Then/Now: Congo's Hope, Khashoggi's Murder, and the Biggest Trade Deal Ever

Three Months Ago – EU and South American nations strike major trade deal

Back in July, we wrote about a historic trade deal between the EU and Mercosur, a Latin American trade bloc that includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. The agreement, which took 20 years to hash out, removes most tariffs on EU exports and will open up Europe to more South American agricultural goods. Together, the EU and Mercosur countries are home to 720 million people and account for a quarter of global GDP. But the agreement, which still needs to be ratified by each country (that's 28 in Europe alone) was thrown into doubt after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's flippant response to massive Amazon fires, prompting France's President Emmanuel Macron to threaten to block the deal unless Brazil improves its environmental standards. German environmental and political groups have also opposed the deal. But the biggest roadblock yet could come from Argentina, where leftwing protectionist Alberto Fernandez, the favorite to become Argentina's new president in elections later this month, has said the deal would be "disadvantageous for Argentina." Realistically, a trade deal billed as the largest in history could come crashing down fast.


Nine Months Ago – Is it the end of an era in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Back in December, we discussed the rising expectations for a democratic transition in DRC as it headed to the ballot box for the first time since gaining independence in 1960. Felix Tshisekedi, the son of a long-time opposition leader, was declared the winner but speculation was rife that the elections were rigged, and that Tshisekedi had in fact reached a power-sharing agreement with outgoing president Joseph Kabila, who had ruled with an iron fist for two decades. At the time, we asked whether the DRC would get "the appearance of transformational change rather than the real thing." The answer so far is mixed. In a positive step, Tshisekedi pardoned 700 political prisoners – victims of Kabila's long standing crackdown on dissidents– and encouraged politicians in exile to return home. But the new president also nominated a Kabila loyalist to be his prime minister and stacked his cabinet with allies of the former strongman. Deep-seated government corruption, violence between warring militias, and an Ebola outbreak that the World Health Organization declared a "global health emergency" have taken a toll on the DRC, which has one of the world's lowest levels of GDP per capita. It's unreasonable to expect an overnight transition from decades of strongman rule to smoothly running democracy, but the jury's still out on whether Tshisekedi is really moving in the right direction.

Twelve Months Ago - Jamal Khashoggi murdered

The gruesome murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA and the UN believe involved Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, prompted a number of businesses and governments to reassess their relationships with the kingdom. Many large investors skipped Saudi Arabia's flagship investment conference several weeks later. Some European countries halted arms sales to the kingdom over the murder, as well as over Riyadh's grotesquely ineffective war in Yemen, which received fresh attention in the weeks after Khashoggi's killing. But in the US, congressional moves to cut military support for the kingdom have been vigorously rejected, and swiftly vetoed, by President Trump. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which at first denied knowing anything about the killing, has since held a secretive trial of those it accuses of carrying it out. Abroad, Riyadh is working hard to patch up its image with help from lobbyists and Instagram influencers, and is looking forward to a more robust attendance at this year's "Davos in the Desert" investment conference later this month. A relationship as long-standing and strategic as the US-Saudi one was never going to change drastically, even over the spectacularly gruesome murder of a journalist. But a year on, it's hard to avoid the sense that Khashoggi's death, whatever light it threw on the increasing danger to journalists worldwide, was mostly in vain.

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How did an entire country's media spread false news for a night?

Fascinating case study in France over the weekend. For less than a day, we thought that the most wanted men in the country had been caught in Scotland. Turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The so-called news was actually reported quite carefully at first, on Friday night with careful words. But the language quickly moved from conditional to categorical and therefore, to misinformation through human error. What you have here is the tension between being first and being right, which has always been present in journalism but is more and more as you have these 24 hour news channels, social media, and the incredible economic pressure on news sites that are advertising based and therefore click based.

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Donald Trump announced a fresh "phase 1" trade deal with China last week, part of his ongoing bid to reduce the United States' huge trade deficit with China. The US has been buying more from China than China buys from the US for decades, but since coming into office Trump has made reducing that deficit central to his "America First" agenda. It's not easy to do. Consider that in 2018, after two full years of the Trump administration, the trade deficit with China actually swelled to its highest level since the Clinton years. That's because many perfectly healthy economic factors contribute to a trade deficit: stronger economic growth under Trump has meant more demand for foreign goods, so as long as the economy keeps humming along, it will be hard for Trump to reduce the deficit. Likewise, the strong US dollar makes foreign goods cheaper for US consumers to import, while China's own economic slowdown in 2018 decreased Chinese demand for American goods. For a historical perspective on all of this, here's a look at how the US-China trade balance has developed under each US president going back to 1993.

On Friday, we detailed the main arguments for and against President Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from a pocket of northern Syria where their presence had protected Washington's Kurdish allies against an attack from Turkey. We then asked Signal readers to let us know what they thought.

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Dangerous Chaos in Syria – Turkey's military move into northern Syria had two stated goals: to push Kurdish fighters inside Syria further from Turkey's border and to create a "safe zone" inside Syria in which Turkey could place up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in camps inside Turkey. But the Kurds have now allied with Syria's army, which is backed by Russia, and these forces are now moving north into that same territory toward Turkish troops and Arab militias backed by Ankara. Meanwhile, large numbers of ISIS fighters and their families have escaped prisons where Kurds had held them captive. Turkey's President Erdogan vows to press ahead with his operation until "ultimate victory is achieved." Pandora's Box is now wide open.

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