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The Worrying Decline of Freedom Around the World

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The 20th century was a bull market for literacy, freedom, prosperity, health, and technology.

As a result of these gains, wealth has increased exponentially, and world poverty is now at all-time lows. Life expectancy continues to improve in most countries, global literacy is near 90%, and there are well over 100 democracies throughout the planet.

But not every positive trend can keep going forever. Sometimes things regress temporarily, only to be corrected later on. Other times things change more fundamentally – and that regression can be the beginning of a newer, long-term reality.

The Decline of Freedom: An 11-Year Trend

According to the Freedom in the World 2017 Report, which scores countries annually on various levels of freedom, there have been recent setbacks in political rights and civil liberties in a number of “Free” countries. These newest declines are partially the result of populist and nationalist forces making significant gains in democratic states.

But Freedom House, the international watchdog organization that produces the annual report, says that this is not an isolated occurrence. In fact, based on their data and methodology, freedom has actually declined on a global basis for the last 11 years.

Here are the aggregate gains and declines in freedom for each year – you can see that declines have been outweighing gains since 2006.

11 Years of Decline

The Decline of Freedom Over the Last 10 Years

While the trend is clear, the most worrying part is that the biggest aggregate declines happened in the two most recent years. Is that a coincidence, or is the decline of freedom accelerating?

Here are the specific countries that have had the biggest declines in freedom over the last decade:

Largest Aggregate Declines Over the Last Decade

The Decline of Freedom Over the Last 10 Years

Countries like Yemen and Ethiopia, which are classified as “Not Free”, have lost further freedom. However, “Free” countries like Hungary or Nauru also lost 10 or more points in the index.

2016: Another Year of Setbacks

The biggest mover in 2016 was Turkey, a country that the Washington Post says is in a “permanent state of crisis”.

A failed coup attempt, the assassination of a Russian ambassador, trouble in bordering Syria, and economic crises have accelerated the march to authoritarianism in the country – and it’s had a 15-point decline of freedom as a result, according to Freedom House.

Biggest Movers in 2016

The Decline of Freedom Over the Last 10 Years

Hungary and Poland are among the Western democracies that lost significant points in 2016, but the report also has its crosshairs on the United States for 2017. It notes the U.S. as a “country to watch” this year because of the Trump administration’s approach to civil liberties, as well as a potential redefinition of the United States’ role in the world.

Here are where things stand as of now:

Map: World Freedom in 2017

Freedom in the World in 2017 by Aggregate Score

For the whole report, which is a highly-recommended read, go here.

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Politics

The Cost and Composition of America’s Nuclear Weapons Arsenal

A data-driven look at America’s nuclear weapons arsenal – both location and deployment, and the costs associated with refurbishing an aging nuclear program.

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The American nuclear weapons arsenal is nowhere near its 1960s peak, but there are still thousands of warheads in the stockpile today.

The U.S. nuclear program is comprised of a complex network of facilities and weaponry, and of course the actual warheads themselves. Let’s look at the location of warheads, how they’re deployed, and the costs associated with running and refurbishing an aging nuclear program.

Let’s launch into the data.

Nuclear Weapons Map

As of 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense maintained an estimated stockpile of 3,800 nuclear warheads for delivery by more than 800 ballistic missiles and aircraft. Roughly 1,300 warheads are actually deployed, while most of the remaining inventory is either held in reserve (as a hedge against “technical or geopolitical surprises”) or is destined to be dismantled.

These weapons are thought to be stored across 11 U.S. states, with the vast majority residing in New Mexico, Washington, and Georgia.

us nuclear weapons location

Source

Over 1,500 of the warheads in New Mexico are retired and are destined to be dismantled at the Pantex facility in Texas.

The United States also maintains a small amount of nuclear inventory in and around Europe as well. Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base likely holds the biggest supply of warheads outside the U.S., and a few weapons are also located in storage vaults in Belgium, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Deployment Data

Nuclear warheads, while devastatingly powerful, are nothing without a delivery mechanism. In simple terms, there are three primary methods for actually launching missiles: Silos, bombers, and submarines.

us nuclear weapons strategic deployment

The most common deployment of nuclear weapons is under the sea. The U.S. Navy is thought to operate 14 ballistic missile submarines, with each carrying as many as 24 Trident II missiles.

Missile silos are not as popular as they once were, but the U.S. Air Force still maintains 400 silo-based missiles, and another 50 are kept “warm” in the event of an emergency.

America’s Nuclear Weapons Budget

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is required to project the 10-year costs of nuclear forces every two years.

Though much of the program is shrouded in secrecy, the budget below provides an overview of the costs of running America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

America's nuclear warhead arsenal budget

Costs in the budget are split between the Department of Energy (DoE) and the Department of Defense (DoD), which handle different parts of the process.

On one hand, the DoD takes care of the delivery systems for warheads. Those submarines, bombers, and missile silos spread around the country will add up to a projected $249 billion in costs over the next decade. Another large portion of the DoD budget accounts for operational aspects of the program, such as funding facilities, control, and early warning systems.

On the other hand, the DoE is responsible for building and maintaining the actual warheads themselves. The U.S. stopped producing new warheads in the 1990s, but all that changed last year.

Back in the Bomb Business

Generally, we think of nuclear weapons stockpiles as a sunsetting resource, slowly being dismantled; however, since the treaty that ended the arms race collapsed in mid-2019, the flood gates may be opening once again.

New warheads are reportedly rolling off the production line, and in the beginning of this year, Lockheed Martin was tapped by the U.S. Navy to manufacture low yield submarine-based nuclear missiles.

The development of lower yield nuclear weapons appears to be a response to efforts by Russia to modernize their arsenal.

Recent Russian statements […] appear to lower the threshold for Moscow’s first-use of nuclear weapons.

– Nuclear Posture Review (2018)

With this new weapons development, the U.S. is aiming to create “tailored response options” to any potential conflict. By eliminating the perceived advantages that adversaries may have, the U.S. is hoping to lower the likelihood of a nuclear conflict.

Arms control advocates warn that new lower-yield warheads entering production will lower the threshold for a nuclear conflict.

While advocates and critics of nuclear weapons debate the merits of new weapons, we appear to be entering a new era of weapons proliferation.

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How China Overtook the U.S. as the World’s Major Trading Partner

China has become the world’s major trading partner – and now, 128 of 190 countries trade more with China than they do with the United States.

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How China Overtook the U.S. As the World’s Trade Partner

In 2018, trade accounted for 59% of global GDP, up nearly 1.5 times since 1980.

Over this timeframe, international trade has transformed significantly—not just in terms of volume and composition, but also in terms of the countries that the rest of the world leans on for their most important trade relationships.

Now, a critical shift is occurring in the landscape, and it may surprise you to learn that China has already usurped the U.S. as the world’s most dominant trading partner.

Trading Places: A Global Shift

Today’s animation comes from the Lowy Institute, and it pulls data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) database on bilateral trade flows, to determine whether the U.S. or China is a bigger trading partner for each country from 1980 to 2018.

The results are stark: before 2000, the U.S. was at the helm of global trade, as over 80% of countries traded with the U.S. more than they did with China. By 2018, that number had dropped sharply to just 30%, as China swiftly took top position in 128 of 190 countries.

The researchers pinpoint China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization as a major turning point in China’s international trade relationships. The dramatic shift that followed is clearly demonstrated in the visualization above—between 2005 and 2010, a number of countries tipped towards Chinese influence, especially in Africa and Asia.

Over time, China’s dominance has grown dramatically. It’s no wonder then, that China and the U.S. have a contentious trade relationship themselves, as both nations battle it out for first place.

A Tale of Two Economies

The United States and China are competitors in many ways, but to be successful they must rely on each other for mutually beneficial trade. However, it’s also the major issue on which they are struggling to reach a common ground.

The U.S. has been vocal about negotiating more balanced trade agreements with China. In fact, a mid-2018 poll shows that 62% of Americans consider their trade relationship with China to be unfair.

Since 2018, both parties have faced a fraught relationship, imposing major tariffs on consumer and industrial goods—and retaliations are reaching greater and greater heights:

trade war china us

While a delicate truce has been reached at the moment, the trade war has caused a significant drag on global growth, and the World Bank estimates it will continue to have an effect into 2021.

At the same time, China’s sphere of influence continues to grow.

One Belt, One Road, One Trade Direction?

China seems to have a finger in every pie. The nation is financing a flurry of megaprojects across Asia and Africa—but one broader initiative stands above the rest.

China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) Initiative, planned for a 2049 completion, is advancing at a furious pace. In 2019 alone, Chinese companies signed contracts worth up to $128 billion to start Chinese large-scale infrastructure projects in various countries.

While building new highways and ports abroad is beneficial for Chinese financiers, OBOR is also about creating new markets and trade routes for Chinese goods in Asia. Recent research found that the OBOR program’s infrastructure expansion and logistics performance improvements led to positive effects on China’s exports.

Nevertheless, it’s clear the new infrastructure network is already transforming global trade, possibly cementing China’s position as the world’s major trading partner for years to come.

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