Sep 24, 2018

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.

Thanks for joining me, and thanks to my brilliant colleague Shane for filling in admirably over the last two weeks. It's good to be back! Please tell your friends and colleagues to sign up here, and I'd love your tips and feedback:

1 big thing: The White House roadmap for intervening in Venezuela

Venezuelan troops attend an event last year. Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

The White House National Security Council drafted a step-by-step “program of escalation” for Venezuela after President Trump took office, including the grounds for military intervention, a former senior official said today.

Why it matters: Fernando Cutz, who served as a close adviser to former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and the top National Security Council official on South America, offered a rare insider account of how the administration has prepared to respond to the massive political and humanitarian crisis. He said at a Wilson Center event in Washington that specific responses were drawn up to anticipated events on the ground.

  • Cutz cited a Venezuelan takeover of the U.S. Embassy or the massacring of 1,000 Venezuelan civilians by the government as events that could trigger U.S. military action.
  • He said other steps the White House “had ready” included a full oil embargo, which would severely restrict Venezuela's cashflow but presented the question: “If we destroy Venezuela, and we make the situation worse for the people of Venezuela, what comes next?” They didn't have a satisfactory answer.

The backdrop: The New York Times reported earlier this month that the White House held a series of meetings over the last year with “rebellious military officers from Venezuela” who were hoping to depose President Nicolas Maduro. Trump himself said a year ago that there was a “military option” in Venezuela. Such rumblings provoke anxiety in a region with well-grounded suspicions of U.S. intervention.

  • Cutz was asked about the meetings and said the White House “never debated supporting a coup” or offered support or tacit approval to coup plotters, but was “open to listening” to “any significant players.” He also said he had “no idea” why Trump had mentioned military action, adding that it “wasn’t in the script.”

However, Cutz, who also served in the Obama administration and left the White House in April, made the case that a multilateral military intervention could ultimately be the right move.

His argument ...

  • The economic disaster is deepening, and the refugee crisis is approaching Syria’s scale. “Can Colombia sustain 3 million refugees? 5 million? Those are realistic numbers. So what do we do? [Close the borders and] let Venezuelans die in the streets of Caracas?”
  • Maduro is not going to leave on his own accord, and the crisis won't end as long as he's in power. That leaves a coup, uprising from the people or a foreign military intervention, and "the least bloody of those is probably going to be a foreign military intervention.”
  • His bottom line: “We made policy decisions in Rwanda and Syria, essentially to do nothing” and those failures became the biggest regrets for presidents Clinton and Obama. Not intervening in Venezuela would be a policy choice.

Where things stand: I asked Cutz whether the White House had discussed the possibility of an intervention with countries or international organizations that could be called upon to support it. He said he doesn't believe it has been discussed through diplomatic channels, but “the president would certainly muse on things” with other world leaders.

Bonus: Trump's high-level improv act

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

President Trump is in New York, where he'll hold a series of meetings with world leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Don't expect him to do much prep beforehand.

Here's Cutz on briefing presidents Obama and Trump before calls and meetings with leaders from Latin America:

  • Obama would read thorough pre-briefs, highlighting key passages and scribbling notes in the margins. “If it was a 4-page briefing, we’d start at page 5 because you knew he’d read and digested everything in there," Cutz said.
  • With Trump, “we were given about 2 minutes to brief him before a visit. Sometimes that gets cut by a bit.”

Does that result in him saying things his team would rather he didn't? “All the time.” Cutz described Trump as "the most transparent president in history," though, because he says the same exact things in the room with leaders as he says in public.

2. New: Palestinians to hold anti-Trump meeting in New York

Abbas at the UN in February. Photo: Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will hold a meeting in New York on Wednesday with senior officials representing 40 countries and international organizations to discuss ways to block or influence the upcoming U.S. Middle East peace plan, Israeli officials and Western diplomats tell Axios contributor Barak Ravid.

Why it matters: This is Abbas' most proactive diplomatic step since Trump's Jerusalem embassy announcement, which led him to cut ties with the White House. Abbas is trying to rally the international community against Trump and challenge the White House claims that he's undermining a potential peace process.

  • Abbas invited all the main countries that have a role or an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. All members of the UN Security Council were invited other than the U.S. Israel was also not invited.
  • According to a document Barak obtained, the meeting's goals include discussing steps to defend against the threat posed to the two-state solution by Israeli settlements, and protecting UN agencies and organizations that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like UNRWA.

Israel doesn't like this meeting at all and has ordered diplomats around the world to lobby governments who were invited to the meeting not to attend or to lower their level of representation as much as possible, according to Israeli officials. The Palestinians think most countries will send senior diplomats but not foreign ministers to the meeting.

3. Global: Economic confidence is high, optimism isn't

It has been a decade since the global financial crisis kicked off, and people around the world are understandably far more bullish about the state of the economy than they were in the aftermath of the crash, according to a report from Pew.

  • 78% in Germany say the economy is good now, compared to 28% in 2009. That jump is 17% to 65% in the U.S. and 20% to 42% in Russia.

However, many in advanced countries doubt the good times will last for the next generation.

  • Only around one-third of respondents in Germany, the U.S. and Sweden think their children will be better off economically than they are. That number is just 25% in Canada, 25% the U.K., 15% in France and 15% in Japan.
  • Answers vary widely in emerging economies, but India (66%), Nigeria (65%) and Indonesia (75%) are feeling optimistic.

Go deeper: Read our Deep Dive on the recession and where we stand today.

4. Asia roundup: Xi cuts a deal with the pope

A woman leaves a Catholic church in Wuhan. Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

The Vatican has reached a deal with China, recognizing seven government-appointed bishops in exchange for "the first formal acknowledgment by Beijing of the pope’s authority in Catholic churches in China," as the NYT's Ian Johnson writes.

  • Why it matters: The government is attempting to gain greater control over religion in China, where many Christians worship in "underground" churches not approved by authorities. "Pope Francis’ pursuit of the deal has largely reflected his desire to end divisions between Catholics worshiping at state-approved churches and those in the underground church," per the WSJ.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a new program to provide 100 million poor families with 500,000 rupees (about $6,920) per year for serious health treatments, Axios' Zach Basu writes:

  • Why it matters: India currently spends just 1% of its GDP on health care and has more than 66 million people living in extreme poverty. The new program, dubbed "Modicare," could revolutionize India's health system, but critics say it is a political ploy ahead of next year's elections and that the government does not have the funds to support it.

The president of the Maldives has conceded defeat — a shocking election result in a country that had been sliding toward authoritarianism.

5. Europe roundup: Nobody likes Macron

Macron arrives for a meeting in Brussels. Photo: Aris Oikonomou/AFP/Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron is a big draw on the world stage. He has managed to forge close ties with President Trump (they're meeting this evening) while simultaneously representing a charismatic alternative to Trump's U.S. vs. them vision of the world.

  • But: Back home, just about nobody seems to like him. A recent poll shows his approval rating at 19%. He is seen as arrogant and is regularly described as "president of the rich."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has conceded it was a mistake to remove the country's intelligence chief over controversial remarks about far-right violence only to reward him with a higher paid job. That appointment has been reversed.

  • The backdrop: Merkel's governing coalition is fragile, and this move stemmed from an attempt to please both right and left. Expect more headaches.

"A series of hardline measures that will see the Italian government abolish key forms of protection for migrants and make it easier for them to be deported has been approved," per The Guardian. It's the latest anti-migrant step from the populist government.

6. Middle East: Putin to give Syria missiles in rebuke to Israel

One week after a Russian plane was accidentally shot down by Syrian missiles launched at Israeli fighter jets, killing 15 Russians, Moscow announced it will supply the Syrian army with sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles, per Axios contributor Barak Ravid.

Why it matters ...

  • Israel has asked the Russians for many years to avoid supplying S-300 missiles to Syria, and will now have to be highly calculated and careful when conducting airstrikes against Iranian or Hezbollah targets in Syria.
  • The Russian announcement threatens to break the coordination mechanism between the two countries in Syria and unravel what was thought to be a close relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Go deeper: Read Barak's full report.

7. Stories we're watching

A scene from Oktoberfest in Munich. Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

  1. The share of the world in extreme poverty is shrinking
  2. Trump's "sovereignty week" at the United Nations
  3. The Trump administration's secret anti-China plans
  4. EU takes Poland to court over judicial crackdown
  5. The slow-motion Brexit train wreck
  6. Without waivers, U.S. sanctions on Iran will cripple Iraq
  7. The global race for 5G.


"There is no such program for a meeting."
— Iranian president Rouhani to NBC News on whether he'd be willing to meet with Trump this week