What We're Watching: Bangladesh religious violence, Ecuadorian drug emergency, Lebanese to vote, Russia ditches NATO

Thousands of activists marched in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Tuesday to denounce a wave of violence against minority Hindus over an allegedly blasphemous social media post in the predominantly Muslim South Asian country.

Religious tension rising in Bangladesh: Clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh have surged over the past week, leaving at least four people dead. After an image was posted on Facebook showing the Quran at the feet of a statue at a Hindu temple, Muslims burned Hindu-owned homes and attacked their holy sites. Both sides have taken to the street in protest, with Hindus saying that they have been prevented from celebrating Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in the country. Such acts of sectarian violence are not uncommon in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country where Hindus account for nine percent of the population. Indeed, as Eurasia Group's Kevin Allison recently warned, unverified social media content stoking inter-ethnic conflict is a massive problem throughout South Asia, where for many people Facebook is synonymous with the internet.


Ecuador's state of emergency… again: Ecuador's President Guillermo Lasso has declared a nationwide state of emergency to deal with surging crime fueled in large part by drug trafficking. The measure allows the government to limit freedom of movement and assembly, and gives the military authority to patrol the streets. This comes less than a month since Lasso, a pro-business social conservative elected in February, declared another state of emergency after a gang war inside a jail in the port city of Guayaquil killed more than 100 people. The oil-rich Andean nation of 17 million people has become a transit country for Colombian and Peruvian cocaine where Mexican drug cartels are becoming more influential. The state of emergency might limit burglaries, auto thefts and homicides in the short term, but what happens when it's lifted?

Will Lebanese elections matter? Less than a week since Lebanon saw some of its worst sectarian street violence in years, its parliament voted to hold new legislative elections on March 27, two months earlier than planned. (However, a simultaneous vote on introducing female quotas in parliament failed to pass.) It'll be the first popular vote since 2019, when mass protests over political corruption and economic crisis rocked the country. The pressure is now on for Najib Mikati — who became interim prime minister in July after months of political deadlock — to secure a financial recovery package from the IMF that would pave the way for more international investment and aid as the country plunges further into one of the worst economic catastrophes in modern history. Talks with the IMF will be tough because the government and banks aren't willing to implement the public sector reforms or debt restructuring initiatives that the Fund wants. Indeed, as sectarian tensions linger and many kleptocrats retain prominent roles in Lebanese political life, the upcoming election may not move the needle at all.

What We're Ignoring

Russia breaks up with NATO: Russia says it'll sever diplomatic ties with NATO and withdraw its representatives from the alliance's headquarters in Brussels. This isn't a massive surprise given that relations between Moscow and the EU have been strained for years, particularly since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. But things heated up recently when the EU expelled eight Russians from its offices for alleged spying (Russia's diplomatic presence in Belgium has been steadily shrinking for years because of espionage claims; Moscow denies them.) Perhaps as a tit-for-tat, Russia announced Tuesday that it would not supply more natural gas supplies to power-hungry Europe as it had previously pledged to do. The EU, for its part, has long accused Russia of using gas exports as a political weapon, but this latest move couldn't come at a worse time as energy prices have reached record highs across Europe. As a bonus, stirring up trouble with NATO allows Vladimir Putin to drive a wedge between Eastern and Western European members, one of his favorite pastimes.
A blue graphic using 1's and 0's to form an image of roads leading into a city

Governments, civil society and industry are beginning to understand the value of data to society in much the same way they considered the importance of thoroughfares 200 years ago. Just as these roads ushered in a new era of physical infrastructure that helped society thrive then, today we are beginning to understand the need to invest in modern approaches to our data infrastructure that will enhance economic growth and innovation, support individual empowerment and protect us from harm. Just as our physical infrastructure of roads and highways needs to be used appropriately, maintained and protected, so does our data infrastructure.

To maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of our data use, we need privacy regulations to serve as our global rules of the road that preserve our ability to use and share data across borders, supported by innovative tools and solutions that protect privacy and empower individuals. As we reframe our focus to support data use, let’s examine the regulatory approaches that have been working, and develop new approaches where needed to enable the responsible use and sharing of data. To read more about Microsoft’s approach to protecting data infrastructure, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The president of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

Japan, the world's third-largest economy, has long been a bastion of modern capitalism. But newly-minted PM Fumio Kishida thinks it's time for a rethink of the neoliberal model.
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The Graphic Truth: French presidential frontrunners

France's presidential election is only three months away, and it’ll be no snoozer. Although barely one-quarter of French voters back current president Emmanuel Macron, he’s heavily favored to win re-election because he’d almost certainly beat far-right hopefuls Marine Le Pen or Éric Zemmour in a runoff. But the center-right French president now faces an unexpected challenge from the old establishment right: Valerie Pécresse, the nominee of the Les Republicains party, could give Macron a run for his money if she makes it to the second round. We take a look at how the top four French presidential candidates have polled over the past six months.

What We’re Watching: Biden vs Putin, Rohingya vs Facebook, Peruvian congress vs president

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin agree to disagree. But what a disagreement it is…. From what we know, during their Tuesday video call, the Russian president made clear that NATO’s flirtations with Ukraine are a red line, and that Moscow is prepared to defend its sphere of influence. The Kremlin also wants to see movement on the 2015 Minsk peace plan, which would give Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine broad autonomy. Biden meanwhile stressed that if Russia stirs up fresh trouble in Ukraine, the US is prepared to impose more severe economic sanctions. The US president also told Putin that Washington doesn’t accept the idea that Ukraine’s interests are subordinate to Russia’s. All of that leaves us more or less where we were before the call: Russia with 70,000 troops camped out on the Ukrainian border, and the US sounding the alarm about a possible invasion.

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How is China able to control their tech giants without suppressing innovation?

For Ian Bremmer, one important reason is that there's a big difference between Jack Ma questioning Chinese regulators and Elon Musk doing the same to the SEC.

"In the United States you've got fanboys if you do that; in China, they cut you down," Bremmer told CNN anchor Julia Chatterley in an interview following his annual State of the World Speech.

Still, he says China knows it cannot kill its private sector because it needs to keep growing and competing with American tech firms.

So, who's winning the global battle for tech primacy?

Right now, Bremmer believes the US and China are at tech parity — thanks to their tech giants.

"When we're talking about tech supremacy, we can't just talk about governments anymore."

Hard Numbers: Japanese WW2 shrine visit, UAE shortens workweek, Ethiopian vigilantes, no vax no vote in Latvia

100: Some 100 Japanese lawmakers and cabinet members visited on Tuesday the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo for the first time in two years. The visit was met with the usual outrage from China and South Korea because Japanese World War II war criminals are buried there.

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The French election is getting hot

Germany has been the European center of political attention in recent months, as punk-rock god Angela Merkel exits the stage after almost two decades at the helm. But there’s another big election heating up in Europe. The French will head to the polls in just twelve weeks, and the race has started to get very interesting.

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