Three Stories in the Key of: Vacuums

Vacuums. Great for picking up dust, powering vintage amplifiers, or running a 27-mile long pre-war New York mail delivery system straight out of Jules Verne. But when it comes to political stability or defense of national interests, vacuums can be a challenge. Here’s a look at three spots around on the world where the void is the problem…


In Colombia, the demobilization of thousands of FARC guerrillas under the 2016 peace accords has left a power vacuum in parts of the country that narco-traffickers and other guerrilla groups have hastened to fill. Re-establishing state authority over these areas is indispensable to any serious effort at implementing the peace accords, which are already a deeply polarizing issue in the country as it heads for the second round of presidential elections in June.

In Syria, meanwhile, ISIS has lost almost all of the territory it controlled in the eastern reaches of the country, but no one has stepped in to govern. Notwithstanding its hideous and fanatical brutality, ISIS did run a real “state” replete with ministries, taxes, and even a DMV, as an extraordinary recent investigation showed. With no one around to provide basic services and security, ethnic and sectarian tensions are on the rise — until someone steps in to sustainably fill the power vacuum there isn’t a prayer of seeing stability, let alone peace, in Syria.

Lastly, a vacuum of a slightly different sort as US lawmakers advance new legislation that would substantially increase Congress’s power to review and block foreign investment in critical industries. The move doesn’t explicitly target any particular country, but the intent is clear: Senator John Cornyn sounded the alarm about China’s bid to, in his words, “weaponize investment in order to vacuum up all of our advanced technologies.”

When Donald Trump first started talking about buying Greenland last week, we figured it was a weird story with less legs than a Harp seal.

Signal readers, we were wrong. President Trump was so serious about purchasing the autonomous Danish territory that this week he abruptly cancelled a trip to Denmark after the country's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, labelled the idea "absurd."

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The Amazon in flames – More than 70,000 forest fires are burning in Brazil right now, most of them in the Amazon. That's up 84% over the same period last year, and it's the highest number on record. This is the dry season when farmers burn certain amounts of forest legally to clear farmland. But critics say Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's efforts to loosen conservation rules have encouraged farmers, loggers, and miners to set more fires, many of them illegally. Bolsonaro – a science skeptic who recently fired the head of the agency that tracks deforestation – says, without proof, that NGOs are setting the fires to embarrass his government. Meanwhile, the EU is holding up a major trade deal with Brazil unless Bolsonaro commits to higher environmental protection standards, including those that affect the Amazon.

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Over the past fifty years, the Amazon rainforest has shrunk by an area equal to the size of Turkey. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brazilian government supported settlement of the sparsely populated region for security reasons. Since then, huge swaths of the forest -- which is crucial for limiting the world's greenhouse gasses -- have been cleared for farmland used to feed Brazil's population and support its massive agricultural exports. Greater awareness of the environmental impacts in the 1990s produced tighter conservation regulations, though plenty of illegal clearing continues. In recent years, the annual deforestation rate has begun to rise again, and Brazil's new president Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to weaken regulations further in order to support businesses.

3: The US has recruited Australia to join its nascent mission of protecting ships in the critical Strait of Hormuz. Along with Britain and Bahrain, Australia is now the third country to join the US-led maritime mission, as high seas brinksmanship with the Iranians continues.

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