IN THE KEY OF THREE: A POPULISM UPDATE FROM ITALY

Speaking of populism, here are three recent stories from Italy, a country at the center of various European controversies. One centers on domestic policy, the second on squabbles with the populists next door, and the third on a coming showdown with the European Union.


Story 1: Three migrants from Senegal and Nigeria have been arrested following the alleged rape and murder of an Italian girl inside a drug den in Rome. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy’s lead anti-immigrant populist and a figure of growing notoriety across Europe, appeared twice at the crime scene in a single day to maximize attention on the event. He was greeted there by both supporters and hecklers.

These three migrants may be guilty of this heinous crime. Or they may be innocent. Or they may have participated in the crime alongside Italians. From a political standpoint, it won’t matter. Salvini’s supporters will accept his accusations against the migrants at face value. His critics will search for alternative explanations.

This is the current political climate in Italy—and in other countries, as well.

Story 2: The region of South Tyrol, part of the Austrian Hapsburg empire until the close of World War I, still includes many people who speak German. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party has floated a plan to give these people, and those who speak a local language known as Ladin, Austrian citizenship.

Trouble is… South Tyrol has been part of Italy for 99 years, and many Italians, including Salvini, say Austria has no right to grant Italians dual citizenship. Complicating matters further, the Austrian offer only applies to residents of South Tyrol who speak German (60 percent) or Ladin (4 percent). Italian speakers need not apply.

The irony is that nationalists in Italy and Austria will shake fists at one another over this controversy, but both groups benefit from it with supporters at home. It’s a win-win political fight—unless and until it’s resolved, and someone must publicly accept defeat.

Story 3: Finally, there is the story that will impact the largest number of people. The European Commission took the unprecedented step this week of rejecting a proposed member-state budget, this one from Italy. The two parties currently in power in Italy were delighted with the news.

The Five-Star Movement, the largest vote-getter at the last election, wants to offer struggling Italian families, particularly in Italy’s poorer south, with universal basic income. Its junior coalition partner, Lega, wants tax cuts for the more prosperous northern provinces. Together, they submitted a budget which the Commission says will blow up Italy’s already high debt and threaten Europe’s economic stability.

Why are Five-Star and Lega so happy? EU rejection of this budget allows them to blame European bureaucrats for economic hardship in Europe and to present themselves to Italian voters and taxpayers as fearless protectors of Italian independence against the bullies from Brussels.

The informal response from Five-Star and Lega officials has been a closed fist waving the Italian flag. Their formal response will come in the next two weeks. The bad news for Italy: Financial markets may decide in the meantime that Italy is no longer a good bet, dramatically raising borrowing costs for the government and political trouble for all concerned.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.