Sep 21, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World for our lucky 250th edition.

  • Thanks to Zach for two excellent editions while I lounged on the beach, and to all of you for joining me.
  • Like this week's UN General Assembly, we're offering a tour of the world from the confines of your computer screen (1,673 words, 6 minutes).

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1 big thing: Trump and Xi's dueling speeches

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump and China’s Xi Jinping will address the UN General Assembly just minutes apart on Tuesday morning — with Russia’s Vladimir Putin following soon thereafter.

The big picture: Trump has promised a “strong message on China.” Xi, meanwhile, is expected to laud global cooperation — with the clear implication that it can be led from Beijing.

Setting the scene: The 75th annual General Assembly will be unrecognizable, with more world leaders (173) than ever addressing the forum, but all of them doing so via pre-recorded videos.

  • The “great power” rivals are joined on Tuesday morning’s agenda by several other powerful men, including Emmanuel Macron of France and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
  • And yes, they will all be men. A provisional schedule showed the first female speaker — President Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia — 53rd on the agenda.
  • The speeches will continue through next Tuesday, but there will be no motorcades clogging Manhattan streets, world leaders conferring in hallways, or frenzied shuffling between side-summits.
  • But there will nonetheless be a diplomatic crisis rumbling on in the background.

The backstory: The U.S. initiated a “snapback” mechanism at the UN Security Council last month to reimpose sanctions on Iran lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal.

  • Trump says those sanctions came back into force yesterday and are needed to prevent Iran from buying weapons. He also added new unilateral sanctions on Iran today via executive order.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted today that “every member state in the United Nations has a responsibility to enforce these sanctions.”
  • But all of the deal's other signatories have rejected the move, and the U.K., France and Germany have vowed to ignore it.
  • Between the lines: They're desperate to keep the deal afloat in spite of Trump's efforts.

Zoom out: Many diplomats at the UN view their jobs in much the same way.

  • One one hand: The Trump administration dismisses multilateralism and has announced America's withdrawal from several UN agencies, including the World Health Organization.
  • On the other: A rising China is hardly likely to promote many of the values the UN has attempted to stand for. The body wins the most widespread respect for its work on human rights, according to new Pew data from 14 countries.

What they’re saying: UN Secretary General António Guterres believes the global order is going through a "rather chaotic" transition period.

  • The future global roles of the U.S. and China are still to be defined, he says, even as they engage in a confrontation that could end in "a big rupture."
  • “ I think we are not yet there," he told GZERO Media. "We are in a process that is still unpredictable, and we will have to see what happens in the next two or three years to have a clear perspective.”
2. Japan's new man takes the stage
Data: Gleditsch and Chiozza, 2016, "Archigos — A Data Set on Leaders 1875–2015", Axios research; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yoshihide Suga will represent Japan at the General Assembly just days after replacing the country's longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

By the numbers: Suga, 71, may find Abe's longevity hard to match. Japan had 17 prime ministers in the 14 years before Abe took office. By contrast, Angela Merkel will soon mark 15 years as Germany's chancellor.

Driving the news: Since Abe resigned due to chronic health issues, Suga has undergone "a rapid im­age makeover from a tough back­room en­forcer of the prime min­is­ter’s poli­cies to a warmer ral­ly­ing fig­ure best equipped to con­tinue" the legacy of the man he served for nearly eight years as chief Cabinet secretary, per WSJ.

  • His main offering, to his party and his country, has been continuity. Suga's new Cabinet includes just two women but 11 Abe holdovers. One of the eight additions is Abe's brother, as defense minister.
  • While Abe was heir to one of Japan's most prominent political dynasties, Suga's parents were farmers.
  • He's considered shrewd and hardworking, but not particularly charismatic. It's unclear whether he'll play as visible a role on the world stage as his predecessor, who boasted strong personal relationships with leaders including President Trump.

What to expect: Suga's speech was recorded over the weekend, per Nikkei, but won't be streamed until this Saturday.

  • He'll emphasize continuity with Abe's priorities of "freedom, democracy and the rule of law," stress the importance of collaboration on vaccine distribution, and call for international cooperation "to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea," Nikkei reports.

View the interactive chart

3. State of the outbreak

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Global coronavirus deaths are approaching 1 million, half of which have come in the U.S., Brazil, India and Mexico.

Where things stand: India continues to record the highest daily case count while Israel — which on Friday became the first developed country to impose a second nationwide lockdown — is recording the highest population-adjusted increases.

Driving the news: The U.K. government's top medical advisers warned in a televised address today that the full force of a second wave will be felt by next month if the current trajectory continues.

  • The government has already raised fines and tightened restrictions, but further measures are expected tomorrow. The markets fell on that grim outlook.
  • Spain and France have seen sharp spikes in cases but not in deaths —though, worryingly, hospitalization rates are now rising.

The flipside: The news is more encouraging in Africa. Reopenings are proceeding in countries including Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

  • South Africa had been Africa's epicenter but is now clearly trending in the right direction. President Cyril Ramaphosa has said the country is “ready to open our doors again to the world.”
  • There's cautious optimism across the continent that economic downturns, while brutal, won't be as long-lasting as had been feared, per the FT.
4. Africa news roundup: Opposition and recognition

Abiy Ahmed's job is no bed of roses. Photo: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty

1. Prominent members of the Ethiopian opposition have been arrested on terrorism charges amid a period of violent unrest sparked by the murder of a prominent musician in June.

  • On the one hand: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuses "disaffected" groups of "peddling hatred" and "using the ethnic and religious diversity of our nation as a tool of division."
  • On the other: Critics of the Nobel laureate claim he's cracking down on his political foes.
  • Meanwhile, leaders in the Tigray region courted a constitutional crisis earlier this month by holding elections that Abiy's government had forbidden due to the coronavirus.
  • The big picture: The optimism that accompanied Abiy to power following decades of authoritarianism has evaporated, and "the transition has exposed deep fault lines in the system of ethnic federalism," International Crisis Group's Will Davison explains on the Hold Your Fire podcast.
  • Abiy, a nationalist reformer, has angered both those who were pushed from power and those who feel they still haven't gotten their fair slice.

2. Ivory Coast's leading opposition candidate is calling for civil disobedience in order to block President Alassane Ouattara from seeking a constitutionally dubious third term in an Oct. 31 election.

  • The big picture: Ouattara had promised to step down but reversed course after his preferred successor died in July. Protests and riots followed, with at least 12 people killed to date.
  • Ouattara's party claims he's acting selflessly: taking on international criticism to avoid a violent handover like those in Ivory Coast's recent history. His critics say he's risking war by running.

3. The U.S. is trying to cement a deal in which Sudan will recognize Israel. But civilian leaders in Khartoum fear a domestic backlash, Axios' Barak Ravid reports.

  • Why it matters: U.S. insistence that Sudan recognize Israel has "introduced a potentially destabilising dynamic to Sudan’s fragile transition" following the toppling of dictator Omar al-Bashir last year, W. Gyude Moore writes in the Continent.
  • The big picture: It's part of a series of apparent "haphazard transactional choices based on perceived short-term wins" by the Trump administration, including the withholding of $200 million in aid to Ethiopia over its high-stakes dam dispute with Egypt, Moore writes.
  • The bottom line: "[I]t is now time to ask if US foreign policy in Africa is creating, not preventing, instability," Moore contends.
5. The strange case of mercenaries in Minsk

A protester in Minsk being carried to an ambulance. Photo: TUT.BY/AFP via Getty

Aleksandr Lukashenko is betting that support from Moscow, along with the loyalty of his security forces, will allow him to remain in power despite protests that continued for the seventh consecutive weekend.

The big picture: That's a remarkable shift for a man who positioned himself prior to the election as the sole guarantor of Belarusian independence from Russia.

Zoom in: Consider the fate of 32 mercenaries allegedly from Russia's Wagner Group who were arrested in late July at "an austere Soviet-era sanitarium on a lake" near Minsk. The NYT's Ivan Nechepurenko reports:

  • A local DJ recalled that the men kept to themselves to such an extent that "she and fellow female workers started joking that perhaps they should call the police 'to find out what is wrong with them.'”
  • "What unfolded next, however, was even stranger: a heavily armed special unit of Belarus’s top security agency, still called the K.G.B., stormed the resort late at night, dragging the Russians away in handcuffs."
  • The raid was broadcast on state TV, and Lukashenko later accused them of attempting to sow chaos to disrupt the election.

Flash forward: Belarusian authorities now say the men were "the victims of an elaborate plot engineered by Ukraine’s secret service in cahoots with the United States." The K.G.B. chief was even replaced with a Moscow-friendly successor.

What to watch: Anti-Lukashenko social media accounts have been sharing the alleged identities of members of the security forces, in hopes that fear of public shaming will cause some to abandon Lukashenko.

6. One fun thing: Summer of Slovenia

Pogacar conquers Paris. Photo: Stephan Mantey - Pool/Getty Images

Tadej Pogačar became the first Slovenian cyclist to win the Tour de France on Sunday — while fellow Slovenian Primož Roglič finished runner-up.

The big picture: That's a remarkable feat for a country of 2 million people, which is perhaps best known in the U.S. as the homeland of Melania Trump. But the "summer of Slovenia," as Axios' Kendall Baker termed it, doesn't end there.

  • Goran Dragić is leading the Miami Heat in scoring this postseason (22.2 ppg) and runs the offense for a team that is two wins away from the NBA Finals — and he's not even basketball's biggest Slovenian star.
  • Luka Dončić, the Mavericks' 21-year-old phenom, just became the third-youngest player in history to earn All-NBA first team honors — and had the season ended on time, he would have been the youngest.

Not bad for a country the size of Massachusetts that historically only distinguished itself athletically in skiing, rowing, shooting, judo and throwing hammers, per the WSJ.

7. Stories we're watching

Migrants and refugees in Lesbos. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images

  1. Tech war between the U.S. and China escalates
  2. Judge halts WeChat ban; Trump agrees to TikTok deal
  3. China flies warplanes in Taiwan airspace
  4. England's £10,000 fine for breaking self-isolation
  5. Guatemalan president tests positive for COVID-19
  6. Biden's hardline Russia reset
  7. Navalny is recovering


"The people have expressed the intention that this country belongs to the people, and not the king."
— A plaque installed Sunday in Bangkok by protesters who risked prison by daring to criticize the monarchy. It was removed overnight.
Dave Lawler