It’s Not Your Fault, Millennials

30 October 2014

5 Ways America is Failing Millennials


This is the first installment in a series that appeared on outlining why the disconnect between the experience of millennials and U.S. public policy is setting an entire generation up for failure – and what we can do about it. The series included pieces on homeownershippoliticsflexible scheduleshigher education, and the job industry.

If you’re between 18 and 34 years old, you should be getting ready for the prime of your life — at least according to recent history. That means getting a high-quality education, working a secure, fulfilling job, starting a family, and maybe even buying a home.

But for most Millennials, that picture no longer vibes with reality. The Great Recession derailed many young people, and spawned an atmosphere of economic precariousness that’s undermining their potential, reordering their aspirations, and complicating their key life decisions. Yet there has been little recognition in Washington that this generation faces a unique set of challenges, leaving big disconnect between experience and a public policy response.

While young people may hold themselves accountable for failure, they didn’t build this. They aren’t the ones who crafted the public policies that created such widespread instability. The “failure to launch” phenomenon has not occurred in a vacuum. The combination of the job-killing Great Recession and a general rollback in social protections, typified by a push to deregulate markets and replace pensions with individual 401(k)-type retirement plans, has saddled individuals with risks that were previously collectivized.

Here’s a brief look at what this generational disconnect looks like in five key areas (the subheads are linked to more in-depth policy briefs on the subjects).

1) Work and the Economy

Parents of this generation really can say that things were better back in their day. For most young people, adult life has been characterized by downward mobility. The large-scale loss of jobs in the years following the recession and the slow recovery has made it difficult to climb the economic ladder. In 2012, 45 percent of all unemployed Americans-5.6 million-were between ages 18 and 34. The unemployment rate for this age group remains higher than it was in the 1990s and the labor force participation rate for young adults declined to the lowest level in four decades in 2012. The drive for cost-cutting and flexibility among employers has led to a rise in freelance and contract work, which shortens employment tenure, contributes to an overall decline in income, and means that fewer young workers are receiving traditional employer benefits. It is increasingly common for young adults to resort to a stringing together of multiple part-time jobs. Despite this experience, there is scant attention being paid to large-scale job creation initiatives, efforts to systematically raise incomes, or rethinking the welfare state so that it works for young people today.

More: Should every country be like Singapore?

2) The Future of Building Wealth

 It used to be that each generation born during the first half of the 20th century was wealthier than the one before. That pattern has broken down. This generation, and many of the younger Gen Xers, have accumulated less wealth than their parents did at similar ages. The median net worth for families headed by an individual under the age of 35 is currently around $10,000, which is $7,000 less (in 2013 dollars) than it was in 1995, a 41 percent decline. Those anemic numbers mean young people aren’t prepared to invest in assets and accumulate the wealth that comes from buying a home, for example. While middle age and older Americans have recovered much of the wealth lost in the recession, younger Americans have recovered only about one-third. Without public policy aimed at helping restore their balance sheets, Millennials will be playing catch-up for years to come to achieve their parents’ levels of net worth.

3) Education and Training

Many young adults spent the recession in hibernation – in other words, getting their graduate degree. If we’re measuring education by credentials, this generation is better educated than the last two. The share of 25- to 29-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree has grown by almost 50 percent since the early 1980s. That was all part of a grand bargain between student and university on which the university is now reneging. If you invest time and money in college — you earn more by becoming more valuable to the marketplace. That’s no longer true. The college wage premium (the difference in income between college grads and high school grads) has been stagnant for more than a decade, and colleges may not be preparing the next generation as well as we thought. In other words — this generation is spending more, and getting less. But really, we all may be getting less.

4) Work and Family

Millennials are making a new set of choices about family - and some of those decisions are tied to their working opportunities and economic prospects. They are less likely to marry than older generations. When they do marry, they are older. Today, the median age for a first marriage is about five years older than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Having children is less popular than it used to be. The birth rate in the U.S. recently fell to a record low, dropping for the fifth straight year. Today, 29 percent of women ages 18 to 29 has ever had children; in 1998, that figure was 41 percent. One new post-recovery work trend is destabilizing family life and making prospective parents fearful of having kids: it’s “just-in-time” scheduling — or the move in retail and service jobs towards unpredictable hours and unpredictable wages. Of course, the story of families struggling in low-wage, part-time jobs without adequate public support is only a new experience for some Americans: namely, the white middle class.

Related: Why Norwegian women can’t have it all. 

5) Social Engagement and Political Participation

This is a generation that’s allergic to vitriolic partisanship. Many have remained on the sidelines of many political debates. Yet they overwhelmingly support a stronger role for government to make the economy work better, provide services, and help those in need. Although young people have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions than previous generations, they are connected to personalized networks of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, which offer new tools for organizing collective action. The sheer size of the generation will make them an increasingly influential demographic. By 2020, Millennials will make up more than one in three adult Americans (and 39 percent of eligible voters), and by 2025, today’s youth will comprise as much as 75 percent of the U.S. workforce. In the years ahead, their preferences will increasingly set the political agenda.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Without much doubt, the Millennial experience is distinct — and requires a distinct set of policy solutions. Demographically, they’re the most diverse generation in American history and their openness to alternative lifestyles means there is no longer a typical life trajectory. In fact, the very idea of a “typical” American is already starting to lose much of its meaning. Marriage, homeownership, and family no longer provide a standard blueprint for success.

The paradox is that even as members of this generation have a greater degree of discretion in the choices they make, their economic outlook is limiting their options.

At issue is whether or not American institutions, both governmental and in the private sector, can respond to the unique circumstances of young adults in ways that are aligned with the generation’s prevalent attitudes, preferences, and attributes. Millennials need a policy agenda capable of reversing downward mobility, increasing access to affordable education and training, supporting young families, making child rearing less costly, and cultivating economic resiliency. Millennials are no longer just kids. They are older than you think, but they are still our future.

About the Author

Reid CramerAsset Building Program Director
Reid Cramer is director of the Asset Building Program at New America, which aims to promote policies and ideas that significantly broaden access to economic resources through increased savings and asset ownership, especially among lower-income families.

Preventing a Homegrown Attack

The day after the attack on the Canadian parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised that he would support new legislation that gave the Canadian intelligence service, the CSIS, expanded powers to stop further attacks. But would these increased capabilities actually have stopped the shooting? In a Google Hangout this week, Shane Harris of Foreign Policy, and Margaret Hu of Washington and Lee School of Law answered this question, and more. Watch the full video here.


Shane Harris
Senior Writer, Foreign Policy
ASU Future of War Fellow, New America

Margaret Hu
Assistant Professor of Law, Washington and Lee Law School

Can We Save Good Local Journalism?


New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

It’s possible, says Perry Bacon, Jr., who believes that only local journalism can sustain democracy where it is most active these days—at the state and municipal levels. On this week’s episode, Bacon talks with Anne-Marie Slaughter about why we need a New York Times in every state and how—in this moment when global digital storytelling is thriving and local papers are shedding thousands of jobs—we might begin to get there.

More: Why we need a New York Times in every state.

A Bull in ISIS’ China Shop


Poor Barack Obama.  With his many problems sending his approval ratings to record lows, the one thing it seemed he could take solace in was that he’d go down in history as the president who got us out of Iraq.  Then ISIS bursts onto the scene with acts of barbarism and an ideological agenda that threatens to drag, not just Iraq, but the entire world into a blood-soaked and terror-fueled inferno.  Everyone agrees that “somebody has to do something,” and everyone was looking at him to lead the way, but dare he reverse his legacy and become the president who led us back into the hell of another ground war in Iraq?  What to do, what to do?  Enter the seemingly “miracle” option of air strikes.  Air power can solve any problem.  Moreover, it promised a solution without having to send in any “boots on the ground.”  Problem solved – right?  Wrong.  As some experts warned him, and as things are looking at this point, air power is not living up to its “miraculous” expectations.  To some extent Obama has no one to blame but himself; still, in his defense, he was simply lulled by the same mirage that has misled many others before him: the notion that air power, in and of itself, can do anything.

Air power is not living up to its “miraculous” expectations.

Remember Desert Storm and “The Air Campaign” that introduced us to such terms as “stealth” and “PGMs,” and video feeds showing bombs homing in on not just some building, but a specific WINDOW of that building?  Surely that kind of ability translates into effective capability, right?  Well, therein lays one of the most pernicious conundrums that has dogged air power since the Wright Brothers’ first flight.  Because this new modern marvel freed humans from one of the most fundamental laws of nature – gravity – what followed was the assumption that we now had the same awesome power as gods or mythological creatures.  Couldn’t we now strike like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from Mount Olympus?  Wouldn’t our air forces be like Thor hurling his magic hammer with devastating effect?  Doesn’t it just seem logical?  For decades airmen have been dreaming of that kind of capability, and prophesying and promising its arrival.  There is a vast history of their efforts, and while that history presents some impressive successes, it all too often includes far greater destruction on the ground (euphemistically known as “collateral damage”) than anticipated, while delivering less decisive results than promised.

And yet, because we’re so haunted by the image of getting sucked back into the ground war, we aren’t using the most overlooked component needed to make air strikes most effective: the Forward Air Controller (FAC), or as they are called in the U.S., Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC).  These are the guys on the ground with friendly forces who talk to the pilots overhead and tell them where to drop their bombs.  The absence of FACs on the ground is causing all kinds of problems that could exacerbate existing conflicts and imperil long-term regional stability.

Because we’re so haunted by the image of getting sucked back into the ground war, we aren’t using the most overlooked component needed to make air strikes most effective

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Take, for example, the impact of our current strategy: focusing air strike primarily on fixed-point targets – that is, things that don’t move.  These could be training facilities, power stations, headquarters buildings, or command-and-control centers.  The notion that air power is most effective when used against infrastructure, the facilities that either support or aid the enemy’s war effort, has been one of the most persistently contested theories in air power thinking.  But whether the infrastructure approach has any validity is beside the point; what really matters when it comes to ISIS is: they don’t have a lot of infrastructure.  Even if we do hit their limited fixed targets, we won’t diminish their fighting effectiveness because they have so little that they don’t depend on it.  What’s more, destroying this infrastructure only makes it harder for post-ISIS leaders – our friends – to govern effectively.  Our current approach reminds me of the famous quip from a soldier in Vietnam, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”  And then there’s another sobering reason: without a FAC/JTAC partner on the ground to verify and mark the targets, we miss them or hit the wrong ones.  It does little to save a man from the barbarity of ISIS if we kill his family or destroy his home in the process.  Such mistakes produce powerful propaganda for ISIS and help them draw more recruits.

Not convinced yet?  Failing to send in FACs on the ground also hurts our ability to our allies in the ground fight because this forces us to rely on a pilot flying high enough to be safe from ground threats.  At that altitude it is hard to tell friend from foe.  This makes for obvious mistakes; not just embarrassing ones – we almost killed a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter in the Libya air campaign through such means – but also counter-productive ones, ones that leave friendly civilians dead.  Remember the wagon filled with refugees that was bombed in Kosovo?

More: Why Syrian women are key to defeating ISIS. 

Finally, without FACs, we give up the most effective means of using air power against the real power of ISIS: its army.  Historically, airmen have considered focusing air power directly on the enemy’s army has been considered the least productive means of using air power.  Yet the campaigns that brought down the Taliban regime in 2001 and the Hussein regime in 2003 were so stunningly effective because we focused air power on the enemy’s armies.  And FACs were the critical link that made those air campaigns so effective.

The current crisis in the Middle East requires immediacy, but it also requires effectiveness and finesse.  Our approach at this point has been characterized more by the sense of somebody doing something, and doing it immediately; but the effectiveness and the finesse are lacking.  Our friends are crying for effective help – the whole world is crying for us to help – but rather than helping, we look more like a “Bull in a China Shop.”

About the Author

Steven C. Call
Steven C. Call is Professor of History at SUNY-Broome Community College.  He holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University (1997).  His publications include Danger Close: Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq (College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 2007) and Selling Air Power: Military Aviation and American Popular Culture after World War II (College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 2009).

For A More Resilient World, We Need to Think Small


When disaster strikes, we tend to think big. What will the city do to help the affected population? The federal government?

But in fact, many of the innovations that have helped communities respond to and recover from disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing have originated in living rooms, community centers, and town halls, rather than city halls. And so have many of the most promising ways to address  longer-term disasters like climate change and economic shocks.

In other words, almost all resiliency is local. And that means our centralized disaster-response infrastructure requires a rethink: Instead of only sending out federal personnel to disaster sites to lead and manage local officials and first responders when a crisis hits, it’s becoming clear that we need to build and support a network of local and small-scale, long-term resiliency organizing.

Our centralized disaster-response infrastructure requires a rethink.

One key reason that large-scale, centralized solutions aren’t the future: Disasters affect different neighborhoods in a city or state differently — and thus require different policy responses. When Superstorm Sandy swept the entire Eastern Seaboard, it created a tale of (at least) two cities just within Manhattan — the dark city below 40th Street and the lit one above — and isolated those less fortunate in their apartments or housing projects without heat, electricity, or any way to contact the outside world.

Sandy, like Katrina and other emergencies, made visible underlying social disparities that had been ignored or not well understood. Zooming in, we see the worst instances of isolation and harm in vulnerable places with weaker physical infrastructure, fewer resources, and less investment — for instance, areas of Brooklyn and Queens with big public-housing developments, or the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans during Katrina. When the large communications networks we rely on fail due to network overload and power losses in a disaster, local neighborhoods become islands unto themselves, relying solely on existing resources and local connections.

This isn’t always a bad thing; the localized experience of disaster often inspires neighbors to, quite literally, weather the storm together. People find their local storm shelters, and they visit the local library branch for heat, for help with their insurance forms, to get online, or to charge their devices. They bring their neighbors food or water or blankets. Eric Klinenberg’s work has shown that communities with strong social ties and denser, more connected urban fabric have lower mortality rates and better recovery in a crisis. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit talks about how people behave altruistically and resourcefully in disasters: “Normal roles and boundaries that confine people are removed, and it’s absolutely necessary that people connect with each other, that they make strong decisions, that they take care of each other. And that’s what they do.”

The federal government is starting to realize that it may have something to learn from local disaster-response efforts. In May, the Department of Homeland Security released a report called “The Resilient Social Network” laying out the lessons that traditional response and relief organizations should take from grassroots efforts. One of the main conclusions: Efforts by Occupy Sandy, the self-organized grassroots disaster relief network that emerged to provide “mutual aid” to affected communities (especially where FEMA was unable to), should have been better integrated with the official federal response. In fact, FEMA has begun to call for a “Whole Community” approach — though it has not explained how power sharing would work, or how roles would be designated.

This is a far cry from the uncoordinated and sometimes downright hostile treatment that non-governmental responders received from federal officials during the 2005 Katrina disaster. Most if not all experts seem to agree now that resilient systems can and should be built at every scale.

This matters for efforts like the Red Hook Initiative’s Red Hook WiFi projectitself a self-organized effort that became an essential part of FEMA’s response to Sandy. (The initiative is a partner of the Open Technology Institute, or OTI, where I work.) As a local community resource run by a trusted neighborhood institution familiar with local needs, RHI WiFi was able to organize a digital response and provide aid in a way that federal, state, or even city-level agencies could not.

This project, and OTI’s current proposal to scale it organically from the ground up in additional NYC neighborhoods, are not just a response to immediate threats and sudden shocks, but are also intended to build everyday resilience through workforce development, knowledge transfer, participatory methods, and community ownership. Most importantly, they do this at the local level.

 True innovation is distributed – it comes from the grassroots and the edges, and spreads organically by virtue of the power of its ideas.

Thinking local may also be key to growing the innovation economy across a city, in all of its neighborhoods. Rather than scaling innovation from designated “innovation districts” outward, could we take a “resilient” approach to innovation and scale up by neighborhoods, blocks, or communities? After all, transformative innovation doesn’t just happen in special zones or in downtowns. True innovation is distributed — it comes from the grassroots and the edges, and spreads organically by virtue of the power of its ideas.

The most innovative approach to scaling up resilience efforts is to keep them local, distributed, and in conversation — person-to-person, neighborhood-to-neighborhood — to ensure that models are adaptable and intentional. As I and Diana Nucera of Detroit’s Allied Media Projects have written, “When individuals are invested in growth, a symbiotic relationship occurs between the systems designed and those that use the systems, allowing growth to emerge organically. This type of symbiotic relationship, which is present in healthy ecosystems, is less likely to occur when a system is simply placed into a new environment without consideration of existing knowledge, relationships, and efforts that already exist there.”

In the field of resilience, response, and recovery overall, we should be pushing to understand and develop local capacity and knowledge, and acknowledge and support local leadership — and innovation — in local places, right now, before crisis hits. Key steps that policymakers at all scales, innovators, and organizers can take:

1)    Learn from survivors. Local librarians, Occupy Sandy volunteers, and city-council members in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, all have stories to tell about what people needed, what worked, and what could have been done better. Document and share these.

2)    Start building relationships now. Facilitate workshops and conventions for local community groups, HAM operators, librarians, interested residents, FEMA’s Citizen Corps, etc. These coalitions can collaborate to make contingency plans or work on hands-on resiliency projects like local wireless networks or landscaped stormwater swales that have peacetime as well as crisis benefits.

3)    Find out what’s already happening in your city, town, or neighborhood. What are people already up to that could help in an emergency? Community gardens and tech meet-ups, for example, can be integrated into resiliency planning.

4)    Don’t separate economic development and innovation investments from resilience efforts. Greater stability and reduction of vulnerability create economic benefits too. Distribute funding and incentives broadly, not just in designated zones or districts.

Once crisis hits, we should rely on the relationships we have built with local leaders and partners and officials, as well as new tools and platforms and traditional coordinated central response teams. We’ll need our relationships, and organizers at every scale, to support and build more diverse, efficient, autonomous, strong, interdependent, adaptable, collaborative, equitable, and innovative communities for a more resilient future.

This post was originally published in RealClearPolicy. 

About the Author

Greta ByrumSenior Field Analyst, Open Technology Institute
Greta Byrum is an urban planner and a senior field analyst on the Field Operations team at the Open Technology Institute, where she designs and implements collaborative neighborhood technology projects. Her work focuses on the meeting-place between urban planning and evolving technology practices, especially as they impact underserved and low-income communities.

Should Art Imitate Policy?


Is the duty of the documentary to “change the world” or rather to “show the world”? Increasingly, activists and consumers conflate documentary with activism – and expect that political expression in film should lead to policy change on the ground. But do we lose something when we mandate that art drive change in the real world? How should we think about the relationship between art and policy? We asked a group of filmmakers and photographers to reflect on those questions by drawing from their own work.

Farihah Zaman is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, critic, and programmer whose feature film with Jeff Reichert, Remote Area Medical, is slated for theatrical release in Fall 2014.

If documentary films now happen to be filling a void, does that mean that they are obligated to do so? Many questions from post-screening discussions of our films suggests that audiences often now expect that works dealing with social issues, however tangentially, have the moral responsibility to take a side.

Our latest film, This Time Next Year, is about a barrier island community in the year after hurricane Sandy. A member of the delightfully challenging audience at a recent DC screening asked why we didn’t more pointedly ask subjects why they don’t simply evacuate, while another said it “would have been more courageous” to call out conservative politicians and deniers of climate change. Our previous film, Remote Area Medical, is a film about life without health care in Appalachia that does not directly address policy (our motto was “people, not politics”), and we were routinely asked, “Why didn’t you ask how these people vote?” and, “Well, what do you want me to do?”

Although we feel strongly about the issues contained in our films and are happy to follow up with discussion and resources, we don’t want to the movies themselves to tell you to do anything. We hope that the act of seeing with one’s own eyes, rather than being told through a thesis statement, will inspire compassionate thought and action.

I am not an activist, I am a filmmaker, and while the two often successfully coincide, that should be a choice rather than an obligation, or the genre would be reduced to a sea of cinematic sameness. And in fact, sometimes it is a less explicitly activist film that can make for a better political tool because it has the power to engage all sides. Force may be able to blow the doors open on an injustice when done just right, but neutral evidence can sneak in through the window.

More: The street fight over street art in Egypt

Jeff Reichert is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and co-editor of the popular online journal Reverse Shot.

The idea that a film can “change the world” is now a commonplace in the documentary community, but it hasn’t always been this way. During the initial flourishing of documentary in the United States (the Direct Cinema movement of the late 1950s and early 60s which brought us the early works of Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers), the underlying principle for nonfiction filmmaking was perhaps better stated as “show the world.” The idea of documentary as agent for social change isn’t new, but, over the last decade, the balance between art and activism has become heavily skewed in favor of the latter.

There is nothing inherently wrong with films actively engaged in changing policy or public perception. Our first film, Gerrymandering (2010), was used by a political campaign in California that sent 660,000 copies of the film to voters, for free, in support of a ballot initiative that eventually passed and forced a wholesale change in how the state draws their electoral district lines. But the success of films as activist tools has sparked a wave of features more interested in issues than cinema, and has brought funders to the table similarly less concerned with making good films as opposed to achieving preferred policy outcomes.

A flood of bad art isn’t anything to celebrate, but, again, this in itself doesn’t need be a worrisome development. But, recently, there has been talk about developing metrics to determine how much change a given film has created. In a space where the pathway from funding to festival to distribution is often already closely linked with social change potential, the establishment of this benchmark could have a stifling effect. If funders start to see diminishing returns, does the money for documentary films vanish? And what happens to those wonderful nonfiction works which don’t strive for change at all?

Hannah Price is holds an MFA from the Yale School of Art whose work is included in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and can be viewed at

Policy and documentary art both share the relationship of responding to society at large. The list of social issues in America is lengthy, and the issues that pertain to my family’s life and my own have been around for centuries.

In my experience as an American woman of mixed African-Mexican heritage and as a documentarian artist in 21st Century America, I most recently used photography to document the men who verbally sexually harassed me on the street of Philadelphia.  I call this work is titled “City of Brotherly Love.” By turning the gaze around at them, I was able to highlight the imbalance of power in these situations. Viewer’s responses have been both positive and negative.  Women, mostly strong feminists, supported my confrontation and asked me to be a part of their advocacy.  Others think that I am trying to pinpoint black men, but forget that I am black too and that I was just portraying a segment of my life.

Alex Fattal is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center and a documentary artist whose work can be viewed at

Right now documentary is experiencing a renaissance. There is a growing awareness that by breaking down divisions between documentary and the arts, documentarians can open up new possibilities to mobilize around pressing political, economic, and environmental problems.

Let me give you an example from my own work in Colombia. Historically, going back to the 1950s, re-integrating ex-combatants from the guerrilla into society has gone badly. However, transitioning to peace requires us to move in the other direction and to humanize ex-combatants so they can rejoin communities throughout the country.

A documentary project I am working on, Dreams from the Concrete Mountain, sets out to do precisely that. I have transformed a truck into a giant camera obscura by drilling a hole in one side of the payload and draping a white cloth on the other side. As the truck drives through cityscapes and landscapes the world outside of the payload is projected onto the interview subject, upside down, while I interview former members of the FARC, Colombia’s oldest and largest guerrilla group. This effect provokes the audience to re-consider the ex-combatant’s role in society while they listen to their stories. My hope is that this experimental documentary will play a role, however minor, in interrupting the cycles of disarmament and rearmament that have plagued Colombian history.

The key question moving forward is how to give the documentary arts a bigger platform: how to get documentaries in the public sphere beyond the film festival circuit, university campuses, and small-scale distributors. This will enable the documentary arts to have a greater impact on policy. It’s happening already online but sometime, hopefully soon, there will be a bigger breakthrough.

The Middle East Post-Nuclear Deal


It is the year 2015.

Since a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was reached some months ago, there have been a few minor missteps on Tehran’s part and the process of rolling back the sanctions has not been entirely smooth. Beyond these hiccups, the IAEA has continued to verify that Iran is complying with its commitments. This has enabled Washington to directly engage Tehran on two strategic priorities that they both hold in common — the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and stabilizing the unity government in Afghanistan.

The United States and Iran have found common cause in maintaining the unity of Iraq. Iran has not joined the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, but discussions between U.S. and Iranian officials on ISIS — which began on the margins of the P5+1 nuclear talks in June 2014 — have moved to ongoing, direct bilateral talks focused on defeating ISIS. Both Washington and Tehran have disclosed that some limited coordination of efforts has taken place. Some believe that this has already been extended to exchanges of intelligence and direct collaboration on military actions.

U.S. officials have acknowledged that Tehran used its influence to get Nouri al-Maliki to step down in Sept. 2014, and then persuaded the government of Haider al-Abadi to share more power with Sunnis and other minorities. The result is an improved but fragile political situation as Sunnis still do not feel represented by the Baghdad government and the military remains dominated by Shiites.

The post-nuclear deal environment has made it possible to test Iran’s willingness to play a constructive role in advancing a political solution in Syria. Recognizing that another Geneva conference on Syria without Iran would be meaningless, Washington is supporting Iran’s participation in a Geneva III meeting soon to be convened by the United Nations. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and representatives of the moderate Syrian opposition and the Assad government also will participate.

So far we have seen a strong public show of support by American and Iranian officials for Afghanistan’s unity government. A working relationship has been established between the American and Iranian ambassadors in Kabul.

In the lead-up to the meeting, both American and Iranian officials have placed an emphasis on immediate assistance to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Syria — and a pledge on the part of Tehran to extend cooperation on humanitarian access is expected. What is less clear is how far Tehran is willing to go to use its leverage to bring about a political settlement that would lead to the eventual departure of Bashar al-Assad. Now that Iran has a long-sought seat at the table, the time has come to show its cards.

Iran’s outreach to Saudi Arabia has made the outlook for Geneva III more promising. Following Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s meeting with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud in New York in Sept. 2014, Zarif traveled to Jeddah to meet with Saudi King Abdullah. It has been reported that they discussed joint efforts to support moderate Sunni opposition to ISIS and de-escalate the destruction brought about by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The nuclear deal, combined with a smaller American troop presence in Afghanistan, has allowed Tehran to respond positively to U.S. requests for direct talks on Afghanistan. So far we have seen a strong public show of support by American and Iranian officials for Afghanistan’s unity government. A working relationship has been established between the American and Iranian ambassadors in Kabul. The Obama Administration has welcomed Iran’s inclusion in a coalition of countries supporting Afghanistan’s transition, harkening back to the days when both countries worked together to help establish Afghanistan’s transitional government that emerged from the 2001 Bonn Conference.

With the easing of sanctions, U.S. and Iranian officials are now able to discuss Tehran’s potential participation in the “New Silk Road,” a key pillar of Washington’s strategy to support Afghanistan’s development through trade and transit connections linking Central and South Asia. The joint Indian-Iranian development of a trade corridor from the port of Chabahar in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province to Afghanistan’s principal highway will enable land-locked Afghanistan to reduce its dependence on Pakistan for transit, providing both it and the United States with expanded diplomatic options in the region.

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The United States is moving away from pressuring Pakistan to abandon its long-stymied pipeline project with Iran. In this new atmosphere, Washington is beginning to view the pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from Iran to Pakistan, as a viable way to address Pakistan’s energy crisis.

Yet serious points of contention remain. There are ongoing disputes between Washington and Tehran over appointments within Afghanistan’s government and the structure of security forces. There also are persisting disagreements about the reconciliation process and Ashraf Ghani’s outreach to the Taliban, which Washington appears to be supporting. Iran sees the Taliban as linked to ISIS, which, in turn, is stoking Iranian suspicions of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

U.S.-Iran discussions also are underway to help shore up nascent bilateral relations. Current talks are focused on exploring the reinstatement of direct flights and opening an American interests section in Tehran, which would bring U.S. consular services to Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution. Rumors are flying that President Obama will soon announce the appointment of a U.S. Special Envoy on Iran. Both governments have welcomed an upturn in U.S.-Iran people-to-people exchanges — particularly in the fields of science and technology, religion, sports, and culture.

More: 7 things you need to read on Iran

The events of recent months represent nothing short of historic change. The U.S.-Iran engagement taboo has been obliterated and it’s hard to imagine going back to the way things were prior to the nuclear deal. But profound differences persist. Iran’s poor human rights record endures. And Tehran continues to support designated terrorist groups, including Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, enabling its proxies to provoke and threaten Israel.

Both are faced with the ambiguity of dealing with a government that will not be an ally anytime soon, but is not quite the bitter enemy it once was.

One of the most difficult post-agreement challenges for the Obama administration has been managing the anxieties and expectations of Israel as well as members of Congress, who remain highly skeptical of or outright opposed to doing business with Iran. The nuclear deal has also heightened concerns among the Gulf States, who believe they now are more vulnerable to Iranian pressure.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his team continue to be challenged by hardliners who yearn for a return to Iran’s isolation. With Rouhani’s “win” on the nuclear issue, politics in Iran is becoming all the more cutthroat as some are predicting that moderates will outmaneuver their conservative rivals in the upcoming parliamentary elections and the election of the Assembly of Experts, the powerful body responsible for selecting Iran’s Supreme Leader.

What we have been witnessing over these past months is calculated, incremental engagement, not rapprochement in a classic textbook sense. A dramatic “Nixon Goes to China” moment doesn’t seem to be in the making — nor does a “grand bargain.” Instead, we have cautious cooperation on a few common strategic objectives, an approach that seems to fit within Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s comfort zone. Washington increasingly sees the benefit of working with Iran, but still in limited ways. Both are faced with the ambiguity of dealing with a government that will not be an ally anytime soon, but is not quite the bitter enemy it once was.

Back to the present: The above scenarios are imagined, of course. But they are well within the realm of possibility should the major powers and Iran succeed in concluding a nuclear deal. Verifiably preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and avoiding a military confrontation over its nuclear program are vitally important goals. Unlocking a channel for broader strategic dialogue between the United States and Iran on issues where both have compelling common interests would also be an enormous achievement.

This post was originally published in Foreign Policy. 

Related: Why Iran missed the real revolution

About the Author

Suzanne DiMaggio
Suzanne DiMaggio is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Iran Initiative at the New America Foundation, where she focuses on the organization’s growing body of national security work throughout the Middle East and Asia and new initiatives on regional and global governance. Based at New America NYC, she leads a program on the future of U.S.-Iran relations that looks at Iran in the context of the broader region and emphasizes ties to the Gulf states, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other major players.

Seeing America Through Japanese Eyes


“Scarlett, Scarlett!” I waved pleadingly. Across the red carpet she sauntered, her eyes invitingly meeting mine. There I stood—a 24-year-old Jewish kid from Chicago decked out for the 77th Annual Academy Awards with my overgrown eyebrows and a cheap rented tux—face-to-face with America’s luscious girl-next-door, Scarlett Johansson.

I had been waiting all year to ask her this question: “What do you have to say to your fans in Japan?”

She cocked her head with a half-smile and then answered teasingly, “Well, I miss them.”

“We miss you, too!” I yelled back as she turned and walked away.

Coming from someone who looked like me, the question must have seemed “lost in translation.” But I was just doing my job. I was working for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. With more than 10 million daily readers, Yomiuri actually boasts the highest circulation of any daily in the world.

In the winter of 2002, back when I had never heard of Yomiuri Shimbun, I was just another lost history major living at home in Chicago after graduating from Stanford. I desperately wanted to move back to California, so I started applying for every job I could find. That’s when I first heard of Yomiuri Shimbun—on The paper had an opening for a reporter who would work alongside its Japanese Los Angeles bureau chief. Somehow, despite having no experience in journalism, I got the job.

The Los Angeles bureau covered the American West. I reported breaking news, politics, entertainment, and features. My reporting would mostly be incorporated into dispatches from the bureau chief, Kiyoshi Morita, whom everyone warmly called Mr. Morita. I also wrote for their English language paper, The Daily Yomiuri.

The bureau was small. Mr. Morita directly supervised two of us American reporters. A sportswriter from Japan also covered baseball with the help of another American reporter. Most of Yomiuri’s U.S. coverage came from its New York and Washington bureaus. In L.A., we were often looked to for features, which didn’t always run daily.

When we weren’t on deadline, we ate. Our meals became a sort of family tradition. Our Japanese colleagues often invited their wives and others from the Japanese expat community. For them, Los Angeles was the anti-Tokyo. They hardly wore a tie. But it was also an enclave of Japan in America. On my first day, I was welcomed with an extravagant dinner in Little Tokyo. Afterwards, the men went out to drink; the women went home. 

We drank Sapporo at Japanese beer gardens. We shared sushi, donburi, and ramen feasts. We sang karaoke. (Mr. Morita taught me to sing a ballad to his native Osaka—in Japanese.) Yet the border between Japanese and American—let alone Japanese-American—was far more fluid than our pseudo-Tokyo nightlife might suggest. In fact, working in a community with roots in Asia helped me better understand my own family’s experience of America. Our travel agent— an “Issei” (what Japanese-Americans call an immigrant)—spoke longingly about the rice and fish in her native Japan in the same way my mother—an Israeli-born “Issei” to America—spoke about the tomatoes and cucumbers of her youth.

We grew up as a bridge between America and our parents’ homelands. I always felt American, but perhaps not fully so.

My two American co-workers, like me, were “Nisei” (what Japanese-Americans call the first generation of immigrants born in America) from Japan and China, respectively. We grew up as a bridge between America and our parents’ homelands. I always felt American, but perhaps not fully so.  “American” was alternatingly used in our home to describe both the familiar and the foreign, what defined us and what we set us apart. The differences I shared with my “Nisei” coworkers—from what our parents cooked to whom they hoped we married—made me feel more completely American than I ever had before.

In this shared sense of difference, we were not alone. Like Los Angeles itself, our lives were woven into a larger tapestry of communities.

Los Angeles was built as much by refugees as by the car or the movies. Armenian survivors came after genocide, Ethiopians after famine. Mexicans (those who weren’t already there before the border crossed them) came after revolution. Central Americans fled civil wars, as did Chinese and Koreans. Persians escaped the Iranian revolution. The contractor who did our IT at Yomiuri had served in the South Vietnamese Army.

Japanese immigrants, for their part, first came to California in the 1860s during the Meiji Restoration, when the country rapidly modernized in response to its forced opening by Commodore Perry in 1854. The community grew until Congress passed the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924—before expanding again after World War II.

This global ebb and flow made L.A. fascinating to report from— and eat in. Community mixed with community, cuisine with cuisine. Korean BBQ tacos. Thai gnocchi. Brisket sushi.

I saw this fusion develop—in some small way—in myself: At the office, I alternated picking up the phone with a polite “Moshi moshi,” or a simple “Hello.” At Japanese restaurants, I got waiters’ attention by shouting “Sumimasen!”. Curry katsu reminded me of my grandmother’s chicken schnitzel—swapping the potatoes for rice and adding a better sauce.

My sister found a picture of me in kindergarten—dressed in a kimono, with golden blond hair, waving the flag of the rising sun—from my Jewish school’s “International Day.” It hung above my desk.

Working for Yomiuri from 2003 until 2006, I also had the chance to cover every state west of the Mississippi except for North Dakota.

Mr. Morita’s favorite state was New Mexico. We ate fried bread outside Taos Pueblo—the oldest continually inhabited settlement in America, then drove in search of ranches owned by Julia Roberts, Dennis Hopper—and Donald Rumsfeld. In Santa Fe, we visited Georgia O’Keefe’s sunflowers and watched the sunrise over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We drove down the spine of I-25, following the Rio Grande past towns like Elephant Butte, Truth or Consequences, and Las Cruces. We arrived in El Paso to report on a war story from Fort Bliss.

Later, I drove to the Trinity nuclear test site in the heart of New Mexico for the 60th anniversary of the moment when, on July 16, 1945, man had “become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The sand was still turned to glass.

Our reporting was not always quite that serious.  We covered The Wizard of Oz in Kansas, Field of Dreams in Iowa, and Route 66. Mr. Morita and I were a strange sight covering the rodeo.

We twice interviewed Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, known among Japanese by the endearing term “Schwa-chan.” At the Michael Jackson trial, crazed fans danced as the King of Pop jumped atop his SUV—even as his talent, and an acquittal, did not fully obscure a dark past.

“The past is never dead, it’s not even past,” William Faulkner said of the South. That’s true for the entire country.

My first big assignment was covering President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech. In a fancy San Diego hotel, I gorged on an endless buffet alongside the White House press corps as the president flew out to the USS Abraham Lincoln to have his USS Missouri moment. Two years later, I watched the president again in San Diego mark the 60th anniversary of the end of war with Japan. Standing next to the USS Ronald Reagan, he said that Iraq would be transformed from enemy to friend, just like Japan had. Hurricane Katrina had crashed ashore in the Gulf Coast that morning. He barely mentioned it.

In Hawaii, we interviewed Senator Daniel Inouye. He served in World War II as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—an all Japanese-American unit that remains the most decorated in American history. Many of its members volunteered at U.S. internment camps. When Inouye left for war, his father told him that if he must die for his country, “do so with honor.” He nearly did, losing an arm fighting in Italy. 

Afterwards, Mr. Morita and I visited the USS Arizona memorial where “tears” of black oil still well up from a wreck entombed with the dead. Mr. Morita bemoaned that most Japanese visitors to Hawaii did not come here. I told him I believed most American visitors did not come either.

Sometimes, to be a reporter is to bear witness to tragedy.

Sometimes, to be a reporter is to bear witness to tragedy. At the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, a 16-year-old shooter killed 10 people—mostly classmates. Wailing rose above the beat of drums at the memorial. As a “foreign” correspondent, was I supposed to treat this horror as a human tragedy or as a quintessentially American one? I’m still not sure.

For another story, the beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, hand running through his dignified white beard, told me about coming ashore in Nagasaki as a young naval officer as “bleached-white bones” stuck through the ashes.

For me, this searing movable feast—this eye-opening American education, courtesy of the Japanese newspaper subscriber—eventually came to an end. I had my fill.

I wanted to continue finding myself, this time by working directly in diplomacy—hoping that I could help prevent us from becoming lost in translation again.


This article appeared earlier this week at Zocalo Public Square.

About the Author

Ari Ratner
Ari Ratner is a fellow at the New America Foundation. From 2009-2012, he served as an appointee at the State Department. Follow him on Twitter at @amratner.