Special edition: President Trump's geopolitical legacy

🧨 The next few years will define the following 50

Good morning! A warm welcome to the 44 new subscribers joining the International Intrigue community.

We keep harping on about it, but until we all get our jabs and life returns to normal, it's really important to be kind to yourself. You know, celebrate the little wins:

This week, we've been working 9-5 to find stories you might have missed from all over the world. But try as we might, some weeks we (and the rest of the world) just can't ignore America.

When a toddler is playing with matches in your house, and all indications suggest they’ve acquired the coordination required to burn the whole suburb down, it becomes pretty hard to focus on your neighbour’s problems as well.

Accordingly, the end of the Trump Experiment™️ today means we’re giving our full attention to the matter at hand:

  1. 🕸 President Trump didn’t start the ‘splintering’ of the internet, but it might be his enduring legacy

  2. 🌍 We review the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, region by region

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1. 🕸 The splintering of the internet

Twitter has now been mercifully Trump-free for two weeks. The silver lining of his insurrection effort is the welcome respite from the firehose of offal that was his Twitter account. If all that is news to you, please share your digital-detox tips, pronto.

Now that that immediate chaos is behind us, we're left to consider its impact.

👊 Washington v Silicon Valley

Trump's final year in office has brought the battle between Washington and Silicon Valley into clear focus:

  • Over the northern summer, Trump tried to force the sale of the Chinese owned social media app TikTok. His heavy handed intrusions were roundly criticised, but we’ll go ahead and call that skirmish a stalemate.

  • And now, the final fortnight of Trump’s presidency has seen the Twitter v Trump showdown, and the very one-sided Amazon v Parler stoush.

Taken as a whole, the outcomes of these clashes make it easy to see where the future of political power lies (due in no small part to Congress ceding their political power by refusing to intervene).

Left unregulated, big tech executives will become political king-makers in a way 20th century newspaper barons could never have dreamed.

👀 Other nations have been watching, very closely

What do Germany, Brazil, Mexico, and India have in common?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, via her spokesman:

[Freedom of speech] can be intervened in, but according to the law and within the framework defined by legislators, not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of Brazilian President Bolsonaro:

A world where [Venezuelan president Nicolás] Maduro is on social media, but Trump is suspended, cannot be normal.

Mexican President Obrador:

Where is the law, where is the regulation, what are the norms? This is an issue of government, this is not an issue for private companies.

Influential Indian politician Tejasvi Surya:

If they can do this to POTUS, they can do this to anyone. The sooner India reviews intermediaries regulations, the better for our democracy.

We could include many more examples, but you're busy people. The point is, politicians from the far left, the far right, and everywhere in between are united on one thing:

  • Only government can regulate free speech, and reliance on US 'big tech’ for critical infrastructure like social media and web hosting is a serious threat to national security.

Perhaps we are cynics, but despite what world leaders might say, this is about power, not values. Social media, e-commerce, and the rise of remote work all suggest an increasingly online future. Whoever controls the I̶r̶o̶n̶ ̶T̶h̶r̶o̶n̶e̶ internet, controls the country.

🤴 The Chinese ‘sovereign internet’ model

China has long understood this dynamic. When technology of any kind threatens to usurp or displace the existing source of political power, autocracies are the canary in the coal mine. No leader is more finely tuned to potential threats to their power than the autocrat.

For ~24 years, China has effectively built a separate, sovereign internet behind its great firewall. The Chinese Communist Party’s control over social media is total. By some estimates, there are more than 2 million Chinese officials working across the various agencies responsible for censorship.

💬 We still remember the first time we typed a forbidden Chinese phrase into a WeChat conservation only to watch it disappear half a second later. If only we had a drunk text censorship bureau.

🔀 The Splinternet

China has been spruiking this alternative model of ‘internet sovereignty’ for a few years. Every country is now facing a very real choice:

  • continue with the current 'open model' of the internet and accept big tech’s power, or;

  • develop a national alternative which preserves political power internally.

As Ben Thompson put it:

What is new is the increased splintering in the non-China Internet: the U.S. model is still the default for most of the world, but the European Union and India are increasingly pursuing their own paths.

But, just like a 20 year old on Savile Row, most countries can't afford to go bespoke. As a result, the future of the internet is fragmenting along geopolitical lines:

Over the first 3 weeks of 2021, an off-the-shelf version of the Chinese sovereign model has started to look a lot more attractive.

🌎 One last chance to save the open internet

The events of the last three weeks have dealt a serious blow to US soft power. Countries are right to be worried; that Silicon Valley has such political power over sovereign nations is problematic, to put it mildly.

And honestly, with the state of Jack Dorsey these days… would you trust him? That horror notwithstanding, when it comes to the future of the internet:

  • a splintered system of sovereign internets benefits only those who promote nationalism, isolationism and protectionism, and;

  • an open internet is vital to the future of international business, accessible education, and global prosperity generally.

The world needs a credible alternative to China’s sovereign internet model. For that, innovative regulation that preserves the openness of the internet, while curtailing the power of big tech to make political decisions, is vital. An ‘open internet 2.0’.

The private sector should fight its natural instincts to resist government intrusion, and instead pro-actively help design a successful ‘open internet 2.0’. Failure to do so means Donald Trump's most enduring legacy will be the end of the internet as we know it.


2. 🌍 The Trump Administration’s foreign policy legacy

While there’s no shortage of hot-takes on Trump’s legacy, none can top this effort by Aussie movie-review icons, Margaret and David. The juxtaposition of their dulcet tones against the footage of world chaos gets 5 ⭐️s from us.

🎬 A recap of ‘America First’

Trump’s strategy was ‘America First’. Many credited him for the slogan (like Melania’s ‘Be Best’), but it actually emerged after WWI to champion American isolationism. ‘America First 2.0’ under Trump also meant fewer globally-focused goals and more domestically-ambitious policies, including trying to:

  • ⚖️ Reduce America’s trade deficits (mostly with China)

  • 💪 Push America’s allies to share the costs of maintaining global peace and security

  • 🌍 Withdraw from global institutions, alliances, and treaties.

Biden inherits the consequences of Trump’s ‘zero sum game’ approach to foreign policy. He’ll need to rebuild trust with often truculent allies, re-join global deals, and give world leaders normal handshakes again.

But, here’s a hot take: the Trump Administration got some big things right, most notably recognising that we’d reached high tide on globalism.

👀 We’re watching: the public messaging of Biden’s foreign policy team (which is full of insiders and seasoned professionals). Will they return to the status quo, or will they recognise that the world has changed and try a new approach?

🌍 The Middle East

Trump’s unconventional Middle East policies produced some memorable moments:

Orb seances aside, Trump reshaped the region’s geopolitics by breaking with tradition and diverging from America’s ‘honest broker’ role. The Trump Administration:

  • Recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and facilitated Arab-Israeli normalisation deals.

  • 💣 Withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal designed to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment and assassinated top Iranian general Soleimani.

  • 🥾 Pulled back US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, giving Turkey more influence in the region.

In fairness, the Middle East needed some fresh thinking. Only time will tell whether things have changed for the better.

👀 We’re watching: for what a new status quo in the Middle East will look like. And don’t forget about Iran - they’re not happy and have resumed enriching uranium.

🌏 Asia-Pacific

If a country’s importance to Trump is measured by how often he mentions it, then China takes the cake. Trump’s ‘trade war’ and hard pushback on China’s business and trade practices are his most famous foreign policies, even overshadowing:

  • 🤝 His on/off bromance with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. Trump was the first sitting US president to set foot in North Korea and to meet Kim.

  • 📝 The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which some argue was a lost opportunity for the US to shape trade rules in Asia.

  • 🎖 A strengthened US alliance with India, Australia, and Japan (‘the Quad’), formed to push back on China.

China tried to take advantage of the Trump Administration’s inconsistent approach, pushing boundaries and testing America’s limits. Not only has China expanded its influence in the Asia-Pacific, but they’re filling the vacuums left around the world by a less assertive US.

On the other side of the ledger, the Trump Administration has driven a global hardening in attitude towards China. Far fewer countries tolerate China’s indiscretions in the hope they will ‘open up’.

The question is: will Biden continue his predecessor’s forceful countering of China, or will he try to ‘reset’ the relationship?

👀 We’re watching: how some very thorny issues develop, including: Taiwanese sovereignty (and semiconductor chips), human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and diverging internets.

🌎 Americas and Europe

Trump’s policies in the Americas and Europe have drawn mixed reviews. From Russia’s point of view, it’s been pretty good (Trump has been quick to side with Putin, even against the advice of his own intelligence agencies).

For traditional US allies, it’s been an exercise in patience:

  • 💵 Trump demanded that NATO countries contribute their fair share towards NATO’s budget (a policy that many saw as reasonable and overdue).

  • 🚗 The North American free trade deal was renegotiated as the ‘US-Mexico-Canada Agreement’, which actually changed very little.

  • 🏝 US-Latin American relations were often tempestuous, largely due to the US’ ‘zero tolerance’ policy on illegal migration. But the Mexican President is apparently sad to see Trump go.

The new US administration will be cautiously welcomed by Europe, particularly by NATO which should enjoy more US attention to help counter Russia.

👀 We’re watching: the US-EU relationship in general. There are already tensions regarding the EU-China investment treaty. How will the US draw Europe closer?


➕ Extra Intrigue

Uganda’s President Musaveni ‘wins’ a sixth term in office. His opponent Bobi Wine (which is his stage name) will challenge the result, claiming it was rigged.

Russian authorities detained Alexei Navalny upon his Sunday return to Moscow from Berlin. Apparently, poisoned underwear isn’t punishment enough for opposing Putin.

Up to 8,000 Honduran migrants have crossed Guatemalan borders seemingly bound for the US. Russian state media seized the opportunity for propaganda in record time.

Two female Afghan Supreme Court judges were shot dead in Kabul. It’s the latest effort to derail peace talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban.


🔎 Intriguing recommendations

👩‍🦱 Helen: Space is the new frontier for… fighting pollution? With satellites increasingly used for… everything, there’s more ‘space junk’ falling to Earth. To solve that problem, Japan is developing very cool satellites made of wood.

👴 John: Not worried about the Splinternet? Early adopter of the internet of things? I entreat you (particularly if you’re male) to reconsider. The only antidote to that horror is this map of crowdsourced forest sounds from around the world. Strong recommend.


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