2018
June
05
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

We’re watching key primary votes Tuesday that may be indicative of the November elections. More on that tomorrow. But today we’re taking note of a symbolic shift: After almost 100 years, the Miss America pageant will no longer have a swimsuit competition.

That’s right, not only is the bikini banned, but the evening gown contest is being revamped. Miss America won’t be an exhibition of physique but a competition of ideas, intellect, and talent, say organizers.

In the age of #MeToo, one of the most visible symbols of female objectification is now joining the “empowerment movement,” says Gretchen Carlson, chair of the Miss America board.

You’ll recall that Ms. Carlson, a former Fox News anchor, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2016 against former Fox chairman Roger Ailes, a particularly courageous move more than a year before the Harvey Weinstein scandal reignited the #MeToo movement. This past January, Carlson took the reins of the pageant after allegations of misconduct led to the resignation of several executives. She’s the first pageant winner to lead the organization. Now seven of the nine board members are women.

This certainly looks like progress, a step toward celebrating inner beauty with a competition that values the qualities – not the appearances – of young women.

Now to our five selected stories, including what a path to security might look like for North Korea, war refugees finding home in Mexico, and what ink can teach us about air pollution.  

1. Tariffs: How go-it-alone tack on global trade could backfire for US

The Trump administration’s negotiating style on trade rules relies on confrontation. Analysts say that’s high-risk. But many voters in the Midwest and South, where job losses are greatest, are hoping it pays dividends.

David

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The Trump administration has ramped up its efforts to pressure China and other nations on alleged unfair trade practices. Expectations of a potential deal with China have evaporated, for now, amid dueling tariff threats. Hopes to forge a revised North American Free Trade Agreement have faltered as Mexico and Canada resist demands by the United States. And in Europe, officials have lodged a formal complaint against new steel tariffs while also bristling about a US move that could cite concerns over national security to justify slapping tariffs on imported cars. Maybe the confrontational strategy will work for President Trump in the end. Already, a few nations have dangled concessions. But with the risks of a damaging trade war rising, some groups are urging Mr. Trump to change course, including the influential conservative network backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. “In the short term, you can coerce all sorts of people successfully if you have leverage,” says analyst Stephen Biddle. “The trouble is, you burn through good faith real fast when you behave this way.”

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1. Tariffs: How go-it-alone tack on global trade could backfire for US

As President Trump is finding out, trade wars are not easy.

The latest moves in the Trump administration’s assertive “America first” trade policy point to the strategy’s inherent risks: A go-it-alone approach that relies heavily on tariffs could easily backfire.

As Mr. Trump sees it, since the US imports so much from other nations, the threat of tougher US policies is a potent weapon against alleged unfair practices by trading partners. And in fact, some nations have already dangled concessions that could help US exports.

But the administration’s gambits also seem to be producing ire and bafflement rather than dialogue and cooperation.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abruptly canceled a US visit when Vice President Mike Pence laid down a precondition for discussions – that the North American Free Trade Agreement would be renegotiated every few years.

Trump-imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports have become a central point of contention between the US and other G7 nations heading into a meeting later this week. Threatened US tariffs on autos are also roiling relations, notably with big exporter Germany.

And with China, things have shifted from an apparent truce a few weeks ago toward the prospect of escalating tariffs on both sides, after a high-stakes meeting over the weekend between Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in Beijing bore little apparent fruit.

It may be just a moment of confusion on the path toward what Trump officials say is a needed reset of global trade relations. But Trump’s unpredictable and confrontational approach could also lead to more ominous outcomes, such as growing isolation for the United States – or a trade war that damages the whole global economy.

“Canada already has a deal now with the European Union. Other countries are moving forward without us. If we just keep throwing sand in the wheels or poking people in the eye, then eventually they're going to stop talking to us about negotiating agreements,” says Kadee Russ, an economist and trade expert at the University of California, Davis.

‘Can’t lose a trade war’

On June 2, Trump doubled down on a past comment that for the US it’s “easy to win” a trade war, because America’s large trade deficit makes other nations more reliant on the US as a market than the US is on them. He tweeted: “When you’re almost 800 Billion Dollars a year down on Trade, you can’t lose a Trade War!”

Trump is embarking on a high-stakes gamble that the threat of losing access to America’s huge market will force other leaders to come to terms with US demands. It’s powerful economic leverage, but critics say the approach is politically tone-deaf – both to other leaders’ domestic political considerations and the US’s standing in the world.

For example, in the talks to revamp NAFTA, neither Canada’s Mr. Trudeau nor Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto can afford to be seen as capitulating to US demands, trade experts say. And the more the US baldly stretches trade loopholes to push for concessions, the more it looks like a bully.

“In the short term, you can coerce all sorts of people successfully if you have leverage,” says Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The trouble is, you burn through good faith real fast when you behave this way.”

Is it worth the risk? It depends partly on how deftly the Trump team can play its hand ​– something that’s been cast in doubt by a style that has drawn criticism for overreaching demands and lack of clarity on goals. Even supporters say the administration suffers from internal dissension and poor messaging. 

It also depends, heavily, on one’s world view: Is the US a winner or a loser in world trade? For many advocates of the current rules-based system, the US is a winner.

In this view, the big culprit for current trade imbalances is China, and the best way to deal with Beijing is by building a coalition of trade allies to demand change. Instead, the administration is attacking those allies for their trade imbalances with the US.

“It’s a deeply flawed negotiation strategy,” says Philip Levy, a former trade adviser in the George W. Bush administration who’s now at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

While 56 percent of Americans think that trade agreements have been generally good for the US, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, a sizable 30 percent disagree with that view.

Travel to the deindustrialized portions of the Midwest or South and it’s easy to see why. Good-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Income inequality has increased. The US looks like a loser on trade. And thus, some say it is worth the risk to demand wholesale change of the system.

“It looks like chaos,” says Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. But US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer “is one of the most astute trade representatives in decades,” she says. “The vision is going at the big structural issues.”

This vision includes taking on China alone, but only because former President Barack Obama’s attempts to build a coalition of the willing largely came up dry. And it includes restructuring trade rules with trade allies in such a way that American workers’ jobs are not sacrificed so that corporations can make bigger profits, Ms. Wallach says, a demand that liberals have been making for years.

A dangerous strategy

But the risks to Trump’s strategy are evident in the broad criticism his recent moves have drawn, from Republican leaders like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to the US Chamber of Commerce. On Monday, the influential conservative donor network founded by the Koch brothers announced a campaign to sway voter opinion against a tariff-oriented trade policy.

The mainstream view of trade wars has long been that nobody “wins” them. A cycle of tariffs and countermeasures harms all the affected economies by pushing up consumer prices and dampening productivity-enhancing investments.

So far, Trump’s tariffs on metals and other nations’ countermeasures don’t look like a huge hit to economic growth. Similarly, following through with threatened tariffs on $50 billion in imports from China would lift annual US inflation by about a tenth of a percentage point, and slow economic growth by about the same amount, according to recent estimates by Oxford Economics. But those small hits aren’t meaningless, and the threatened measures between the US and China alone have recently moved far above the $50 billion mark.

The economic hazards could push all parties to the negotiating table. But there’s no guarantee that a damaging trade war will be avoided.

“Europe’s being very careful and measured in their actions,” signaling they want to avoid escalation, says trade economist Ms. Russ. She notes that even as the European Union filed a World Trade Organization complaint challenging US steel tariffs, it also filed a case against China.

But “some of these officials are really mad,” she adds. 

Politically, the dangers are much greater for Trump and US diplomacy in general. For example, the administration’s bluster over trade convinced South Korea to cut a deal on limiting steel exports to the US. But so far it hasn’t forced Canada, Mexico, or China to budge.

If they stand pat and call Trump’s bluff, then he will have no big trade agreements to show voters – only tariffs. And his tariffs will impose immediate costs on US consumers, farmers, and various industries as costs rise and other nations retaliate with their own trade sanctions.

Some domestic industries will prosper, of course, but that rebuilding will take time. And Trump’s rhetoric about trade wars being easy to win isn’t preparing the public for the short-term pain and economic upheaval that will result.

A tariff “is a 2x4 upside a country’s head,” says Wallach. What’s important is what happens next. “The success will be marked by whether the underlying changes happen. [But] if ‘team status quo’ prevails and the longer-term strategy gets abandoned mid-course ... then they will get into a lot of trouble.”

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2. What Jordan's very focused young protesters learned from Arab Spring

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, activists in the region have struggled to find a sustainable model for pressuring their governments. In Jordan, protesters are staying unified by focusing on three key issues: taxes, jobs, and government integrity.

David
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Protesters play music and sing during a late-night protest in Amman, Jordan, June 5.

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For the better part of a week, Jordanians angry at higher income taxes have gone into the streets late at night after breaking the Ramadan fast. They scored a political win with the resignation and replacement of the prime minister, but do they have the sophistication and endurance to effect real change? Most of the mostly young protesters are not affiliated with any political group and have so far avoided partisan or divisive language. Preserving unity is a top priority. The old guard from traditional political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party is not welcome, they say. The protesters also have not called for social justice, freedom, or political reforms – overused phrases that have little currency now among young people. “This is a Jordanian movement for the core causes that affect all Jordanians: taxes, unemployment, and corruption,” says Mohammed Hussein, a 26-year-old protester. Nabil Sharif, a political analyst and former government minister, says that in the past few days, “the Jordanian people have discovered their true potential.…  They will remain a force on the ground to be respected.”

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What Jordan's very focused young protesters learned from Arab Spring

The men and women protesting in Jordan’s streets every night are brimming with energy and idealism.

They are young, politically aware, adamantly nonpartisan, and convinced that they are fortified with a wisdom that they say is their greatest strength: hindsight from the failures of the Arab Spring.

But do they have the sophistication and endurance to effect real change in this politically conservative and economically stretched Middle Eastern kingdom?

What began as a short strike over income taxes last week has evolved into a nationwide protest movement in Jordan. On Monday the protesters scored their first victory: the resignation of Prime Minister Hani Mulki.

But as activists gathered late Monday after breaking the Ramadan fast in Amman and across the country for the fifth straight night, hours after the Mr. Mulki’s ouster, they said they are only just beginning.

Like the young people who protested for democracy and greater freedoms in 2011, these protesters are young, knowledgable, unemployed and under-employed, but that is where the comparisons end.

These new protesters, who were pushed to the streets by a proposed income tax law that would raise income tax by 5 percent on individuals and 20 to 40 percent on companies, are by and large independent: most are not affiliated with any political group. Protesters have so far avoided political language or controversial demands that may divide Jordanians.

Instead of being led by septuagenarian heads of traditional political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party, activists and organizers are in their mid-20s to early-30s. The old guard, they say, is not welcome.  

“This is a Jordanian movement for the core causes that affect all Jordanians: taxes, unemployment, and corruption,” says Mohammed Hussein, a 26-year-old protester at the Prime Ministry Saturday night. “We do not want a group to hijack this movement for their own agendas.”

Preserving unity

Activists say they are aware of recent history. They say Arab Spring movements were hijacked by Islamist-led opposition groups, quickly polarizing societies along Islamist/secular and nationalist/opposition lines.  

Protesters in the streets over the last four days have not called for social justice, freedom, political reforms, “regime” reforms, or any structural changes to the political system – the talking points of opposition parties and overused phrases that have little currency now among young people.

Seasoned activists who do favor such changes say the time is not ripe and are keeping their thoughts to themselves to preserve unity.

Instead, the protesters have focused their demands solely on the economy: sacking the prime minister and reversing austerity measures that saw taxes imposed on goods ranging from lentils to pharmaceuticals, and fuel prices raised five times in five months.

“When we talk about reform and freedoms, it divided people because everyone had their own view and interpretation,” says Noor Freij, 30, a protester who took part in Jordan’s Arab Spring demonstrations. “But today when we talk about something concrete – such as taxes, corruption cases, and prices – we are united.

“We will not risk this unity this time,” he says.

“These are younger, educated, middle-class people who have been commenting on what is happening on social media now translating this online protest into a physical protest,” says Musa Shteiwi, analyst and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

Analysts say the absence of political parties is part of a wider rejection by young Jordanians of traditional parties and ideologies.

“This generation has become disenchanted with both the politics from traditional parties and policies implemented by the government,” Mr. Shteiwi says. “This is refreshing for Jordan.”

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
A protester holds up a Jordanian national flag in Amman, June 4, 2018. Women have taken a far more visible part in the current protests than they did during the Arab Spring.

Like many of his generation, Ahmed Sadeq, a 29-year-old entrepreneur with impeccable English, vented his criticisms of the government and issued his calls for change online, on Facebook and WhatsApp, as he saw government policies harming his business.

Mr. Sadeq spent two years working in carpentry in New Mexico before he decided to return to his homeland to open up a kitchen renovation store in Amman last year. Less than six months after opening his shop, the government raised taxes on goods across the board. Increased fuel prices doubled his transportation costs. In April, his orders dropped to zero.

On Friday, when he heard that people were demonstrating, he decided to protest for the first time in his life.

“We are not here to play politics, we are here because we can’t bear it anymore and we demand solutions,” Sadeq says. “The economic conditions are affecting Jordanians of every background and social status – that is what unifies us, and that is what we are here to change.”

The absence of opposition political parties or divisive language has even had an impact on interaction between protesters and security forces.

Social media outlets have been awash with photos of Jordanians shaking the hands of anti-riot police, offering them food and water, and even breaking for a pre-dawn sohour meal together before Ramadan’s day-long fast began.

In a festive atmosphere, young Jordanians chanted, danced, and sang. Some played the lute-like oud, while others blew into vuvuzelas and led soccer-match chants with a Jordanian twist. Protesters have come in many shapes: young men with their hair in buns and ankle-length pants, Harley-Davidson-jacketed young men, young women in designer jeans and overalls, and others in traditional abayas and hijabs.

“Corrupt, we are coming for you,” they chanted. “The Jordanian people are not cowards.”

King urged to 'clean house'

Rather than calling on King Abdullah II to cede powers or reform governance – a demand that would be viewed by tribes and the establishment as a threat to their influence – many protesters are actually calling on the monarch to intervene and “clean house”: appoint a new government, dissolve parliament, and enact emergency decrees to freeze austerity measures.

“King Abdullah, where are you? They are stealing our country before our very eyes,” protesters chanted Sunday, the night before the monarch sacked Mulki.

On Tuesday, the king replied indirectly in his letter appointing Omar Razzaz as prime minister. Abdullah tasked the government with reviewing the tax system, removing “unjust” taxes, achieving “balance” of incomes for upper- and working-class Jordanians, and stimulating growth and job creation.

Yet late Tuesday, with no concrete steps yet to reverse the taxes, protesters indicated on social media that they were set to go back to the streets.

While the Arab Spring protests in Jordan were male-dominated, Jordan’s 2018 protests have been more inclusive, with women often leading chants and demonstrations in line with the more liberal attitudes of Jordanian Millennials.  

In 2011, when male-dominated political parties and tribes led demonstrations, Islamists made their women followers march in the very back, while in the outlying governorates, women were barred from marching.

“If women were allowed to play a greater role in the Arab Spring, we would have succeeded and not be facing these issues today,” says Alaa al Qadi, 25, holding up her two-year-old daughter wrapped in a Jordanian flag at the protest late Monday.

'Let's go see what's going on'

The inclusion of young women of all backgrounds has had another effect: encouraging more cautious Jordanians to see the protests as safe spaces to express their views.

A common phrase around the table as families in Amman eat the nightly iftar meal to break the fast this Ramadan is “Let’s go see what’s going on at the circle”– a reference to the Prime Ministry protest near a traffic roundabout. Families with toddlers and groups of young women take strolls to the protest after breaking the fast and having coffee – an unimaginable sight in Jordan a few short years ago.

The question remains what young Jordanians will do with their newfound influence. Protesters vow to remain in the streets until the proposed income tax law is rescinded, recent taxes are frozen, and a rubber-stamp parliament dissolved. But solutions are few and far between.

Under a $723 million credit-line agreement with the International Monetary Fund, Jordan must lower its debt ratio from 95 percent of GDP currently to 77 percent by 2021. Even with the millions of dollars of aid Jordan receives from the US and European countries, the country faces an annual budget deficit of $750 million and is saddled with a bloated public sector that employs more than 55 percent of the workforce.

The very taxes that have raised demonstrators’ ire are forecast to generate $760 million of badly needed government revenue.

Even if Mr. Razzaz, the incoming prime minister, can offer a more inclusive approach to decisionmaking to convince the protesters to go home, longtime observers and officials say young Jordanians have now emerged as a political force – ready and waiting to hold the government to account at a moment’s notice.

“The most important consequence from the past few days is that the Jordanian people have discovered their true potential,” says Nabil Sharif, a Jordanian political analyst and former government minister.

“They have found out that they can change things, that they do have power, and that they will remain a force on the ground to be respected,” he says.

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3. North Korea summit: So what would a nuclear deal look like?

Patience will be a virtue, it seems, in reaching a denuclearization deal with North Korea. While the outline of such a deal is still hazy, the path is becoming more clear: a drawn-out process of give-and-take.

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It was National Security Adviser John Bolton who had pressed for a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un akin to what the United States got in 2003 from Muammar Qaddafi. Under the so-called Libyan model, Mr. Kim would have to give up his nuclear program lock, stock, and barrel. But all the talk of applying that pattern to North Korea spooked Kim and nearly jettisoned plans for the summit with President Trump. The revived summit is being cast in less dramatic terms. Instead of quick action, baby steps. Not one summit, but many. But beyond revised expectations about the process there are some key questions that need to be resolved. Can the two sides agree on what constitutes denuclearization? And is Kim prepared to give an accounting of his arsenal? It was over that issue that US negotiations with the North broke down in 2007, says Victor Cha, who served in the George W. Bush White House. “The most important first indicator of whether there is something everyone can agree with will be whether the North can agree to a full and verifiable declaration of their capabilities,” he says.

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North Korea summit: So what would a nuclear deal look like?

With President Trump’s June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un back on track, attention has turned once again to what a denuclearization deal between the United States and North Korea might look like.

As the two countries labor to reduce the wide gap between them over what denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula even means, one thing seems certain about a potential deal: Forget the Libya model, in which Muammar Qaddafi gave up his weapons-of-mass-destruction program, lock, stock, and barrel, before receiving any benefits in return.

It’s been the new White House national security adviser, John Bolton, who has pressed for a deal with Mr. Kim on the order of what Mr. Qaddafi agreed to in 2003 with the Bush administration. Even Vice President Mike Pence started touting the model.

But it was also all the White House talk of applying that pattern to North Korea that spooked Kim and nearly jettisoned plans for the summit. The clear message from Pyongyang: We are not Libya, so citing it is a dead end.

The result? By the time Mr. Trump announced Friday that the summit he had abruptly canceled a week earlier was back on, the talk had veered sharply from quick action to gradual steps. Trump now speaks of a “process” and a likely series of summits instead of just one, with references to incremental implementation of any accord.

Yet while the timing of any deal may now be clear – good-bye “all at once,” hello process and step-by-step – there is still little clarity just a week before the leaders are to meet in Singapore on what the specific steps in any deal might be.

However experts in North Asian and nonproliferation issues, some with decades of experience dealing with North Korea, say there are some key elements that will almost certainly be part of any deal.

Moreover, many experts now say, it is likely to resemble past US deals with North Korea – including those launched with fanfare, only to collapse later.

First among key elements, the US and North Korea would have to narrow the gap between them over just what “denuclearization” means. Mr. Bolton and others in the administration have shifted to speaking of the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, or “CVID” for short.

For its part, North Korea has consistently spoken of denuclearization as a long-term and aspirational concept, encompassing the US nuclear presence on the peninsula as well as its own programs.

Verification

“The biggest gap in all of this is how we define denuclearization, and how the North Koreans define it,” says Victor Cha, who served in the George W. Bush White House as the National Security Council’s director for Asian affairs. “’Denuclearization of the Peninsula’ is a phrase the North Koreans have used for decades.”

One reason the North Korea case is so complicated is that Pyongyang already possesses nuclear weapons and some sophisticated means, including long-range missiles, of delivering those warheads. North Korea openly compares itself to India, which weathered a period of international rejection of its nuclear arsenal.

KCNA/Reuters
North Korea sets off an explosive charge as part of what it says was the complete dismantling of its nuclear test center in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on May 24, 2018.

Any deal would have to include a full and verifiable accounting of the North’s nuclear arsenal, delivery systems, and technologies – in other words, Pyongyang would have to come clean on what it possesses in a way it never has before, these experts say.

Moreover, a deal would include a set of timelines for reducing the warheads and weapons delivery systems the North possesses – for example, the US is keen to remove the long-range ballistic missiles the Kim regime tested over the first year of Trump’s tenure and which may be capable of reaching the US West Coast.

Virtually no one – including the US intelligence community in a recent assessment – sees Kim agreeing to give every piece of his nuclear program. For example, Dr. Cha says convincing Kim to give up every one of his estimated two to five dozen nuclear warheads is “not going to happen,” given the central place Kim sees an established nuclear status playing in his regime’s survival.

But if the hurdle of defining “denuclearization” can be crossed in a way that meets both sides’ needs, experts say, then a historic deal incorporating the other key elements might indeed be attainable.

The step-by-step plan

“In the end, the most important first indicator of whether there is something everyone can agree with will be whether the North can agree to a full and verifiable declaration of their capabilities,” says Cha, now the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It was over the prickly issue of a full and verifiable declaration of North Korea’s nuclear assets that the Bush administration’s negotiations with the North broke down in 2007, he notes.

Then comes the question of arms and facilities’ reduction and dismantlement. And increasingly analysts say that if the “all at once” Libya model is off the table, what has replaced it is a “step-by-step” plan that follows each step the North takes toward “denuclearization” with an incentive – the lifting of some sanctions, the delivery of some humanitarian assistance – to keep the process going.

“It’s clear by now that the North Koreans aren’t going to do a Libya kind of deal, but on the other hand if Kim Jong-un sticks to ‘We’ll do it someday,’ then Trump’s not going to be interested, either,” says Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies and Asian security specialist at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

“But the plan that could work is a step-by-step approach,” he adds. “The North gives up a few nuclear weapons first, at which point the US drops a few sanctions,” Mr. Kazianis offers as an example. “Then they give up a few ICBM missiles, and the US takes another agreed step. That’s the only way out of this trap."

He adds: “I really believe that if they can come up with a step-by-step plan that yields some significant results by January of 2021 [the end of Trump's first term], then I think it’s a pathway that could work.”

How big a downpayment?

One thing the past month of intense diplomacy has revealed, specialists say, is that Kim appears to be less interested in the kind of economic carrots that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other US officials have been dangling as incentives, and more focused on attaining the security guarantees that would definitively take his regime out of US cross-hairs.

US officials have been mum on what security guarantees the US would be willing to offer to the North as part of a step-by-step plan. But even before Trump began referring to a “process” last week, some US officials have hinted at a growing openness on the US side toward incremental implementation of actions – as long as a synchronized plan starts off with the bang of major action and not with easily reversible baby steps.

“The question is what could be front-loaded in a process that’s inevitably going to go on for some time, and then what would be acceptable to the North Korean side in return for that front-loading,” the chief US diplomat for East Asia, Susan Thornton, said in remarks in Tokyo in May. As long as the North is willing to make a “big down payment,” she said, the US could be open to a phased implementation.

But even if an accord kicks off with the kind of “bang” the Trump White House wants, the pace of follow-on steps is going to be a key negotiating point, some analysts say.

Frank Aum, a former Pentagon North Korea adviser now at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, notes that many experienced diplomats are speaking of a 15-year timeline for achieving the Korean Peninsula’s as yet undefined denuclearization. Mr. Aum says a key part of negotiations will be “how much you can accelerate the steps right now.”

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Finding ‘home’

An occasional series exploring what it means to belong

4. ‘I tell them to call me their Mexican mother’: Syrians find an embrace

Our reporter talked to a group of 14 Syrian war refugees invited to Mexico to study. In the process, these students are learning a new language, a new culture, and lessons about the universality of family, generosity, and a sense of home.

David
Whitney Eulich
Renas Farid Alahmed prepares lunch for his peers and the Habesha office staff in Aguascalientes, Mexico. It’s a first: Growing up in Syria, he rarely had reason to enter his family’s kitchen.

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Seven years ago, Renas Farid Alahmed fled Syria as the war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups was heating up. Today, he’s learning Spanish and pursuing a degree in Mexico through The Habesha Project, a nongovernmental organization that offers scholarships for promising students whose education was interrupted because of the conflict in Syria. Adapting to a new country is a familiar process for anyone who’s uprooted his or her life and tried to start anew in a foreign land, like the nearly 5.6 million Syrians who have fled their country since 2011. But unlike in Lebanon or Germany, where large numbers of Syrian refugees have settled, in Mexico the community of Syrian refugees is largely limited to the small number of Habesha students. Their isolation from other Syrians hasn’t dampened their dedication to creating a new life in Mexico. “When you travel, when you meet people, they teach you about other cultures and you expand your perspective,” says Mr. Alahmed. “Yes, Mexico is different: the culture, the religion, the community. But it’s also the same. The humanity is one.” (Read other stories from the series.)

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‘I tell them to call me their Mexican mother’: Syrians find an embrace

Renas Farid Alahmed is poking around his rundown, shared kitchen on a recent afternoon, trying to plan the first lunch he’s ever cooked for guests.  

“The kitchen is the one room in my family’s home in Damascus I can’t even picture anymore,” says Mr. Alahmed, who fled Syria seven years ago, as the war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups was heating up. He’d just graduated from high school, and his family was concerned he could be in danger after participating in anti-government protests.

“It’s not only me. It’s very strange to find a man doing anything in the kitchen in Syria,” he says.

Learning to lend a hand in the kitchen is one of many adjustments Alahmed is making here in Aguascalientes, the central state in Mexico, where he arrived eight months ago. 

He’s one of 14 Syrians brought to Mexico through The Habesha Project since 2015. The nongovernmental organization offers academic scholarships and living expenses for promising students whose education was interrupted due to the conflict in Syria. The program’s leaders say they hope the students can use their degrees to help rebuild Syria after the conflict ends.

But first, Alahmed and his peers must learn Spanish, adapt to a new culture, and figure out how to make Mexico home.

It’s a familiar process for anyone who’s uprooted his or her life and tried to start anew in a foreign land, like the nearly 5.6 million Syrians who have fled their country since 2011. But the process of fitting in and feeling at home is often invisible to those not experiencing it firsthand. And unlike Lebanon or Germany, where large numbers of Syrian refugees have settled, in Mexico the community of Syrian refugees is largely limited to these students. Their isolation from other Syrians hasn’t dampened their dedication to creating a new life in Mexico filled with evidence of their hopes for the future: safety, family, a career, belonging.

“Yes, Mexico is different: the culture, the religion, the community,” Alahmed says, as he tries to shoo a three-legged cat out of the kitchen in three languages. “But it’s also the same. The humanity is one.” 

Language breaks down walls

Alahmed walks to his Spanish grammar class at the Aguascalientes Cultural Institute and sits at a metal desk in the front row while his instructor, Leonardo Duran Siqueiros, scribbles prepositions on the chalkboard. 

“This is going to be really boring,” Mr. Siqueiros warns. 

“It is my job to make them feel at home here,” he says later. “I take that seriously. Language breaks down walls. My class is about grammar, but it’s all part of the bigger picture.”

He’s learned a lot about Syria and the experience of displacement from his students, he says. After fleeing Damascus, Alahmed spent time in Lebanon, a Kurdish zone in Syria, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Meanwhile, his family traveled across Turkey and Europe, seeking asylum in Germany. Last year, his mother, whom Alahmed considers his best friend, passed away. He wasn’t there to say goodbye.

“I try not to have them talk too much about their experience before coming here,” Siquieros says. “It can be really hard, especially for the students whose families are still in danger.”

What he has learned surprised him. “We share things culturally I never would have imagined,” Siquieros says, citing the importance of family, warmth toward foreigners, and a love of sweets. “I always heard negative things before working with them, like ‘Muslims are terrorists.’ It’s not so different from the stereotypes of drug traffickers and violence in Mexico.”

Saving wasted potential 

Adrian Melendez, an Aguascalientes native, founded the Habesha Project in 2014 after years of working with refugees in the Middle East and seeing firsthand the crisis of displacement and lack of opportunities. 

“Syrian people are so educated and so valuable. You realize all this potential and knowledge is being wasted in camps,” Mr. Melendez said in a 2015 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “I realized Mexico can do something.” 

Whitney Eulich
Claudia Mora stands inside her family’s pharmacy in the central Mexican state of Aguasclaientes on May 9, 2018. She’s the self-proclaimed “Mexican mother” of the Syrian students who pass through Aguascalientes as part of the Habesha Project.

Habesha has arranged to place 24 students at eight universities, a goal they are working toward. Funding comes from international NGOs, online campaigns, and individual donors. 

For the first nine months in Mexico, students live here, in Aguascalientes. They take classes in Mexican history and culture, study Spanish, and home in on what they’d like to study the following year. Alahmed will study international relations at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. 

‘I tell them to call me their Mexican mother’

Alahmed says integrating into Mexican culture has been relatively easy for him, but he’s still learning the language and cultural norms. 

Spanish is Alahmed’s fifth language, along with Arabic and two Kurdish dialects. 

“Sometimes I don’t know what language I’m thinking in, let along talking,” he says.

“What if I’m invited to a party and they offer me something to drink? I don’t drink alcohol, but I don’t want to bring them shame,” he says.

“When I arrived here and girls kissed me [hello on the cheek], I said, ‘Oh my God, what is going on here?’ ” he recalls, laughing. When a friend explained the greeting custom here, “I thought, ‘OK, I like it!’ ” Alahmed says, noting that you’d never see that in Syria.

Family and old friends are what he misses the most.

“I have a lot of friends in Syria,” he says. “I am always looking for them. I don’t know if they’re alive, or in jail, or killed. I don’t know anything about them.”

He talks with his dad and three sisters on video chat every morning. Two of his sisters have daughters now. They’re building lives in Germany, a country he’s never known. Missing milestones weighs on him.

That’s where local pharmacy-owner Claudia Mora comes in. When Alahmed turned 25 a few months ago, she showed up at the Habesha offices with a piñata and cake. It’s something she does for all the students, along with inviting them to weekend barbecues and offering to provide furniture and supplies.

Neighbors tell her she’s playing with fire, inviting Muslims into her family’s life. 

“This is their home now too,” she says. “I want them to feel a part of the family. It’s something very Mexican. You feel love, you see someone who needs love, and you give them that love.”

“I tell them to call me their Mexican mother.”

‘Mexico has opened my mind’

Alahmed enters a convenience store near the Habesha offices to shop for the lunch he will prepare for other students and office staff. He’s decided on spaghetti. 

Back in the kitchen, Alahmed boils water for the pasta and chops an onion. It takes him almost 2-1/2 hours to finish cooking.

The group slurps up the pasta and soaks up the sauce with bread rolls, while Alahmed looks on proudly.

“Mexico has helped me understand, it’s opened my mind,” Alahmed says later that afternoon. “Every country feels like they’re the best. Better than other people. But they are wrong. 

“When you travel, when you meet people, they teach you about other cultures and you expand your perspective. You can understand other people. You can understand the world.”

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5. In India, turning air pollution into talk-provoking art

Sometimes big problems can be hard to see. A company in India is illuminating air pollution by transforming it into ink.

David
Courtesy of Kristopher Ho
Illustrator Kristopher Ho used ink made from air pollution for works he displayed at a 2016 exhibition in Amsterdam.

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A start-up in India is taking an innovative approach to tackling air pollution – turning exhaust into ink for art. Anirudh Sharma and Nikhil Kaushik, co-founders of Graviky Labs, have developed tools to capture pollution and turn it into ink to fill their Air-Ink markers. Today, the Bangalore-based company has produced 1,000 liters of ink that have been distributed to artists in 55 countries around the world. But Graviky Labs produces more than an innovative ink, says Mr. Kaushik. It transforms an invisible scourge into something palpable. “[The markers] make pollution more of a tangible topic, [because] you can see it. It makes people curious about the amount of pollution,” says a Boston-based artist who goes by the name Imagine. “I get to have a conversation about how ... this amazing product is not just collecting pollution but making something out of it.” Kaushik hopes that artists around the world will embrace his ink as not just an artistic tool but also as a catalyst for discussion.

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In India, turning air pollution into talk-provoking art

It started with a simple observation. The air in densely populated cities like Mumbai and New Delhi is so thick with pollution that a white shirt can be dotted with black flecks by day’s end.

While many environmental efforts focus on ways to filter air, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., saw another opportunity – turn exhaust into ink for art.

As a graduate student from New Delhi, Anirudh Sharma began experimenting in 2013 with the idea of turning carbon pollution into ink at MIT’s Media Lab. By 2016, he had returned to India and recruited a team of inventors to establish Graviky Labs. There they developed tools to capture pollution and created Air-Ink markers.

Today the Bangalore-based company has produced 1,000 liters of ink (about 260 gallons) that have been distributed to 55 countries and to artists around the world. Their $25-30 Air-Ink markers, which come in various sizes, are set to be released in United States markets in the fall of 2018.

But Graviky Labs produces more than an innovative ink, says co-founder Nikhil Kaushik. It transforms an invisible scourge into something tangible. In that sense, the ink makes as big a statement as anything artists use it to create.

“[The markers] make pollution more of a tangible topic, [because] you can see it. It makes people curious about the amount of pollution,” says Boston-based artist Sneha Shrestha, who is preparing a solo show in Boston in the fall featuring works created solely with Air-Ink markers. “I get to have a conversation about how … this amazing product is not just collecting pollution, but making something out of it. This opens ways for conversation.”

Air pollution, which is often dubbed the silent killer, is especially pervasive in India. About 1.1 million deaths are attributed annually to air pollution exposure in India, according to a 2015 survey by the US-based Health Effects Institute. That’s a quarter of the total deaths attributable to air pollution world wide.

Graviky Labs’ device, called Kaalink (which means black ink in Hindi), can be fitted onto the exhaust pipe of a car or on a small chimney stack to collect the soot that forms from the incomplete burning of fossil fuels. Once captured, the pollution undergoes a process to separate the heavy metals from the carbon to make the ink that goes into the markers and bottles. In the future, the company hopes to find use for the separated metals. For now, they are disposed of as industrial waste.

“The concept of recycling gets reaffirmed in this process. We [usually] print with inks that are not eco-friendly, [but with Air-Ink] you are using eco-friendly solutions … because you are not burning fossil fuels,” says Mr. Kaushik.

One marker on average holds approximately 30 to 35 minutes of car pollution from Bangalore, says Kaushik. While artists are drawn to Air-Ink’s environmental purpose, on an aesthetic level the markers also deliver a high quality ink. 

“I thought it was just a gimmick [at first],” says Kristopher Ho, a Hong Kong-based artist who was one of the early testers of the markers. “But then they turned out really good, surprisingly good.” He has used Air-ink markers to paint murals in London, Amsterdam, and Hong Kong. “Normally regular ink … tends to be quite watery, but Air-Ink is a lot stickier and thicker … and doesn’t bleed as much.”

For Ms. Shrestha, who paints under the name Imagine, using Air-Ink markers also holds a personal significance. The native of Nepal often uses the inks to write on handmade Nepali paper and views her work with the markers as a marriage between Nepal and India, which similarly struggle with air pollution.

“Creating beauty of pollution, that’s very innovative … and it’s kind of mind-blowing,” she says.

For now, Graviky Labs is focusing solely on finding ways to scale up the deployment of Kaalinks and on reducing the costs of the markers to make them more accessible to the general public, says Kaushik. It is their hope that one day their efforts will no longer be needed. However, until then, they intend to continue finding innovative solutions to inspire others to join the fight against air pollution.

“We just want to contribute in any manner we can. When you come into an idea like this and put it to scale, a lot of people [also] come up with their own ideas, and I think that’s the most important thing. You [are allowing] the process to become [quicker] because individuals are taking [matters] into their own hands. As citizens, we also need to do our part of [the] job.”

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The Monitor's View

The high court’s ruling against anti-religion bias

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The Supreme Court’s 7-to-2 ruling June 4 in the case of whether a Christian baker could refuse to sell a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding focused instead on the hostility of some members of Colorado’s civil rights commission toward the Christian views of the baker in ruling against him. The high court sided with the baker, Jack Phillips, because anti-religious animus was so clearly an official motive in fining him for discrimination against a customer. Courts have long looked at the motives of lawmakers and regulators in its decisions. In particular, government actions born of animosity toward the views of a religious minority violate the Constitution’s clauses that allow the free exercise of religion and prohibit the government establishment of religion. In writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy sent a reminder of the qualities needed in government to keep social harmony. The Colorado commission, he wrote, “was neither tolerant nor respectful of Phillips’ religious beliefs.” With the immense power of government to fine or to jail people, lawmakers and regulators must embrace such civic affections and be fair in their actions involving religion. Motives matter as much as the law.

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The high court’s ruling against anti-religion bias

One way for a country to enjoy peace is to ensure government leaders do not show malice of intent toward a religious belief. In a June 4 ruling, the Supreme Court was so adamant on this point that it didn’t even decide the main issue in a case – whether a Christian baker could refuse to sell a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. Instead, the court sided with the baker, Jack Phillips, because anti-religious animus was so clearly an official motive in fining him for discrimination against a customer.

The ruling leaves to another day the question of how to balance a business person’s religious objections to supporting gay marriage against the rights of gays to wed without facing bias from a commercial operation. For now, the court wanted to send a warning that government must be neutral toward religious beliefs in deciding how it acts against the practices of religious believers.

The 7-to-2 ruling focused on the open hostility of some members of Colorado’s civil rights commission toward Mr. Phillips’s Christian views in ruling against him. The court also pointed out the commission’s double standard in not fining three other bakers who had refused to sell cakes with anti-gay themes.

“It hardly requires restating that government has no role in deciding or even suggesting whether the religious ground for Phillips’ conscience-based objection is legitimate or illegitimate,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. The law protects against discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation, he added.

Courts have long looked at the motives of lawmakers and regulators in its decisions. In particular, government actions born of animosity toward the views of a religious minority violate the Constitution’s clauses that allow the free exercise of religion and prohibit the government establishment of religion. From the Republic’s early days, the Founders sought to prevent the kind of violent social conflicts over religious beliefs that had ripped apart Europe for centuries.

Justice Kennedy also sent a reminder of the qualities needed in government to keep social harmony. The Colorado commission, he wrote, “was neither tolerant nor respectful of Phillips’ religious beliefs.”

With the immense power of government to fine or to jail people, lawmakers and regulators must indeed embrace such civic affections and be fair in their actions involving religion. Motives do matter as much as the law.

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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 path out of hopeless situations

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Left without money, a home, or a job, today’s contributor found practical answers to her needs as she gained a life-changing conviction that God abundantly cares for all.

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A path out of hopeless situations

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Absolute darkness lay before me as I approached the bridge on the country road. It seemed as if I’d driven into a black abyss. There was no reflection of anything ahead of me in the headlights – nothing I could see to indicate that the road kept going on the other side of the bridge. I just knew that it did.

I couldn’t help feeling that this drive over the bridge was a metaphor for my life at that moment. Adverse circumstances had left me with no money, no job, no home – just the car I was driving and a few belongings. I had no idea what lay ahead. But, as certainly as I knew the road continued on the other side of the bridge, I knew that I could trust God.

I often find comfort and inspiration in the Bible, which has so many accounts of God providing a way forward and needed supplies in what seemed to be hopeless situations. One is the story of Moses leading the Israelites, who had been enslaved in Egypt, to freedom (see Exodus 12:37–17:7). When they came to the Red Sea, they seemed to lack a way forward. But God parted the sea for them. And later, where there had been no food, sustenance appeared.

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, uses this Bible story to illustrate the mental journey we can take from fear to a higher understanding of God’s unceasing care. In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” she writes, “As the children of Israel were guided triumphantly through the Red Sea, the dark ebbing and flowing tides of human fear, – as they were led through the wilderness, walking wearily through the great desert of human hopes, and anticipating the promised joy, – so shall the spiritual idea guide all right desires in their passage from sense to Soul, from a material sense of existence to the spiritual, up to the glory prepared for them who love God” (p. 566). If we love God and desire to obey Him, we will find that we gain a more spiritual sense of existence, a deeper understanding of God’s care for us, His spiritual creation – and that this change in thought manifests itself practically in our lives.

For several years prior to that night on the bridge, each month I’d faced a pile of bills with paychecks that seemed woefully insufficient for paying them. Very fearful, I would leave my desk, pace the floor, and pray – often into the night. I would affirm that our all-loving God is already supplying every need for His children, and I would ask Him to help me see this in a way I could understand. Then I would feel calm and return to the desk to decide what could wait and what couldn’t.

As each month progressed, ways would be found to pay the bills. I was always grateful. But the next month I would go through this all over again.

Yet I had learned in Christian Science that God is infinite, and it is impossible for infinite goodness to run out of anything. Therefore, it is impossible for His children to lack anything needful. This idea was always in the back of my thought, and together with the Bible accounts of abundance and my own monthly experiences paying the bills, it was an idea that prepared me for the permanent end of my habitual concern about supply. That night, over twenty years ago, the fear of lack ended for good. I humbly yielded to a total trust in God on that dark bridge. I was no longer tempted to feel that my well-being and supply depended on anyone or anything but God.

Initially, I still didn’t have anything beyond what I had been driving down the road with. But as something was needed, it came along. I found I was led in wonderful directions I never could have imagined. Yes, I did eventually start receiving paychecks again, but I no longer considered them to be the fundamental source of my supply. They were instead evidence of the spiritual abundance I know I will always have from God, our dear Father who always provides for all.

I have learned that when we face lack in our lives, God’s abundance is already present to be revealed to us. When we come to understand and accept God’s goodness and care, the result is a sweet sense of His provision that tangibly blesses our lives.

Adapted from an article published in the May 28, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Carried to safety

Fabricio Alonzo/Reuters
A rescue worker carried a child covered with ash after Fuego volcano erupted violently in El Rodeo, Guatemala, just west of Guatemala City. More than 60 people have been killed since the June 3 eruption.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 6th, 2018 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We're working on a profile about a conservative, US-born Israeli politician who seeks to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and offers a tougher approach on Palestinian statehood.

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