Feb 11, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back, World readers.

  • We're doing things a bit differently tonight, exploring the state of America's alliances in a special report. It's 1,540 words (6 minutes).
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1 big thing: Brexit brings "special relationship" down to size

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Polls suggest Americans consider the U.K. to be their country's closest ally, a distinction prized by a succession of British leaders and supported by decades of shared history and close cooperation.

Why it matters: President Trump has reveled in Brexit Britain’s rejection of multilateralism, in general, and the EU, in particular. But the U.K.'s voice will now count for less in Brussels and Berlin, and likely in Washington as a result.

Driving the news: The post-Brexit era is off to an inauspicious start for the "special relationship." Shortly after Brexit was sealed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed that China’s Huawei would be allowed a role in building out the U.K.’s 5G networks — over vehement objections from Washington.

  • Trump berated Johnson on a call after that announcement, according to the FT.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made abundantly clear that to choose Huawei was to reject America and put intelligence sharing — a crucial aspect of the relationship — at risk.
  • Pompeo was more measured in a recent appearance with his U.K. counterpart, but he described Huawei as an extension of “the central threat of our time" — the Chinese Communist Party.
  • The U.K. is far less anxious to pick fights with China. Officials also insist Huawei's role will be limited and that there was no clear alternative.

Peter Westmacott, a former U.K. ambassador to Washington, recalls similar incidents from the Reagan-Thatcher period and his own time in Washington.

  • He says those rare rifts — over the U.K.’s 2015 decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example — generated emotion and headlines, but faded without lasting damage to the relationship.
  • Those disputes played out in private, or else in terse statements. Trump publicly questioned Theresa May's handling of Brexit and backed Johnson to take her job.
  • Three years in, Westmacott says, "it’s almost like, 'a little row with Trump — what’s new?'"

There could be more squabbles to come over the U.K.'s planned digital services tax — the Trump administration has promised swift repercussions — and negotiations over a much-heralded U.S.-U.K. trade deal.

  • Johnson says he'll negotiate that "massive" deal in parallel with a much bigger one, with the EU.
  • The difficulties of doing so are increasingly clear, not least because giving Trump the concessions he's sure to demand — on food standards, for example — will mean adding barriers with the EU, to which 45% of Britain's exports flow.
  • "The heart may say America," emails Peter Foster, the Telegraph's Europe editor. "The head, when the numbers are crunched, says the opposite.

That could well be the case beyond trade. On many of the most pressing issues of the day — climate and Iran, not to mention Huawei — the U.K. is much closer to France or Germany than to America.

The bottom line: After Brexit, the U.K. will clearly no longer serve as Washington's unofficial envoy within the EU. It will have to pick sides as key decisions arise, and avoid getting squeezed between them.

2. India: The Britain of the 21st century?

Howdy Modi, and Trump. Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Some in Washington envision a new special relationship, with India.

Why it matters: “India could be to America in Asia during the 21st century what the U.K. was in Europe during the 20th — the most reliable partner in great power competition,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington now at the Hudson Institute.

  • India’s location, size and economic growth make it the obvious counterweight to China in the eyes of American policymakers.
  • The relationship is deepening, particularly in the military dimension.
  • India has also recently shown “a greater willingness to call out aggressive Chinese behavior,” says Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment. It spurned Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and is attempting to counter Chinese influence in South Asia.
  • There have been tensions with the White House over trade, but a modest deal on that front is expected when President Trump visits India in two weeks.

Trump’s visit will be closely watched primarily for his rhetoric on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s domestic policies, including a controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslims.

  • Protests have swept the country amid fears that Modi’s muscular Hindu nationalism is trampling India’s status as a secular democracy.
  • After the recent crackdown in Kashmir, Trump appeared alongside Modi in Houston and praised him for protecting India’s borders.
  • “I’m expecting that this is essentially going to provide a similar kind of air cover for Modi,” Vaishnav says. “And I think the White House has no issue providing that.”

Between the lines: That’s not only because Trump has a track record of embracing strongmen and rejecting concerns on human rights.

  • “The fundamental premise of this relationship is that there is an aggressive China emerging in the Asia Pacific that seeks to be a global power, and India is America’s best bet at balancing against that threat. That’s roughly the same realpolitik calculation a Democratic administration would make,” Vaishnav says.
  • Thus, Washington will seek to deepen the relationship even if there’s less focus on shared values and more on shared interests.

What to watch: The current realities stand in stark contrast to the grand vision.

  • China’s economy is five times larger than India’s. Even the deepening military relationship is a “long way from the robust partnership the U.S. envisions,” Vaishnav says.
  • “India does not see its relationship with the United States through the China prism,” he adds. “In fact, they somewhat resent being talked about as a pawn in this great game between an established superpower and an emerging one.”
3. Data du jour: How America's allies view America
Expand chart
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Global opinions of the United States vary widely depending on who is in the Oval Office, even among close friends.

  • In Europe and North America, America's favorability has fallen sharply under Trump.
  • In Turkey, it's been strikingly low for decades.
  • In Israel, though, it has reached new heights.
4. Israel: The Trump and Bibi show

Trump visits Israel. Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

After Benjamin Netanyahu's eight years of tense relations with Barack Obama, Trump’s election was a dream come true for the Israeli prime minister, Axios contributor Barak Ravid notes.

The big picture: Coordination could hardly have been closer over the past three years. Trump withdrew from the Obama-era Iran deal, which Netanyahu loathed, and has ticked a number of items off of the prime minister's wish list. Most were welcomed across Israel’s political spectrum.

  • They include recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and policing alleged anti-Israel bias at international institutions like the UN.
  • The White House also engaged in deep consultations with Netanyahu over Trump's Middle East peace plan and incorporated many of his positions — including the possibility of annexing 30% of the West Bank.

But, but, but: As corruption indictments and deadlocked elections weakened Netanyahu domestically, Trump insisted his relationship was with Israel, not just Netanyahu.

  • The White House also began to engage with Netanyahu's rival, Benny Gantz, who is leading the polls ahead of a March 2 election.

What to watch: The White House is clearly thinking about life after Netanyahu, Trump's closest international partner.

  • If Netanyahu does survive until November, he'll fear a Democratic victory could mean his dream is over.
5. Saudi Arabia: Watch out for the Democrats

Remember this? Man was that bizarre. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council/Getty

No U.S. partner will fear a change in administrations more than Saudi Arabia.

Flashback: Trump’s first overseas trip was to Riyadh. Since then, his administration has worked to shield Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from bipartisan outrage, most notably over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The leading Democrats were all asked what they would do about the Saudi relationship in a Council on Foreign Relations survey. All condemned Khashoggi’s murder, but their answers for what should change going forward varied widely.

  • Bernie Sanders went furthest. He said the U.S. could not rely on “corrupt authoritarian regimes to deliver us security,” adding that the relationship was based on cheap oil, arms sales and a blind eye toward human rights and extremism.
  • Pete Buttigieg called for a suspension of arms sales due to the war in Yemen and called for a reset in relations, though he said intelligence sharing must continue.
  • Elizabeth Warren said the U.S. and Saudi Arabia share “common objectives,” but the relationship must be dialed back unless Saudi behavior changes.
  • Joe Biden accused Trump of writing Saudi Arabia “a dangerous blank check” and said consequences must be imposed for “reckless” actions, though cooperation is needed against Iran.
  • Michael Bloomberg also used the phrase “blank check,” but he began by calling the relationship “critical” for energy markets and regional stability. His was probably the most dovish response.
6. World news roundup

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

1. The U.S. Justice Department today indicted four members of the Chinese military over the Equifax hack that exposed the private data of 145 million Americans.

  • China has added detailed profiles of 145 million Americans to other data it's widely assumed to have acquired in the OMB, Marriott and Anthem Health breaches.
  • Go deeper

2. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is resigning as leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats, and by extension as Angela Merkel’s heir apparent.

  • AKK, as she is known, made a series of blunders and most recently failed to block a state-level pact between her party and the far-right. Merkel was forced to step in. Now it’s unclear who might run in her place next year.
  • Go deeper

3. Xi Jinping donned a mask and made rare public appearances around Beijing today, urging “confidence” in China’s ability to win the “people’s war” against the coronavirus.

  • Xi spoke by videoconference to medical workers in Wuhan, while Premier Li Keqiang was dispatched there. 974 of the 1,013 confirmed deaths from the virus have occurred in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, per CNN.
7. Stories we're watching

Moonrise at the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey. Photo: Gokhan Balci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

  1. Sinn Féin tops Irish elections
  2. Podcast: Putin's YouTube problem
  3. The evolution of Trump's Muslim ban
  4. The coronavirus threat to China's grand plans
  5. Trump fires Vindman, Sondland
  6. U.S. confirms it killed al-Qaeda leader
  7. 109 U.S. troops diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries after Iran strike


"I didn't want to do the whole world at one time."
— Trump today, signaling that his next trade war could be with the EU