Axios World

A blue ball of yarn with patches of green yarn; a model of earth.
March 18, 2019

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.

Situational awareness: Today marks five years since the Russian annexation of Crimea. With that in mind, let's start with European security, and Russia.

1 big thing: Russia threat ties U.S. and Europe together

The silhouette of a woman reflected in a puddle as she crosses in front of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. Photo: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said today that an “unthinkable” question now hangs over Europe: What happens if the U.S. leaves us to fend for ourselves?

The big picture: Speaking at the Atlantic Council, Parly indicated that the growing transatlantic divide isn’t just about defense spending, or even a clash of personalities. “Now that the strategic rivalry is moving to Asia, and Europe is no longer its main playground, a question mark has emerged,” she said. With Washington's eyes turning toward China, “will U.S. commitment [to Europe] be perennial?"

Between the lines: Parly conceded that despite the current push on “strategic autonomy,” the state of Europe’s collective military capabilities is “unflattering.”

Europe’s NATO contingent has a combined GDP more than 10 times Russia’s, spends 3.5 times as much on defense, and includes two nuclear powers, the Economist points out. But reliance on the U.S. has left gaps in capability that would, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, take at least 15 years to fill.

  • That’s not even accounting for the political hurdles. Washington’s security guarantee has papered over cracks that Moscow and Beijing would rush to expose. Removing it would “overwhelm the Europeans politically, financially and militarily,” said Michael Rühle, a NATO official.

Parly paraphrased NATO’s first secretary-general, Hastings “Pug” Ismay, who quipped that NATO was designed to “keep the Russians out and the Americans in” (she left out the part about keeping the Germans down).

  • While President Trump has put one-half of that equation in doubt, Vladimir Putin continues to nibble away at the other.
  • Angela Stent, author of the new book “Putin’s World,” says the West has been flummoxed as to how a country with a GDP smaller than Italy’s could play a great power role — how Vladimir Putin could invade Ukraine and deploy a nerve agent in Salisbury, England, and continue to be seen as a man with whom the world can do business.

Putin is adjusting to the new global reality. China shields him from political isolation and offers him an economic lifeline. It’s also a burgeoning superpower with which Russia shares a 2,600-mile border, much of it sparsely populated.

  • “The potential China danger is something that you dare not speak its name,” Stent says. She adds that the Kremlin recognizes, but would never acknowledge, that it's the junior partner in the relationship.
  • But while the U.S. turns its focus elsewhere, Alina Polyakova of Brookings notes, Russia is deploying trolls online and mercenaries in places like the Central African Republic: “We’re not paying attention and ceding ground to a country that is relatively weak but is playing a weak hand well.”

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, speaking at Brookings last week, expressed frustration that NATO allies are speaking in hypotheticals about conflict with Russia at a time when Moscow is occupying Crimea and flexing its cyber and disinformation capabilities:

  • “People say, ‘This is nothing like the real thing.’ It’s the real thing of the 21st century.”
  • She noted that the NATO security guarantee was not merely symbolic in Estonia and that Russia's "hybrid" activities are backed by conventional and nuclear capabilities. "We've seen all this before, and none of it is good."

Parly also referenced Eastern Europe, contending that if the next flare-up was allowed to happen on NATO's turf, rather than in Georgia or Ukraine, it would signal “a drastic reduction in U.S. power" and have global repercussions.

The bottom line: China's rise poses new questions for the U.S., but it can't afford to ignore the old ones.

Go deeper:

2. China: Deafening silence in Asia on mass detentions

Indonesian Muslims protest China's detention of Uighurs
Indonesian Muslims protest China's detention of Uighurs. Photo: Afriadi Hikmal/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is seeking re-election next month in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and, as the FT points out, “presenting himself as defender of the faith is central to his campaign strategy.”

  • But when the newspaper asked him about the imprisonment of up to 1 million Muslims in China’s Xinjiang territory, he repeatedly declined to comment.

Why it matters: “His reticence signals how influential Beijing has become in Asia and how the Chinese Communist party is increasingly able to control global narratives and silence critics far beyond China’s borders."

“The president’s unwillingness to criticise the Chinese government echoes similar reluctance in many countries, from Pakistan to New Zealand.”

  • Somewhat miraculously considering the scale of its human rights abuses, James Leibold of La Trobe University in Melbourne argues, “China is actually winning the propaganda battle over its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.”

The latest: Kazakhstan recently arrested activist Serikzhan Bilash, who has campaigned for the closure of the Xinjiang camps, and charged him with inciting ethnic strife. Ethnic Kazakhs are among those held in the camps.

  • Turkey is the only Muslim-majority country to have condemned the mass detentions.

The U.S. has been more willing to speak out. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said such horrific human rights abuses hadn’t been seen “since the 1930s.”

3. What I'm reading: The authoritarian offensive

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In a tour de force essay, Robert Kagan describes a global showdown between liberalism and authoritarianism that — as the balance of power shifts and new technologies give governments unprecedented power — will become “all that matters.”

The big picture: Writing in the Washington Post, Kagan argues that we’ve been “living with the comforting myth that the great progress we have witnessed in human behavior since the mid-20th century, the reductions in violence, in the brutality of the state, in torture, in mass killing, cannot be reversed.” He says that’s “another illusion born in the era that is now passing,” when liberal democracies dominated the world.

  • In that era, authoritarian leaders feared the ire of the U.S. and its allies because "political and military punishments ... could prove their undoing, and in many cases did."
  • “But the structure of incentives and disincentives is now changing" along with the balance of power, Kagan writes. He cites bald power grabs in Egypt, a U.S. ally, and Hungary, an EU member, as signs of that changing calculus.

The battle Kagan describes has a deep ideological dimension. He says authoritarians like Vladimir Putin are offering "a full-blown indictment of what many regard as the failings of liberal society" that has found “broad appeal,” even in the U.S.

  • He notes that “liberalism is a trade-off" that has “meant the breakdown of white, Christian cultural ascendancy." Kagan compares the admiration of American leftists for international communism in decades past to the "sympathy" many conservatives, "including those in charge of U.S. foreign policy," now feel for authoritarians.

Meanwhile ... Erica Frantz notes in Foreign Policy that many democracies are "gravitating toward authoritarianism" just as more authoritarians are embracing the facade of democracy.

  • "Today’s authoritarian regimes have learned that feigning democratic rule has survival benefits," she says, citing Singapore as an example.
  • Good news, bad news: Frantz writes that "when democracies deteriorate they usually don’t bounce back quickly," but she also notes that authoritarian regimes are more likely to transition to genuine democracy when they have "pseudo-democratic institutions" in place.

Update: New Zealand PM to push for new gun laws

Ardern hugs a woman outside a mosque in Wellington. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she'll unveil new reforms to gun laws within 10 days, and she is encouraging gun owners to turn their firearms over to police in the wake of Friday's terror attacks on two mosques in Christchurch.

4. Latin America: Bolsonaro comes to Washington

Bolsonaro speaks today at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro began his visit to Washington today with an unusual stop: the CIA. He'll visit the White House tomorrow.

Between the lines: The president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, “described the CIA as ‘one of the most respected intelligence agencies in the world,’ in a tweet that was likely to raise eyebrows back home in Brazil, where the U.S. and its spy services have been regarded with suspicion in recent years,” AP notes.

The younger Bolsonaro also raised eyebrows by attending a far-right gathering on Saturday night at the Trump Hotel, hosted by Steve Bannon. According to the FT, Eduardo told attendees the populist right was “at last doing what the communists and the socialists did a long time ago … we’re organizing ourselves internationally.”

The big picture: A senior Trump administration official told reporters today that the visit signals a "historic remaking of the US-Brazil relationship" and noted that Bolsonaro is "unabashedly pro-American."

  • Some of the focus at the White House will be on Venezuela, but Bolsonaro's other stop today — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — shows the visit is a chance to make the case that Brazil is now open for business. Both sides think there’s a lot of room to increase trade and investment.

At home, Bolsonaro is pushing for much-needed pension reform. But the Economist notes that he often uses his massive social media presence to fight culture wars rather than promote policies.

5. Global news roundup

Stranded timber workers in eastern Zimbabwe following the cyclone. Photo: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images
  1. Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi says more than 1,000 people may have been killed by a cyclone that hit the country and neighboring Zimbabwe overnight on Thursday. The official count is currently closer to 150, but it's expected to rise significantly.
  2. A 37-year-old Turkish man has been arrested after a shooting on a tram in the Dutch city of Utrecht left three people dead.
  3. Canada’s top civil servant has resigned as the “SNC-Lavalin affair” continues to pile pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
  4. A Moroccan model who was due to testify in a trial concerning former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” sex parties had high levels of heavy metals cadmium and antimony in her system when she died earlier this month. Police believe she may have been poisoned.

6. North Korea: Shadowy groups and testing nukes

In case you missed it, I wrote about a dramatic break-in at the North Korean Embassy in Spain in Thursday's edition. The story has now grown even wilder, thanks to the Washington Post's John Hudson:

  • "The group behind the late February operation is known as Cheollima Civil Defense, a secretive dissident organization committed to overthrowing the Kim dynasty. ... [T]he raid represents the most ambitious operation to date for an obscure organization that seeks to undermine the North Korean regime and encourage mass defections."
  • "Experts say the computers and phones seized in the raid contain a treasure trove of information that foreign intelligence agencies are likely to seek out from the group."
  • "The assailants also possess a video recording they took during the raid, which they could release anytime, said one person who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive and illegal operation."

Meanwhile, North Korea warned Friday, in a briefing by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, that it was considering walking away from nuclear talks and resuming missile and nuclear testing.

  • South Korea is anxious to keep talks alive. Seoul released a statement saying "we need to reconsider the so-called all or nothing strategy" on denuclearization, but North Korea must "agree with a broad road map aimed to achieve the overarching goal of denuclearization."
  • Between the lines: Trump might be able to walk away from talks, noting that his predecessors also failed. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has bet everything on this process and needs some positive momentum, fast.

7. Stories we're watching

Students in Christchurch, New Zealand, perform a haka to honor the victims of the mosque attacks. Watch. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
  1. Commons speaker blocks another vote on Theresa May's Brexit plan
  2. "Yellow vest" demonstrations in Paris turn violent
  3. Germany is Europe's most economically dangerous country
  4. NYT: Saudi prince authorized secret crackdowns carried out by Khashoggi killers
  5. Pakistan honors father who died trying to stop Christchurch attack
  6. Youth climate protests sweep the globe
  7. The world's white supremacy problem


"The wicked person who martyred 49 brothers and sisters is saying that we can stay on the Anatolian side, we cannot pass to the European side. Who do you think you are?"
— Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an election rally in which he showed footage from the New Zealand attack and snippets of the gunman's manifesto

Thanks for stopping by — see you Thursday evening.