Aug 22, 2019

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. This is our lucky 134th edition and the penultimate before I head off on vacation. We've got a lean but robust 1,570 words this evening (6 minutes).

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1 big thing: All the baggage arriving in Biarritz

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Little sunshine is expected when the leaders of most of the world's major economic powers gather this weekend in the French seaside town of Biarritz.

The big picture: With President Trump reprising his role as disrupter-in-chief and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson arriving aboard a runaway Brexit train, there's little the leaders of the G7 countries agree on. So little, in fact, that the host has already warned that there won't be a joint statement.

French President Emmanuel Macron said it would be "pointless" given the differences between Trump and the other participants on climate change and other issues. Besides, "no one reads the communiqués, let's be honest," he quipped.

  • Macron is less dismissive of the nationalist surge around the world and within the exclusive G7 club. He warned this week of conjoined crises of democracy and capitalism, and said the deepening U.S.-China rivalry could make “vassals” of the rest of the world.
  • A central player in Europe and on the world stage, Macron cuts a less formidable figure at home, where his approval rating sits at 27%. 
  • Other participants have deeper worries still.

The guest list...

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in France early, as part of his "do or die" mission to pull the U.K. out of the EU by Oct. 31.

  • With Johnson insisting on major changes to the divorce deal his predecessor negotiated, and Macron and other EU leaders holding firm, the course seems to be set for a dramatic "no deal" split.
  • That could lead to a constitutional crisis, or the premature end of Johnson's premiership. For now, he claims to want a new deal ahead of the deadline — but Macron was unwilling to offer a lifeline.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is no stranger to international summits, but she enters this one as something of a lame duck and with an economy that's sputtering ominously. She's said she'll step aside by 2021.

  • Constanze Stelzenmüller of Brookings tells me that despite Germany's uncertain political future, talk of Merkel as a diminished figure is premature.
  • "You can see it in Boris Johnson's efforts to develop a good relationship with her," she says. "It's still the case that Germany is seen as a major player in Europe and that Merkel is seen as someone whom you need to have on your side."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may beat Merkel out the door.

Shinzo Abe is poised to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister this fall and was buoyed by election results last month.

  • But Japan's feud is escalating with South Korea, which announced today that it will sever an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo despite U.S. efforts to mediate between its key East Asian allies.

For Italy's Giuseppe Conte, this is more goodbye than hello (though the versatility of "ciao" may mask the difference). 

  • He resigned Tuesday amid a breakdown in Italy's populist ruling coalition.

As for Trump, attacking Denmark over a "nasty" message that Greenland isn't for sale, and suggesting Russia be invited back into the G7, may just be a prelude to the weekend's festivities.

  • Trump left last year's summit early with a parting shot at its host, the "dishonest and weak" Trudeau.

The bottom line: From Macron's perspective at least, as the FT's Ed Luce writes, anything short of disaster in Biarritz might count as a victory.

2. Tracing turnover at the top
Expand chart
Data: Gleditsc and Chiozza, 2016, "Archigos — A Data Set on Leaders 1875–2015", Axios research; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

President Sergio Mattarella has given Italy's political parties 5 days to cobble together a majority government and stave off a snap election.

Driving the news: Conte resigned Tuesday, declaring that tensions between the 2 populist parties that comprise the governing coalition — the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League — had become untenable.

  • Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, sparked the crisis with a demand for fresh elections that stand to benefit his surging party.
  • But he may have miscalculated. Five Star and the center-left Democratic Party are flirting with a coalition that would exclude the League. But it won't be easy for them to team up.
  • As for Conte, he has lasted 14 months as prime minister. By Italian standards, that ain't bad.

View the interactive chart

Bonus: Photo du jour

Does she, er, look nervous? About the whole No Deal thing? Photo: Omer Messinger/Getty Image

3. South America: Up close with the populists

São Paulo, Brazil, has been affected by smoke from the fires. Photo: Andre Lucas/picture alliance via Getty Images

1. Large swathes of the Brazilian Amazon are burning, deepening worries about the effect President Jair Bolsonaro's policies are having on the rainforest nicknamed "the lungs of the world."

  • Bolsonaro's response is to shoot the messengers. He fired the director of a research agency that showed deforestation was 88% higher this June vs. the year prior. Now, he's claiming without evidence (or logic) that environmental groups set the fires to make him look bad.
  • The big picture: Brazil got what it voted for. Bolsonaro promised to open up the Amazon for economic activity, and adversarial politics are his calling card.

2. What is Argentina getting if it elects Alberto Fernández to replace President Mauricio Macri in October?

  • Much of the focus has been on Fernández's running mate, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a fiery populist who defaulted on Argentina's debt and faces corruption charges.
  • Fernández represents a more pragmatic wing of Argentina's Peronist movement. Formerly Kirchner's chief of staff, he was more recently one of her chief critics. Their reconciliation required an intervention from Pope Francis, the FT reports.

What to watch: "Given the gargantuan problems with the country’s economy, the question is whether he will be able to remain a centrist," Argentine political analyst Marcelo García writes in the NYT.

  • “He’s been like a chameleon,” Arturo Porzecanski of American University told the WSJ. “All Peronists are hard to forecast, and he’s particularly hard to forecast.”

3. Meanwhile, aides to one of the world's most unpopular populists, Nicolás Maduro, have been holding talks with the U.S. intended "to push Venezuela’s authoritarian president from power and clear the way for free elections in the economically devastated country," the WSJ reports.

4. Asia: 4 million without a country

Checking documents this month in Assam. Photo: Anuwar Ali Hazarika/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In just a few days, some 4 million people in India could find themselves without a country, writes Alex Kliment of GZERO Media.

Why it matters: This could quickly become the largest crisis of stateless people on the planet.

  • This is happening in Assam, a hilly, landlocked state at the eastern edge of India along the Bangladeshi border.

Back in the early 1970s, during Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan, millions of Bengali Muslims fled across the border into Assam. Nearly half a century later, Assam has the largest Muslim minority of any Indian state except Kashmir.

In the mid-1980s, India's government determined that any refugee who crossed the border into Assam after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 should be a citizen of Bangladesh, not of India.

  • Since then, successive Indian governments have tried to determine which Assam residents have paperwork that proves they lived in India before that date.
  • But for many people, finding the right documents — and reading them, in a state where a quarter of the population is illiterate — is challenging, if not impossible.

Last year, the Assam state government finally published a draft National Registry of Citizens that lists everyone who is a legal resident in Assam.

  • 4 million people, mostly Muslims who have been living in India for decades, were not on the list.
  • Those people have until Aug. 31 to prove a pre-1971 claim to residence or they will be deemed illegal.

What to watch: The Assam crackdown looks like the prelude to a broader bid by the national government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to discriminate against India's Muslims.

Go deeper

5. Data du jour: Where the world travels

Biarritz, France, ahead of the G7. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

The world's most visited countries (UN data):

  • 1998: France, Spain, U.S., Italy, China, U.K., Canada, Mexico, Russia, Poland
  • 2008: France, U.S., Spain, China, Italy, U.K., Ukraine, Turkey, Mexico, Germany
  • 2018: France, Spain, U.S., China, Italy, Turkey, Mexico, Germany, Thailand, U.K.

The big picture: Global travel habits have been remarkably consistent.

  • France holds down the top spot 3 decades running, with the U.S., Spain, China and Italy filling out the top 5 in various orders.
  • Dropping: The U.K. slid 6th➔10th. Canada, Russia, Poland and Ukraine once held top 10 spots, but no longer.
  • Gaining: Turkey climbed from outside the top 10➔8th➔6th. Germany and Mexico also moved up. And if it feels like everyone's going to Thailand all of a sudden, well, they are.
6. Flashback: A $100 million bid for Greenland

I see you up there, Greenland. Photo: Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The year was 1940. The Germans had invaded Denmark. The U.S. wasn't yet in the war, but worried a Danish territory closer to home was now vulnerable.

  • Coast Guard cutters were dispatched to Greenland. An agreement reached with Denmark in 1941 officially put the island under U.S. protection.
  • Airfields were built, along with weather stations (meteorology was central to Greenland's strategic value at the time).

After the war, the Truman administration was ready to buy. Secretary of State James Byrnes offered Denmark $100 million ($1.3b today). A Time Magazine article from 1947 explains the rationale:

  • "Greenland's 800,000 square miles make it the world's largest island and stationary aircraft carrier."
  • "It would be as valuable as Alaska during the next few years, before bombers with a 10,000-mile range are in general use."
  • "It would be invaluable, in either conventional or push-button war, as an advance radar outpost. It would be a forward position for future rocket-launching sites."
  • "In peace or war it is the weather factory for northwest Europe, whose storms must be recorded as near the source as possible."

"There was always the objection that Denmark's national pride would stand in the way of a sale. But U.S. military men thought they had an answer: Denmark owes U.S. investors $70 million. That is less than the cost of an 850-ft. carrier for the Navy, but more dollar exchange than Copenhagen can easily raise."

Thwarted again!

7. Stories we're watching

Camel rides in Dunhuang, China. Photo: Yang Yanmin/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

  1. U.S. tests previously banned missile
  2. Trump: Russia should rejoin the G7
  3. ISIS presence grows in Afghanistan as U.S. mulls withdrawal
  4. 2 U.S. service members die in Afghanistan
  5. Saudi Aramco wants to revive record IPO
  6. Autocrats rely on social media for propaganda
  7. Web browsers unite against Kazakhstani surveillance


"Kashmir is a complicated place. You have the Hindus and you have the Muslims, and I wouldn't say they get along so great."
— President Trump