Sep 14, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Tonight's edition (1,598 words, 6 minutes) is coming to you from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I'm heading back to the beach and leaving Zach in charge of Thursday's edition.
  • Please tell your friends and colleagues to join us, and sign up here if you haven't yet.

Situational awareness: Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition figure recovering in Berlin after being attacked with a nerve agent, is awake and alert and plans to return to Russia once he has recovered, the NYT reports.

1 big thing: America's uncertain global role

In 50 days, America will either double down on the disruptive force of America First or elect a man vowing to put the international order back together again.

Why it matters: America still has the world's biggest economy, most powerful military and deepest network of alliances. But it is profoundly unclear what it intends to do with them.

Data: Eurasia Group Foundation; Note: "Don't know" answers were not included; Chart: Axios Visuals

Breaking it down: New polling from the Eurasia Group Foundation indicates that Americans broadly want their leaders to strike (or restore) international agreements while avoiding military conflict under nearly all circumstances.

  • In an election season shaped by crises at home, voters tend to want their president to prioritize challenges within America’s borders while limiting their ambitions and expenditures beyond them.

By the numbers: Based on responses to a series of foreign policy questions, the report finds that 38.6% of Americans — the largest group — believe the U.S. should increase its diplomatic efforts abroad while decreasing its global military presence.

  • Just 10.3% take the opposite view, favoring military strength over diplomacy.
  • Meanwhile, 30.6% are “traditional internationalists,” committed to both military primacy and multilateral diplomacy (until recently, those views formed a strong consensus in Washington).
  • The remaining 20.5% are “genuine isolationists” who believe the U.S. should shed its international obligations and go its own way.
  • The results are strikingly similar for both parties (though the bipartisanship evaporates on more specific issues, like the Iran deal).

On one side: Trump's foreign policy has been fairly scattershot, and therefore difficult to categorize.

  • Disengaging militarily from the Middle East and negotiating with North Korea's Kim Jong-un are fairly popular.
  • But antagonizing allies, discarding international agreements and increasing defense spending are not.

The other side: Biden, meanwhile, has waxed and waned on military intervention over a long career, but he seems to fit the "traditional internationalist" mold.

  • Despite pressure from the left, Biden has been making clear that he won't pull up stakes from Afghanistan, slash the Pentagon budget or suspend drone strikes, Axios' Hans Nichols and Margaret Talev report.
  • “I cannot see him cowering because some progressives on the left have this misimpression on what these counterterrorism strikes entail,” former CIA director John Brennan told Axios.
  • “Biden is on the conservative side of where the party is,” said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders. “But his advisers are very engaged in the conversation and are very aware of where the Democratic base is moving.”

The big picture: Bill Burns, a veteran diplomat who served most recently as deputy secretary of state (2011–2014), contends that the U.S. needs to carve out a new role for itself — neither isolationist nor swaggering superpower.

  • At an Axios event on Friday, Burns emphasized the importance of engaging with allies to confront shared challenges like climate change or the rise of China.
  • At the same time, he said, the U.S. must ensure the policies it pursues abroad — on trade or global health, say — also benefit Americans.

The bottom line: "Recognizing and deepening that connection between foreign policy and domestic renewal, I think, is going to be the single deepest challenge for several administrations to come," Burns said.

2. Leaders on the move

Lukashenko (L) is learning his lesson. Photo: Kremlin Press Office via Getty

1. Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko paid a visit to Sochi today and left with promises from Vladimir Putin of a $1.5 billion loan and deeper military cooperation — in addition to the existing assurance that an auxiliary Russian police force is prepared to cross the border if necessary.

  • Gone is the strongman who emphasized his independence from Putin before last month's sham election. “A friend in need is a friend indeed," Lukashenko told Putin today.
  • Between the lines: Putin has an opportunity to showcase Minsk's reliance on Moscow, but he may be wary of any intervention that mobilizes anti-Lukashenko sentiment against Russia as well.
  • Driving the news: Mass protests resumed across Belarus on Sunday for the fifth week, with around 800 people arrested.

2. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington ahead of a White House ceremony tomorrow in which he will sign normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain.

  • The agreement with Bahrain came together in just 29 days, Axios' Barak Ravid reports.
  • But the mood is less triumphant at home. Shortly before departing, Netanyahu made Israel the first developed country to return to a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. It will begin Friday and last at least three weeks.

3. Yoshihide Suga has been elevated from Shinzo Abe's chief Cabinet secretary to his successor as leader of Japan's ruling party. A parliamentary vote on Wednesday is expected to make him prime minister.

  • Suga, 71, can promise continuity from Abe but not much in the way of charismatic leadership. There is already speculation that he could be replaced before a general election next year.
Bonus: Photo of the day
Standing together, in Minsk. Photo with permission via Yauhen Yurchak/European Pressphoto Agency

Women have been on the front lines of the challenge to Lukashenko.

Go deeper

3. Global news roundup

Diplomacy in Doha, with Afghan reconciliation chief Abdullah Abdullah in the middle. Photo: Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

1. Talks began in Qatar over the weekend between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban.

  • They're aiming for a ceasefire and a political agreement on the future governance of Afghanistan. But the sides disagree on how those things will happen, and in which order.
  • Any comprehensive agreement, if achievable, is likely months if not years away. The talks follow a preliminary deal struck in February by the U.S. and the Taliban.
  • Worth noting: The vast majority of Americans — including 60% of Biden supporters — approve of that deal, per the Eurasia poll.

2. Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono claims President Emmerson Mnangagwa personally ordered him jailed because he reported on alleged corruption by the president's son, per the FT.

  • Chin’ono said he was singled out for harsh treatment in jail and only freed on bail after six weeks due to an international outcry.
  • The big picture: It's increasingly clear that the 2017 coup in Zimbabwe saw one brutal dictator, Robert Mugabe, swapped out for another in Mnangagwa. Zimbabwe's economic crisis is also deepening, and protests have been violently suppressed.

3. More than 5o gold miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were buried when a mine collapsed on Friday amid heavy rains.

  • Artisanal mining is largely unregulated, and dozens of people die in such incidents every year, per Reuters.

4. At least 14 people were killed and upward of 72 shot in clashes in Colombia sparked by the death of a man arrested for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions.

4. The terms of engagement with Vladimir Putin

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios 

Bill Burns, a former ambassador to Russia (2005–2008), told Axios that should Biden win in November, the new administration will likely have to raise two topics immediately with the Kremlin: election interference and nuclear weapons.

Why it matters: Those two issues show the difficulty of conducting business with Putin, and the necessity of doing so.

  • “The reality that you have to understand at the start is that we’re going to be operating within a pretty narrow band of possibilities in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia — from the sharply competitive to the pretty nastily adversarial," Burns said.
  • "A lot is going to depend ... on to what extent Russia continues to interfere in our electoral process because that’s going to shape a lot of that conversation about what’s possible in the relationship."

The flipside: While Burns says the U.S. must be clear about what "we will not tolerate," it may also be faced with the imminent expiration of New START, the last bilateral treaty constraining the American and Russian nuclear programs.

  • “Even in the nastiest relationships — I have no allusions about how nasty the relationship with Putin’s Russia can become — it is important to try to preserve those kinds of guardrails not as a favor to Russia or anyone else but in our own cold-blooded self-interest.”

Watch the event.

5. Asia's future won't be Chinese or American

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Debates in the U.S. on the future of geopolitics in Asia are often confined to three outcomes: American or Chinese domination or a Cold War-style checkerboard in which loyalties are divided between the two.

In our event on Friday, Carnegie's Evan Feigenbaum told Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian he thinks it will actually be none of the above.

The big picture: Since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, Feigenbaum says, Asia countries in need of assistance have been looking not just to the U.S. or China, but to one another.

  • "You have a lot of countries in the region not called China or the United States that are sizable, they are capable, they are highly self-interested and they have a will and a capacity to action."

Zoom in: Feigenbaum points to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which includes neither China (which was intentionally excluded) nor the U.S. (which negotiated the deal under Barack Obama but withdrew under Donald Trump).

  • The 11-country pact ultimately came together due to leadership from Japan and Australia, Feigenbaum says.
  • India is another notable nonsignatory, largely due to its protectionist trade policies.

What to watch: Feigenbaum envisions a future defined by "fragmentation."

  • "You end up with a patchwork of rules and a discombobulated sets of norms, and countries tacking back and forth ... between China and the United States on different functional issues."

Further reading: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote a fascinating essay on this topic in Foreign Affairs earlier this year.

6. What I'm reading: "The Death of Comrade President"

Honoring slain president Marien Ngouabi at a parade in Brazzaville, August 1977. Photo: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty

On March 19, 1977, the Military Committee of the Party announced that Comrade President Marien Ngouabi had been assassinated.

  • At that very same moment, 13-year-old Michel's dog ran away.

Alain Mabanckou's novel "The Death of Comrade President" — recently released in translation on the U.S. — is set in a world I genuinely knew nothing about: the Marxist-Leninist military dictatorship of 1970s Republic of Congo.

  • The youthful narrator, Michel, toggles his radio between Voice of America, which is reporting gunfire in the capital, and Voice of the Congolese Revolution, which airs nothing but Soviet music in the confused hours before the news is announced.
  • Over three days in the wake of the assassination, Michel and his city of Pointe-Noire navigate the conjoined perils of tribal animus, political instability and violent repression. Cold War competition and French colonial legacy hum along in the background.
  • Book-smart but naive, Michel's observations bring his time and place to life in ways that are often hilarious, and occasionally profound.
7. Stories we're watching

Researchers catch bats in a Thai cave to study the origins of COVID-19, as Buddha statues look on.

  1. International college enrollments plunge; Trump planning new restriction
  2. Labs confirm Navalny poisoned with Novichok
  3. "Smart voting" in Russia's parliamentary election
  4. Dozens arrested during lockdown protests in Melbourne
  5. Questions for Disney over "Mulan" fiasco
  6. U.S. ambassador to China stepping down
  7. 5 former U.K. prime ministers oppose Johnson's treaty-breaking Brexit plan


"Passing an act of Parliament and then going on to break an international treaty obligation is the very, very last thing you should contemplate."
— David Cameron in a rare rebuke of Boris Johnson, on Brexit. Go deeper
Dave Lawler