Inside Putin’s Head

24 July 2014

Putin’s Machiavellian Moment


You are Vladimir Putin. In response to the escalating crisis in Ukraine, the international community has questioned its assumptions about you, but your domestic approval rating is at an all-time high. What’s more, both your relationship with China and the fact that European nations are largely dependent on energy exports from Russia have thwarted serious consequences for your actions – so far. But the downing of flight MH17 could lead to a new chapter in the Eastern Europe conflict. If reports that pro-Russian separatists downed the commercial airliner are true, it could lead to more economic sanctions from the United States, and a more unified international  response.

We asked six of the best Kremlinologists we know “What is Putin thinking, and what are his next moves?”

Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow and Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, and author of What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979–89

Vladimir Putin’s strategic goal is to undo the results of the defeat of the Soviet Union that the CIA’s secret support for the Afghan mujahedin accomplished in 1989.  Putin was then a junior officer in the KGB stationed in East Germany.  He saw that just months after the humiliating retreat of the Soviet 40th Red Army from Kabul the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Warsaw Pact imploded.  For Putin it was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Putin’s reaction to the shooting down of MH17 is vintage KGB.  He has denied responsibility, sought to obfuscate the facts and uses his media to produce misinformation and disinformation.  The crash site was tampered with in order to prevent a serious forensic examination of the evidence.

Russia will continue to support separatists in the Ukraine with arms, training and expertise.  This too is vintage Soviet behavior and reminiscent of Putin’s predecessors in the USSR.  He wants either a puppet in Kiev or a weak Ukraine that can be kept off balance by manipulating its internal divisions.

Crucial to this strategy is dividing the NATO alliance.  With his experience in Germany, Putin understands Berlin is critical.  He will try to keep Germany from aligning closely with the United States.  He has a perfect instrument in Edward Snowden to keep disrupting Washington’s relationship with Berlin.

Of course, Russia today is not the Soviet Union; its capabilities are a shadow of what once was the other superpower.  Measured responses, not a new Cold War, are appropriate.

Kimberly Marten, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and author of Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States.

Putin is running scared, and rapidly recalculating what he should do next.

He made a major mistake by choosing to cooperate with unreliable warlords—individuals more concerned about their own local power than with Russia’s strategic interests—in eastern Ukraine. Before this terrible tragedy, Putin had seen only the benefits of warlordism, a tactic he had used previously in Georgia and Chechnya.  He was able to outsource the job of destabilizing the government in Kiev by creating a security crisis in the east, hoping to ensure that Russia would retain influence in Ukraine and that Kiev would never join NATO. Putin could avoid the high price and risks associated with direct military intervention, while enjoying plausible deniability about the Russian role in provoking, funding, and encouraging the armed conflict.  But now the costs of dealing with warlords are clear.  Outsourcing always makes it difficult to monitor and control what happens on the ground, especially when dealing with informal militia members who are riven by internal competition (and in this case, often drunk).

Putin’s biggest concern is that the reaction of the outside world makes him look weak domestically.  Leading economic figures in Russia are publicly turning against him because of western sanctions, but what matters most is what’s happening privately, within his own coalition.  His strongest potential internal network competitors are ethnic nationalist hardliners, not liberal internationalists.  As a result, Putin may be pushed toward more militarism and even fascism, in an attempt to salvage his own reputation and position.

Steven Pifer, Director, Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, and former United States Ambassador to Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter here.

Mr. Putin can hardly have welcomed the MH17 shootdown, particularly when it so quickly became apparent that separatists were responsible and used a surface-to-air missile almost certainly provided by Russia.  The initial Russian response has been to deny any culpability and throw out all kinds of other explanations, including the bizarre theory that the Ukrainian military shot down MH 17, believing it was Mr. Putin’s plane.

Mr. Putin now is trying to calculate how bad the damage is and how much blowback will be directed at Russia.  He may well expect further sanctions from the United States but is waiting to see whether the European Union will adopt tougher measures as well.  If Mr. Putin concludes that there will be minimal blowback, he will probably continue business as usual, and Russian weapons will continue to stream into eastern Ukraine, making the fighting there harder.  If he instead believes that truly tough sanctions are coming, that could lead him to consider an alternative course, in which Moscow cuts the arms supply and presses the separatists to stand down.

Russia ultimately must be part of the solution.  The Ukrainian government has talked about decentralization of power, status for the Russian language and no pursuit of NATO— which would allow Mr. Putin to claim some success in a compromise.  But does he judge the potential pain such that he should alter his current position?  The West should try to affect that calculation.

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Shane Harris, Future Tense Fellow at New America, and a senior writer at Foreign Policy magazine. Follow him on Twitter here.

After the downing of MH17, Putin seems to be thinking, “How can I pin this on the Ukrainians?” Based on the stories we’re seeing in the Russian press and Putin’s own statements, the Russian president isn’t close to accepting any portion of the blame for the shoot-down. I think his next move will be to determine what level of economic pain he’s willing to tolerate, should the U.S. and European countries impose more sanctions. But I expect he will continue supplying arms and training to separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the days since the shoot-down, U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked more Russian military equipment going into Ukraine than leaving the country. Those aren’t the actions of a leader who’s “de-escalating,” as the Obama administration has said Putin should.

Putin’s entire venture in Ukraine has been designed for a domestic political audience. He’s never seemed to care that much what the West thinks. I doubt that any punishments the West has proposed–so far–will make him change his mind.

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Lincoln Mitchell, Associate Research Scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.

When Moscow’s proxies and irregulars armed, led and insufficiently trained by Russia shot flight MH17 out of the sky using anti-aircraft weapons from Russia, killing all 298 people aboard, Russia President Vladimir Putin found himself in a very difficult situation. Until then, concern for what was perceived as a local conflict in Ukraine was limited outside of Eastern Europe, but the same cannot be said for the mass murder of almost 300 people.  That event almost instantly transformed Russia from simply wreaking havoc in neighboring Ukraine to being a state sponsor of terrorism. While Russia may not have killed those people, their actions certainly facilitated it.

Putin immediately made things much worse for himself by not doing the easy and obvious thing. Had he made a statement simply calling the events tragic, saying he would prosecute those involved and offered condolences, even if he did nothing after that, many in the west would have more easily gone back to doing very little to oppose Russia. Instead, the Kremlin made up a story about how Ukraine’s military brought down flight MH17 and showed themselves to be both insensitive and strategically tone deaf. By doing this, Putin empowered the strongest anti-Russian forces in the west. This leaves the Russia leader with two choices either dramatically change course and immediately alter Russia’s policy in Ukraine, or redouble his support for Russia’s proxies, continue to test western resolve and ultimately bring about a western response that will be disastrous for Russia. We may hope for the former, but given what we know about Putin, we should expect the latter.

Steve LeVine, Washington Correspondent, Quartz, and Future Tense Fellow. Follow him on Twitter here.

Putin is thinking that Europe, because of its business interests, ultimately will be incapable of uniting to realistically challenge Russia. He plans to make a show of being reasonable by playing along verbally with an investigation. But he does not intend to let Donetsk and Lugansk go. If they look likely to fall, he is prepared to invade. He does not want a full confrontation with the west. He has no long game apart from reinforcing national glory and a legacy as one of Russia’s historic, nation – building, great leaders.

About the Author

Justin Lynch
Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at New America.

What’s Different This Time


As Israel begins another day of Operation Protective Edge, its assault on Gaza, the country also faces an ending that’s going relatively unnoticed around the world: Shimon Peres leaves public office this week after a lifetime of political involvement that predates the founding of the state of Israel. The 91 year-old’s seven-year tenure as Israel’s president, a ceremonial position, has come to an end.

Peres, who has served in nearly every government from 1959 onward, shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin and outlived them both. But the peace accord they signed is now dead and the New Middle East Peres wrote about so hopefully more than two decades ago—a place with a Palestinian state next to an Israeli one, open borders and regional economic cooperation—seems today like a tasteless joke. Peres’ replacement is Reuven Rivlin, a nationalist who believes that Palestinians and Israelis should live together in one state, but with not-quite equal rights for Palestinians. It is grimly symbolic that the passing from public life of the country’s most venerable public figure, the man for whom a peace center in Jaffa is named, should be completely overshadowed by Israel’s third military assault against the Palestinians of Gaza in less than six years. And yet, though these assaults can feel a bit like a macabre version of Groundhog Day, this time is different and more disturbing than the last. It is cause for grave concern.

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As of this writing, 29 Israeli soldiers and more than 600 Palestinians—80 percent of them civilians and more than 100 children—have been killed since the assault began three weeks ago. There are thousands of wounded and tens of thousands of internally displaced persons. While Israeli civilians run for shelter several times per day as sirens wail to announce an incoming rocket, Gazans endure bombardments so intense and widespread that international aid workers have said publicly  there is no safe place in the coastal territory. While the leadership of both Hamas and Israel seem not to have anticipated that the military confrontation would become so intense and broad, neither is willing to accept a ceasefire without concessions that the other is unwilling to make.

In Israel, the media cynically refers to these military operations, ostensibly aimed at reducing Hamas’ arsenal, as “mowing the lawn.” There is no long-term strategy and no vision.

Put in the context of recent history, it’s easy to feel a sense of déjà vu. Here’s how these conflicts typically play out: The army announces that it is commencing a limited military operation against Gaza in order to stop or limit Hamas’s ability to launch rockets at Israel, usually with the claim that Hamas has broken what was an uneasy truce. Hamas’s response is to increase its rocket fire, even as Israel intensifies its assault. The casualty toll mounts over two-to-three weeks of asymmetrical warfare, with the vast majority of casualties on the Palestinian side.  Ultimately, both sides agree to a ceasefire and retreat to the status quo ante. Within two years Hamas and its splinter groups have rearmed and the two sides are back at it again. In Israel, the media cynically refers to these military operations, ostensibly aimed at reducing Hamas’ arsenal, as “mowing the lawn.” There is no long-term strategy and no vision. For Israel, the goal is to maintain the untenable status quo.

Meanwhile, there is a consensus among international aid organizations that Gaza is teetering on the edge of total catastrophe. It has been under Israeli blockade for eight years, unable to import or export. Its economy is almost entirely based on tunnel smuggling, international aid money and sinecures paid by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to former civil servants whose jobs became obsolete when Hamas kicked Fatah out of Gaza in 2007. The territory is overcrowded, 85 percent of the population is dependent on international aid and the water supply is almost completely used up.

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So why is Hamas, armed only with homemade rockets and light arms, choosing to fight a high cost war against the most powerful military in the Middle East? It’s hard to speculate, but the run-up to this war suggests they have nothing left to lose, and that upsetting the status quo is their only tactical aim at this point. Egypt’s President Al Sisi is extremely hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch. He has bombed the smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza to Sinai, which were a crucial source of revenue (Hamas imposes a 20 percent tax on tunnel smuggled goods). The final blow, as the International Crisis Group’s Nathan Thrall outlines in a July 17 op-ed for the New York Times, was Israel’s thwarting of the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which would have provided salaries for 47,000 Hamas civil servants. And so Hamas was in the desperate situation of having no revenue and no freedom of movement, either by land or by sea (Israel maintains a naval blockade of Gaza’s coastal waters).

The spark that set off the current conflagration was a series of incidents in the West Bank. On June 12 three yeshiva boys were abducted while hitchhiking, which is a common practice amongst Jewish teenagers in the settlement blocks. We now know that the Israeli government knew almost right away that the three boys had been shot dead by their abductors, and that they had not acted on any command from Hamas. But while Hamas denied involvement in the boys’ disappearance, the Israeli government insisted the Islamist group was responsible and the army commenced a three-week search operation that included a massive crackdown on its members. Many of the political prisoners who had been released according to terms of an exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006 and held for five years in Gaza, were re-arrested. The Israeli army ransacked houses and killed protestors.

In response, Hamas increased its rocket fire against Israel, which provided the excuse for a military operation that could only bring enormous suffering on the civilian population of Gaza.

There is a wearying pattern of destruction and self-destruction here. But one frightening new element is the hardening of Israeli public opinion, reflected in part by serious incitement against the Arab Members of Knesset, Israel’s parliament. But it’s also a sign that the traditional middle of Israeli society has shifted, at least during a time of war. Starting with the mass prayer vigils and media frenzy surrounding the abduction of the three Jewish boys, the highly charged atmosphere exploded in violent rage when the army discovered their bodies buried in a West Bank field. There were riots all over Israel, with hyper nationalists rampaging the streets of downtown Jerusalem shouting “Death to Arabs” and setting upon anyone who looked or sounded like a Palestinian. Most shocking of all was the abduction and murder by immolation of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 17 year-old Palestinian boy from East Jerusalem, at the hands of six young Jewish men.

The question is whether this hardening of opinion is wartime stiffening or reflective of the extremism that the current governing coalition represents.

Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem erupted in protest when the news of Abu Khdeir’s murder broke, flinging rocks at paramilitary police who responded with rubber bullets, tear gas, arrests and brutal beatings. Now Palestinian citizens of Israel (often referred to as “Arab Israelis”) are demonstrating as well. Amateur video clips show paramilitary police in Nazareth and other Galilee towns using violent crowd control techniques of the type usually reserved for the occupied territories—tear gas, choke holds, brutal beatings and preventative house arrests. Over the past two weeks, the police and Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Agency) have arrested more than 400 Arab citizens for protesting, according to Adalah—the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel. The Israeli Hebrew media, for the most part, has completely ignored these abuses, and has largely been superficial and anodyne in its coverage of the crisis. While ultra-nationalists attacked anti-war demonstrators in Tel Aviv and Haifa, even assaulting the Arab deputy mayor of Haifa, the media barely looked up from its saturation coverage of the home front and the army’s operation against Gaza.

So far, 29 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the ground incursion began only four days ago. In the 2008-9 operation called Cast Lead, 13 soldiers were killed in three weeks and the national mood was grim. Conventional wisdom in Israel has always been that the civilian population had a very low tolerance for military casualties. It’s a small country with mandatory conscription, so there is a tight connection between soldiers and civilians: nearly everyone has a close friend or relative in the army. But on July 22, Netanyahu said at a press conference in Jerusalem with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that he had no intention of stopping the military operation. Public support remains very high, polling at 73 percent despite the high casualty rate. This is a worrying trend that could indicate the mood of the country’s Jewish population has shifted decidedly toward hyper nationalism, with an unprecedented willingness to sacrifice soldiers for elusive security. The question is whether this hardening of opinion is wartime stiffening or reflective of the extremism that the current governing coalition represents. Or, to put it succinctly, it could well be that Shimon Peres, for all his flaws (and they are many), represents the last of the great Israeli liberals.

About the Author

Lisa GoldmanDirector, Israel-Palestine Initiative
Lisa Goldman is the Director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative. Previously a senior editor at the Daily Beast's Open Zion blog, she also worked as a journalist in the Middle East for more than a decade and co-founded +972, a progressive Tel Aviv-based digital magazine.

Betting on Women Leaders


Can we break the glass ceiling with dollars bills? On this episode, former Bank of America and Citigroup executive Sallie Krawcheck explains how she hopes a new index fund – offered by her organization, Ellevate Asset Management – comprised of those businesses that have women in leadership positions might help propel more women into c-suites and corporate boards.

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Why All Drugs Should Be Legal


We’ve come a long way since Reefer Madness. Over the past two decades, 16 states have de-criminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and 22 have legalized it for medical purposes.  In November 2012, Colorado and Washington went further, legalizing marijuana under state law for recreational purposes. Public attitudes toward marijuana have also changed; in a November 2013 Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans supported marijuana legalization.

Yet amidst these cultural and political shifts, American attitudes and U.S. policy toward other drugs have remained static.  No state has decriminalized, medicalized, or legalized cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.  And a recent poll suggests only about 10 percent of Americans favor legalization of cocaine or heroin.  Many who advocate marijuana legalization draw a sharp distinction between marijuana and “hard drugs.”

That’s understandable:  Different drugs do carry different risks, and the potential for serious harm from marijuana is less than for cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.  Marijuana, for example, appears incapable of causing a lethal overdose, but cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine can kill if taken in excess or under the wrong circumstances.

But if the goal is to minimize harm – to people here and abroad– the right policy is to legalize all drugs, not just marijuana.

Few people want to ban these goods, mainly because while harmful when misused, they provide substantial benefit to most people in most circumstances.

In fact, many legal goods cause serious harm, including death.  In recent years, about 40 people per year have died from skiing or snowboarding accidents; almost 800 from bicycle accidents; several thousand from drowning in swimming pools;  more than 20,000 per year from pharmaceuticals; more than 30,000 annually from auto accidents; and at least 38,000 from excessive alcohol use.

Few people want to ban these goods, mainly because while harmful when misused, they provide substantial benefit to most people in most circumstances.

The same condition holds for hard drugs.  Media accounts focus on users who experience bad outcomes, since these are dramatic or newsworthy.   Yet millions risk arrest, elevated prices, impurities, and the vagaries of black markets to purchase these goods, suggesting people do derive benefits from use.

That means even if prohibition could eliminate drug use, at no cost, it would probably do more harm than good.  Numerous moderate and responsible drug users would be worse off, while only a few abusive users would be better off.

And prohibition does, in fact, have huge costs, regardless of how harmful drugs might be.

First, a few Economics 101 basics: Prohibiting a good does not eliminate the market for that good.  Prohibition may shrink the market, by raising costs and therefore price, but even under strongly enforced prohibitions, a substantial black market emerges in which production and use continue.  And black markets generate numerous unwanted side effects.

Black markets increase violence because buyers and sellers can’t resolve disputes with courts, lawyers, or arbitration, so they turn to guns instead.   Black markets generate corruption, too, since participants have a greater incentive to bribe police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards.  They also inhibit quality control, which causes more accidental poisonings and overdoses.

The bottom line: Even if hard drugs carry greater health risks than marijuana, rationally, we can’t ban them without comparing the harm from prohibition against the harms from drugs themselves.

What’s more, prohibition creates health risks that wouldn’t exist in a legal market.  Because prohibition raises heroin prices, users have a greater incentive to inject because this offers a bigger bang for the buck.  Plus, prohibition generates restrictions on the sale of clean needles (because this might “send the wrong message”).  Many users therefore share contaminated needles, which transmit HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases.   In 2010, 8 percent of new HIV cases in the United States were attributed to IV drug use.

Prohibition enforcement also encourages infringements on civil liberties, such as no-knock warrants (which have killed dozens of innocent bystanders) and racial profiling (which generates much higher arrest rates for blacks than whites despite similar drug use rates).  It also costs a lot to enforce prohibition, and it means we can’t collect taxes on drugs; my estimates suggest U.S. governments could improve their budgets by at least $85 billion annually by legalizing – and taxing – all drugs.  U.S. insistence that source countries outlaw drugs means increased violence and corruption there as well (think Columbia, Mexico, or Afghanistan).

The bottom line: Even if hard drugs carry greater health risks than marijuana, rationally, we can’t ban them without comparing the harm from prohibition against the harms from drugs themselves. In a society that legalizes drugs, users face only the negatives of use.  Under prohibition, they also risk arrest, fines, loss of professional licenses, and more. So prohibition unambiguously harms those who use despite prohibition.

It’s also critical to analyze whether prohibition actually reduces drug use; if the effects are small, then prohibition is virtually all cost and no benefit.

On that question, available evidence is far from ideal, but none of it suggests that prohibition has a substantial impact on drug use.  States and countries that decriminalize or medicalize see little or no increase in drug use.  And differences in enforcement across time or place bear little correlation with uses.   This evidence does not bear directly on what would occur under full legalization, since that might allow advertising and more efficient, large-scale production.  But data on cirrhosis from repeal of U.S. Alcohol Prohibition suggest only a modest increase in alcohol consumption.

To the extent prohibition does reduce use drug use, the effect is likely smaller for hard drugs than for marijuana. That’s because the demands for cocaine and heroin appear less responsive to price.  From this perspective, the case is even stronger for legalizing cocaine or heroin than marijuana; for hard drugs, prohibition mainly raises the price, which increases the resources devoted to the black market while having minimal impact on use.

But perhaps the best reason to legalize hard drugs is that people who wish to consume them have the same liberty to determine their own well-being as those who consume alcohol, or marijuana, or anything else.   In a free society, the presumption must always be that individuals, not government, get to decide what is in their own best interest.

About the Author

Jeffrey Miron
Jeffrey Miron is Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard University and Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Studies at the Cato Institute.

Colleges and the Common Core


Even with all the talk (much uninformed) about Common Core, one player seems to be missing from the conversation: higher education.  Lindsey Tepe of New America’s Education Policy Program argues in a new paper that colleges need to take a stronger role in aligning their admissions, and even their financial aid decisions, to assessments tied to the Common Core, rather than the mish-mash of state assessments, SATs, ACTs, APs and whatever other tests high schoolers are faced with today. Here is a link to her paper. Below is a recent article she wrote for Fortune, previewing the paper.

Much attention has been paid lately to help debt-trouble college graduates, but what about getting more high school-ers ready for higher education?

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt traveled to Chicago for the dedication of the Outer Drive Bridge, which linked the south side of the city to the north. The bridge was designed to relieve congestion through the middle of the city, routing traffic along the shore of Lake Michigan along what’s now simply known as Lake Shore Drive.

In retrospect, building a throughway with two sharp right angles—a hard right then a hard left—may not have been the best idea. Within days of its opening, several people were injured as they failed to make the sharp turn and crashed into the guard wall. It took almost 50 years to fix this now-obvious misalignment.

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This sort of thing is easy to spot in infrastructure — it is clear when roads, tunnels, bridges and streets don’t meet up in the middle. With institutions, it’s less obvious when systems fail to meet: instead we wait and see where the bottlenecks emerge.

This misalignment between high school and higher education has clearly racked up a lot of casualties.

In the case of public education, clearly the traffic jam is situated between high school and higher education. For all we’ve heard lately about debt-trouble college graduates, there’s another (and perhaps more serious) college crisis that also deserves attention: Between 28% to 40% of students are unprepared when they go to college, and as a result, are placed into developmental, or remedial, courses (at community colleges, this is closer to 50%). And of the 4.3 million freshmen who entered college in 2004, it’s likely that as many as 3 million, well more than half, failed to earn some post-secondary credential. Countless more fail to make the transition into higher education at all.

This misalignment between high school and higher education has clearly racked up a lot of casualties.

In the early 2000’s, a group of education leaders set out to smooth out the pathway. The resulting Common Core State Standards Initiative led to the creation of common education standards in English and mathematics, upgrading the vast majority of disjointed K-12 state standards with those that, in those CCSS leaders’ words, are “relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college.”

The implementation of these standards is well under way, and sophisticated new assessments are currently being designed and piloted to gauge student progress on their pathway to college readiness. Higher education leaders have begun to enter the fray around Common Core (which has since become a weapon in the echo chamber wars) to emerge in favor of these standards and assessments, as well as the work of their K-12 colleagues—but they are neglecting to think through the repairs needed on their side of the bridge.

For example, earlier this month a group of over 200 college and university presidents and higher education officials came out in support of the Common Core State Standards. Aptly named, Higher Education for Higher Standards has emerged amidst the political backlash facing the standards and their aligned assessments. Their principles are clear: every state should insist upon high K-12 standards which prepare students for colleges and careers; aligned assessments are critical to provide more meaningful information to colleges on student preparation; and that higher education has a clear stake in this debate, as student preparation informs a students’ college completion.

A forthcoming report by the New America Education Policy Program argues that if elementary and high school teachers are preparing students for college, and the assessments they use provide meaningful information to colleges on student preparation, higher education has more than just a stake in this debate—they have a call to action as well.

First, it remains to be seen how higher education will use the data provided by the Common Core assessments. Talk to any parent and you quickly hear the litany about tests. Currently, multiple layers of assessment mar students’ pathway to college. Students applying to most four-year colleges and universities submit SAT or ACT scores as a piece of information within their application; to apply for many forms of so-called “merit aid,” they often need to provide these test scores as well. And even those attending open-enrollment institutions—including the more than 1,000 community colleges throughout the states—must take course placement exams, including the likes of COMPASS and Accuplacer.

This “more meaningful information” which colleges will receive from new high school assessments should replace the inadequate information colleges are receiving from this array of other tests—not simply add an additional layer of student assessment.

Then there’s the matter of how higher education will use the standards themselves. Developmental education, simply put, is high school-level instruction with a college-level price tag that, ironically, often pushes students out of college because of that price tag. If the Common Core represent the knowledge and skills students need in order to be successful in college, these standards should guide teaching in developmental education programs as well. With common standards being implemented in the majority of classrooms throughout the country, teacher preparation programs would be remiss not to update their instruction and integrate these new standards.

The bridge from high school to college is fraught with sharp turns for students seeking to make this transition. The commitment to educate all students to college-ready levels is negligible if colleges and universities are not prepared to pick up where high schools have left off. It is time for higher education to examine its own policies and practices, and not just support the efforts of their K-12 colleagues but put in a little effort of their own.

About the Author

Lindsey Tepe
Lindsey Tepe is a policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. She conducts research in support of the Early Education Initiative and the Federal Education Budget Project. She previously conducted research on a number of programs and policies affecting the public work force, with a focus on new media implementation and utilization.

Love, Not War


A cultural conundrum that I struggled to comprehend during my six years of living in Amsterdam concerned the Dutch attitude toward celebrities. They are passionate about their own celebrities—far more than about Hollywood stars, which is fair enough—but in the midst of intensely gossiping about a homegrown film or sports personality they will suddenly turn blasé, as if the celeb were a mere family member who had started to become uppity.

The explanation is in the size of the nation. When you’ve got a total population of 16 million crammed into a country smaller than most individual U.S. states, everyone is within a couple of degrees of separation of everyone else. Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, and the other stars of the country’s World Cup team are brought down to earth by the fact that, chances are, you know them, or your uncle does.

That thought came to mind as I’ve watched somber memorials unfold like dreams in cities all over the country this week. Roughly two-thirds of the 298 people who died on Malaysian Air flight 17 were Dutch. I asked several Dutch friends how they were doing. As I more or less expected, every one of them knew at least one person who was on the plane. One, who lives in The Hague, said her daughter was friends with a girl whose entire family was on the flight: They were going on vacation to Borneo. “They were in primary school together and took the same ballet lessons,” my friend said of her daughter and the girl who died. “When you think of their empty house, it is all very unreal.”

A few people want to lash out, saying the country should strike out against Russia. Someone posted the address of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, who lives in the Netherlands, on the Facebook page of the Netherlands-Russia Center. There are some vicious tweets.

But in the main the reaction to the sudden loss of a cross-section of Dutch society—the proportionate loss of life for a country the size of the United States would be about 6,000 people—has been muted. After some hesitation, the government decided to declare a national day of mourning, though it was already happening in a natural, non-official way. A mountain of flowers in front of a restaurant in Rotterdam. A pall of silence descending on the “Rose Kermis” gay festival in Tilburg. The deaths were evenly spread all over the country, and the memorials are localized.

The Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in their gut reactions to things. When hit with a national shock, Americans will almost instinctively reach for ideology or ideals. People saw 9/11 as an assault on “freedom.” The Dutch have an innate distrust of ideology. You could relate that to World War II and their experience under Nazism, but it goes much farther back. It has something to do with being a small country surrounded by larger countries that have had long histories of asserting themselves.

It also stems from the fact that Dutch society grew not out of war against a human foe but out of the struggle against nature. Living in low lands on a vast river delta, the Dutch came together to battle water. Building dams and dikes and canals was more practical than ideological. For better or worse, the Dutch are more comfortable with meetings and remembrances than with calls to arms.

This article originally appeared on Zócalo Public

About the Author

Russell Shorto
Russell Shorto is an American author, historian, and journalist.

A Tale of Two Singapores


These are the best of times and the worst of times in Singapore, the world’s only global city without a natural hinterland, whose prosperity and good governance are the envy of much of the world, and a model for others to follow.  But while the city-state remains an alluring success story to much of the outside world, Singaporeans themselves are starting to question the long-term viability of their longstanding adherence to elite governance, meritocracy, the primacy of growth and state paternalism. The “Singapore consensus” that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government constructed and maintained in the last five decades is fraying, partly because many citizens perceive it to be outdated.

The Singapore consensus has been underpinned by the notion of vulnerability—that because of its small size, lack of natural resources, ethnic and religious diversity, and geographic location in a potentially volatile region, the city-sized nation is inherently and immutably vulnerable.

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From this existentially anguished reality, a developmental belief system emerged. Its tenets include a strict academic meritocracy as the best way to sort talent; elite governance insulated from the short-termism and myopia of ordinary democratic pressures; the primacy of growth, delivered through a heavy dependence on foreign labour and capital; an acceptance of the need to equalise opportunities but not outcomes; and an indifference to inequality, as reflected in the state’s aversion to welfare.

The Singapore consensus made possible impressive socioeconomic development for much of the past fifty years, when demographic and economic conditions were also far more favorable. Yet today many Singaporeans are contesting it. At first glance this might seem odd: Singapore has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. But its economic success masks some uncomfortable truths about life in this city-state.

Income and wealth inequalities in Singapore are among the highest in the developed world, while the cost of living has spiraled in recent years. For many of its residents, the country’s impressive material achievements have not translated into higher levels of happiness or well-being. In various surveys, Singaporeans are found to work some of the longest hours in the developed world and are described as one of the world’s least happy peoples. Almost three-quarters are afraid to get sick because of perceived high healthcare costs while more than half indicate they would emigrate if given the chance.

In December 2013, Singapore had its first riot in fifty years – reflecting its inability (and possibly, unwillingness) to accommodate the more than one million low-skilled foreign workers in Singapore. Yet its economic model is still highly dependent on taking in increasing numbers of such workers as Singaporeans continue to shun and stigmatize menial jobs.  Two years ago, low-wage mainland Chinese bus drivers, bereft of bargaining power, instigated Singapore’s first labor strike in twenty-six years. Meanwhile, economic pressures coupled with the lack of efforts at fostering integration have led to an uptick in racism and xenophobia, tarnishing Singapore’s reputation for openness and tolerance. A country the business community long admired for its stability and openness to foreign nationals and ideas is now witnessing pent-up tensions bubbling over from time to time.

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In many ways, Singapore is a victim of its own success. From the 1970s to 1990s, it developed from a manufacturing and trading hub to a global service and knowledge economy. In the process, a nascent, post-colonial misfit evolved into one of the world’s most well-governed states and dynamic economies. This rapid transformation, driven and engineered by the state, outpaced the ability of entrenched ideologies, policies and institutions to keep up.

By failing to adapt to these new socioeconomic and political realities, Singapore has set the scene for a fierce clash between competing societal and political visions.

At the same time, contradictions in the Singapore story are beginning to emerge. For instance, the government’s aspirations for Singapore to be an entrepreneurial and innovation-driven economy collide with the institutions, policies and practices that inhibit risk-taking, experimentation, collaboration, and egalitarian norms—all of which are critical for a creative economy.

Singapore’s global city ambitions bump up against an emerging national identity. The nation faces an ideological quandary, as its own people question whether its strict academic meritocracy and the belief in the necessity of elite governance has also bred a narrow bureaucratic and political class that is increasingly out of touch with ordinary citizens. This has happened precisely as the electorate, increasingly weary of a sycophantic government-controlled national media, is seeking more mature engagement and debate about Singapore’s future.

By failing to adapt to these new socioeconomic and political realities, Singapore has set the scene for a fierce clash between competing societal and political visions. The big question is how to forge a new consensus—which will involve, among other things, greater welfare and lower immigration—without swinging too far in the other direction, and without undermining the very efficiency and openness that made Singapore so successful in the first place. At the same time, an increasingly plural political scene is likely to offer voters greater choice about the balance they want to strike.

In South Korea and Taiwan, the transition to full democracy was, initially at least, wrenching, socially divisive and politically destabilizing. But both countries managed eventually to amble towards stable, rule-based and competitive democratic systems. This, in turn, paved the way for the emergence of properly organized, collectively financed welfare states that enabled both countries to balance economic growth with social investments in areas such as healthcare, old age security and unemployment protection.

Singapore’s transition is likely to be much less wrenching and destabilizing. First, the city-state is nowhere near as repressive as the (military) dictatorships in South Korea and Taiwan that ruled until the 1980s. Equally important is the fact that the vast majority of Singaporeans are homeowners. A home-owning society is far less likely to upset the apple cart of stability and prosperity.

For these and other reasons, we are sanguine about Singapore’s transition to a liberal democracy with a far more redistributive state. Our optimism stands in stark contrast to the government’s fears about how increased democratic pressures here will make Singapore less governable, impede quick and enlightened decision making by elites who know better, and increase the likelihood of policies being made for short-term or populist reasons.

We think such fears are mostly misplaced. The contest in Singapore is less about basic political rights and freedoms. But neither is it just over “bread and butter” issues. Rather, it is a post-modern debate over people’s ability to determine what constitutes achievement and well-being. While a narrow focus on GDP growth and material prosperity helped to raise living standards early on, it has proven to be an incomplete barometer of success for Singaporeans. For businesses, investors and policymakers in Singapore, the days of easy political consensus, stability and insulation from short-term electoral demands are over. Having sacrificed over a generation to attain prosperity, Singaporeans are now wrestling with what comes next.

About the Author

Donald Low
Donald Low is an associate dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He is the co-author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus.
Sudhir Vadaketh
Sudhir Vadaketh is the co-author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus.

The Secret World of Oil


Oil powers our cars and our economy. But it’s also a fuel source for bribery and corruption across the globe. Ken Silverstein, an award-winning investigative journalist and former Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, shines a light on the industry’s darkest secrets in his new book, “The Secret World of Oil”. In this Squaring Off, we ask Silverstein five questions about what he discovered during his investigation, and what we can do to fight back against corrupt oil tycoons.

Q1: You argue that the oil industry is actually the most corrupt industry in the world. How?

Since the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was passed in 1977, there have been more bribery cases involving the energy industry than any other sector. The energy business has also been hit with greater collective fines under the FCPA than any other industry.

If you’re selling widgets, you make a small amount of money on a lot of contracts. When you’re in the oil business, you’re chasing a small number of huge deals that can be worth tens of billions of dollars. “Corruption isn’t endemic in the energy business because people in the industry are more corrupt or have lower morals but because you’re dealing with huge sums of capital,” Keith Myers, a London-based consultant and former BP executive, told me. “A million dollars here or there doesn’t make any difference to the overall economics of a project, but it can make a huge difference to the economics of a few individuals who can delay or stop or approve the project.”

Q2: As consumers, how much responsibility do we have in the oil industry’s success? Which questions should we be asking, and of whom?

On the one hand, consumers have a lot of responsibility because we’re driving demand for oil – for example, we want gasoline to fuel our SUVs. And as a former Chevron executive told me, “As long as we want cheap gas, democracy can’t exist,” meaning that we import oil from many corrupt, authoritarian regimes and so we’re propping up those regimes with our money. But elected officials set policies and so the questions need to be addressed to government. As to what the questions should be, there are far too many, but here are a few: Why does the government continue to so lavishly subsidize the oil and gas industries? Should the government more aggressively discourage oil consumption with higher taxes and stricter fuel standards? Why is the energy industry exempt from every major piece of environmental legislation passed during the last forty years? Do we really need to support or abet every oil-rich dictatorship out there or are there some regimes (hint: Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan) that are beyond the pale and where political and trade ties should be reduced to a minimum?

More: Will New EPA Rules Change Our Carbon Future?

Q3: Wouldn’t there still be an unwavering demand for fossil fuels regardless of increased industry transparency? So, in theory, does this corruption really matter all that much in regard to the future of global warming? 

No, it doesn’t because as you say, reducing corruption is not going to reduce demand so there’s no direct link to global warming.

Q4: Who would benefit from increased transparency in the oil industry? Would there be any obvious benefits for consumers?

There’s probably not a huge benefit to consumers from a strictly economic standpoint. The price of gasoline is not going to plummet if bribery (legal or otherwise) is eliminated because it’s a small component of overall costs. The primary beneficiaries would be people in oil producing countries because at the moment citizens of many of those states have no idea how their governments spend their energy revenues. Four years ago Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act, which includes a provision (Section 1504) that requires oil, gas and mining companies to disclose their payments to governments. It still hasn’t been implemented because of opposition from industry, which essentially argues that it would hurt American companies’ “competitiveness” abroad because Russian and Chinese firms won’t have to provide the same information. Transparency is not a cure-all — some governments are pretty clear about how much oil revenue they are taking in, they’re just not clear on how the money is being spent ­– but it makes it a bit harder for governments to steal money.  It’s hard to argue with that.

Q5: Are there specific organizations or individuals working to expose the industry’s corruption? If so, what can we do to support them in their fight?

There are lots of great organizations out there. I’d highlight Global Witness (which is based in London and has offices in DC): It does original, first-rate investigations about corruption in the natural resources industry – work as good as anything being done at top media investigative units. Human Rights Watch also does amazing investigations about corruption in the energy industry. There’s a Swiss outfit called the Berne Declaration that does a great job tracking the commodities business. With the traditional media business retracting, the work of groups like these are more and more important.

About the Author

Jessica Ovington
Jessica Ovington graduated in 2013 from the University of Georgia with a B.A. in International Affairs and will be attending King's College London for their Intelligence & International Security master's program in the fall of 2014. She was an editorial intern at New America.

Is This a Date or an Interview?


The Challenge: It’s a basic skill for journalists: how to get people to talk. But, increasingly, all of us are being asked to play like journalists and interview people who might be reticent to speak. Also, if you’re on the other end of the phone, wouldn’t it be nice to know what the journalist is thinking? Here are the basics.

The Wonk:  Adapted from a recent conversation with Shane Harris, ASU Future of War Fellow.

The Tip: Interviewing is actually a lot like dating. Minus the flirting and the giggling.

First, you have to listen to your interviewee. (Do you think you’ll get a second date if you ask her a question she answered during the first five minutes of the conversation?) The key here is listening actively, which means communicating that you’re following along with what someone is saying, instead of plotting your next question. Everyone wants to be heard. Listening actively goes a long way for establishing that you care about what’s being said.

Second, do your homework. Just as you wouldn’t show up not knowing something (anything!) about your date, you wouldn’t show up to an interview without at least studying the basics. What else has your interviewee written on the topic? What are other people saying about her? However, don’t be afraid to reveal that you don’t know something. It’s impossible to know everything about a topic. (That’s why you’re interviewing, right?) Go in prepared, but open.

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Third, set some ground rules. In high school you probably had a curfew, so you’d head out on your date with this in mind. Interviews are basically the same. Before you start, establish the terms of the interview (background, deep background, not for attribution, and on/off the record). Your interviewee must also give you permission to use a recording device. Dealing with all of this up front could help you avoid a snafu later on.

And fourth, say thanks. Maybe you had a lousy date (that guy, while nice, totally didn’t get your sense of humor). Likewise, if your interviewee wasn’t able to give you the information that you’d hoped for, be courteous anyway. Who knows, a simple thanks might move her to point you to someone who could help. People want their time to be valued as much as they want their voice to be heard.

About the Author

Brandon Tensley
Brandon Tensley is an M.Phil. candidate in European Politics & Society at the University of Oxford, where his research focuses on minority politics and nationalism in Europe.