Cold-Blooded Politics

Alex's big story of 2018: The murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Not only did the killing of this Saudi journalist capture and hold the world's attention, it threw a harsh light on some larger themes now reshaping global politics.


First, the government-backed killing of a prominent writer underscored the growing dangers that journalists face all over the world. That's a problem not only in autocracies like Saudi Arabia or China, but in increasingly precarious democracies too. This threat to the press is part of bigger trends: plummeting public trust in institutions, a growing "war on truth," and flagging faith in liberal democratic norms.

At the same time, his murder – by all indications ordered by a crown prince with close ties to the White House – also raised legitimate questions about whether Donald Trump's nakedly transactional foreign policy will expand authoritarian governments' perceptions of what they can get away with.

A potentially positive legacy of Khashoggi's murder: The intensified scrutiny of Saudi Arabia threw fresh light on the war in Yemen and helped push the US Senate to cut support for Riyadh's military campaign there. That's partly why a ceasefire became possible for the first time last week. That's a glimmer of hope for an end to "the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

His big question for 2019: Can the world's newly empowered nationalists keep from cutting each other up?

Discontent with the status quo has propelled nationalist politicians to electoral victory in seven of the world's ten largest economies in recent years. And while Italy's Salvini, Hungary's Orban, Austria's Kurz, India's Modi, Mexico's Lopez Obrador, America's Trump, and Brazil's Bolsonaro can agree on what they're against, their interests will clash when they must deal with one another directly.

We see this problem everywhere: Italy and Hungary have migration battles. Italy and Austria have a border dispute. So do India and China. Trump and AMLO have plenty to fight about. AMLO and Bolsonaro are ideologically at odds. And of course, the two biggest economies on earth are now governed by nationalists. Can all these tough guys keep tensions under control?

Amid the current need to continually focus on the COVID-19 crisis, it is understandably hard to address other important issues. But, on March 31st, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed landmark facial recognition legislation that the state legislature passed on March 12, less than three weeks, but seemingly an era, ago. Nonetheless, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the importance of this step. This legislation represents a significant breakthrough – the first time a state or nation has passed a new law devoted exclusively to putting guardrails in place for the use of facial recognition technology.

For more on Washington's privacy legislation, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Over the past decade or so, the European Union has weathered the global financial crisis, a migrant crisis, and the rise of populist nationalism. Sure, it's taken its fair share of bumps and bruises along the way, but the idea of a largely borderless Europe united by common democratic values has survived more or less intact.

Then came the coronavirus. The global pandemic, in which Europe is now one of the two main epicentres, is a still-spiralling nightmare that could make those previous crises look benign by comparison. Here are a few different ways that COVID-19 is severely testing the 27-member bloc:

The economic crisis: Lockdowns intended to stop the virus' spread have brought economic activity to a screeching halt, and national governments are going to need to spend a lot of money to offset the impact. But some EU members can borrow those funds more easily than others. Huge debt loads and deficits in southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the outbreak so far, make it costlier for them to borrow than more fiscally conservative Germany and other northern member states. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this imbalance nearly led the bloc's common currency, the Euro, to unravel.

More Show less

3.5 billion: There are now an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide under some sort of coronavirus lockdown after residents in Moscow (12 million) and Nigeria's capital Lagos (21 million) were ordered to join the ranks of those quarantined at home.

More Show less

North Korea has zero coronavirus cases? North Korea claims to be one of few countries on earth with no coronavirus cases. But can we take the word of the notoriously opaque leadership at face value? Most long-term observers of Pyongyang dismiss as fanciful the notion that the North, which shares a border with China, its main trade partner, was able to avert the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Many point to Pyongyang's lack of testing capabilities as the real reason why it hasn't reported any COVID-19 cases. To be sure, Kim Jong-un, the North's totalitarian leader, imposed some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world, well before many other countries – closing the Chinese border and quarantining all diplomats. The state's ability to control its people and their movements would also make virus-containment efforts easier to manage. We might not know the truth for some time. But what is clear is that decades of seclusion and crippling economic sanctions have devastated North Korea's health system, raising concerns of its capacity to manage a widespread outbreak of disease.

More Show less

As the coronavirus continues to ravage the world, all eyes now turn to the place where it all started. For more than two months, the 11 million residents of Wuhan, the Chinese industrial hub where the novel coronavirus was first detected, have lived under near complete lockdown.

Now, as China reports a dwindling number of new cases, the city's people are slowly emerging back into the daylight. Some travel restrictions remain, but public transportation is largely functioning again, and increasing numbers of people are cautiously – with masks and gloves and digital "health codes" on their phones that permit them to move about – going back to work.

The rest of the world, where most hard-hit countries have imposed various forms of lockdown of their own, is now keenly watching what happens in Wuhan for a glimpse of what might lie in store for the rest of us.

More Show less