Hello and welcome to Wednesday Signal. Today, we examine Europe's next big fault line, pick through the remains of the Islamic State, and ask what a retiring central Asian strongman can teach Vladimir Putin. We've also got some Twitter accounts we're ignoring and the usual hard numbers below.

Exciting news: GZERO Media is proud to announce a new partnership with The Straits Times, Singapore's most-read newspaper. In the coming weeks, you can expect to see some of their excellent Asia news coverage featured in Signal and on our website at GZEROMedia.com. Read more about the partnership here.

Send us your fan/hate mail here and sign up a friend for Signal here. Thanks for reading!

– Kevin (@kevinallison)

China Traces A New Line Through Europe

Gabe Lipton

Chinese President Xi Jinping will arrive in Rome tomorrow ready to plant a flag in the heart of Europe. Italy is expected to break with most other advanced economies by formally signing onto Beijing's $1.3 trillion global Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure initiative.


Announced in 2013, BRI aims to boost China's trade and international clout through massive new investments in roads, railways, and ports across the world. Italy's decision to sign onto the initiative – the centerpiece of Beijing's plans to overtake the US as the dominant global economic power of the 21st century – is controversial.

Brussels and Washington don't like it at all, because they fear that if Italy takes loans from China it could end up in a dangerous web of debt that exposes it to pressure from Beijing. After all, Italy is already Europe's second most indebted country, and unlike much smaller economies like Greece, a systemic crisis there could unravel the entire Eurozone.

Within Rome too there is some disagreement: Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, of the centrist 5Star Movement, is all for closer relations with Beijing, but the far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is more skeptical.

Still, Chinese cash solves a pressing problem for their populist governing coalition. Clashes with Brussels over budget parameters have forced Messrs. Di Maio and Salvini to backtrack on their campaign promises to cut taxes and boost social spending. Delivering new infrastructure with Chinese money could be a big political winner, especially after a high-profile bridge collapse last year.

More broadly, Europe is already having trouble finding consensus on how to approach China's tech investments, 5G equipment suppliers, and infrastructure investments. The smaller economies of Central and Eastern Europe welcome the cash, while most of the larger economies are concerned about the financial and security implications of Chinese capital. EU members are scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss a common approach to Chinese investment into the bloc. To which we say, in bocca al lupo!

The bottom line: The decision of the bloc's fourth largest economy to embrace Beijing has just opened up a major new fault line within Europe.

Graphic Truth: One Belt, One Road, Two Worlds?

Gabe Lipton

China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative is one of the most ambitious geopolitical projects ever. By 2027, it aims to dish out an estimated $1.3 trillion in loans, around ten times what the US spent on the Marshall Plan in the aftermath of World War II. As China increases its investment in the West, will countries' loyalty shift toward Beijing? Here's a look at the already staggering scope of its agenda.

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ISIS DIES IN THE WORLD AND LIVES ON THE WEB

Kevin Allison

As you read this, US-backed Syrian and Kurdish forces are killing or capturing the last few Islamic State militants holding out in a fingernail-shaped sliver of riverbank in eastern Syria. It's all that remains of the caliphate declared by the Islamist extremist group across a swath of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014.

Despite being on the back foot territorially, here are three ways that ISIS will continue to rile global politics:


Returning fighters: Experts estimate that up to 40,000 foreigners from 110 countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the caliphate, marry into ISIS, or accompany family members. Over 4,000 EU citizens are thought to have made the trip, along with a few hundred Americans and thousands of people from the Balkans, the Caucasus, and other geopolitical hot spots. Many of the fighters who weren't killed have already returned home, creating a massive headache for security services and law enforcement. Thousands more are sitting in Kurdish detention camps awaiting news about where they'll be sent next. Distinguishing between regretful and repentant hangers-on and truly dangerous fighters is a legal and political nightmare that's already creating fissures between the US and Europe.

The next (cr)ISIS: The black flag of ISIS may no longer be waving over the Syrian desert, but it is flying over an ISIS enclave on the southern Philippine island of Basilan, where a group of militants claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a cathedral in January. ISIS-linked groups are also active in Nigeria, Sudan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and stretches of northern Africa and the Sahel. While they may not have the same access to oil revenues that once enabled ISIS to take on the trappings of an actual state, these pockets of fighters remain a potent security threat.

The virtual caliphate: While ISIS may not have much territory in the world, it's still got real estate on the web, where it remains a force on social media despite some progress in stamping out the viral spread of its gruesome and well-produced propaganda. EU security czar Julian King warned as recently as November that the group is still entrenched on social media, despite losing its grip on its physical territory. As we recently saw in the live-streamed New Zealand mosque massacre – clips of which are still circulating on the web – fully stamping out extremist material is a Sisyphean task.

As long as there are disaffected young Muslims, the virtual caliphate will continue to attract and radicalize adherents and inspire publicity-seeking acts of violence. The risk now is that, rather than being inspired to join an Islamist utopia in the Mesopotamian desert, even more people will be inspired to commit acts of violence at home.

Trump and Bolsonaro: Shower of Praise

Alex Kliment

Yesterday, President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro got to the bottom of the South American leader's recent X-rated tweets. Watch the exclusive footage here.

What we are watching

A retiring strongman in Kazakhstan – Since 1989, one man has ruled the massive, oil-rich Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. That is, until yesterday, when Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president and put a close ally in charge until new elections are called. The 78-year old Kazakh leader was rumored to have been planning a transition for more than two years, putting allies in key posts, weakening the power of the presidency, and bolstering the clout of the country's Security Council, which he will still head. But the exact timing came as a surprise. We're watching this story – not just because it's a rare example of a strongman leaving power of his own will, but because we suspect Vladimir Putin is watching, too. The hardy 66-year-old Russian leader needs to figure out what he'll do when his current term expires in 2024. The constitution says Putin can't run again. Is Nazarbayev charting a path that Putin can follow?

A suspicious death in Italy – Italian authorities are investigating the suspicious demise of Imane Fadil, a 34-year-old Moroccan model who died in Milan earlier this month – apparently with high levels of toxic metals in her blood that could indicate poisoning. Fadil was a frequent guest at ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's infamous bunga-bunga sex parties, and was a key witness in his 2013 trial on underage sex allegations. Adding to the intrigue, Fadil was due to testify at another upcoming court case. Apart from all of this, her death could have an immediate impact on Italian politics: Italy's right-wing Lega party is now less likely to call a snap election this summer, because the Fadil case taints Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the group that Lega would ideally like to team up with in order to gain a majority in parliament.

What we are ignoring

The Scent of Fascism – In a new commercial out of Israel, a beautiful woman glides through arty black and white scenes like a model, purring about putting new limits on the judiciary, and spritzing herself with a perfume called "fascism." Hot stuff, right? But this isn't just a sultry model hawking a designer fragrance – it's the country's right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who has incensed the left with her bid to curtail the power of courts, which she says are too liberal. At the end of the spoof ad, which is meant to promote her New Right party ahead of upcoming elections, Skaked takes whiff of the perfume and tells viewers: "Smells like democracy to me." We are ignoring this bid to put her party's name back in the headlines because the fascism joke just isn't funny.

Devin Nunes' Mom – Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California, has filed a lawsuit seeking $250 million in damages against a Twitter personality who goes by the handle @DevinNunesMom, other users of the popular messaging platform, and Twitter itself. According to a copy of the complaint uploaded by Fox News, Nunes, the ardent Trump supporter who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee, says @DevinNunesMom engaged in slander by calling him "presidential fluffer and swamp rat," and claiming he was "voted Most Likely To Commit Treason in high school," among other digital insults. The suit also accused Twitter of suppressing conservative viewpoints – an argument that other Republicans have used to put political pressure on the company. We'll be watching how that argument plays out, but we are ignoring @DevinNunesMom. Judging by the massive jump in followers that @DevinNunesMom has received since the case was filed, by the time this is all over, we're pretty sure Congressman Nunes will wish he had done so, too.

Hard Numbers

2.5 million: The United Nations estimates that up to 2.5 million people need assistance after a cyclone brought powerful winds and massive flooding to Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe this week, sparking fears of a humanitarian crisis in one of the continent's poorest regions.

800: More than 800 different versions of a video showing the New Zealand mosque shooter's terrorist attack have been uploaded to the internet since last Friday, according to a group that tracks such things – illustrating the difficulties facing governments and companies that want to stamp out violent propaganda online.

7: South Africa is facing a seventh-straight day of rolling blackouts as the country's outdated power plants struggle to meet demand. The outages will put further pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ruling African National Congress party ahead of elections later this year.

9: It is now 9 days until the UK is scheduled to exit the European Union. We should know soon whether the EU will agree to an extension, and for how long – but only if the UK can decide what it wants first.

Hi there,

This Tuesday, we seek meaning in the travels of the Chinese and Russian presidents, find out what Brazil's president wants from Trump, and get stuck on a train in South Africa.

Bonus question: who's ignoring the plight of Muslims in Western China?

Send your love/hate here, give a friend the Signal here.

–Alex Kliment (@saosasha)

"TROPICAL TRUMP" GOES TO WASHINGTON

Alex Kliment

Today, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro will visit the White House for the first time. Bolsonaro is a right-wing firebrand whose unlikely rise, disparaging views on minorities, shrewd use of social media, and combative relationship with the press have led some to call him the "Tropical Trump."

But how useful is that label? What's Bolsonaro after at the White House? And why did the Brazilian president recently ask what a "golden shower" is?

To learn more, we sat down with Roberto Simon, a veteran Brazilian journalist who is now Senior Director of Policy at the Council of the Americas, and politics editor at Americas Quarterly the Council's (excellent) magazine on Latin America.

You can watch the whole interview by clicking here. But here are a few highlights to keep in mind ahead of today's meeting:

Bolsonaro's visit to the White House aims to accomplish a few things: First, to bolster his street credibility with his right-wing base at home, who admire Trump; second, to draw closer to Trump on a way to resolve the crisis in Venezuela, which has caused a politically volatile situation on the Brazilian border; and third, to secure closer military ties with Washington.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro was an outsider candidate with sharply anti-progressive views who defied the pundits by winning. But there are big differences too. For one thing, Bolsonaro counts on a small party in a fractious legislature – he has nothing like the support of the Republican party that Trump enjoys in the Senate. What's more, Trump-style anti-globalization rhetoric doesn't play nearly as well in a country where globalization has lifted tens of millions out of poverty. Here are some more thoughts from us on the differences between the two men.

And lastly, the context for that famous Bolsonaro's "golden shower" tweet is a raging culture war between the right and left in Brazil that threatens to overshadow key economic priorities like reforming the country's unsustainable pension system.

GRAPHIC TRUTH: IS BRAZIL CHAINED TO CHINA?

Gabe Lipton

President Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for China, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has followed suit. But when it comes to revising their relationships with Beijing, Mr. Bolsonaro has to play a lot more carefully than Trump. After all, Brazil's economy depends a lot on Chinese trade and investment, and Brazilians' views of the Asian giant are, like those of their American counterparts, generally more favorable than their president's.

TWO VISITS FROM THE EAST: PUTIN AND XI

Alex Kliment

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin touched down in Crimea to celebrate five years since Moscow seized the peninsula from Ukraine. Later this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Europe, where Italy is expected to sign on to Beijing's trillion-dollar Belt and Road global infrastructure plan.

Our thought bubble: Each of these visits speaks to a different way that the world order – once dominated, for better or for worse, by the Euro-Atlantic "West" – is now rapidly shifting.

Russia tearing things down: Back in 2014, President Putin justified the annexation of Crimea by rattling off 20 years worth of grievances with the West, finishing with this warning: "if you compress a spring to its limit, it will snap back hard." Russia in the years since has been in snapback mode – keen to defend what it sees Moscow's sphere of influence (Ukraine), force the US to reckon with Moscow as a global player again (Syria), and to accelerate the political fragmentation of the West along nationalist/populist lines (using its cyber capacity to exacerbate underlying social and political polarization in Europe and the US).

China building things up: But where Russia is concerned primarily with accelerating the decline of an old order, China is looking to create a new one of its own – building new Chinese-led global financial structures, exporting Chinese technological standards and norms, particularly in the development of 5G, and broadening economic and trade relationships left to languish by a less trade-friendly US. Critics worry that Chinese loans will create debt traps, or that Chinese technology companies will muscle out Western competitors while creating national security liabilities. But dozens of countries are eager to tap into lavish Chinese financing for much-needed infrastructure, and to gain better access to that billion-strong export market.

The Belt and Road initiative, which already includes some 80 countries, is a centerpiece of President Xi Jinping's plan for China to "take center stage in the world." Until now, the that strategy has focused primarily on Africa, Asia, Latin America, and smaller countries on Europe's fringes – but if Italy signs on, it would be the first G7 country to join. That would mark a major new milestone in Beijing's global rise.

The big picture: US President Donald Trump has certainly upended long-standing assumptions about American support for a certain kind of global order. But that's only part of a much larger story in which a rising China and a rankled Russia are challenging and remaking the international landscape. In sum: it ain't all Trump.

The Crowded 2020 Field: US Politics in 60 Seconds

GZERO Media

Kirsten Gillibrand officially enters the race, Beto overcomes the backlash, and more. It's US Politics in 60 Seconds with Ben White.

WHAT WE ARE WATCHING

"Ooooooorder!" – Another wrench in the works for Brexit. The UK House of Commons speaker ruled late yesterday that Prime Minister Theresa May can't hold a third "meaningful vote" on her twice-defeated Brexit deal unless significant changes are made to it. Ms. May is traveling to Brussels later this week to see if she can win more time for negotiations, but even if she can, it's not clear she'd be able to get significant enough concessions from the EU to allow for another vote (let alone one that would go her way). And so the once-remote chances of a second referendum are growing by the day…

A President Stuck on a Train – To show he's a man of the people ahead of national elections in May, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa boarded a commuter train to mingle with passengers. But thanks in part to the embattled national railway and the decrepit infrastructure on which it relies, a 30-mile journey scheduled to last 45 minutes took nearly four hours. "It is unacceptable," Ramaphosa warned as his long journey ended. Things will improve or "heads will roll." Train delays are a daily source of public fury in South Africa, where late workers sometimes lose their jobs, and this is a chance for Ramaphosa to build much-needed public credibility—if he can make things better.

WHAT THEY ARE IGNORING

We usually ignore things on your behalf, but this week we spotlight a few important things that others are notably tuning out.

Protesters vs Algerian Government Reshuffle – Protesters in Algeria are evidently unmoved by the government's decision to scrap ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's candidacy for a fifth consecutive term. Last Friday, even after that concession was announced, the country saw the largest protests in memory. While Bouteflika's withdrawal from the election was the initial demand of the protesters, they now worry the government will simply reshuffle an opaque power structure dominated by the military without addressing the big problems of corruption and a lack of economic opportunity. And they are probably right.

Muslim Leaders vs Chinese Abuse of Muslims – The leaders of some of the largest majority-Muslim nations on earth have mostly said nothing about growing evidence that China's government is systematically repressing ethnic-Uighur Muslims in the Western province of Xinjiang. Recently in Beijing, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman said China has the "right" to do what it likes within its borders. President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, the world's largest majority Muslim nation, has also avoided criticizing China. Evidently, the need to court Chinese investment and support surpasses their concern for coreligionists. The only major Muslim leader who has spoken out is Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is staking his own claim to regional power and leadership of the broader Muslim world.

Hard Numbers

23: After Mexico's deadliest year in decades, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is cutting the country's national security budget by 23 percent in 2019, compared to the average levels under his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto. AMLO is moving funds away from traditional security forces and toward a newly constituted National Guard, which is expected to enlist 60-thousand plus soldiers.

240: French authorities arrested 240 gilets jaunes, or "Yellow Vest," protesters over the weekend. The demonstrations, which are now entering their 19th week, have recently been smaller but much more violent – with participants overturning cars, looting, and setting important Parisian landmarks on fire.

11: Eleven babies died in less than 24 hours in Tunisia last week, where a confluence of poor economic conditions and few opportunities caused half of newly registered doctors to leave the country to work abroad in 2018. Six years on from the only successful Arab Spring revolution, a worsening healthcare system could become a political problem in Tunisia.

140,000: Chinese authorities have shut down more than 140,00 online blogs and deleted more than 500,000 articles for containing what they claim is false information or obscenities since December. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government isn't shying away from going after the country's most widely-read writers.

It's Willis with your Friday edition of Signal. Today, we'll tell you everything you really need to know about the current state of Brexit, ponder the paradox of American attitudes toward socialism, and take a super-quick world tour of eight upcoming elections… all while dodging unnecessarily aggressive Australian wildlife.

Let us know what you love/hate, and please share Signal with a friend.

Cheers,

Willis Sparks

A Baffling Brexit Week (in Brief)

Willis Sparks

Here's your quick breakdown of another baffling week for Brexit.

On Tuesday, lawmakers voted by a large margin (again) to reject Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plan, adding yet more uncertainty ahead of Britain's scheduled departure date from the EU in two weeks.

On Wednesday, they voted to avoid an exit from the EU without a deal on the future of Britain's relationship with Europe. (That will be up to EU member states.)

On Thursday, they voted not to take control of the Brexit process from the prime minister. They also voted against a second Brexit referendum, in part because, the Labour Party leadership, which supports a second referendum, instructed its members that the timing isn't yet right. And then they voted to ask Europe for more time to decide what they want.


What comes next? The prime minister, an apparently insatiable glutton for political punishment, says she wants MPs to vote on her plan yet again next week.

Assuming Mrs. May's deal takes a third thumping next week, she'll ask the EU for an extension of the current March 29 Brexit deadline. All 27 remaining EU members must agree to that delay, and they'll want her to explain how she plans to use any extra time they might grant. That won't be an easy question to answer.

Various versions of soft Brexit, a hard Brexit, a second Brexit referendum, and early general elections all remain possibilities.

The bottom line: Britain's lawmakers agreed this week that they can't agree on anything—and that more time is needed to untie the tight political knot now strangling British politics.

We Need Another Vote

GZERO Media

This week, British MPs rejected holding a second Brexit referendum for now. Former UK Foreign Minister David Miliband lays out his case for why one is needed. Watch here.

The Paradox of American Socialism

Willis Sparks

Americans will be hearing the word socialism a lot over the next 21 months.

President Donald Trump believes that the emergence of some Democrats who embrace this label (in various forms) offers him a big political opening, just as the 2020 presidential election shifts into high gear. "We believe in the American dream, not the socialist nightmare," he recently told the Conservative Political Action Conference, an audience that responded with ecstatic applause.


It's a politically shrewd tactic. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week found that just 18 percent of Americans view the word "socialist" in a positive light. About 50 percent see it as a negative.

Some 68 percent say they could support a gay or lesbian presidential candidate, 49 percent could support a Muslim, but just 25 percent say they could back a "socialist." No wonder the vast majority of American political candidates work hard to avoid the label.

Here's the paradox: A recent Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans say money and wealth "should be more evenly distributed" in their country. Just 31 percent think the current "distribution is fair."

Other recent polls found that 75 percent of Americans support higher taxes on the ultrawealthy, 67 percent back a law guaranteeing paid maternity leave, 83 percent want strong net neutrality rules, and 92 percent want Medicare, a federal health insurance program, to negotiate for lower drug prices.

Americans don't like "socialists," but they do like social security, federal safety standards for food and medicine, unemployment insurance, federal disaster relief, and child labor laws. Younger voters, in particular, associate socialism with Scandinavia, not the Soviet Union.

But this is less a story about political philosophy than about political branding, a problem that will cloud honest debate over what's affordable and what isn't. It's going to be the major battle line for the 2020 US presidential election—and the future of US politics.

An Election Wave Rolls In

Willis Sparks

Over the next 11 weeks, there will be eight important elections globally covering populations of more than 2.2 billion people.

Here's what you need to know:


Thailand – A Restoration of (Limited) Democracy (March 24)

This will be the first national vote since the military seized power in 2014, but it isn't quite an open election. Some 500 representatives to the lower house will be directly elected. But the military will appoint all 250 members of parliament's upper house, and the upper and lower houses together will elect the new prime minister. That ensures the military will have a big say in the outcome.

Ukraine – The Joker's Wild (March 31, with a likely second round on April 21)

Even before President Petro Poroshenko found himself contending with fresh corruption accusations against some of his associates, he was already facing a tough reelection challenge from former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictional Ukrainian president on TV. For now, Zelenskiy, the wildcard in this deck, leads in the polls. Vladimir Putin will be watching very, very, very closely.

Turkey: Erdogan in Decline? (March 31)

Things haven't been going President Erdogan's way. Turkey is in recession, relations with Washington and other NATO allies are rocky, and his adventures in Syria haven't gone well. Fears for his domestic political strength led him to invite an ultranationalist party to join his Justice and Development Party in an informal alliance ahead of elections later this month. These are local races, but his party could lose control of government in both Istanbul and Ankara. Given that nearly three-quarters of Turkey's citizens now live in cities, that would be a sure sign of trouble for Turkey's strongman.

Israel: Bibi's Toughest Test (April 9)

Benjamin Netanyahu is one win away from surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving prime minister. But with corruption indictments hanging over his head and a unified opposition led by his former army chief of staff, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu will face an exceptionally tough test. His ally and friend Donald Trump will help burnish his image with an invitation to the White House in the days before the vote.

Indonesia: The Outlier Election (April 17)

A popular incumbent president is cruising toward easy re-election. When was the last time we could write that about any major country in the world? But Indonesia, the world's largest predominantly Muslim country, is a relative success story, and President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) is widely expected to coast past former Army General Prabowo Subianto next month. Jokowi's personal popularity, modest progress on health, education, and infrastructure reforms, and his decision to blunt attacks by religious conservatives by choosing an Islamist vice presidential running mate should bring him first across the finish line.

Spain: Redrawing the Map (April 28)

Economic growth is up, and unemployment is down. But Catalan separatist pressures continue, the number of migrants entering Spain has risen, and a polling surge for the nationalist, populist, Euroskeptic Vox Party has shifted the ground underneath Spanish politics. The risk here is of further political fragmentation in a country that's recovered relatively well from its debt crisis and, until recently, mostly avoided the populism roiling politics elsewhere in the EU.

India: The Modi Majority at Risk (April 11 – May 19)

Across the world's most diverse country, some 900 million people are eligible to vote in this seven-phase parliamentary election over 39 days. Some voters will treat this contest as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. Others will be influenced more by local issues. No one in India can compete with Modi's political stature, but India's strong growth rates have benefitted some far more than others. The question: Can the BJP win another majority, or will it need partners to govern?

European Parliament: Can Populists Work Together? (May 23-26)

Populists within Italy's Lega, Poland's PiS, France's Rassemblement National, the Netherlands' Freedom Party, and Austria's Freedom Party are hoping to up their seat count in the European Parliament to challenge mainstream center-right and center-left alliances on immigration, trade, EU rules, and other issues. But can they work together? There are big differences among them on how to share the burdens of hosting migrants and policy toward Russia, for example.

What We're Watching

Nasrin Sotoudeh – Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has built a formidable reputation by, among other things, taking the cases of women arrested for appearing in public without headscarves. In 2012, the European Union awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. On Monday, an Iranian court ordered Sotoudeh to serve 10 years on top of a previous 28-year prison sentence for "colluding against the system"—and to receive 148 lashes.

Aggressive Australian Animals – Australia is a wonderful country filled with fantastic people, but it's a really, really dangerous place. Drop your guard for two seconds and some angry shark, anaconda, or hairy prehistoric spider will try to beat you senseless. Look what happened to this unsuspecting paraglider.

What We're Ignoring

Maduro Propaganda – Venezuela's chief prosecutor has asked the country's Supreme Court to investigate opposition leader Juan Guaidó for sabotaging the country's electrical system following a massive electricity shutdown across the country. Maduro claimed on Tuesday that the US government had used electromagnetic waves from mobile devices to knock out the nation's power system. We're watching the political impact of the power outages while ignoring laughable claims about their source.

Speculation about the Mueller Report – We've seen arguments in the media that the Robert Mueller investigation of President Trump will end within days, that it will continue for months, that Mueller will issue a report, that he won't issue a report, that he'll issue a report that we're not allowed to read, that there will be two Mueller reports, that he's already issued a report and we just missed it, and that the report will be published only in Latin. (OK, I made up that last one.) This confusion provides proof positive there are still people in Washington who can keep an important secret—and that the only authority on Robert Mueller is Robert Mueller.

Hard Numbers

8: Eight years ago today, Syria plunged into civil war. According to the UN, nearly half the people who lived in that country in 2011 have been driven from their homes, and hundreds of thousands have been killed. President Bashar al-Assad has won the war, but fighting continues.

37: A poll conducted earlier this year found that 37 percent of Britons who prefer to remain in the European Union would be upset if a close relative married a strong leave supporter.

2 million: The number of new births in China fell by 2 million to 15.2 million in 2018. It was the second straight year of decline in the birthrate since China ended its "one child" policy in 2015. More than half of respondents who said they were delaying having children cited the high cost of raising a child.

84 million: Some 84 million Indians, equal to the population of Germany, have become eligible to vote since India's most recent national election in 2014.

What We're Watching

Nasrin Sotoudeh – Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has built a formidable reputation by, among other things, taking the cases of women arrested for appearing in public without headscarves. In 2012, the European Union awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. On Monday, an Iranian court ordered Sotoudeh to serve 10 years on top of a previous 28-year prison sentence for "colluding against the system"—and to receive 148 lashes.

Aggressive Australian Animals – Australia is a wonderful country filled with fantastic people, but it's a really, really dangerous place. Drop your guard for two seconds and some angry shark, anaconda, or hairy prehistoric spider will try to beat you senseless. Look what happened to this unsuspecting paraglider.

What We're Ignoring

Maduro Propaganda – Venezuela's chief prosecutor has asked the country's Supreme Court to investigate opposition leader Juan Guaidó for sabotaging the country's electrical system following a massive electricity shutdown across the country. Maduro claimed on Tuesday that the US government had used electromagnetic waves from mobile devices to knock out the nation's power system. We're watching the political impact of the power outages while ignoring laughable claims about their source.

Speculation about the Mueller Report – We've seen arguments in the media that the Robert Mueller investigation of President Trump will end within days, that it will continue for months, that Mueller will issue a report, that he won't issue a report, that he'll issue a report that we're not allowed to read, that there will be two Mueller reports, that he's already issued a report and we just missed it, and that the report will be published only in Latin. (OK, I made up that last one.) This confusion provides proof positive there are still people in Washington who can keep an important secret—and that the only authority on Robert Mueller is Robert Mueller.

Hello and welcome back to the Wednesday signal. Today we wonder how (and why) you'd break up Big Tech, parse the geopolitics of the blowback against Boeing, and take a look at the most meaningless election on Earth.

Send your fan/hate mail here or sign up a friend for Signal here. Thanks for reading!

- Kevin (@kevinallison)


Brexit Watch: With the resounding (second) defeat yesterday of Theresa May's Brexit plan, the embattled British Prime Minister will ask Parliament today to vote on whether, having rejected her deal, they would support a "no-deal" exit from the EU. If, as expected, the result is "no," then she'll tee up another vote tomorrow on whether to ask Europe to extend the deadline for leaving the EU. That deadline, as of now, is just 16 days away.


IS BREAKING UP BIG TECH POSSIBLE?

Kevin Allison

Elizabeth Warren is ready to take on Silicon Valley. The Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, a 2020 presidential contender, says companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook are so dominant that they hurt small businesses and stifle innovation. Her solution: break them up with some old-fashioned trust-busting. Given the growing backlash against Silicon Valley, her idea is likely to get a lot of attention. But there's plenty to unpack here, so let's take it one question at a time.

What is the argument for doing this?

For Warren and other Silicon Valley critics, it's simple: Big Tech has become too big. Amazon, Google, and Facebook revolutionized how we communicate and buy stuff, yes. But they now dominate their respective markets for e-commerce and online ads, which gives them too much power, not only over ordinary users (just try to go a week without using Google!), but also companies that rely on their platforms to reach customers. What's more, big tech companies often acquire challengers in order to neutralize them and hoover up their valuable data. All of this means that the biggest Silicon Valley companies are no longer the disruptive innovators they once were – instead, they're incumbents who stifle competition.

How would Warren's plan work?

Warren wants two things. First, a new law to split up many of the functions that tech companies currently house under one roof. So, for example, barring Amazon from selling its own goods on its own platforms. Second, she wants regulators to unwind historical mergers and acquisitions that, in her view, violate existing anti-trust rules. Facebook's 2012 acquisition of competitor Instagram is one example of a deal Warren thinks was anti-competitive. Others include Amazon's acquisition of the organic grocer Whole Foods and Google's acquisition of the Israeli mapping software company Waze.

What are the arguments against breaking up Big Tech?

The industry's defenders say that tech companies help to facilitate innovation for everyone. Consumers benefit when Google serves tailored ads based on search results, while companies benefit when Amazon can use its insight into what customers want in order to connect them with the right sellers at good prices. What's more, without evidence that these companies use their market power to jack up prices, it's hard to prove there's a real antitrust problem. And while data is now a highly monetizable commodity, there isn't a good measure of how much market share in data constitutes a "monopoly." Focusing on breaking up Big Tech, some critics say, is a distraction from more pressing issues, like protecting online privacy.

What are other countries doing?

Europe leads the world on regulating big tech. The EU has already passed some of the world's toughest privacy rules and recently adopted a new law to curb conflicts of interest by big internet platforms. But Warren's call to break up Big Tech goes beyond even what Brussels bureaucrats envision. European anti-trust supremo Margrethe Vestager has recently backed away from the idea of breaking up tech companies, saying it should only be a "last resort" and pointing to more surgical enforcement of anti-trust rules as the way forward.

What happens now?

Warren, to put it mildly, faces an uphill struggle to make her plan a reality. Calls to break up Silicon Valley giants would likely be fiercely opposed by business-friendly Republicans in Congress – and probably some Democrats who are cozy with the tech sector , or others who just think her policies would be bad for innovation. But even if Warren's plan fails to break through, she has already injected radical new thinking about tech sector regulation into the 2020 contest. That shows how much the political winds have shifted against Silicon Valley in a few short years.

TRAGEDY IN THE SKY, POLITICS ON THE GROUND

Kevin Allison

In the days since the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max jet on Sunday, governments around the world have ordered airlines to ground that model until more is known about the causes of the accident. After all, it is the second time that Boeing's top-selling late model jet has gone down in less than six months.

This is first and foremost a human tragedy – and one that hit home for your Wednesday Signal author, who has friends and acquaintances who lost people in the crash. But the global response carries some strong political undercurrents.

For one thing, the first country to suspend 737 Max flights was China, which happens also to be Boeing's most important market for the aircraft. Chinese aviation authorities may have legitimate questions about the plane's safety, but amid a deep trade spat with the US, Beijing is also keenly aware that the flight ban – which quickly spread to more than a dozen other countries – puts huge pressure on Boeing, one of the largest US manufacturing companies.

Second, the countries that have grounded the new 737 did so despite assurances from the US-based Federal Aviation Administration that the aircraft is still airworthy, given actions taken in the wake of the earlier crash and the early stage of the investigation into the latest incident. That's unusual. For decades, the FAA has set the agenda for the safety and regulation of the global aviation industry. Is that changing? The decision of so many countries – including key US allies in Europe – to ground the plane, despite the US regulator saying it has yet to uncover any "systemic performance issue" that would merit such a move, is "almost a rebellion against the FAA" as one astonished industry watcher told Bloomberg. While it's too soon to tell if the FAA's global clout is lastingly weakened, cracks have appeared in what was once simply assumed to be an area in which the US held global regulatory sway. Sound familiar?

Lastly, it doesn't help the FAA – or Boeing for that matter – that several US lawmakers and two big US flight attendants' unions also called on Tuesday to ground 737 Max flights, or that President Trump tweeted in to complain that today's fly-by-wire jets are "far too complex to fly." The President and lawmakers probably felt pressure to say something, given public concern and other governments' reactions to the crash. But it fits a broader pattern in American politics of distrusting experts and taking cues from social media that everyone seems to be jumping into panic mode instead of citing US commercial aviation's safety record or urging the public to wait for the facts to come in.

We'll find out more about the specific cause of this tragedy as investigators (largely from the US, as it happens) examine evidence from the crash site. But in the meantime, it's worth considering the ways in which the aftermath of the crash is reverberating into broader geopolitical themes of the day.

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What We're Watching

US threatening Germany over Chinese 5G – The Trump administration is willing to cut intelligence-sharing with Germany unless Berlin bans Chinese equipment maker Huawei from its 5G networks. Washington is pressuring Europe more broadly to drop Chinese 5G suppliers over concerns they could give Beijing backdoor access to sensitive communications, data, and networks. Germany is crafting new regulations meant to address these concerns, but it won't impose a blanket ban that could anger China and push up the cost of building the new network. We're watching two things here: first, are those new German rules enough for the Trump administration? Second, will Trump's own (somewhat fickle) approach towards Chinese 5G suppliers (like Huawei) turn out to be as harsh as what he's asking of Europe?

Foreign effects of Trump's new budget – President Trump on Monday submitted his budget proposal for 2020 to Congress. Much of the media has focused on his request for $8.6 billion to build a border wall, which will spark a fresh confrontation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But our eyes are on the nearly 5 percent increase in military spending and sharp cuts to the budgets of the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. Trump will emphasize hard power over soft, and he'll use deep cuts to federal health insurance, the federal pension system, and other social programs to pay for it. The Trump budget doesn't matter much, since Congress controls spending, but it's a good indicator of the president's policy priorities.

What We're Ignoring

North Korea's Parliamentary Elections – The North Korean ruling party has won a stunning landslide victory in the country's latest parliamentary elections, a sign the North Korean people are thrilled with the job their leaders are doing. One noteworthy surprise: Kim Jong-un's name was not on the ballot. It's the first time a North Korean leader has not sought a seat in parliament. We're ignoring this story, because our intuition tells us that Kim's political position remains reasonably strong.

Mayors vs Google – Two mayors in Iceland insist that the Google Maps satellite images of their towns are hurting tourism by showing them covered in snow. "This snowbound image gets on my nerves," one of them told reporters. "I'll post a comment a day, until I get through to them." We're guessing these requests remain fairly low on Google's current to-do list. After all, the company is still – after five years – sorting out whether to show Crimea as part of Russia or Ukraine.

HARD NUMBERS

20: El Salvador last week granted early release to three women serving 30-year prison sentences for having abortions after each spent a decade behind bars. As many as 20 other women remain imprisoned in the Central American country on similar charges, according to activists.

70: White farmers control about 70 percent of farms in South Africa that are held by individual owners, according to government statistics. President Cyril Ramaphosa's governing African National Congress, under pressure from the far-left, is pushing to change the country's constitution to allow expropriation of farmland ahead of elections in the country later this year.

50: The Taliban killed or captured an entire Afghan army company – about 50 soldiers – during ongoing US peace talks. That's one way to drive a hard bargain.

29: A recent Pew study showed that 29% of US adults say they make no purchases using cash during a typical week, up from 24% four years ago. Going cashless is convenient for some, but a number of US cities are considering banning cashless businesses, because of concerns that they exclude poorer people who don't have credit/bank cards. Philadelphia has already done so, and others may follow soon.

Hi there,

Today we look ahead to a pivotal week in the Brexit story, the uncertain end of an era in Algeria, and weigh the arguments for making US allies pay more to host American troops.

Bonus: which world leader has recently been posting some truly golden NSFW material on his social media feeds?

Send your love/hate here, give a friend the Signal here.

–Alex Kliment (@saosasha)

THIS DEAL, NO DEAL, OR MORE TIME? A CRUCIAL BREXIT WEEK

Willis Sparks

The economic future of the UK – and the political future of PM Theresa May – (once again!) hang in the balance this week as British lawmakers take up three big Brexit votes.


Tuesday – "Take it or leave it": Today Parliament will decide whether to approve May's existing Brexit deal – yes, essentially the same one that lawmakers crushed by a historic margin of 230 votes back in January. The one that ran aground in part because it would allow the UK to stay closely aligned with the EU until a solution can be found to the Irish border question. No one we know thinks the deal will pass today, but the margin of defeat matters. If it's huge, that would spell the end of May's deal altogether and might even push her towards resigning. A narrower loss, meanwhile, would at least leave open the possibility that she could go back to Brussels and say "look, we're close, work with me" though the EU seems disinclined to allow that. May reportedly secured some minor concessions from the EU late yesterday evening, but it's not clear if those are enough for her to claim real progress towards a better deal.

Wednesday – "Deal or no deal?": If the deal vote is a blowout loss, then May will ask Parliament for a second vote on whether it can live with so-called "no-deal Brexit", one in which the UK hurtles out of the EU with no economic transition agreements at all. Given how economically disruptive that would be, odds are most lawmakers will vote against it.

Thursday – "Can I get a minute": That, in turn, would lead to a third vote: whether to extend the current "Brexit" deadline of 29 March, giving officials more time to sort out the issue.

We'll be watching this story all week….

ALGERIA: BOUTEFLIKA CONCEDES, BUT WILL ANYTHING CHANGE?

Alex Kliment

After two weeks of nationwide protests against his bid to run for a fifth consecutive term, the nearly-incapacitated Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika issued a statement yesterday announcing he will withdraw from next month's election. The vote will be postponed, and the government will be reshuffled.

The momentum of the protests and a general strike this week that threatened the country's crucial oil and gas industry likely convinced Bouteflika's handlers to change course. A telling moment came over the weekend when the head of Algeria's powerful military signaled that the armed forces were sympathetic to the protesters. Note to embattled dictators: when the military no longer supports you, the game is up. (Cue nervous laughter from the presidential palace in Venezuela.)

But while Bouteflika's withdrawal from the election may calm the protests for now, it's a move that poses more questions than it answers.

For one thing, Bouteflika has not resigned, and the men who have been running the country for him are still very much in power. Will they use that power to shape a transition that satisfies the grievances and aspirations of the protesters? Or will the military manipulate popular demands for change in order to secure a cosmetic transition of power? (Cue chuckles from the presidential palace in Egypt, where the military did just that.) A video that went viral yesterday summed up this fear: in it a young Algerian man shouts to a reporter that the regime has merely "changed one pawn for another."

Hundreds of thousands of young Algerians like him hit the streets these past two weeks not only because they wanted Bouteflika to leave, but because they're frustrated with the broader "système" -- a corrupt, opaque government that, despite massive oil wealth, has failed to create enough economic opportunity in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30 years old.

After thirty years in which Algeria has known a brutal civil war followed by a stifling peace, the protests have opened up the possibility of a substantive change. But unless the government is prepared to concede more than the slow-motion removal of a half-dead president, that promise may yet go perilously unrealized.

PAY FOR THE PRIVILEGE: TRUMP WANTS CASH FOR TROOPS

Willis Sparks

Being a US ally might soon get a lot more expensive. The Trump administration is reportedly preparing a plan that would force countries not only to pay for the full cost of hosting American troops on their territory, but also to pony up an additional 50 percent premium on that bill for the security that the US soldiers provide. Under those terms, some countries will pay as much as six times the amount they currently pay.

To put this in perspective, US troops are stationed in more than 100 countries around the world. There are 56,000 American soldiers in Japan, 35,000 in Germany, 28,500 in South Korea, 12,000 in Italy, and 9,000 in the UK.

The leak of this plan may merely be the opening bid in a series of tough negotiations, but let's take it at face value.


The Argument For

Those in Washington who favor this plan, led by Donald Trump, are asking a few simple questions:

  • World War Two ended almost 75 years ago, so why is the United States still responsible for guaranteeing the security of Germany and Japan, which are now among the richest countries on Earth?
  • Isn't it true that Germany and Japan have become prosperous in part because US protection allows them to avoid spending billions on their own defense?
  • If US troops and taxpayers must continue to accept this responsibility, shouldn't countries that benefit from the US presence pay fully for the privilege?
  • Are those who live in these countries and would be happy to see US troops leave prepared for their governments to take much more money from their paychecks while cutting their pensions and benefits to pay more for defense?

The Argument Against

Those who oppose the plan offer the following answers:

  • The US isn't simply doing other countries a favor by placing its troops on their soil – those soldiers deliver geopolitical benefits that can't be measured in dollars and cents. US bases in Japan, South Korea, Germany, and the Middle East make the US a force to be reckoned with in all key regions of the world. Chip away at that, and others will try to fill the gap.
  • Raise the cost to allies and watch how fast taxpayers in these countries push for the Americans to leave. You might not think that's in their interest, but many of them may well think otherwise.
  • The United States benefits economically, politically, and militarily from stability in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. That stability depends on the willingness of the only nation capable of projecting military power into every region to play a leadership role in keeping the peace.

If President Trump moves forward with this plan, the next important question might be equally simple: What happens if allies refuse to pay?

PUPPET REGIME: KIM JONG-UN WRECKS THE MIC

Alex Kliment

North Korea may be preparing to conduct fresh missile tests, according to reports. President Trump insists that his relationship with the mercurial North Korean Supreme leader remains great, even after their Hanoi summit fell apart – but Kim Jong-un's latest hip hop single suggests otherwise. Watch the video here.

WHAT WE ARE WATCHING

Jair Bolsonaro, Smut Lord – This is NSFW unless your W is covering global affairs. Last Thursday, the Brazil's president asked, in a tweet, "what is a golden shower?" This after he'd posted video in which a half-naked man dances lewdly atop a bus stop in Rio de Janeiro and then allows another man to urinate on him. Bolsonaro – a social ultraconservative posted the vid, it seems, as evidence of his country's moral degeneration, a plague he blames on the Brazilian left. He then recorded a Facebook Live video in which he criticized (and showed) sex education textbooks that feature illustrations of genitalia. We're watching to see if Bolsonaro's polarizing passion for culture wars gets in the way of the economic reform and anti-corruption promises which were major reasons many people voted for him.

Impeachment Talk – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in Washington, said that impeaching President Trump would be too divisive and that "he's just not worth it." Other Democrats, especially those running, or considering running, for president will now have to respond. This response will be among the most strategically important political decisions they will make this year. Impeachment is an issue that can, in principle, fire up the Democratic base, but it risks alienating moderates while handing Trump an issue that, in turn, inflames his own most fervent supporters.

WHAT WE ARE IGNORING

Russian police arresting balloons – Over the weekend, thousands of Russians protested new laws that tighten state control over the internet. The demonstrations, among Russia's largest in recent years, illustrate the risks that the government faces as it tries to curtail internet freedoms that Russians have become accustomed to. Though authorities permitted the demonstrations, police in Moscow arrested half a dozen activists for flying "unmanned aerial devices" without a license. The devices in question? Small blue helium balloons. We're ignoring this flagrant war on joy, but we're also heading over to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew our balloon flying licenses. Back in a few hours…

Assurances that killer robots won't kill us – In response to some bad press that the US army is working on "AI-powered killing machines" the Pentagon has updated a request for companies that can help it build a new gun system that can "acquire, identify, and engage targets at least three times faster than the current manual process." Everyone can calm down, according to the Pentagon: the not-at-all-sinisterly named Advanced Targeting and Lethality Automated System (ATLAS) will abide by US Department of Defense Directive 3000.09, which requires human input into any decision to kill. We're ignoring this fracas, because "lethality" is an overused military buzzword [KAK1] because this totally doesn't sound like the beginning of a bad made-for-cable movie or anything.

Hard Numbers

2.4: Turkey fell into an official recession after data showed the economy shrank by 2.4 percent during the last 3 months of 2018 – the second successive quarter of falling output. That's bad news for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party ahead of local elections on March 31.

225: The US military launched 24 airstrikes in Somalia in January and February, killing 225 people. Washington has intensified its fight against Al Shabab militants in the East African country—in all of 2018, the US carried out 47 airstrikes in Somalia, killing 326 people.

22: At least 22 United Nations staff were among the 157 people killed when an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa on its way to Kenya this weekend. The UN's World Food Program, the International Telecommunications Union, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the UN offices in Nairobi all lost people.

29,000: Around 29,000 people showed up for the latest round of gilets jaunes protests across France this weekend, according to the interior ministry. That's the lowest figure since the protests began last November.

Happy International Women's Day!

It's Willis with your Friday edition of Signal. Today, we'll look at President Trump's tough policy week, shake a fist at embarrassing kids, miss an important flight, follow England's Queen on Instagram, and toss out some really bad steaks.

Let us know what you love/hate, and please share Signal with a friend.

Cheers, – Willis Sparks

Trump’s Tough (Policy) Week

Willis Sparks

This week, we saw evidence that three of President Trump's signature policy plans so far haven't worked.


North Korea: Just days after the abrupt breakdown of negotiations between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam, satellite evidence shows that North Korea has begun a "rapid rebuilding" of a long-range missile test site that had been partly destroyed last year. The work reportedly began after Kim left Hanoi and before he arrived back in Pyongyang.

Is this a bid by Kim to win concessions from Trump by replacing vague promises of denuclearization with specific threats? If so, it appears Kim has chosen a site designed to test the sorts of weapons that might reach the US mainland.

Border Security: Next, we learned this week that more than 76,000 migrants crossed the US southern border illegally in February, the highest monthly total since 2008. Unauthorized entries by migrant families have nearly doubled over the past year. If tougher asylum policies, increased prosecutions, and the separation of children from parents at the border were designed to slow the flow of families from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador desperate to reach the United States, it isn't working.

The Trade Deficit: The Commerce Department announced this week that, despite Trump's pledge to win a fairer deal on trade for American workers by imposing, or threatening to impose, tariffs on foreign-made goods, the US posted its highest-ever merchandise trade deficit ($891.2 billion) for 2018.

The political silver lining(s): Trump is an agile-enough politician to make smart use of all these stories.

On North Korea, he can claim Kim's latest move justifies his decision to keep the pressure on Pyongyang by refusing easy concessions in Hanoi.

On border policy, he'll argue the recent rise in migrant crossings proves that his border wall is urgently needed. In coming days, the Republican-controlled Senate will join the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in passing a resolution of disapproval of Trump's declaration of a "national emergency" to gain funding for the wall. Trump will veto the resolution, Congress will fail to override the veto, and courts will decide the issue.

On the trade deficit, Trump can claim his policies are a work in progress, and that a short-term rise in the trade deficit underlines the need to drive a hard bargain with China, and even some US allies. He can add that his tax cuts have left more money in the taxpayer's pocket, which allowed for more spending on foreign products.

Whatever he says, Trump's supporters and critics will both claim vindication, but the problems these policies are designed to address aren't going away.

Graphic Truth: The Global Gender Earnings Gap

Gabe Lipton

International Women's Day offers a moment to celebrate global progress in securing equal opportunity and rights for women while also recognizing the persistent inequalities they still face. Just consider the world of work: in the past half century, the percentage of women in the workplace has doubled in many Western societies. That said, persistent gaps remain in how much men and women earn. Here's a snapshot from 10 countries.

Three stories in the key of: With Sons Like These

Alex Kliment

Last week, The New York Times reported that Trump had ordered his staff to grant a security clearance to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, despite objections from senior advisers.

The US president has the legal authority to grant security clearances to anyone he chooses, but the episode has raised fresh questions about whether the president's decision to empower Kushner on a host of sensitive briefs – in particular, relations with Saudi Arabia and broader Middle East peace efforts – threatens US national security.

But Trump isn't the only world leader whose kids (or kids-in-law) are creating headaches.

Here are three more examples:


In Turkey, strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year appointed his 40-year-old son-in-law Berat Albeyrak to oversee the treasury and finance ministry of the Middle East's largest economy. Like Kushner, Albeyrak has a background in business but is a policy newbie. Observers worry that he isn't prepared to push back against his father-in-law's demands to keep cheap credit and lots of cash flowing into the economy ahead of local elections later this month. That policy has stoked inflation and hobbled the currency as international investors lose confidence in Turkey.

In Brazil, right-wing firebrand Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency in part because he promised to clean up corruption. But barely two months into his term, Bolsonaro's eldest son Flávio is under federal investigation for money-laundering. It seems that young Flávio, a senator from the state of Rio de Janeiro, has transferred suspiciously large sums of money to his personal driver and made questionable purchases of luxury apartments.

In Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, son of the oil-rich country's president, lives a life of excess, which you can follow – along with 115 thousand other people – on his Instagram account. But "Teodorin," as he's known, has also repeatedly been forced to surrender property to foreign corruption investigators.

Several years back, he reached a $30 million settlement with the US Justice Department over misappropriation of public funds that forced him to give up a mansion and a Ferrari. (He did manage to avoid handing over a prized crystal glove worn by Michael Jackson.) Last year, Brazil seized $16 million in cash and watches from his entourage. Just a few weeks ago, Swiss authorities closed a 2016 money laundering probe with a settlement that requires Teodorin to sell two dozen of exotic cars to fund social programs in his home country.

Political leaders often see family members as among the few they can trust. But whether the problem is inexperience, incompetence, or greed, sons sometimes burden their fathers with bad news.

Puppet Regime: Kondo vs Trump

Alex Kliment

Donald Trump's White House is famously chaotic, but we've found someone – perhaps the only person in the world – who can help. Watch here as Marie Kondo tries to tidy up Trump's administration and spark joy for the man himself.

The Flight We Missed

Willis Sparks

In honor of International Women's Day, Ethiopian Airlines operated a flight this morning from Addis Ababa to Oslo with a flight crew, airport operations, flight dispatch, ramp operation, on-board logistics, safety, catering, and air-traffic control provided entirely by women, according to the airline's Facebook page.

Had we not missed the "last and final" call for this flight, the full Signal team would have been on board with our tray tables locked and our bags securely stowed in the overhead compartment. Not that this flight was a first. In the past, Ethiopian Airlines has offered flights with all-women crews to Bangkok, Kigali, Lagos, and Buenos Aires. Air India and British Airways have operated all-female flights, as well.

What We're Watching

Italy Gets Belted – Later this month, Italy is likely to become the first G7 country to formally endorse China's Belt and Road global investment plan. Italian officials hope to draw Chinese investment into Italy's aging infrastructure and open Chinese markets to more Italian-made products. EU and American officials fear that Chinese investment will leave Italy dangerously deep in debt. (Italy is already the second most indebted country in Europe, after Greece.) They also worry that Italy's endorsement for Belt and Road will undermine their ability to present a united front when bargaining with China over trade and investment practices.

The Queen's Instagram Account – This week, England's Queen Elizabeth II posted on Instagram for the very first time. We'll be watching closely to be sure this lady doesn't become a nuisance.

What We're Ignoring

138: Russian state media has published 138 contradictory accounts of last year's nerve agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK. Ironically, Russian lawmakers moved this week to criminalize "fake news." #ForYourDisinformation

3D printed steaks – A Spanish scientist has created a 3D-printed vegan steak made of rice protein, pea protein, and algae fiber. It takes 10 minutes to print and two minutes to cook. Is this an environmentally friendly way to make a steak? Maybe. Will your Friday author give this a try? HELL NO.

Hard Numbers

2: China reportedly exaggerated both its nominal and real growth rates by an average of about 2 percentage points per year between 2008 to 2016. If correct, the Chinese economy is about 12 percent smaller today than suggested by official figures. This is yet another warning that international confidence in an economy likely to one day become the world's largest will face serious challenges when a sharp downturn frightens investors.

3.8 million: North Korea's food production fell to its lowest level in more than a decade last year, according to UN and Red Cross officials. A heat wave, a typhoon, and floods diminished the food harvest by 9 percent in 2018. As a result, about 3.8 million North Koreans urgently need humanitarian help.

12 million: US shale has been the world's largest source of new oil supplies over the past eight years. Since 2011, US crude oil production has doubled from 6 million to 12 million barrels per day. In September 2018, the US moved past Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world's leading oil producer.

89: This week, the European Commission announced that the migration crisis is officially over. In 2018, the UN refugee agency documented 116,647 people crossing the Mediterranean to try to reach Europe, an 89 percent drop from the height of the crisis three years ago.

Happy International Women's Day! It's Willis with your Friday edition of Signal. Today, we'll look at President Trump's tough policy week, shake a fist at embarrassing kids, miss an important flight, follow the Queen of England on Instagram, and toss out some really bad steaks.

Let us know what you love/hate, and please share Signal with a friend.

Cheers,

Willis Sparks

Trump’s Next Trade Targets

Gabe Lipton

The US and China may be on the verge of resolving – or at least cooling – a heavyweight trade fight that's already seen them slap tariffs on $360 billion worth of each other's goods. If all goes according to plan, a deal will be in place ahead of a summit later this month between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But that won't spell the end of the Trump administration's aggressive bid to remake the global trading order. Emboldened by their apparent successes in renegotiating NAFTA as well as the China trade relationship, Mr. Trump and his hardline trade czar Robert Lighthizer are now going to train their sights on a whole slew of other countries where they think they can win terms more favorable to US industry:


Japan: The US announced this week an investigation into Japanese titanium exports on national security grounds. The Trump administration wants to cajole Japan into accepting quotas on its auto exports and lowering its import tariffs on US beef and agricultural goods. But with upcoming local and parliamentary elections, the Japanese government will be reluctant to offer quick concessions. That means the US could be heading for long and acrimonious negotiations with its closest Asian ally.

European Union: President Trump wants the EU to remove its massive industrial and agricultural subsidies, and has threatened import tariffs on EU cars if he doesn't get his way. European politicians are loathe to scrap support to hugely influential voting blocs, but Mr. Trump can inflict real pain on EU automakers, who are the largest exporters of vehicles to the US. In July of last year, the US and EU agreed to a temporary trade truce while Trump focused on China, but with a Beijing deal in the bag, the US president will be spoiling for a fresh fight. Trump must make a final decision on auto tariffs before May 17.

Emerging economies: The US isn't just taking aim at rich countries. This week the White House announced it would end preferential treatment for India and Turkey under a decades-old trade regime intended to promote growth and prosperity in poorer economies.

The Trump administration's beef is that India hasn't opened up its industries to US firms and that Turkey is wealthy enough to no longer be coddled with special treatment. Note that India and Turkey are just two of 121 countries currently given such benefits, so Trump and Lighthizer may soon go after other targets.

The bottom line: As the dust begins to settle between the US and China, the Trump administration's appetite for trade fights is as strong as ever.

Graphic Truth: Europeans Don’t Trust Europe

Gabe Lipton

This week, French President Emmanuel Macron penned an open letter to the "citizens of Europe," which appeared in 22 languages, urging them to support solidarity and cooperation within the European Union ahead of crucial elections to the European Parliament in May. Macron's message: Europe is in dire straits and the populists have no answers. Exactly how bad are the EU's problems? Here's a snapshot of trust in the common bloc among its members.

Geopolitics: (Of) the Final Frontier

Kevin Allison

The Space Force is really happening. President Trump recently signed a directive creating a new US Air Force unit dedicated to space defense. It's not quite the independent, sixth military branch Trump once touted, but its creation illustrates just how much the competition to dominate space is heating up.


With the US, China, Russia, and other aspiring space powers all vying for strategic and commercial control, space today is a whole lot like the sea was 400 years ago: a vast new frontier of competition with lots of opportunity and huge unknowns.

Here's a quick rundown of the big issues that governments are grappling with on the ethereal plane:

Military competition: Much of America's military dominance on earth relies on objects in orbit. Satellite-based communications, navigation, and early warning systems all help to defend the US homeland and project power around the world. But China and Russia are now challenging America's control in low earth orbit and beyond, with weapons that can knock out US satellites.

Iran and North Korea have also developed jamming systems that can mess with US equipment. It's not a total free-for-all: since the 1960s, international law has prohibited countries from putting weapons of mass destruction in space, or claiming territory or mounting weapons on the moon or other celestial bodies. Still, the new Space Force is another step in the creeping – and likely inexorable – militarization of the final frontier.

Commercial exploitation: But space isn't just about military competition, it's also a (quite literally endless) frontier of private sector commercial opportunity. Over the past decade, companies funded by Silicon Valley billionaires have massively reduced the cost of putting payloads into orbit. That's fueling interest in the commercial possibilities of new industries like space tourism or asteroid mining – and even one day colonizing Mars.

China's getting in on the action, too. In 2014, President Xi Jinping opened up the Chinese space market to private investment, sparking a startup boom. In coming decades, as new private sector players prepare to fan out across the solar system, it will further complicate governments' geopolitical calculations in space. For example, some critics already worry that US efforts intended to promote the private space industry, like a 2015 law that allows companies to exploit "space resources" like mineral-rich asteroids, could undermine the long-standing norm of space as a global commons, and make it harder for governments to address common challenges, like managing orbital debris.

The bottom line: Buckle up, because the geopolitics of space are only going to get more complicated.

What We Are Watching

Saudi Arabia putting women's rights activists on trial – Just in time for International Women's Day, Saudi Arabia has announced that a dozen women rights activists will now face trial for seeking to "undermine the security" of the Kingdom. Members of the group were arrested last spring amid a crackdown that coincided with the move to lift restrictions on women driving. The apparent contradiction here reflects Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's authoritarian approach to modernizing a deeply conservative country: he has taken steps to liberalize certain aspects of society while also unleashing a ruthless crackdown on civil society that includes the jailing of activists and the government's murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

People on Twitter using AI to snoop on Chinese officials – Fair warning: we're not sure if this person who claims to have used facial recognition technology to spot officials who would otherwise be lost in the crowd at the opening of China's National People's Congress picking their noses and stifling yawns is for real. But just the idea that someone is using AI to literally watch the government of a country that's controversially using the same technology to augment its security state and crack down on millions of members of its ethnic Uighur Muslim minority is too good to pass up. The Communist Party isn't pleased.

What We Are Ignoring

A wild Washington love triangle – A carousing pair of bald eagles has been causing a stir in the US capital. Longtime partners Liberty and Justice were Washington's most famous nesting pair before Justice flew the coop last month, possibly to sow his oats after a mid-life crisis. After a few days fighting off a pair of rival suitors, including a dashing interloper named Aaron Burrd, Liberty shacked up with one of them and fled the nest herself. Later, as the local press put it, Justice returned, but found that Liberty had moved on. We're ignoring this story despite the poignant political metaphor, because the feathery soul-mates were recently spotted together again, and they deserve some privacy while they try to work things out.

Indian mustache groupies – Apparently we weren't the only ones who noticed Indian fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman's striking mustache. The fighter jock, who was released by Pakistan on Friday after being shot down over Kashmir last week, became an overnight hero and viral sensation, with young men from across India flocking to barbershops for the "Wing Commander Abhinandan" look. We're ignoring these pretenders, because there is only one Wing Commander Abhinandan.

Hard Numbers

25: China has announced that it will increase its defense budget by 7.5 percent to $179 billion in 2019. While that's smaller than last year's 8.5 percent boost, it marks the 25th consecutive year that Beijing has increased military spending.

3.5: A child born in Venezuela today can expect to live 3.5 years less than one born into the previous generation, according to the Universidad Central y la Simón Bolívar.

$226,500: Spain's far-right Vox party brought in $226,500 in online donations in just two days this week. The upstart party is relying on grassroots support ahead of parliamentary elections on April 28 because it's too small to qualify for the public subsidies given to the country's dominant political groups.

$8.7 billion: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saw his net worth shrink by $8.7 billion in 2018, amid tightening margins and a political backlash against the tech giant. Not to worry, though – Zuck is still sitting on $62.3 billion, according to latest Forbes billionaires ranking.

95: French President Emmanuel Macron has delivered or begun the process of legislating 95 percent of the 60 reforms he's initiated since coming to office in 2017, according to the think tank iFRAP. The question now is whether he can achieve similar success at the European level, after outlining an extensive agenda to do so this week.

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