shadow
binoculars
Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
May
18
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

They met in the middle.

No, not international political leaders. That cohort had another bad stretch: Talks between the two Koreas dissolved. Plans for a US-North Korea summit wobbled. A NAFTA reboot was kicked down the road, though credible players, including the architect of NAFTA under the first President Bush, urged action. America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal continued to reverberate.

But down on the Rio Grande, the river that forms America’s increasingly contentious southern border, ordinary people – from the West Texas town of Lajitas and its Mexican sister city, Paso Lajitas – waded into the shallow water. They splashed and sunned and shared food.

The Voices From Both Sides festival, first held in 2013, is one part family reunion, one part protest picnic. The US Border Patrol doesn’t get worked up about it. Local sheriff’s deputies hang back, sometimes having cordial exchanges with attendees at the edges.

This year the party was “bigger than ever,” The Nation reported. “Families are seeing each other,” Collie Ryan, from the Texas side, told a reporter. “It’s beautiful to see.”

Generally the human preference for connecting, not conflicting, is bigger than the political infighting we so often see. On the Korean Peninsula, a militarized border separates families, parting briefly at officials’ whim for rare reunions between people who await a lasting thaw. In Iran, some shake fists at American policymakers across an ideological frontier while expressing warm feelings toward American people.

There has been action in Congress, renewed today, to try to force a vote on US immigration policy. Another chance to meet in the middle?

~

We’re following the news of the school shooting in Texas today. Education editor Kim Campbell is at a conference in Los Angeles where there has been discussion of the planning by student activists, including the Parkland, Fla., students, of a summer tour starting June 15 in Chicago to keep the conversation about gun violence going. There's a separate push to encourage voting-age students to become part of an eventual political solution to the social scourge. “This isn’t just an issue that we care a lot about,” said a student from Newtown, Conn., who was in attendance. “This is a part of us now.”

Here are our five stories for today. 

1. How goal of ‘regime change,’ with modifications, is gaining new life

How to deal with rogue nations? Recent US experiments with "regime change" in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to delist the policy as an option. But in the latest iteration of the Trump administration, a freshened "troop-less" version is getting a look.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

Despite a spotty record, addressing problematic foreign governments simply by ousting their leaders is getting fresh US consideration, especially regarding Iran and North Korea. President Trump has convened a hawkish national security team, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has endorsed regime change in the past but recently has stressed diplomatic solutions, and adviser John Bolton, one of the most ardent advocates of regime change. Kim Jong-un appears to have decided that the United States is dusting off the policy, as he criticized Mr. Bolton’s recent citing of Libya as the model he has in mind for dealing with North Korea. But if one of Mr. Trump’s foreign-policy “impulses” is a “reassertion of American power,” says Georgetown Prof. Robert Lieber, “there is no appetite in any case for a commitment of US ground troops.” That would appear to point toward a troop-less path to regime change: one that ramps up sanctions and other economic pressures to encourage change from within. Says a former Bolton adviser, “I don’t see the government saying that [regime change] is the policy. But extrapolating forward, it is the logical consequence of what we’re seeing.”

Collapse

How goal of ‘regime change,’ with modifications, is gaining new life

For those who thought that regime change as a policy for dealing with rogue states was dead and buried – think again.

Regime change may have largely fallen out of the national security lexicon after the policy’s application encountered years of violent resistance in Iraq and in Afghanistan has delivered the longest war in US history with few positive results. 

But with the arrival of a hawkish national security team in the Trump White House – and in particular with the rise of one of the most ardent and enduring advocates of regime change in national security adviser John Bolton – the old allure of addressing problematic governments and their threatening leaders by simply ousting them is making a comeback.

It is back concerning Iran in the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the international Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Trump “is as committed to regime change as we are,” presidential attorney and informal adviser Rudy Giuliani told his cheering audience at an Iranian opposition gathering in Washington this month.

And it is back and playing a role in the administration’s approach to North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to have decided the United States is dusting off the policy, as he publicly ripped Mr. Bolton’s influential presence – and Bolton’s recent citing of Libya as the model he has in mind for dealing with North Korea – in threatening to back out of a planned summit with Trump.

Mr. Kim no doubt grasps as much as anyone else the fact that former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi did not long survive his agreement with the US to give up every piece of his weapons-of-mass-destruction program. Trump himself invoked the Qaddafi example Thursday in remarks at the White House, saying “that model would take place if we don't make a deal.” However if a deal is made, he continued, "Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy.”

In the eyes of some US foreign-policy historians and analysts, any association with Trump of a policy the US has occasionally turned to since at least 1953 – when it engineered a government overthrow in Iran – would have to be qualified as a kind of regime change lite. That’s because of the president’s aversion to engaging large numbers of ground forces, as occurred in the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Trump himself does not have any kind of foreign policy strategy, what he has is a series of impulses, one of which is a reassertion of American power in response to what can only be called the [wimpiness] of the Obama administration,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

“But at the same time, there is no appetite in any case for a commitment of US ground troops,” he adds. “So we can wish for regime change, but it’s not going to happen any time soon.”

Sergei Grits/AP/FILE
Shortly before he became national security adviser, John Bolton told Radio Free Asia that nuclear negotiations with North Korea should be similar to past discussions with Libya, and Kim Jong-un no doubt grasps the fact that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, here attending a ceremony in Minsk, Belarus, in November 2008, did not long survive his agreement with the US to give up every piece of his weapons-of-mass-destruction program.

If the temptation of regime change as a policy prescription is only arising now, a year-plus into Trump’s presidency, it’s because the president’s first national security team, led by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H. R. McMaster, were more focused on diplomacy – and engaging even adversarial regimes rather than toppling them. The arrival of Bolton and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Mr. Tillerson as secretary of State put the administration on a different “wavelength,” as Trump said in forming his new team.

Indeed what characterizes this new team perhaps more than anything else is its harking to the “siren song” of regime change, says Stephen Walt, a Harvard University international relations professor and author, in a recent Foreign Policy column.

Moreover, the revival of regime change in White House national-security thinking appears to be one element in a brewing clash between Bolton and Secretary Pompeo – another hawk, but one increasingly exploring diplomatic options.

As a Kansas congressman, Pompeo took a backseat to no one in promoting regime change as the only solution in cases of rogue regimes like those of Iran and North Korea. But as CIA director and so far in his brief tenure as the nation’s top diplomat, Pompeo appears to have modified his thinking.

Upon becoming secretary of State, Pompeo plunged directly into talks with European partners on a fix for the Iran nuclear deal that would meet Trump’s conditions for staying in the agreement with the Iranian government. Pompeo let it be known that with a little more negotiating time he thought a solution could be reached. But Bolton, a fierce opponent of international agreements that limit the US exercise of power, was gleeful over the US pullout from the deal.

Assurances to Kim

And in the case of North Korea, Pompeo reportedly assured Kim in pre-summit talks in Pyongyang this month that the US is not gunning for his regime as part of its demands for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, Pompeo said he told Kim “that what President Trump wants is to see the North Korean regime get rid of its nuclear weapons program completely and in totality. And in exchange for that,” he added, “we are prepared to ensure that the North Korean people get the opportunity which they so richly deserve” – ambiguous wording to be sure, but wording Pompeo went on to explain meant a lifting of economic sanctions and facilitating the flow of private capital into the country.

Brian Hook, director of Pompeo’s policy planning staff, said the secretary will outline, in a speech on Monday, “the diplomatic way forward … to address the totality of Iran’s threats."

Yet regardless of how the looming differences between Bolton and Pompeo play out, clues are already surfacing suggesting that any application of regime change policy in the Trump era is unlikely to resemble the model pursued by former President George W. Bush.

One such hint came from Bolton himself. Within minutes of Trump’s May 9 announcement of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, a clearly energized national security adviser told journalists that “they would be badly mistaken if … they thought” – as one journalist posited – that abandoning the deal was a “precursor” to the US putting boots on the ground in Iran.

But what the Trump model does appear to at least contemplate is a troops-less path to regime change – one that ramps up sanctions and other economic pressures to such a degree that the Iranian people, for example, rise up and take care of the regime changing on their own.

Some supporters of the administration who also advocate a campaign of measures to weaken and eventually topple the Iranian regime say it’s just too early to tell if that is also what the White House is aiming for.

“Sanctions could become increasingly harsh, and could lead to economic collapse,” says David Wurmser, a foreign policy specialist who served as a special adviser to Bolton when he was at the State Department. “I don’t see the government saying that [regime change] is the policy. But extrapolating forward,” he adds, “it is the logical consequence of what we’re seeing.”

New Iran sanctions

The Trump administration is already using the exit from the Iran deal to begin imposing new sanctions on Iran, having moved this week to complicate Iran’s international trade by imposing new sanctions on the country’s central bank.

Yet critics see little chance of “regime change lite” working any better than the muscular military version. They cite the cases of Cuba and Venezuela, and say sanctions have done little to weaken the regimes there, even as they deepen the misery of the general population.

“The belief that ever-tighter sanctions will cause the regime [in Iran] to collapse is wishful thinking,” Dr. Walt says.

Georgetown’s Dr. Lieber is all for a more assertive exercise of American power – which he says should mean utilizing all the tools in the diplomatic toolbox. But when it comes to regime change as policy, he generally lumps it in the “wishful thinking” basket – though with one caveat.

“One could hope for regime change working in Iran and North Korea, and certainly we know in the Iranian case that the population is very restless and would love regime change,” he says. “But the levers of power are held by the regime in such a way as to make that unlikely. The same holds for North Korea, where the levers of power are firmly in the hands of Kim and his buddies.”

But then Lieber offers the exception – the slim-but-plausible-chance thinking that is probably what keeps the allure of regime change alive.

Regime change in Iran and North Korea “certainly doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now,” he says, “but we also shouldn’t forget the lessons of a case like Eastern Europe. What that taught us is that when regime collapse comes, it can happen swiftly and can come quite unexpectedly.”

shadow

2. After four years of Western sanctions, Russia digs in for long haul

Here’s another piece about leverage. While the West’s sanctions against Russia have been in place for four years now, it’s easy to lose sight of just how effective they are. In fact, Russia has largely handled them. But the latest round of US sanctions and a set of new Russian “counter-sanctions” could make the sanctions war much more costly.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

The Kremlin has just about given up on the possibility that the West will end its sanctions against Russia. The early sanctions enacted in 2014 were connected to clear Kremlin acts – its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine – that Russia could in theory reverse (though it had no intention to). But the newest US sanctions appear intended to pillory Russia for “malign activity” that has not been shown to have been carried out by the Russian state and cannot be redressed, such as interference in the 2016 US election or its alleged involvement in the Skripal poisoning. That has left the Kremlin planning for a long future with sanctions – and considering whether to force its people to finally take sides. The Duma is looking at a law to prevent Russian enterprises from declining to provide goods and services to sanctioned Russian entities in order to avoid the attention of US authorities. That would compel Russians to put their country's interests first. But critics warn it could also make sanctions bite much more widely across the economy.

Collapse

After four years of Western sanctions, Russia digs in for long haul

Russians have been living under Western sanctions for four years now, and they have undeniably survived.

But the debate now unfolding in Russia's parliament, and its expert community at large, seems to be no longer about how to manage the temporary burden of sanctions. Rather, it seems to be about how to adjust to permanent life without any hope of achieving broad integration with the West.

Anti-Russia sanctions appeared to be a straightforward admonition four years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea and intervened to back Ukrainian rebels in their war against the new Kiev government. The message to Moscow conveyed by the first rounds of sanctions was: Correct these specific behaviors and we'll discuss removing the sanctions. Russia, of course, did not comply, and even levied its own counter-measures.

But the most recent round of US sanctions, and further ones under discussion, appear unconnected to any specific actions taken by the Kremlin. Rather, they seem to be intended to pillory Russia for generalized “malign activity” that has not been shown to have been carried out by the Russian state, such as interference in the 2016 US election or its alleged involvement in the Skripal poisoning.

This week the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, responded with a long-term “counter-sanctions” law, as well as another bill under preparation which would criminalize fence-sitting on the part of Russian banks and companies. The pair suggests that the Kremlin is finally getting serious about forcing all its citizens to choose sides in what is shaping up to be a very long struggle.

“There is no point in looking for an answer that will satisfy the West. It's obvious now that sanctions are forever,” says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Institute of Globalization Problems in Moscow. “If it means that we have to look for new rules of international relations in order to adapt, then so be it. We are facing a whole new reality.”

Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik/Reuters
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gives a speech during a session at the Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow on April 11. The Duma is looking at a law to prevent Russian enterprises from declining to provide goods and services to sanctioned Russian businesses in order to avoid the attention of the US.

Digging in for the long haul

The first draft of the Duma “counter-sanctions” bill included retaliatory measures such as banning exports of Russian titanium, rocket engines, and nuclear materials, and imports of critical items like American pharmaceuticals. That would certainly inflict pain on some US industries – Boeing relies on Russia for about 40 percent of its titanium.

But it would hurt Russian companies more. Critics lambasted this approach as “bombing Voronezh,” or punishing Russians in order to demonstrate defiance against Washington. Most of those measures have been stripped from the bill, which will go through its third and final reading in the next few days.

“Russia cannot leave the [US sanctions] unanswered,” says Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy chair of the Duma and an author of the new law. “We didn't want something that would be just symbolic, or would do harm to Russia's economy. In this war of mutual restrictions in trade and cooperation, we need to take counter-measures. But this draft law ... give[s] the president and government maximum flexibility in limiting the activity of companies that have American assets, or constraining their opportunities to participate in privatization deals....”

Mr. Tolstoy says the Duma is also looking at the second law to compel all Russians to put their own country's interests first, by preventing Russian enterprises from declining to provide certain goods and services to sanctioned Russian entities in order to avoid the attention of US authorities.

But critics warn such a law may lead the US to spread their sanctions much more widely across the Russian economy, far beyond the approximately 400 Russian companies and 200 individuals who are already on US sanction lists.

“Say you've got a Russian bank or company that is avoiding sanctions by holding back services from Russian entities that are sanctioned. Now they need to provide that service, or face being sued by the Russian government,” says Anton Pomino, director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog. “A lot of businesses are expressing alarm at this measure, because it will finally make the sanctions bite deeply into the Russian economy, and maybe make them work.”

There is some dispute about the toll that joint Western sanctions have so far exacted from the Russian economy. Most experts say that around 1 to 2 percent was shaved from annual Russian GDP over the past four years. Blocking Russian access to Western high technology and financial markets may have serious consequences for Russian industrial development down the road, experts say.

“Our economy survived, it didn't go to pieces,” says Igor Nikolaev, director of the Institute of Strategic Analysis, founded by FBK, a leading Moscow financial consultancy. “It is, after all, a market economy. Even if it has a specific character of being state-led and monopolistic, it is flexible and adaptable. [But] we've paid a price in growth for the sanctions, and we face continued uncertainty. Now we hope for economic reforms, to pull us out of stagnation.”

One thing Russian leaders will have to take into account is the apparent rise in public alarm over the prospect of living amid a permanent schism with the West. A poll released this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 56 percent of Russians believe their country is “internationally isolated,” up 10 percent from a year earlier. The number of those who say they are “concerned” by the growing isolation jumped to 37 percent from 25 percent over the same period.

A wider sanctions war to come?

No one knows what impact the new US sanctions will have. For one thing, they appear to be less well thought-out than previous ones, and more likely to inflict unintended collateral damage.

A case in point was the US Treasury Department's attempt to sanction the Russian aluminum giant Rusal, whose main owner is Kremlin-connected oligarch Oleg Deripaska. But Rusal is embedded in global supply chains, and the pain was felt from Australia to Ireland, causing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to quickly backtrack. “Rusal has approached us to petition for delisting,” he told journalists last month. “Given the impact on our partners and allies, we are issuing a general license extending the maintenance and wind-down period while we consider Rusal's petition.”

For another, with its withdrawal from the internationally backed Iran nuclear accord, the US seems to be gearing up to wage a much wider sanctions war that will directly harm European allies who want to maintain the deal. That could create opportunities for Russia, which also supports the deal, to make common cause with Europeans and, perhaps, win some sanctions relief for itself in the process.

“By levying sanctions in such a promiscuous way, the Trump administration is basically undermining the existing global economic order,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “When Trump threatens the European Union with sanctions [if it doesn't stop doing business with Iran], he's threatening institutions that have been built up over recent decades. It's hard to guess how this will play out.

“Russia is a tiny part of the global economy, and cannot affect any of this directly. But it does create interesting new opportunities, even if they are not Russia-driven. Moscow may hope that other big economic players will need to draft new approaches, and we may find ourselves playing a cooperative role in that.”

shadow

3. Labor shortage? Employers tap foreign workers, visas permitting.

Temporary visas are a small part of the politically fraught issue of immigration. But recent restrictions and a tight job market are putting fresh focus on the role foreign workers play in the US economy – and on issues such as fairness and openness. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Lobster Claw restaurant owner Don Berig (r.) visits with seasonal kitchen workers from Jamaica (from left): Angeneta Grant, Nickoy Capleton, and Orville Ruddock in Orleans, Mass. Ms. Grant has worked here for 18 seasons and Mr. Ruddock for six. Mr. Capleton is new this year. Workers from Jamaica have been employed at the restaurant for the summer season for years on the H-2B visas.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Todd Barry knows the quandary of today’s US job market better than most. “It’s great that the economy is good, but if you don’t have the staff to operate you’re in trouble,” says the owner of Moby Dick’s Restaurant on Cape Cod. Workers from other countries make up a sizable portion of his staff each year. But Republicans in Congress pared back the so-called H-2B program of temporary visas in 2016, leaving many seasonal businesses around the United States wondering if they'll be able to find enough workers. Skeptics of the program say the answer is, “hire American.” David North, an advocate for less immigration, calls the program a form of indentured labor since the guest workers are tied to their employer. Supporters say labor inspectors closely monitor the program and that the visas go where workers are truly scarce. Congress allows 66,000 H-2B visas each year, split between winter and summer seasons. Now, from Louisiana to Maryland, many businesses are still waiting to find out if extra visas will be approved – and pondering how to cope if they aren’t.

Collapse

Labor shortage? Employers tap foreign workers, visas permitting.

Inside the white-shingled beachfront building, past the doubled-stacked lobster tanks out front, Tim McNulty is back in the kitchen with his lunchtime crew. It’s an overcast midweek day, and no tour buses are in town, but there’s a steady flow of diners into the family-owned restaurant.

Mr. McNulty is part of that family. He started out in the kitchen, after his mother bought the Lobster Pot in 1979, and he worked his way up to executive chef. For the past two decades, he’s come to rely on guest workers who arrive in April and stay into October, when the shutters come down for the season and the neon lobster sign outside goes dark.

This year he caught a break: His regular crew of Jamaican chefs and dishwashers and janitors all got their seasonal work visas. Other business owners, from hoteliers and caterers to landscapers and swimming-pool cleaners, weren’t so fortunate.

Along with crabbers in Maryland and shrimpers in Louisiana, many here on Cape Cod came up short in what has become an annual scramble for H-2B visas, a non-immigrant category of visas that nonetheless has become a lightning rod in the national immigration debate.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Residents and tourists walk past the Lobster Pot restaurant in the center of town, September 17, 2015 in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Fishing and tourism are big moneymakers here.

Congress sets an annual cap of 66,000 H-2B visas, divided equally into winter and summer seasons. That the decades-old program is now hugely oversubscribed – 81,600 applications were filed on Jan. 1 for summer jobs – is another sign of a strong economy with low unemployment. And to employers and their advocates, the answer is simple: Issue more visas and fill the jobs with foreigners.

“This is a crisis. Seasonal businesses are shutting down or turning away business,” says Laurie Flanagan, co-chair of a coalition of business groups that rely on H-2B workers.

To critics of H-2Bs and other work-visa programs, the signal is different. Employers are exploiting cheap labor from abroad to fill jobs that Americans could do, provided the pay was improved. “The solution is to raise the wages. It wouldn’t take much, maybe a dollar or two more an hour, and bingo, you’d have everyone you wanted,” says David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies that advocates for lower immigration to the US.

While President Trump has catalyzed anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican Party and cajoled US companies to “hire American,” he takes a more benign view of guest workers. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s resorts in New York and Florida have obtained H2-B visas to hire foreign servers, cooks, and housekeepers.

Last month the president told a rally in Macomb County, Mich. that “our unemployment picture is so good and so strong that we’ve got to let people come in, they’re going to be guest workers.” Trump added, “we’re gonna have the H-2Bs come in ... but then they have to go out.”

And this is exactly what happens, says Don Berig, who has owned the Lobster’s Claw in Orleans for 49 years. “They come and they go home. They don’t break the law,” he says of his 15 guest workers from Jamaica and Slovakia.

Last year Berig and his wife, who are both in their seventies, were themselves working in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, because their foreign workers were still waiting in April for their visas.

Employers on Cape Cod say it’s not as simple as paying higher wages to “hire American,” given a small year-round population and expensive housing that deters job seekers from afar. (For the guest workers, employers are often able to help find cheap but very modest housing.) Under the H-2B program, employers must first advertise jobs in newspapers and online before the visas are issued. But they say this rarely turns up candidates willing to work as cooks or housekeepers for $15 an hour, as guest workers do.

“There’s not enough people locally to meet the demand,” says Chris Kolwicz, a manager at the Wychmere Beach Club in Harwich, which employs 135 seasonal staff. This year he applied for 18 H-2B visas – and received none. “It’s frustrating,” he says.

To fill slots, Mr. Kolwicz has gone to job fairs and for some positions bumped starting wages, but is still short staffed. And applicants don’t always show up for job interviews, he gripes. Like many here, he hires college students to work in bars and restaurants, but most are gone by mid-August, and the season runs into September.

“Businesses are hurting. It’s great that the economy is good, but if you don’t have the staff to operate you’re in trouble,” says Todd Barry who owns Moby Dick’s Restaurant in Wellfleet. In past years, around a quarter of his workers came on H-2B visas, but this year he didn’t enter for the program, deterred by the expense and hassle. He hires European students who come for the summer on J-1 visas and, for the first time, went to Puerto Rico in January to recruit there.

“I want to hire Americans, but they’re not available for the timeframe that we need them. And it’s not a matter of paying more. We pay good wages,” Mr. Barry says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jamaicans Angeneta Grant and her husband, Orville Ruddock, in the US on H-2B visas, are cooks at the Lobster Claw in Orleans, Mass. The restaurant has long employed workers from Jamaica as cooks, bus boys, and dishwashers for the summer season, on the visas for temporary nonagricultural jobs.

Under the spending bill Congress passed in March, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the authority to issue additional H-2B visas. Last year an extra 15,000 visas were released, but not until July, too late for many resort owners. And while Trump has praised guest workers, the program is seen as toxic to immigration hawks in his administration.

A separate guest-worker program for agricultural workers is also in the spotlight. Farmers in California and other states have complained that repeated delays in issuing H-2A visas are leading to fruits and vegetables going unpicked. The crackdown on illegal immigration is also affecting the sector; nearly half of farm workers in the United States are unauthorized, according to official surveys.

Until 2016, Congress exempted H2-B holders who had worked in any of the previous three years from the annual cap, effectively expanding the pool of workers. Among those who opposed this exemption were then-Senator Jeff Sessions (now Trump’s attorney general), along with Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left. The exemption ended four months before Trump took office on Sept. 30, 2016.

Mr. North, who served in the Labor Department under President Lyndon Johnson, describes himself as a “liberal restrictionist” on immigration policy and says employers have been “spoiled” by foreign labor. “My opposition to foreign worker programs relates to numbers not ethnicity,” he says.

He points to incidents of abuse and trafficking of H-2B visa holders whom he calls a form of indentured labor since they are tied to their employer. Ms. Flanagan says labor inspectors closely monitor the program and points out that workers are given cards detailing their legal rights while in the US.

Back at the Lobster Pot, more than a third of McNulty’s 100-strong workforce are H-2B visa holders. They are familiar faces, coming back season after season to cook and clean and serve. For the past two years McNulty opened the restaurant a month late in May because their visas didn’t come on time. And the uncertainty over who would get visas this year – DHS switched to a lottery system because of the huge demand – forced him to draw up a Plan B for this year.

That plan was to only serve dinner, not lunch, until he could find and train new workers. “Right now, we wouldn’t be open, if we didn’t get our [foreign] staff,” he says.

McNulty estimates that opening a month late in 2016 and 2017 meant around $900,000 in lost revenue. That revenue also supports his local suppliers and state tax collections, and puts money into the hands of workers who spend it. “Everyone loses,” he says.

shadow

4. The town at the hub of the world’s race to stake out the Arctic

The fact of retreating ice at Earth’s poles triggers hot debate over root causes. It fuels discussions about environmental adaptation. It has nations jostling for geopolitical advantage. Our writer visited a scruffy port town in Norway’s far north to see how local pragmatism – the simple need to find a new place in a new Arctic landscape – fits in.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
Nestled at the edge of the Barents Sea, at the very top of Norway, Kirkenes is seeking new business in the wake of the closure of its bankrupt iron-ore works.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 13 Min. )

What is going on at the top of the world? “Pretty crazy things,” according to top climate scientist Mark Serreze. And as the Arctic ice melts, nations near and far are jockeying for pole position in a tussle for economic, military, and strategic dominance. Within the next half-century the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer, offering blue-water shipping lanes from the Pacific to the Atlantic; China is looking to exploit this shorter and cheaper alternative to the Suez Canal, and Beijing has declared its goal of becoming a “polar great power.” Russia, which has the longest Arctic coast of any nation and a wealth of natural resources, is building air bases in the frozen North and ice-breaking naval vessels armed with cruise missiles. Washington, though, has paid little attention to the Arctic in recent years, and the United States is “late to the game,” in the words of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Meanwhile, a tiny town at the top of Norway has set itself an ambitious target: to be the next Singapore.

Collapse

The town at the hub of the world’s race to stake out the Arctic

Rune Rafaelsen is a man with a very ambitious plan.

Mr. Rafaelsen is the mayor of Kirkenes, a small port at the northern tip of Norway, 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle. Kirkenes is the end of the line for a passenger ship that trundles daily up the coast through scenic coastal fjords. Its 3,000 inhabitants live in the shadow of an iron-ore works that went bankrupt in 2015. The town is best known for its dramatic northern lights and king crabs, the massive crustaceans with legs the size of sculling oars.

And yet snowy Kirkenes is the place that Rafaelsen envisions as a “new Singapore,” the crucial pivot of a revolutionary global trade route across the rooftop of the world linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

It seems an unlikely prospect. But as melting sea ice opens up the Arctic for the first time in tens of thousands of years, the remote and inhospitable region is emerging as one of the last frontiers of a great geopolitical clash. The world’s big powers – including Russia, China, and to a lesser extent the United States, as well as several other countries – are competing fiercely to exploit the Arctic’s shipping lanes, tap its vast booty of minerals and energy, and otherwise gain an economic and military toehold in this strategically important region.

PETER FORD/THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
MAYOR RUNE RAFAELSEN

All this may turn out to make Rafaelsen’s dreams for Kirkenes less quirky than they sound. Indeed, it could put the remote town, where whale steak enlivens local restaurant menus and tourists can stay in one of the world’s few ice hotels, at the eye of a gathering storm of interest, investment, innovation, and tussles for influence in the Arctic.

“The Arctic has turned into an incredibly interesting place where climate change and geopolitics are becoming intertwined,” says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, a US research institute in Boulder, Colo.

***

While countries have been laying plans to take advantage of the Arctic for decades, it’s only been recently that the climate and technology have changed enough to allow those ideas to move from notional to something more concrete. Earlier this year the Eduard Toll, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker named after a 19th-century Russian Arctic explorer, was the first ship to make the winter voyage from one end of the Arctic to the other without assistance from an icebreaker.

“Pretty crazy things are happening,” says Dr. Serreze. Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as the world average. The four lowest measurements of winter ice were all taken in the past four years, and summer ice cover levels have been falling by 13 percent each decade since 1981.

By midcentury, experts predict, there will be no ice in the Arctic during the four months of summer, just a blue ocean. That probably means no polar bears either.

But in Kirkenes it means much more than that. “I’m not in favor of global warming but it’s happening, and in Kirkenes we need to exploit it,” says Kenneth Stålsett, head of the local government’s business development arm.

Mr. Stålsett, an enthusiastic young man with a doctorate in innovation and strategy (read “disruption”), is promoting the construction of a railroad south from Kirkenes toward European markets. The scheme has won tentative approval from the Norwegian and Finnish governments.

It is not hard to see where supporters of the project expect to find enough cargo to make the rail link profitable. On one wall of Rafaelsen’s office, near his ceremonial mayor’s chain, hangs a scroll decorated with a scarlet Chinese paper-cut – a souvenir from one of his visits to the Middle Kingdom.

The Chinese government is putting high hopes in a future Arctic Northern Sea Route: One trial voyage from Shanghai, China, to Rotterdam, Netherlands, took less than two-thirds of the time it would have taken to sail via the Suez Canal – the normal route going from east to west – with corresponding savings in fuel and other costs.

China’s state-owned shipping giant ­COSCO has begun building ice-rated container vessels for its own fleet and is building smaller ice-capable ships that the world’s biggest shipper, A.P. Moller-Maersk, will operate on feeder routes. “We are closely following the development of the Northern Sea Route,” says Anders Boenaes, head of network for the Danish firm.

Beijing is more enthusiastic, taking “a forward-leaning view of a long-term strategy,” says Heather Conley, an Arctic affairs specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

A Chinese white paper published in January, setting out Beijing’s Arctic policy for the first time, declares its intention to build a “Polar Silk Road” by developing Arctic shipping routes.

OLESYA ASTAKHOVA/REUTERS
The Christophe de Margerie (r.), an ice-class tanker built to transport liquefied natural gas, is docked in the Russian Arctic port of Sabetta. Russia is dramatically expanding its commercial activity in the Arctic region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Russian parliament in March that his goal was to make the Northern Sea Route, which runs along 3,000 miles of his country’s coastline and which Moscow claims – controversially – as its internal waters, “a truly global and competitive transport route.”

He will face many hurdles. There are no ship repair or rescue facilities yet in the Arctic. Nautical charts are poor or nonexistent. Communications are difficult at high latitudes. Drift ice poses a threat to shipping lanes, and the weather is often foul.

An ocean-to-ocean transit route “may be possible, but there is a lot of work to be done,” cautions Lawson Brigham, a former US Coast Guard icebreaker captain who now teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. To think that the 15,000 vessels that currently transit the Suez Canal each year are going to switch soon and join the two dozen now working the Arctic passage is “nuts,” he says. But the Northern Sea Route “could be a seasonal supplement.”

That’s all that Stålsett says he needs to make his port and railroad vision come true in Kirkenes, the first European port where a Chinese vessel traversing the Arctic could berth. Even if just 10 percent of China’s seaborne exports pass through the town by 2030, that would mean “an enormous increase in Arctic shipping,” he points out. “We need to start building tomorrow.”

***

It is hard to imagine how dramatically such a project would transform Kirkenes, a snow-muffled utilitarian town tucked between barren hills and the sea. The community grew up around the now-defunct iron-ore works, but today half the residents work in government administration.

Tourism is the biggest local industry, serving the passengers from the coastal cruise ship. In winter, which is most of the time here, visitors line up to take king crab “safaris.” Guides zip them by snowmobile across frozen fjords, drill holes in the ice, set traps, and then pull up the mammoth creatures, which everyone later eats, one succulent leg at a time. Others stay in the hotel sculpted seasonally entirely out of ice and snow, an experience that local boosters – perhaps with too much marketing time on their hands during the endless winter nights – call very “snice.”

The scruffy port of Kirkenes does a steady business servicing Russian trawlers and the Chinese seismic exploration vessels that are seeking oil for Russian companies. The town of red, white, and mustard-colored homes sits just nine miles from the Russian border and includes among its inhabitants the occasional reindeer herder.

SPUTNIK/ALEXEI DRUZHININ/KREMLIN/REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin inspects Yamal LNG, Russia’s second liquefied natural gas plant, which is under construction in Russia’s Arctic port of Sabetta.

The idea of becoming a global trade hub appeals to everybody in Kirkenes, says Terje Sirma-Kristiansen, who works on a nearby military base. “It would mean growth now that the mine has closed,” he says. “We can’t live from hunting anymore.”

While the town may experience a boom, so, too, will the cobalt waters off its coast. Russia, for one, plans to ship more and more of its mineral wealth along the Northern Sea Route to international markets.

The Eduard Toll, the vessel that made a historic winter passage last January, serves Yamal LNG, a $27 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia that Mr. Putin opened in December. The ship is one of four such tankers; 11 more are on order, their reinforced hulls enabling them to steam east or west, to Asia or Europe, throughout the year. By 2023, they will be leaving the newly built port of Sabetta at the rate of more than one ship a day.

And it is not just a matter of hydrocarbons. The Arctic contains a wealth of resources that are “absolutely crucial to major economies in the 21st century,” according to Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former president of Iceland who now chairs the Arctic Circle, a forum for debate on regional issues.

In Russia, Norilsk Nickel is the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium and a big supplier of platinum and copper. On Canada’s Baffin Island, one of the world’s highest quality iron-ore mines began shipping in 2015. Chinese and Australian firms are preparing to mine zinc, uranium, and rare-earth metals in Greenland.

Finnish, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, and Chinese officials are discussing laying a 6,500-mile fiber-optic cable across the Arctic Circle by as early as 2020. The region is rich in geothermal and wind energy potential.

In more traditional terms, the US Geological Survey has estimated that about 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil may be found within the Arctic Circle. Most of those reserves lie on land or inside one country or another’s maritime exclusive economic zone. But that hasn’t stopped Denmark, Canada, and Russia from filing rival competing claims to parts of the Arctic seabed that each argues is an extension of its continental shelf.

The Kremlin claims almost half of the Arctic Ocean floor, and a patriotic Russian adventurer once descended in a mini-submarine to plant a titanium Russian flag on the seabed directly beneath the North Pole.

The US, though a polar nation because of Alaska, can press no such territorial claims, since any petitions will be decided by a commission under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Washington has not ratified.

***

These varied resources and their newfound accessibility have invested the Arctic with unprecedented geostrategic importance. Russia, whose territory makes up more than half of the Arctic Ocean’s coastline, is best placed to benefit. After two decades of neglect in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Moscow has been making some decisive moves in the region.

“The wealth of Russia will grow with the expansion into the Arctic,” Putin said at last December’s annual Kremlin press conference.

Already, the Arctic accounts for 20 percent of Russia’s exports and 10 percent of its gross domestic product. The LNG plant at Sabetta, and a sister plant due to come on line within five years, will make Russia “the new Qatar,” according to Novatek, the private Russian company leading the project.

Putin is reestablishing the military control over the Arctic that had lapsed for two decades. In recent years, the Russian Army has rebuilt or expanded six forward bases on Arctic islands and is equipping them to host tactical combat aircraft, according to a Danish Defence Intelligence Service report.

The Arctic is also home to most of Russia’s strategic submarine fleet and to its fleet of icebreakers – the largest in the world. The Kremlin has ordered two ice-breaking warships, armed with cruise missiles, for delivery in 2020.

“To what end is opaque,” Adm. Paul Zukunft, the US Coast Guard chief, told Defense & Aerospace Report last December. “Is it to make this an area that the United States would be denied access? We have to assume that the answer to that question ... is yes.”

ARTERRA/UIG/GETTY IMAGES
Ice floes drift in open water in the Arctic Ocean. By midcentury, experts predict, there will be no ice at all in the Arctic during summer months, opening it to more shipping and other activity

***

China is no less ambitious with its Arctic plans. When five Chinese Navy vessels sailed into US territorial waters off Alaska in September 2015, they were not threatening force but sent a very clear message: that Beijing wants to become a polar great power. President Xi Jinping has been working assiduously ever since to advance that goal, which he first declared in 2014.

China has branded itself a “near Arctic state” (although Beijing is closer to the Equator than to the North Pole) and has stepped up its Arctic activities dramatically over the past decade. Beijing’s strategy fits a grander vision than that of most Western governments: Along with the deep seabed and outer space, the North and South Poles are defined as China’s “new strategic frontiers” in a 2015 national security law.

“China now has more money to spend on new polar infrastructure, such as bases, planes, satellite installations, and icebreakers, than any other state,” says Anne-Marie Brady in her new book, “China as a Polar Great Power.”

The time and money that China has devoted to Arctic scientific research has earned it observer status on the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum for cooperation among Arctic states.

Beijing has won recognition as a legitimate business partner with its heavy investment in the region: Chinese companies own 30 percent of Yamal LNG, and Chinese firms are making billion-dollar investments in biofuel projects in northern Finland and mining ventures in Iceland and Greenland. Chinese shippers are testing Arctic routes for their commercial viability.

“We are seeing an incredible uptick in Chinese economic and commercial activity,” says Ms. Conley.

In its white paper setting out policy for the region, Beijing focused on shipping and energy and mineral exploration, as well as fisheries and tourism. Behind those priorities, however, lie deeper geopolitical ambitions – notably becoming a great maritime power. “China’s thinking on the polar regions demonstrates a level of ambition and forward planning that few, if any, modern industrial states can achieve,” writes Dr. Brady in The Polar Journal, of which she is the executive editor.

China’s white paper was released in January, just three days after Stålsett, Kirkenes’s development director, came out with his study on a rail line to the Norwegian town. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. Here was a major Chinese policy statement whose sections on Arctic shipping suddenly gave him a whole new level of credibility. Geologists from the Norwegian Ministry of Transport and Communications are already running tests on the proposed site of a new shipping port in Kirkenes.

***

KATHRYN HANSEN/NASA/REUTERS/FILE
Scientist Karen Frey takes optical measurements in a melt pond in the Arctic, flanked by the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. The US is building a much-needed new icebreaker, which is set to launch in 2023.

No such grand infrastructure projects are under way in the US Arctic. None, in fact, have been built since the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was commissioned 40 years ago. “We are an Arctic nation,” says Dr. Brigham, “but we lack infrastructure.” All the practical stuff, such as docks, ship repair facilities, and salvage operations, “is missing,” he adds.

The US certainly has plenty of military assets in the Arctic, with airbases, ballistic defense installations, and nuclear missiles at Thule in Greenland and Fort Greely in Alaska. Its nuclear submarines prowl beneath the Arctic ice. In March, US forces staged exercises testing new under-ice weapons systems.

But since the cold war ended, the US Navy has focused more on the Pacific than the Arctic, even though the region “is vitally important to our interest” for economic and national security reasons, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told researchers at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, last November. “We’re late to the game.”

Mr. Grímsson, the former Icelandic president, jokes that during his years in office, from 1996 to 2016, he visited Alaska more often than any of his US counterparts.

The US Coast Guard has only one fully functional icebreaker. For eight months of the year, no US Navy surface vessels can function in Arctic waters.

The Russians “have got all their chess pieces on the board right now, and right now we’ve got a pawn and maybe a rook,” Zukunft lamented last year at an event hosted by the CSIS. “If you look at this Arctic game of chess, they’ve got us at checkmate right at the very beginning.”

Congress has now approved the funds to build a new icebreaker, due to launch in 2023, but the problem, says CSIS expert Conley, is that Washington “does not have a long-term strategic view of the Arctic, and a new icebreaker will not solve the policy deficit.”

Perhaps even more ominous for the US, China and Russia are cooperating closely in the region. The Arctic could become a testing ground for a challenge to Washington and the prospects for a new, more multipolar world order.

“That is a very powerful development,” says Arild Moe, an Arctic affairs analyst at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo. “Stronger relations between Russia and China could affect the international power balance.”

***

One reason for all the jockeying in the region is that no single rule book exists to oversee everyone’s ventures. Unlike Antarctica, which is governed by international treaty, the Arctic is regulated by an incomplete and ad hoc patchwork of institutions, treaties, and agreements.

“Never before have nations faced the challenge of building a rules-based system for an area the size of Africa ... that plays such a crucial role in the global climate,” says Grímsson.

Yet nations are finding ways to work together. Strikingly, nine countries and the European Union agreed last December to ban fishing in the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years. That will allow scientists to measure and track the region’s fish stocks and marine ecology before anyone has a chance to ravage them.

A similar mood of cooperation prevails in the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum concerned with sustainable development, where deals on scientific cooperation, oil spill management, and search and rescue protocols have been hammered out.

Several Arctic states have competing claims to the seabed, but the disputes have not turned ugly. 

Western relations with Russia and China on Arctic issues are generally cordial, too, diplomats say. Russia is interested above all in preserving the regional stability that will attract foreign investment, and China – aware of its rapacious reputation – “is very careful not to do anything that would incite suspicion or criticism from other nations,” says Grímsson.

But the stakes are high for nations whose welfare, from their weather to their wealth and security, depends on the Arctic. Sovereignty disputes are likely to break out as Arctic waters become more accessible and valuable as trade routes and resource reserves. Nations are unlikely to always agree on how far environmental safeguards should limit mining and drilling.

Such risks are not enough to dim the visionary glint in Rafaelsen’s eye. As he looks out from his office onto Kirkenes’s quiet, snowbound streets, the mayor with the white goatee and affable demeanor sees a town that will be transformed. “If this all works,” he says, “it will be a game changer for world transport. And it will mean a completely new Kirkenes. We have to be ready for this.”

shadow

5. Hindu prayer service? Yes, there’s an app for that too.

Faith and technology don’t always seem like a natural pairing. One evokes long-standing tradition; the other, high-speed change. But the combination is increasingly common – and it highlights how religions constantly shape the world around them, and vice versa.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Spirituality is no stranger to hand-held devices: think of Christian podcasts, virtual Buddhist prayer wheels, or apps listing the start time for breaking the Ramadan fast or for each week’s Jewish Sabbath. But perhaps nowhere are the horizons for religion and technology wider, or more lucrative, than in India: Roughly 1 billion residents identify as Hindu, and more than half the population is still off-line. A new crop of start-ups is springing up, such as apps letting worshipers request prayer services at far-away temples. Many feel that there’s no substitute for an in-person temple visit, but some religious leaders appreciate the tools. “We’ve got to evolve,” says one, heir to a temple and the acting head of his sect’s youth group. He worries that even relatively modern Hindu movements risk atrophy if they turn away from new forms of communication, so his organization has distributed sermons via YouTube and is laying the groundwork for podcasts of religious texts. “We don’t want them to lose that connection to community,” he says of followers who have a hard time getting to temples.

Collapse

Hindu prayer service? Yes, there’s an app for that too.

India’s most popular Hindu temples can exhaust even the most patient person during high festival seasons. Devotees spend hours in snaking lines for a few hurried seconds of prayer before beloved deities. Temple attendants scold stragglers hoping to catch a couple more moments in the presence of a murti, or icon embodying the deity, as those next in line jostle for their own brief connection with the divine. The din of side conversations and music blends with blessings chanted over loudspeakers.

The VIP experience of a personalized prayer ceremony or a special request is a service reserved for a stratospherically select few.

That may change however, thanks to new start-ups and a growing group of followers channeling their faith through the internet. Online puja, or prayer service, providers allow users to pay for a surrogate to perform bespoke spiritual intervention from faraway temples, while users sit in homes and offices hundreds of miles away.

Take Mumbai-based customs broker Viren Dayal. When he wants to make a special religious offering for the success of his business, he is more likely to turn to a digital service than his neighborhood temple. “This kind of portal has allowed me to perform the kind of pujas I want to do,” he explains – personalized ones that fit with his demanding schedule.

Start-ups are going to great lengths to generate temple databases, while religious leaders tap into the potential of social media and mobile apps. It’s not a new combination – with Christian podcasts in the United States, apps listing the start of the weekly Jewish Sabbath, and virtual Buddhist prayer wheels, spirituality is no stranger to hand-held devices. But perhaps nowhere are the horizons for the pairing of religion and technology wider – and potentially more lucrative – than in India, where roughly 1 billion people identify as Hindu, and more than half the population is still offline.

Pujas from afar

Hindu temples are dedicated to a variety of entities and designed to address all manner of issues, from career prospects to infertility. But pujas for wealth, good health, or better grades could involve separate pilgrimages to the far corners of the country – unrealistic for many faithful Hindus both domestically and abroad.

Today, online religious service companies, like Bangalore-based ePuja, allow those journeys to be made with a few clicks.

After users book and pay for a prayer service through ePuja, it’s completed on their behalf by local temple priests, no travel necessary. Following the prayer ceremony, customers are mailed a prasad, or sacred token of the offering, from the temple. The service allows users to book a single puja at a specific temple, or many pujas across a breadth of temples, depending on the problem and the devotee’s budget.

“This is the second home for those who cannot visit the temples personally,” says Chetan Merchant, ePuja’s chairman and managing director. “We've become an aggregator for all the temples.”

With hundreds of millions of Indians still without internet access, the potential for growth is clear. ePuja invested four years building its 3,600-temple database as its founder drove around the country, traveling from temple to temple to convince priests and trustees to partner with his platform. The site connects some 1,000 customers per month, 30 percent of whom reside outside of India, with temples and priests in India, according to Mr. Merchant. The country’s spirituality and religion market is estimated at nearly $40 billion annually.

'We've got to evolve'

It’s not just businesses taking notice. Some religious institutions are keen to expand their reach and retain their followers using new technology; a growing number of priests are accepting donations and puja requests online. “I’m happy that I’m able to serve people who are unable to come to the temple directly,” says Suresh Gurukkal, a fifth-generation chief priest at the Srikalahasti Temple, in the south Indian city of the same name. “People are very busy and they don’t have time to travel to famous temples in remote regions of India,” Mr. Gurukkal notes, “so this is the easier, better alternative.”

While a bookmarked webpage is not a substitute for a temple visit, new tech can strengthen religious ties, says Vrajendraprasad Pande. He is heir to the Swaminarayan Temple of Kalupur, Ahmedabad, and acting leader of the sect’s youth group, Nar Narayan Dev Yuvak Mandal, which he says has more than 120,000 members. The group has distributed sermons via YouTube to reach followers who are away at college, Mr. Pande says, and is laying the groundwork for podcasts of religious texts.

“We’ve got to evolve,” he explains. He worries that even relatively modern Hindu movements like the Swaminarayan sect – formed in the late 1700s – risk atrophy if they turn away from new forms of communication. “We don’t want them to lose that connection to community,” he says of followers who have a hard time getting to temples.

For many worshipers, though, there’s no substitute for the spiritual invigoration of a temple visit. “The look of the deity, the whole ambience, the experience you get while you’re entering the temple, by seeing the deity – I think that experience you can’t get through these tools,” says Ravi Kumar, a program manager at a multinational bank who lives in Bangalore and requests pujas every year through an online portal. Although he travels to the temple to perform the same puja every two to three years, it’s more affordable and accessible online, he says.

Many Indians share his concerns. “Technology is something that is superfluous,” says Chirayu Thakkar, a practicing Hindu studying religion at Oxford University in the UK, and the purest spiritual benefits come from a trip to the temple. He holds up a smartphone. “If I do a darshan on this,” he says, describing the sacred visual connection Hindus make with icons, “it doesn’t equate to doing darshan in the temple.”

Two-way transfer

But if technology has shaped religion, the reverse is also true, insists Mr. Thakkar. One of the first things many religious iPhone owners do with a new device is download a wallpaper of their favorite deity, he says. App stores are overflowing with religious applications, some providing religious guidance in the form of astrological advice, daily scriptures, and muhūrtas, or auspicious time periods.

The Hindu embrace of techno-religiosity isn’t particularly surprising, says Joanne Punzo Waghorne, a professor of religion at Syracuse University in New York. She’s tracked the rising popularity of mobile phones and other modes of electronic communication used by gurus and temples across South Asia. Visuality has long been important to Hindu practices, she says, noting that the photos temple devotees take and share via cellphones fit into that tradition.

Technology has even influenced how religious leaders conceive of spirituality, says Dr. Waghorne. During the tech boom of the 1960s, for example, Hindu priests “used to use electricity to talk about gods and ‘power transfer,’” she says, referring to a sacred connection between the divine and devotees. Today those priests might incorporate “the waves of the internet” to explain the same concept, she says.

With Hindus accounting for almost 80 percent of the 1.2 billion Indians who identify as religious, according to 2011 census figures, the course is set for even more interactions between the internet and religion. Rural electrification, an expanding telecommunication infrastructure, and a push to link cellphone numbers with access to government services will put more and more Indians online over the coming years.

Ultimately, many Hindus are optimistic about the trend. “Technology has brought a new generation of people to the temple,” says Mr. Gurukkal – even if those visitors are digital devotees ordering a puja from the screen of their smartphone.

shadow

The Monitor's View

The new calm in battling Ebola

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

A new outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa has health officials applying at least one big lesson from the previous crisis in 2014-16: Guard against mass hysteria. The World Health Organization and other groups are reacting with greater caution in how they influence public thinking. Those lessons include preparing health workers well in advance so they don’t freeze in panic or not placing whole villages in quarantine with the use of soldiers. Officials are seeking to reduce the social stigma encountered by those who survived the disease. Many survivors need help in dealing with isolation from family, friends, and employers. Such relief can reduce a part of the anxiety over the virus. Or as Florence Nightingale, famed nurse of the 19th century, advised: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.” One study of the 2014-16 crisis concluded that fear and chaos went “largely unchecked by high level political leadership.” By early accounts, the latest crisis in Congo may not have a similar problem.

Collapse

The new calm in battling Ebola

During the last outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa four years ago, panic spread faster and farther than the disease itself. Public fears even hindered efforts to end the epidemic, which claimed 11,000-plus lives. With a new outbreak this month in Congo, health officials are now applying a key lesson: Guard against mass hysteria.

This time, the World Health Organization and other groups are reacting with greater speed to the crisis but also with greater caution in how they influence public thinking. For one, they are showing more confidence in battling the virus. “[W]e now have better tools than ever before to combat Ebola,” tweeted WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Thursday.

Yet just as important is avoiding certain actions that play to people’s fears. These include moving entire families to isolation centers, placing whole villages in quarantine with the use of soldiers, or banning certain social practices that may spread the disease (thus forcing people to simply hide such practices).

Another key lesson: Prepare crisis-response teams well enough in advance so they don’t flee in panic and worsen the worries of local people.

In general, health officials have learned how to be more sensitive in working with virus-hit communities, helping them better understand what can be done. The 2014-16 outbreaks in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea also showed the need to deal with the social stigma encountered by those who survived the disease. Mental health services were overrun in those countries during the outbreak.

Many survivors need help in dealing with isolation from family, friends, and employers. Such relief can reduce a part of the anxiety over the virus. Or as Florence Nightingale, famed nurse of the 19th century, advised: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”

One study of the 2014-16 crisis concluded that fear and chaos went “largely unchecked by high level political leadership.” By early accounts, the latest crisis in Congo may not have a similar problem.

shadow

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

A change in perspective that heals

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

After today’s contributor burned her hand, a sincere desire to understand how prayer heals led to quick and complete freedom from pain.

Collapse

A change in perspective that heals

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

Can changing our perspective change our experience? An incident a few years ago showed me just how powerful a shift in thought can be.

While cooking one evening, I badly burned my hand when hot liquefied sugar was accidentally poured over it. The pain was extreme, but when I put my hand in cold water I got some relief. However, I woke during the night in throbbing pain, and I was pretty scared. I turned to my husband, a physician, but he was sleeping so soundly I just didn’t have the heart to wake him.

It was then that I recalled testimonies of healing I’d been reading in a weekly magazine called the Christian Science Sentinel. At the time, both my husband and I worked in the medical field, and because we were in the “healing” business, a relative had given us a subscription. Each issue had inspirational articles and testimonies of spiritual healing, in which contributors related a real-life problem, shared how they had prayed to God, and then told how they had been healed. Wow! I had read a number of these testimonies, and they were pretty amazing to me.

So I wondered, right in the midst of this physical pain: How did these people pray? What would one ask or know of God that would result in healing as these testifiers wrote about? You could say that, at that moment, I turned wholeheartedly to God to consider something I’d never known before.

This sincere yearning immediately and completely freed me from the throbbing pain. There was no gradual receding of it; there was simply no more pain. I would not have believed it had I not experienced it.

The desire to understand how this had come about led me to dive into the foundational ideas of Christian Science, which is based on the Bible and explained in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science. I began to see parallels to my experience, such as in the Bible where Moses turned aside to examine a bush that was on fire but not disintegrating (see Exodus 3:1-4). His curiosity about this seeming impossibility heightened his receptivity to God, which ultimately enabled him, and the children of Israel he led, to tangibly experience God’s care during their long-drawn-out exodus from Egypt.

I was also struck by a statement from the prophet Isaiah. He said: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:22). I saw that all the healings that Christ Jesus performed, as shared in the New Testament, were done on that basis.

Science and Health explains: “Look away from the body into Truth and Love, the Principle of all happiness, harmony, and immortality. Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts” (p. 261). Truth, Love, and Principle are capitalized here as synonyms for God, who cares for each of us, His spiritual offspring.

Looking back on my experience, I see that just opening my thought to God was itself a simple prayer to understand or know more about God. This prayer was answered – and I didn’t even realize I had been praying!

Since then, through my practice of Christian Science, I’ve come to see that the true identity of each of us is spiritual, in perfect harmony with the all-good God, divine Spirit. Mentally turning away from the contrary mortal picture of ourselves and others to behold what God has created, to consider a more spiritual sense of life, has a healing effect. Science and Health says it this way on its opening page: “To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, to-day is big with blessings” (p. vii). I have found there’s nothing to lose and all to gain by doing just that!

shadow

Viewfinder

Ready for some royal matrimony

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
A royal fan waved a flag in Windsor, England, May 17 ahead of the marriage of Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle there Saturday. For a gallery of images of royal weddings worldwide – both recent and historical – click on the blue button below.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
shadow

In Our Next Issue

( May 21st, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

We hope you’ll come back around on Monday. One story that we’re preparing looks at how a compassionate-outreach approach helped a West Virginia city drive down drug overdose rates by more than half since last year. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

May 18, 2018
Loading the player...

More issues

2018
May
18
Friday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.