What we’re watching: US presidential debate, Yemeni prisoner swap, “illiberal” rule of law watchdog

President Trump and Joe Biden will face off in the first US presidential debate on September 29. Art by Annie Gugliotta

The US debate, round #1: US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden will clash tonight in Cleveland in the first presidential debate of the 2020 cycle. The debate will, as always, provide a first opportunity to see the two candidates speak directly to (or over) one another, and Trump's line of attack will be interesting to watch. Will he hammer away at Biden's career as a DC insider in order to hurt the former vice president's support among working-class folks? Or will he try to knock Biden off balance with shots at his mental acuity? And Biden will need to come prepared to parry Trump if the president distorts facts or tells lies about his record. Surely the most anticipated moment will be Trump's response to the New York Times' bombshell weekend report on his tax returns. Will Biden use those revelations to attack Trump as a failed businessman, a tax cheat, or simply as a person with privileges that few voters enjoy? The event will certainly be a big spectacle, but barring a big surprise, its impact on the race itself might be smaller than you'd think: there appear to be few undecided voters this year, and neither man is a mystery at this point. According to a recent poll, less than 30 percent of Americans say the debates have mattered to them when casting their vote over the past twenty years.


Another chance for peace in Yemen? Over the weekend the warring parties in Yemen's five-year long civil war agreed to exchange more than 1,000 fighters in the largest prisoner swap since the war began five years ago. The deal raises fresh hopes for a UN-brokered ceasefire in a brutal conflict that has led to widespread famine and the "world's worst humanitarian crisis." Since 2015, the Yemeni government — with support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia — has been battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have taken over large swaths of the country. A ceasefire would allow the opening of roads and ports that are needed to get food and medicine to a population that depends overwhelmingly outside aid. Still, ceasefires and prisoner swaps have been agreed before in the Yemen conflict, only to run aground over disagreements on the sequencing of the steps that each side is meant to take, as well as violations on the ground. We are watching to see if this deal really opens the way towards peace, or whether one of the world's most brutal conflicts will continue to grind on.

What we're ignoring

Hungary and Poland's "rule of law" monitoring: In recent years, the avowedly "illiberal" nationalist governments of Hungary and Poland have come under fire from Brussels over their moves to pressure independent media and courts. As a result, both countries —which signed up to respect democratic norms when they joined the EU in 2004 — have faced the prospect of internal EU sanctions or reductions in the generous handouts they receive from Brussels. Now, Budapest and Warsaw say they plan to set up a joint "rule of law" institute that is meant to point out "double standards" in "rule of law" elsewhere in the EU. Let's be clear — more scrutiny of rule of law and adherence democratic norms is always a good thing, but somehow this feels more like an I know you are, but what am I? strategy than a good-faith effort to reinforce democratic principles in the EU.

"I knew that history was my life's calling."

On Bank of America's That Made All the Difference podcast, Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch shares his journey and present-day work creating exhibits that inspire visitors to help our country live up to its ideals.

Viktor Orbán, Hungary's far-right populist prime minister, likes to shock people. It's part of his political appeal. Orbán has proudly proclaimed that he is an "illiberal" leader" creating a frenzy in Brussels because Hungary is a member of the European Union.

It's been over a decade since the 58-year old whom some have dubbed "the Trump before Trump" became prime minister. In that time he has, critics say, hollowed out Hungary's governing institutions and eroded the state's democratic characteristics.

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Why do (most) world leaders drink together? It can get them to agree on stuff they wouldn't while sober. Booze "helps people get cooperation off the ground, especially in situations where cooperation is challenging," says University of British Colombia professor Edward Slingerland. Alcohol, he explains, allows you to "see commonalities rather than just pursuing your own interest," which may put teetotaler politicians — like Donald Trump — at a disadvantage. Watch his interview on the next episode of GZERO World. Check local listings to watch on US public television.

In countries with access to COVID vaccines, the main challenge now is to convince those hesitant about the jab to roll up their sleeves, and this has become even more urgent given the spread of the more contagious delta variant. So, where are there more vaccine skeptics, and how do they compare to total COVID deaths per million in each nation? We take a look at a group of large economies where jabs are available, yet (in some cases) not everyone wants one.

Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

QR codes are everywhere. Are they also tracking my personal data?

Well, a QR code is like a complex barcode that may be on a printed ad or product package for you to scan and access more information. For example, to look at a menu without health risk or for two-factor verification of a bank payment. And now also as an integral part of covid and vaccine registration. QR codes can lead to tracking metadata or personal data. And when your phone scans and takes you to a website, certainly the tracking starts there. Now, one big trap is that people may not distinguish one kind of use of QR codes from another and that they cannot be aware of the risks of sharing their data.

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Now that the Tokyo Olympics are finally underway, your Signal crew will be bringing you some intriguing, uplifting, and quirky bits of color from a Games like no other…

Today we've got— the best freakout celebrations!

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Tanzania reverses course on COVID: Just four months ago, the Tanzanian government was completely denying the existence of the pandemic. Then-President John Magufuli insisted Tanzania was COVID-free thanks to peoples' prayers, and refused to try to get vaccines. But Magufuli died suddenly in March — perhaps of COVID. His successor, current President Samia Suluhu, has acknowledged the presence of the virus in Tanzania, and although she was initially lukewarm on mask-wearing and vaccines, Suluhu has recently changed her tune, first joining the global COVAX facility and now getting vaccinated herself to kick off the country's inoculation drive. Well done Tanzania, because if there's one thing we've all learned over the past 18 months, it's that nowhere — not even North Korea, whatever Pyongyang says — is safe from the coronavirus.

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16: A new study tracking Earth's "vital signs" has found that 16 out of 31 indicators of planetary health are getting worse due to climate change. Last year's pandemic-induced shutdown did little to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, stop the oceans from warming, or slow the shrinking of polar ice caps.

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How booze helps get diplomacy done

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