project themselves as irreplaceable. They also both have big stakes in the future of Syria, where Israel wants to operate freely against Russia's ally, Iran, without provoking Moscow's fury.

2. India (April 11–May 19): The world's largest-ever exercise in democracy will take place over five weeks across 1 million polling places, with 879 million voters eligible to take part.

  • What to watch: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP may struggle to win a majority but likely has the inside track to forming the next government.

3. Indonesia (April 17): The world's third-most populous democracy will host a rematch this month between President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and the arch-nationalist former general he defeated in 2014, Prabowo Subianto.

  • The backdrop: Indonesians are feeling much better about the state of the economy than they were five years ago, according to Pew. That's good news for Jokowi, who is running on his record of competence and infrastructure development. Some analysts fear democratic backsliding if Subianto pulls off an upset.

Mark your calendars: Finland (April 14) and Spain (April 28) will also go to the polls this month. In between, Ukraine (April 21) will hold its presidential runoff. Busy days ahead!

3. Africa: Algeria makes history. Now what?

A demonstration last month in Algiers. Photo: Dalia Ghanem/Carnegie Endowment (see bonus)

Following six weeks of massive demonstrations, Algeria's ailing president resigned yesterday after two decades in power.

What to watch: While hundreds of thousands of protestors pried open the door, it was Algeria’s top general who finally kicked Abdelaziz Bouteflika out. Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah belatedly backed a constitutional process to replace Bouteflika with an interim government until elections can be held (within 90 days).

  • That government is led by members of the old guard who will want to protect the system the protesters set out to topple. The military has powerful interests to protect as well, and may see a power vacuum it can take advantage of.

Meanwhile, the protest movement lacks clear leadership and risks being divided by the coming struggle. For now, the opposition remains determined:

“If we use the same mechanisms of power and the same faces, we’ll get the same results — the same system we’ve been fighting against for weeks. Bouteflika is an important face but he isn’t the whole system — we don’t want to create another Bouteflika. We don’t want a monarchy or a military dictatorship, and the Algerian people will continue to be in the streets to show this.”
— Habib Brahmia of the pro-democracy Jil Jadid party, to The Guardian.

A political obituary:

  • The beginning: "In 1963, shortly after Algerians won their independence from France, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a charismatic veteran of that war, was named the new nation’s first foreign minister," Washington Post.
  • The middle: "Bouteflika spent nearly 60 years in the public eye, developing a complicated legacy that saw him alternately lauded as a progressive anti-colonialist, exiled for corruption, welcomed home as a peacemaker...."
  • The end: "The images on Algerian television were telling: A feeble-looking Mr. Bouteflika handing his resignation letter to the elderly president of the country’s constitutional council," NY Times.
Bonus: The view from the streets

"I marched with protesters with the eyes of a political analyst but with the heart of my identity: an Algerian citizen," writes Carnegie's Dalia Ghanem of taking part in demonstrations last month in Algiers.

Photo: Dalia Ghanem/Carnegie Endowment

Ghanem writes that the protests — dubbed the “revolution of happiness" — were so peaceful that shops stayed open and parents brought along small children.

Photo: Dalia Ghanem/Carnegie Endowment

“This is the sixth Friday without one drop of blood. Algerians showed what they are capable of,” one shop owner told Ghanem.

4. Middle East: Vote on Yemen, warning on Syria

"So ... about that vote." Trump and Suadi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last March. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

1. "Rejecting a plank of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the House on Thursday invoked never-before-used powers to demand that his administration withdraw support from the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The Senate passed the same resolution in March with bipartisan support," per AP.

  • "Trump is expected to issue a veto of the measure, his second as president, and Congress does not have the votes to override him. But the action was nonetheless a milestone for lawmakers, who have shown a renewed willingness to assert their war-making powers after letting them atrophy for decades under presidents from both parties."

2. The State Department says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, of "potentially devastating consequences" if Turkey takes unilateral military action against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

  • Turkey challenged the U.S. characterization of the meeting. At yesterday's conference, Cavusoglu said the U.S. has “no clear strategy" in Syria, "and that is the problem."

Worth noting: Turkey's ruling party is challenging the results of Sunday's mayoral race in Istanbul, in which the opposition appeared to pull off a shock victory. A recount is ongoing.

5. What I'm reading: Dispatch from Xinjiang

China's Xinjiang region has become a prison, and not just for the up to 1 million Uighur Muslims held in re-education camps.

In this NY Times investigative interactive, Chris Buckley, Paul Mozur and Austin Ramzy capture frightening vignettes of life in the town of Kashgar. Police were ever-present in their reporting and in the lives of the town's residents.

Some snippets:

  • "Chinese companies are selling this surveillance technology. They make it sound like a sci-fi miracle allowing the police to track people with laser precision. But spend time in Xinjiang and you see that the surveillance state acts more like a sledgehammer — sweeping, indiscriminate; as much about intimidation as monitoring."
  • "Neighborhood monitors are assigned to watch over groups of families. ... An army of millions of police and official monitors can question Uighurs and search their homes. They grade Uighurs for reliability. A low grade brings more visits, maybe detention."
  • "Sometimes their choices made no sense. One erased this picture of a camel, though I was able to restore it. 'In China, there are no whys,' he said.

Dive in.

6. Data du jour: Longest-lasting alliances

70 years is a heck of a long time for an alliance to last, as our friends at GZERO Media point out.

Expand chart
Reproduced from GZERO Media chart via Brookings; Chart: Axios Visuals

My thought bubble: This is just another reminder that this era of relative stability (at least in the West) is the exception and not the rule. For a look at a time the European powers had less-friendly relations, I'd recommend the excellent Age of Napoleon podcast.

7. Stories we're watching

A scene from a festival celebrating Italian food and wine in Catania. Truly a cause worthy of celebration. Photo: Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images

  1. Canada scandal: Trudeau expels 2 former ministers from party
  2. May seeks another Brexit extension as Parliament rejects every alternative
  3. China's manufacturing rises as U.S., Japan and Europe fall
  4. Former Brazilian president indicted in alleged $400m bribery scheme
  5. U.S. condemns Brunei's death by stoning law for gay sex, adultery
  6. Expert Voices: Cholera adds to post-cyclone challenges in Mozambique
  7. Expert Voices: Cutting aid to the Northern Triangle could drive up migration


"The crew performed all the procedures repeatedly provided by the manufacturer but was not able to control the aircraft."
— Ethiopia's transport minister on the findings of an investigation into last month's fatal crash

Have a lovely weekend — see you back here on Monday evening.