World Cup Kickoff — Trump and History — Age of Aquarius

Hi there,

Your usual Wednesday steward Kevin Allison is out this week, but fear not: we’ve still got a packed edition featuring: World Cup goals and own-goals, refugee rancor in Italian waters, and a musing on how Trump sees history. As a bonus, a pop quiz on tech totalitarians and a cattle fine.

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-Alex Kliment (@saosasha)

HOSTING THE WORLD CUP: GOALS AND OWN-GOALS

The World Cup starts tomorrow. And as many of you will know, watching the event — or being married to someone who does — is an emotionally exhilarating and exhausting experience that lasts for weeks. Hosting the World Cup, meanwhile, is a hugely expensive logistical nightmare for the countries that do it. And yet every four years countries vie like crazy, both above and below board, to land the event.

Why? Well, from a geopolitical perspective — since we are, after all, politics nerds — here are a few upsides and downsides of hosting the most popular sporting event in the world.

The economic benefits are meager but conveniently concentrated: Killjoy economists say that the World Cup doesn’t net much for GDP. Most of the money spent on infrastructure goes to stadiums that are hard to run at a profit once the tournament is over, and while an influx of tourists provides a short-term boost, it leaves little lasting economic benefit. That said, funneling lucrative and easily-inflated stadium contracts to politically-connected firms is a nice way to keep your squad on side.

The political effects can cut both ways: Holding a successful event like this can be a source of national pride that demonstrates a government’s capacity and boosts its image. Some research even shows that when home teams win, incumbents get a boost at the polls.

But the event can also be a political liability. Even in futebol-crazy Brazil, thousands of people hit the streets in 2014 to protest wasteful spending on stadiums for that year’s World Cup under banners that asked “World Cup for Whom?” Those protests, mind you, were part of a swell of anti-establishment sentiment that ultimately led Brazil into its current political and economic crisis. No such outcome in Russia is conceivable, mind you — Putin’s 82 percent approval rating makes it hard for the beleaguered opposition to even take a shot on goal at the moment.

Burnishing the global bona fides? Sporting events like the World Cup are also used to project power or newfound geopolitical influence. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 were seen as China’s 21st century coming-out party. And when Putin first lobbied to land the World Cup ten years ago, that was his vision as well.

But scoring a big sporting event can only go so far. Russia’s international actions — war in Ukraine, doping in the Olympics, alleged meddling in US and European elections — have tarnished its image. A poll last year showed that majorities in just three countries view Russia positively these days.

Will hosting this year’s World Cup help? Doubtful. For Putin’s critics the event will shine a light on the corrupted, rule-breaking, revisionist regime they see when they look at the Kremlin. For Putin’s supporters, who see him staking out an assertive role for Russia in an increasingly multipolar world, it’ll be proof that no matter what Russia does right, the haters will still hate. ​

GRAPHIC TRUTH: THE SAUDI-RUSSIAN KICKOFF

Those in the know — aka one out of every two humans on earth — will tell you that the opening match of this year’s FIFA World Cup pairs the two worst teams in the tournament: Saudi Arabia and Russia. But if football isn’t their strong suit, we thought we’d see how they stack up in areas where they are, in fact, more competitive. Whistle please!

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Explore the Issues: Cyberattacks, AI and the Future, Government Access to Data

What is the human cost of large-scale cyberattacks by nation-states, and can technology help protect us? Can we have a future where we harness the good in AI while confronting the bad? And how do keep the laws governing privacy up to date? Go deeper on these topics and other big issues with Microsoft at → Microsoft on the Issues.

HISTORY! SAD!

Over the past four days, Donald Trump has trashed the prime minister of one of Washington’s closest allies and given a beaming thumbs-up to a ruthless dictator whom the US has been at war with for 70 years. The foreign policy mandarins are scandalized, allies are confused, places in hell are being reserved for unlikely guests. What gives?

One way of linking these things together is that Trump’s worldview is, in a way, profoundly ahistorical. Not in the sense that he doesn’t know who burned down the White house in 1812. That’s just a common lack of information. Rather, he is ahistorical in the oddly liberated sense that he simply does not care about historical precedents as a useful guide to action.

For Trump, who became president by defying every rule, precedent, and assumption in the book of US politics, the past simply doesn’t matter except as a stylized provocation (Obama’s presidency) or as a dreamy ideal (the “Great” 1950s.)

So it doesn’t matter that Canada and the rest of the G7 have historically been allies — they are, in his view, robbing the US piggy bank, making them deserving targets for tariffs that are popular with the base. By the same token, it doesn’t matter that North Korea is a gruesome and serially dishonest dictatorship whom Trump was threatening to destroy just six months ago — right now Kim is a kindred and theatrical rogue spirit who can be a partner in the most norm-busting show on earth. Hell, maybe there’s even a slim chance it can work.

But the challenge with Trump is this: he isn’t replacing old norms with new ones so much as scrapping them altogether.

That makes it very difficult for anyone — jilted allies like Trudeau, feted enemies like Kim, or strange combinations of both like Putin — to plan constructive policies or to avoid destructive miscalculations. And as Trump’s wire act gets higher and higher, the potential falls become harder and harder.

AGE OF AQUARIUS: A NEW MIGRANT DRAMA DAWNS FOR EUROPE

Last week, the Italian government closed its ports to a ship carrying hundreds of migrants and refugees — including women and unaccompanied children — from North Africa. After a few days in limbo, Madrid signaled that the boat, named the Aquarius, could dock in Spain. Fellow Signalista Willis Sparks drops in to guide you through the various facets of this complex story:

The man in Rome who decided to stop the ship is Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing Lega party, which now governs the country alongside the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. As part of that coalition, Salvini, who won millions of votes by pledging to deport hundreds of thousands of people, is Italy’s Interior Minister.

Let’s look at Salvini’s decision from both sides:

Argument 1: shut our doors

  • Italy has already accepted hundreds of thousands of migrants and isn’t getting enough support from the EU to manage the strain. Leaving aside Spain’s help in this case, Italian officials say Spain and France have done little else. Germany, Sweden and others have taken many migrants, but other EU states — particularly in Eastern Europe, won’t take any.
  • Accepting boatloads of migrants encourages others to risk their lives to reach Europe, exacerbating political problems and creating more humanitarian emergencies at sea.
  • Accepting migrants makes “people smuggling” a profitable business.

Argument 2: open our arms

  • Migrants are human beings, and they deserve our help.
  • Many of these migrants are endangered children who didn’t choose to take the perilous sea voyage themselves.
  • Under international law, ships at sea must help any vessels in distress. The country responsible for operations in that area has first responsibility for rescue. The law makes clear that governments don’t get to decide which drowning people to save and which to simply leave offshore.

Although the flow of Middle Eastern and North African migrants by land into Europe has fallen significantly since reaching one million people in 2015 — the Balkans have thrown up barriers, while the EU agreed to help Turkey house and feed migrants who’d otherwise head onwards to Europe — Italy continues to face boatloads of desperate people arriving by sea routes from North Africa.

While Spain stepped in this time around, it won’t be long before another boat arrives at Italy’s increasingly unwelcoming shores and a crisis starts anew.

QUIZ INTERLUDE: SPOT THE AUTHORITARIAN COUNTRY

Kevin is out this week, but he sent in this quiz to help shed some counterintuitive light on the increasingly fraught relationship between tech companies, governments, and consumers.

Imagine two countries:

Country A: In recent months, the government has reprimanded internet giants for “inadequate” privacy policies and forced the boss of one company to apologize for trawling users’ shopping histories for clues about credit-worthiness without their consent. Meanwhile, the CEO of a large search engine caught public flak for saying that customers were willing to trade privacy for convenience.

Country B: An unelected leader worried about keeping his grip on power already employs tens of thousands of censors to police what people are saying online. Now he’s instructed his technocrats to build an artificial intelligence technology that will automatically detect and delete banned speech.

Can you guess which countries these are?

ANSWERS: DID YOU NAIL IT?

Country A is . . . China, where internet giants Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu have been hit for mishandling mountains of user data. Make no mistake, China’s Great Firewall remains solid as ever, the Social Credit System is developing, and Xinjiang may be the most developed experiment in tech-totalitarianism on earth. But the fact that officials and executives are moved to respond to rising privacy concerns shows the Chinese population isn’t just meekly accepting it all.

Country B isn’t a country at all, folks — it’s . . . Facebook! Mark Zuckerberg is stepping up internal policing of extremist content and “fake news” to keep US and European regulators at bay. At last count, over two billion people log into Facebook each month — more people than live in the US, Europe, and China combined. Facebook is distinctly *not* a democracy and, for better or worse, it’s beginning to exercise ever-more control over what people see, hear, and think.

HARD NUMBERS

120: Record homicide levels have sapped some $120 billion from Brazil’s economy since the mid-1990s, according to a government report released this week. To put that in perspective, that’s almost equal to what the US spent on the Marshall Plan to revive Western Europe after World War Two.

66: A staggering 66 percent of Russians say they expect their team to win the World Cup this year, despite the fact that the odds are 50–1 against the home team. But the disappointment won’t be too widespread: only 15 percent of Russians say they’ll even watch the event closely either way.

40: Close to 40 percent of multinational firms’ profits are shifted away from their countries of residency into low-tax havens each year. That’s a huge amount of revenue that national governments aren’t getting to spend on their people, and it’s one of the reasons for the backlash against “globalism.”

29: Members of the security personnel of Swaziland’s King Mswati III have been fined 29 cattle after pictures of his multi-million-dollar private jet appeared on social media. In a country where two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, that’s a bad leak with a big bovine cost.

3/4: Nearly three-quarters of South Korean businesses say they would be willing to invest in the North if international sanctions on Pyongyang are lifted. One European company is already looking to outsource its technology there — well, we know that North Korea has world class hack- . . . er, we mean programming capabilities.

This edition of Signal was prepared with editorial support from Gabe Lipton (@gflipton) and Leon Levy (@leonmlevy). Spiritual counsel from Alex Kliment and Willis Sparks. Give a friend the Signal here.