Noam Chomsky (June, 2013) "The Future of American Power (Video)

Japan confirms it will return some nuclear explosive materials to U.S.

The amount of plutonium Japan will return is a small fraction of what the country could soon begin making annually


The Japanese government confirmed Monday it will ship hundreds of pounds of nuclear explosive materials back to the United States, after using it for decades to conduct research on nuclear reactor fuels.

Japan’s expected, public pledge came in a joint statement with Washington that was timed to coincide with the first day of a U.S.-led, international Nuclear Security Summit on March 24-25 in the Netherlands.

The plutonium and enriched uranium to be returned are stored at Japan’s Tokai nuclear research complex on the Pacific coast about 65 miles from Tokyo, a facility that U.S. officials long complained was poorly protected from thefts or terrorist assaults.
 The materials — consisting of pocket-sized wafers of metallic plutonium and uranium — could in theory be used to build an arsenal of 68 bombs equal in power to the weapon that destroyed much of Nagasaki in 1945.

But Japan will still have plenty of such materials in its holdings once the repatriation is completed. The plutonium alone is 3.5 percent of what Japan has in its own warehouses, and less than one percent of the country’s total holdings (some of it is stored outside the country). It also represents just 4 percent of what the country can produce in a year at its new plutonium factory, now scheduled for completion in October in the village of Rokkasho.

The deal comes amid heightened U.S. pressure on Japan to reduce or limit the size of its plutonium stockpile, mostly to reduce the risk of its theft by terrorists, and a global drive by Washington to convince other nations to do the same.

As part of its effort to prevent any thefts of other dangerous radioactive materials, such as medical isotopes, that aren’t explosives but could be used to sicken or kill, the United States also pledged with 22 other nations attending the summit to try to secure all radiological substances within their borders by 2016.

Update, March 25 at 11:22am: The final 2014 Nuclear Security Summit communique also included language that, for the first time, urged states to keep stockpiles of plutonium to a “minimum level.” While the statement was hedged — saying that stocks of the nuclear explosive should be minimized “consistent with national requirements” — it nevertheless marked a milestone in the biennial summit process, which began in 2010. Previous summits focused on reducing stockpiles of the other main nuclear explosive, highly-enriched uranium, and did not call for limits on plutonium stockpiles, due to opposition from countries like Russia and India that are seeking to develop commercial plutonium nuclear programs.

The joint U.S.-Japanese statement, released by President Obama and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, said: “This effort involves the elimination of hundreds of kilograms of nuclear material, furthering our mutual goal of minimizing stocks of HEU [highly-enriched uranium] and separated plutonium worldwide, which will help prevent unauthorized actors, criminals or terrorists from acquiring such materials."
The main elements of the deal were reported on March 11 by the Center for Public Integrity, in a series of articles detailing recent friction between the two countries about Japan’s plutonium programs.

Monday’s joint statement didn’t provide any figures, but according to a decade-old U.S. government report, the Fast Critical Assembly research facility at Tokai has about 730 pounds of separated plutonium. It also has about 1,210 pounds of enriched uranium, capable of use in weapons.

The statement gave no timetable for the transfer of the materials, and did not mention the total size of Japan’s stockpiles or refer to growing tensions between the two countries over Japan’s plan to operate the Rokkasho factory under what U.S. officials consider to be inadequate security.

The square-mile facility, located on a stretch of Pacific 1,000 miles north of Tokyo, is capable of producing 8 tons of plutonium each year. But its workers have not been subjected to background checks, most of its guards are not armed, and its security forces do not routinely engage in realistic training exercises, according to U.S. officials.
While Japan has said it plans to use the newly-made plutonium as commercial reactor fuel, no reactors capable of burning it are now in operation, due to the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Officials in Abe’s government have privately told American experts they want to reopen a half dozen or so idled reactors by the end of this year, and more in the coming years.
Nobuyasu Abe, a former U.N. undersecretary general for disarmament who was recently named to the nation’s Atomic Energy Commission, said March 15 at a Brookings Institution symposium about Rokkasho that once the plant is finished, Japan will probably operate it at “partial capacity.”

“That is necessary in order to keep the plutonium balance at least equal, not increasing,” he said — referring to the government’s evident desire to consume the plutonium-based fuel as it is being created.

Kenneth Luongo, a former Department of Energy policy advisor and current president of the Partnership for Global Security, called Monday’s announcement of the return of the weapons materials from Japan “a positive step forward,” especially in East Asia, where Japan is just one of a number of countries trying to decide the shape of their nuclear programs.

“But Rokkasho is going to be a gigantic plutonium factor, so that is a major concern,” Luongo said.

The Fast Critical Assembly, which has operated since the 1967, was damaged by the same March 2011 earthquake that hit Fukushima and is currently undergoing repairs.
During a visit to the research reactor in November, the Center for Public Integrity found aging infrastructure — including unpainted walls and old equipment — as well as relatively light security, given the weapons materials used there.

According to the White House, once the Tokai uranium arrives in the United States, it will be diluted or “down-blended” into low-enriched uranium for use in commercial reactors or other civilian purposes.

The plutonium meanwhile will be stored pending a United States decision on how to get rid of its excess plutonium.

The statement also said the United States has agreed to help Japan “design new enhancements” to the research facility at Tokai, including converting the test reactor there to use non-explosive fuel.
The summit’s agreement regarding radiological materials, including isotopes used for medical purposes, is meant to keep these materials from being used to make a dirty bomb — a conventional explosive device salted with highly radioactive material that, while it can’t produce a nuclear blast, can produce a cloud of dangerously radioactive debris.

The 23 countries — out of 53 attending the summit in The Hague — that signed the pledge include Algeria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a number of Western industrialized nations. Conspicuous by their absence from the list are the nuclear powers France, China and Russia.

The signers of the deal also pledged to follow the International Atomic Energy Agency’s guidelines for security for radiological materials.

A March 2014 report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies found that last year alone, there were 153 cases where authorities in 30 countries lost control of some of their radiological and nuclear materials.

The vast majority of these cases, a total of 141, involved materials that are dangerously radioactive but not usable in nuclear weapons. In about half of cases, the report blamed the loss of the materials on “negligence” by the people handling them. In about a third of the cases, the materials were lost or stolen during transit.

In one high-profile incident, thieves stole a truck outside Mexico City in early December that was hauling cobalt-60 from a hospital to a radioactive waste storage center, according to news accounts. The truck and its contents were recovered not far from where it was taken three days later, but only after the thieves were exposed to dangerous radiation.

The United States may find it hard to meet the new pledge. Last year, the Energy Department acknowledged that 1,500 U.S. hospitals use radiological sources that could be turned into dirty bombs, and warned that it could take until 2025 to improve security for all those sources, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The West and Russia: Why Obama's Legacy Hinges on Europe

An Analysis by Sebastian Fischer
Source: Der Spiegel International

Barack Obama has labeled Russia a "regional power" that is acting out of weakness rather than strength. That may be so. But the US president's own foreign policy legacy depends heavily on Vladimir Putin -- and Europe.

Barack Obama is has a reputation for extreme rationality -- or for being coldly calculating, depending on the viewpoint. Self-control is paramount, and he rarely loses it. One can assume, then, that Obama's barbed comments on Russia, delivered at a Tuesday press conference in The Hague, were designed to provoke. They also show just how vexed the US president is by Russian President Vladimir Putin's exploits in Crimea.

Russia, Obama said following the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, is a "regional power" that is threatening its neighbors "not out of strength, but out of weakness."

It is a comment that is sure to ruffle Putin's feathers; the Russian president, after all, has shown a penchant for consulting the czarist playbook it his attempt to boost his country's role on the global stage. But Obama wasn't done yet. The US too exerts influence over its neighbors, the president said. However: "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them." And: "Russian actions are a problem. They don't pose the number one security threat to the United States."

It would be difficult to prove the US president wrong. Russian power is certainly not what it used to be and its expansionary tendencies are largely a reaction to the weak geopolitical position in which it finds itself. And it certainly does not represent a direct threat to the US: An invasion of Alaska seems unlikely and a nuclear attack is out of the question.

But indirectly, Russia does present a grave danger -- to Obama himself. Putin is threatening Obama's credibility as the leader and guarantor of the West.

More Help
From the very beginning of his presidency, Obama has been more focused on consolidating US forces rather than embarking on new international adventures. He has significantly reduced America's military footprint overseas, vocally demanded more help from US allies, emphasized the need for multilateral conflict solutions and preferred to focus on domestic issues as much as possible. Obama's retrenchment largely reflects the desires of the American electorate after eight years of George W. Bush.

What does it mean for the current crisis, though? Does his cautious approach to foreign policy automatically mean he is a weak president? And was it a factor in Putin's decision to act in Crimea?

No matter how Obama views Russia, the Ukraine crisis and how he chooses to confront Putin will be decisive for his foreign policy legacy. That he ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is certainly worthy of praise. But a triumph of his own making remains to be seen.

"For any president engaged in retrenchment, policy success is not measured simply by how well the United States extricates itself from old involvements," Stephen Sestanovich, the renowned Russia expert and former advisor to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writes in his new book "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama." The decisive question, he writes, is: "How well are new challenges handled?"

There are plenty of them: the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program, the civil war in Syria, a budding military dictatorship in Egypt, China's more aggressive stance toward US allies in Asia -- and now Putin's Russia. The limits to Obama's power are being tested across the globe. And almost all autocrats present America as the enemy as a way of stabilizing their own power.

Mission Failed
Republican hawks have long since begun joking about Obama's allegedly naïve attempt to "reset" US relations with Russia. His predecessor George W. Bush, a man who was driven by obsessions in much the same way that Putin is, is now being celebrated as a strong president, although he wasn't even able to apply sanctions comparable to the current ones in response to Russia's conflict with Georgia in 2008. But Obama's mistake is that he underestimated the revanchist nature of Putin's foreign policy. The Russian president is much less interested in cooperation with the West than he is in constructing an alternative to the West. Putin is a man of the past -- one whom Obama had sought to drag into the 21st century. Mission failed.

It is telling how Obama, on his current European tour, has relied on emphasizing the self-evident to guard against misleading perceptions. As he did on Tuesday, when he ensured Eastern European allies that NATO's Article 5, which treats an attack on one member as an attack on the entire alliance, remains in force. "Every one of our NATO allies has assurances that we will act in their defense against any threats," he intoned. That sounds good. But it is akin to the local fire department calling every day to ensure home owners that it would respond to a fire should the need arise. On the other hand, if Obama had refrained from uttering such a reassurance, how would it have been interpreted?

The situation is a challenging one. But it is a fateful one for both Obama and the future of US foreign policy. How he navigates it will determine whether he, the retrenchment president, will go down in history as a strong or a weak president, and will inform the policies of those that come after him.

Much is dependent upon Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders; such appears to be the consensus in Washington. Will the EU and US show unity and a willingness to accept potential economic burdens that may result from their response to Russia? Or will the trans-Atlantic relationship suffer anew?

In short, Europe's path will have a decisive impact on the future foreign policy course charted by the world's last remaining superpower. Obama's legacy hangs in the balance.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley


President Barack Obama Weekly Address March 22, 2014 (Video/Trascript )

President Barack Obama
Weekly Address
The White House
March 22, 2014
Hi, everybody.  This week, I visited a community college in Florida, where I spoke with students about what we need to do to make sure our economy rewards the hard work of every American.

More specifically, I spoke about making sure our economy rewards the hard work of women.

Today, women make up about half of our workforce, and more than half of our college graduates.  More women are now their families’ main breadwinner than ever before.
But in a lot of ways, our economy hasn’t caught up to this new reality yet.  On average, a woman still earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man does.  And too many women face outdated workplace policies that hold them back – which in turn holds back our families and our entire economy.

A woman deserves to earn equal pay for equal work, and paid leave that lets you take a day off to care for a sick child or parent.  Congress needs to act on these priorities.
And when women hold most lower-wage jobs in America, Congress needs to raise the minimum wage.  Because no woman who works full-time should ever have to raise her children in poverty.

Now, the good news is that in the year since I first called on Congress to raise the minimum wage, six states have passed laws to raise theirs.  More states, counties, and cities are working to raise their minimum wages as we speak.  Small businesses like St. Louis-based Pi Pizzeria, are raising their wages too – not out of charity, but because it’s good for business.  And by the way, Pi makes a really good pizza.  And in this year of action, I signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a fair wage of at least ten dollars and ten cents an hour.

But if we’re truly going to reward the hard work of every American, Congress needs to join the rest of the country and pass a bill that would lift the federal minimum wage to ten dollars and ten cents an hour.  This wouldn’t just raise wages for minimum wage workers – its effects would lift wages for nearly 28 million Americans across this country.  It will give businesses more customers with more money to spend, and grow the economy for everybody.  So call up your Member of Congress and let them know it’s time for “ten-ten.”  It’s time to give America a raise.

A true opportunity agenda is one that works for working women. Because when women succeed, America succeeds.  We do better when everyone participates, and when everyone who works hard has the chance to get ahead.  That’s what opportunity means – and it’s why I’ll keep fighting to restore it.

Thanks, everybody, and have a great weekend.


Exclusive: NATO Chief Says "Our Concern Is that Russia Won't Stop"

BY Yochi Dreazen
 Source: Foreign Policy
NATO's top official acknowledged in an interview that Russia's annexation of Crimea had "established certain facts on the ground" that would be difficult to change and said the military alliance was increasingly concerned that Moscow might also invade eastern Ukraine.

In the interview, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Foreign Policy that Russia's sudden conquest of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula was a "wake-up call" for the 28-member alliance, which had been established to counter potential Soviet aggression during the Cold War. Rasmussen said NATO was committed to protecting Poland and other Baltic members of the alliance from what he described as an increasingly aggressive and land-hungry Russian government.

Still, he said that it was too late to halt Crimea's absorption into Russia or return it to the control of Ukraine's fragile central government. NATO, Rasmussen said, was instead worried that Russia was turning its gaze further eastward and potentially preparing to seize other portions of Ukraine.

"Our concern is that Russia won't stop here," Rasmussen said. "There is a clear risk that Russia will go beyond Crimea and the next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine."

A Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, he added, "would have severe consequences." He declined to say what those might include, though, and stressed that NATO hadn't begun discussing any military options and wanted to de-escalate tensions with Russia rather than continuing down a path that could lead to an armed confrontation with Moscow.
Rasmussen's remarks come during at an unsettling time for the United States, Britain, and NATO's other 26 members. It was just weeks ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcoming tens of thousands of tourists to Sochi for the Winter Olympics. Today, Putin is at the center of a tense showdown with President Obama that has plunged U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest levels in decades.

"More or less we took for granted that the Cold War belonged to the past," Rasmussen said. "And while I'm not yet ready to call recent incidents a new Cold War, there are of course similarities that remind us of old-fashioned Cold War attitudes on the Russian side, and that is a matter of concern."

Russia's invasion of Crimea has also focused new attention on NATO itself. Senior officials from both the Bush and Obama administrations have privately questioned its relevance in recent years and blasted the alliance's European members for slashing defense spending and effectively turning the continent's security over to the United States. European NATO members, in turn, have worried aloud that Obama's stated goal of reducing U.S. defense spending and focusing more attention on Asia meant that the administration was not as firmly committed to the alliance as its predecessors had been.
Rasmussen said he was working to reassure Poland and other nervous Baltic members of the alliance, who share borders with Russia and wonder if they will be Putin's next targets. The NATO chief said the alliance was committed to the defense of all of its members and would take strong, though unspecified, steps to protect the countries in the event of a Russian invasion. The Pentagon recently announced plans to move a dozen F-16s to Poland, and two NATO surveillance planes have begun flying over Poland and Romania to help the two countries better monitor their airspace and borders. Many Poles, though, say that the West isn't doing remotely enough to deter Putin.

The NATO chief acknowledged that the current crisis was NATO's biggest challenge in decades and cut to the heart of why the alliance had been created in the first place. Rasmussen said that he hoped it would lead European countries to sharply boost their defense spending, which he said had fallen to levels so low that they threatened the alliance's future effectiveness.

"This is a wake-up call and also a wake-up call when it comes to defense spending," he said in the interview, noting that some European countries had slashed their spending by up to 40 percent. "If this trend continues, European allies will not be able to provide effective deterrence and collective defense. This trend must be reversed."
Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark, said the current crisis was "surreal" for him on a personal level.

"I grew up in the shadow of the wall and the Iron Curtain, and in a way I couldn't believe that it could be changed," he said. "Then suddenly, almost overnight, everything changed."

Now, he warned, things were at risk of changing again, this time for the worse.
"It is a Russian attempt to redraw the map and I would call it a kind of Russian revisionism which is unacceptable," he said. "It's not an acceptable behavior in the 21st century."


Beyond Ukraine: Russia's Imperial Mess


 Russia's occupation of Crimea has violated international law and created a new crisis among world leaders. Now the EU and the US are fighting over the best means to address Russia's reawakened expansionary ambitions. 

Everything in Simferopol, the capital of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea, has suddenly changed. Shortly after noon on Thursday of last week, Cossacks from Russia sealed off the Crimean parliament building. The Russians, who had identified themselves as tourists a short time earlier, claimed that they were there to "check identification papers." Now Russia's white, blue and red flag flies above the building.

Two men accompany us as we walk up the steps to meet with the new premier of Crimea, who has taken over the office in a Moscow-backed coup. Under his leadership and with instructions from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Crimean lawmakers have just voted to join the Russian Federation. Their decision is to be sealed with a referendum scheduled for Sunday, March 16.
Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, 41, a former businessman with a highly dubious reputation, tries to make a serious impression, but so far, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to shed his reputation as an underworld figure nicknamed "Goblin."

Despite the Russian flag on display in the reception room, Aksyonov insists that rumors that he was installed by the Kremlin are nothing but lies. "The people here asked me to do it," he says. But he knows that neither Kiev nor the West will accept the annexation of Crimea. "No one dictates anything to us," he insists.

The new premier speaks rapidly, as if to drown out any skepticism. "We want no violence or casualties," he says, adding that everything should proceed peacefully. "However, we are not letting the Ukrainians out of their barracks, so that they can no longer act on any criminal orders from Kiev." He says that his people are in control of all of Crimea, but NATO experts claim that at least 2,000 Russian soldiers have been brought to the peninsula by air, for a total of 20,000 troops in Crimea. Another 20,000 are supposedly standing ready nearby.

"Nonsense," says Aksyonov, still insisting that Moscow has not sent in any soldiers at all. This, despite the fact that the men in ski masks and uniforms -- which have been stripped of Russian insignia -- are grinning under their disguises. If the situation weren't so serious, it would almost be comical.

At this point, no one is laughing. Russian soldiers have repeatedly prevented military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from entering Crimea. Pro-Russian "civil defense squads" have threatened United Nations special envoy Robert Serry in Simferopol. "Militarily speaking, Crimea is already lost," says a NATO general. "The Ukrainian army is fighting a lost cause." According to a German military internal situation report, the events in Crimea could be repeated in eastern Ukraine.

So far, Moscow's provocations in Crimea haven't resulted in any deaths. Nevertheless, all it takes is one murder or one gun battle to ignite the powder keg of tensions in the region. It begs the question: Almost 100 years after the beginning of World War I, and almost 25 years after the end of the Cold War and the realignment of Europe, could there possibly be a new military conflict between the major powers in Europe?

'Most Serious Crisis' Since Cold War
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called it the "most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall" -- seemingly ignoring the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. US President Barack Obama characterized Moscow's intervention as a "violation of international law," while former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Putin's alleged concerns over "ethnic" Russians in eastern Ukraine to Adolf Hitler's actions in Sudetenland in 1938.

Officials at NATO and the European Union have been meeting almost around the clock. Late last week, Obama spent more than an hour on the phone with Putin, who has shown no sign of backing down. The Western leaders now face the challenge of exerting pressure on Russia while simultaneously keeping the channels of communication open.
They are also being confronted with a different series of questions: What kinds of sanctions could even persuade Russia's aggressive leader to withdraw? What does Vladimir Putin want? Does he want to annex Crimea or even eastern Ukraine, or perhaps seize control of even more territory along Russia's borders? And are these merely the actions of a cornered fighter or does he truly believe he can create a modern reincarnation of the Soviet Union?

The United States and the EU approved initial sanctions against Moscow late last week, Washington sent military reinforcements to Poland and the Baltic countries and the German federal police promptly suspended half a dozen cooperative programs with Russia. On Sunday, the Polish Defense Minister announced that the US was sending 12 fighter jets to Poland.

But aside from these measures, the situation has thus far been characterized by a horrifying sense of helplessness. On the one hand, Russia is part of the globalized community of nations, tightly interconnected through regular political consultations, the economy and tourism. Russia's commodities exports to Europe make up close to half of the central government budget, and its connections to the rest of the world are obvious. But then, on the other hand, there is the Russian president, who is apparently trying to break ranks with this interdependent, civilized world.

Ignorance and Incomprehension
The events of the last few weeks have underscored a lack of understanding between East and West, as well as the West's crass ignorance and incomprehension of Putin's motives. As much as the leaders on both sides feel that they know each other, vast differences remain.

"Putin is living in another world!" German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly exclaimed in a phone call with Obama last week. Putin, for his part, voiced almost identical opinions about the West in a press conference with handpicked journalists, saying, "They sit there across the pond as if they're in a lab running all kinds of experiments on rats, without understanding consequences of what they're doing." By "rats" he apparently meant the new Ukrainian leadership, which Putin believes is being controlled by Washington.

But the Kremlin leader has succeeded in one respect: He has divided the West. This process began months before his foray into Crimea, when he granted temporary asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden had leaked documents on the massive surveillance activities of the NSA, heightening the distrust among the Western allies to levels unseen since World War II. And the fact that Washington has made no effort to conclude a no-spying agreement with Berlin has only worsened the sense of alienation between the two countries.

Searching for the Right Measure
Germany is playing a central role in resolving the current Ukraine crisis. Both the United States and Russia see Merkel as the politician who is best equipped to defuse the explosive situation in Ukraine. She addresses Putin with the informal "du" in German, and has met with him dozens of times. Despite their many differences, their close partnership has created a bond between Berlin and Moscow. And with its aspiration to embark on a new, more active foreign policy, the German government has placed itself under more pressure to succeed.

But Europe's impotence and trepidation are not as clear-cut as they appear. Even though a reversal of the Russian takeover of Crimea may seem hopeless at this point, joint EU actions against Moscow could be promising in the long term. Putin is not as strong as he makes himself out to be, and Russia is vulnerable, particularly on the economic front.

It is merely a question of finding the most effective way to make an impression on Putin and curb his expansion plans -- and of whether the West has the will to follow a course of action that will be painful for everyone involved. Either way, the decisions now being made in Crimea, Kiev, Moscow, Brussels and Washington will shape policy in the coming years and possibly even decades.

In Kiev: Pride and Powerlessness
While Russians and Ukrainians continue to face off in Crimea -- with US President Obama threatening to skip the G-8 summit in Sochi in June and the Russian parliament, the Duma, considering the seizure of Western company assets in response to sanctions -- the new government is meeting in Kiev. Less than two weeks after entering office, it is desperately trying to regain control over the situation in Ukraine.

The seat of the government, located in a massive Stalin-era building on Kiev's Grushevsky Street, seems caught in the past. The hallway floors are covered with sound-absorbing green carpeting from the Yanukovych era, the names of the country's new leaders have already been engraved onto brass signs on the doorways.

Room 460, on the fifth floor, is the office of the new economics minister, Pavlo Sheremeta. The office hasn't been completely furnished yet, and there are only two pictures on the wall -- a portrait of national poet Taras Shevchenko and a photo, titled "Heavenly One Hundred," depicting the photos of the 67 people who died on Maidan Square. The view from the window is of a barricade on Grushevsky Street, now covered with flowers, where many of former President Viktor Yanukovych's opponents died.

"We owe a great deal to the dead," says Sheremeta. It angers him that Moscow is calling the change in government in Kiev a "coup" and the protesters "fascists." Radical right-wing agitators, he says, were clearly in the minority among the protesters on Independence Square.

Dismal Economy
Sheremeta is not a member of any party. He is part of the contingent of ministers selected by the Maidan protesters and his position is now probably one of the most important in Kiev. The 42-year-old economist teaches business strategy in Eastern Europe and Asia and, most recently, was president of the Kiev School of Economics. When he received the call asking him to join the new government, he was skiing in the Alps with his wife and two daughters.

He never saw his predecessor, who held his last meeting at 11 a.m. on Feb. 27 and then left the building. Sheremata was appointed at 2 p.m. that day. Since then, he and other members of the new government have been working around the clock.

A staff member walks into the room. He has brought along Ukraine's daily economic figures, which look like the fever chart of a deathly ill patient. Industrial production declined by another half a percent in January, while inflation is sharply on the rise, tax revenues are down 20 percent and the national currency, the hryvnia, continues to lose value.

"We are going to review government contracts, where corruption is taking a heavy toll," says Sheremeta. But first he has to meet with experts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who have been in Kiev since Tuesday to discuss a $15 billion (€10.8 billion) loan the country urgently needs. But natural gas prices will also be a topic of discussion. It is clear that, effective April 1, the Russians will reverse the substantial reduction in prices they had promised Yanukovich. It is also clear that Naftogaz, Ukraine's national oil and gas company, is unable to pay the current bill for gas deliveries, which has grown to $2.1 billion.

This means Ukrainians will now -- in accordance with the IMF's conditions -- have to pay up to three times as much for heat and hot water, a change which will hurt the new government's popularity and thus play into Putin's hands. "We have to explain this to the people. If we are not willing to pay more for the gas, then we truly belong in the East. But then what did those 67 men die for?" asks Sheremeta.

Chaos in Kiev

Three levels above Sheremeta's office, a cabinet meeting is beginning. The attendees include the governors of Ukraine's nine provinces, including the two oligarchs -- banker Igor Kolomoisky and steel magnate Sergey Taruta -- who will now be running the provinces of Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk. Many were surprised by the choice of the two men. They have experience and their wealth makes them seemingly unsusceptible to bribes, but, Sheremeta says: "I'm not happy with these choices. How are these people supposed to separate business and politics?"

The cabinet meets for three hours. It cancels 82 government projects, for a total cost of 48 billion hryvnia (€3.8 billion), and decides to auction off 1,500 official cars owned by ministries and other agencies. With funds in such short supply, government officials will now be expected to take the metro.

Then Sheremeta is called back to Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's office to attend a meeting with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. When he arrives on the seventh floor, he learns that the prime minister has just left in a hurry for Brussels. This leaves Sheremeta to negotiate alone with Bildt over a planned association agreement with the European Union. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party is demanding that the agreement, from which Yanukovich withdrew in November, be signed as quickly as possible. But now Brussels is stepping on the brakes, unwilling to rush into anything.

Sheremeta is no politician. This can work in his favor, but it can also be a drawback. He isn't caught up in the political games being played in the cabinet, between Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party and the nationalist Svoboda party.

'A Candid Investigation' is Needed
But he is working together with cabinet members about whom many have reservations. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, a former governor of the eastern city of Kharkiv, was suspected of abuse of office and spent more than two years in exile in Italy. Agriculture Minister Igor Shvaika is an ardent right-wing nationalist. Energy Minister Yuri Prodan and Minister of Social Policy Lyudmyla Denisova have both served in other governments in the past. And finally, there is Dmytro Bulatov, one of the leaders of the Maidan protesters, who disappeared for a period of time and was apparently tortured, and who is now the new minister of youth and sports.

Reporters from a Ukrainian television station come to see Sheremeta. Later, the new economics minister is smiling and seemingly in high spirits during a live interview with CNN. Only once does he become pensive, after hearing a rumor that the Estonian foreign minister had told EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton. The minister had claimed that it wasn't Yanukovych's men who had fired the shots during the bloody clashes on Maidan Square on Feb. 20, but members of the opposition.

On Wednesday, the new Ukrainian intelligence chief stated that the shots were fired by "snipers from foreign countries," but declined to elaborate. Sheremeta says that many questions remain unanswered. He believes the coalition government is not overly eager to investigate the bloody clashes. "Our government will fall under a shadow unless it conducts a candid investigation."

USA: Marbles and Chess
The American president is visiting Powell Elementary School in Washington, where he has come to talk about the importance of education. The children greet the president in a half-circle, and when he steps into a classroom, they chant in unison: "Good morning, Mr. President." Obama, with one of the little boys sitting on his lap, begins to talk about opportunities for the socially disadvantaged. But even here, the crisis in Ukraine is on everyone's mind.

When a reporter asks Obama for his assessment of the situation in Crimea, Obama's response reveals a great deal about his worldview: "The course of history is for people to want to be free to make their own decisions about their own futures. And the international community I think is unified in believing that it is not the role of an outside force ... to intervene in people trying to determine their own destiny."

This statement, directed at Russia, could double as the US government's maxim on the current crisis. Washington is currently grappling with the sustainability of Obama's approach to US military troop reduction. It is also wondering whether it is right for the most powerful man in the world to be taking such a cautious approach to this sort of conflict.

Major Test for Obama
The Crimean crisis is, more than any other event, testing Obama's policy of reconciliation with the rest of the world. Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas R. Burns calls it the "most important, most difficult foreign-policy test of his presidency," noting that there is "no one in Europe who can approach him in power. He's going to have to lead."

Political scientist Ian Bremmer, president of the renowned New York-based Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm, fears that the events in Ukraine could reflect a "broader geopolitical shift." Russia, Bremmer writes, will use the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen its ties with China. "We are in a world with a distinct and dangerous lack of global, coordinated leadership." Meanwhile, the Republicans are critical of the president for engaging in a foreign policy in which "nobody believes in America's strength anymore," as Senator John McCain bitterly notes.

Obama himself says that the impulse to expand, in terms of geography, economy and ideology, is a central part of the American identity. There is a nostalgia in Washington for the country's former strength, a desire for a more self-confident approach. "Putin is playing chess and I think we're playing marbles," says Republican Congressman Mike Rogers.

Obama perceives this is an outdated Cold War ritual, dating from a time when the world seemed divided into good and evil. Before he became president, he described his view of foreign policy by quoting from former President George Washington's farewell address: "Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?"

Words as Weapons
At Powell Elementary School, Obama responded to suggestions that Putin had been clever strategically by saying: "I actually think that this has not been a sign of strength. It will push many countries further away from Russia."

On Thursday, to ensure that no one misinterprets his mild words, Obama imposed the first sanctions on individuals held responsible for the crisis. They will be denied entry into the United States, and the assets of former President Yanukovych are being frozen. Obama also sent his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to visit Kiev.

Kerry was driven directly from the airport to Independence Square, where he engaged in a conversation with a woman about how the wealthy live in luxury, hiding their assets, while the majority of the population lives in poverty. These kinds of encounters feed into the American desire to be perceived as ambassadors of freedom. But Kerry has a problem: He only has weak weapons to use against the Russians. Those weapons are his words. "It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty, not unilateral force, that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century," Kerry said in Kiev.

But what if Putin continues to escalate the crisis? "Then," says Kerry, "our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically."

Reason and Roulette in Moscow
Is it possible to take a trip inside Putin's head? The CIA has experts who can provide the US president with psychological profiles of foreign leaders, which he can use as tools in making his decisions. They place Putin on a virtual therapist's couch and try to explain what makes him tick and what is truly important to him. It helps to look at the world through Putin's eyes, through the lens of his experiences and priorities.

Conversations with Putin's associates and his own remarks suggest the factors that shaped the wannabe czar: his childhood in a small, shabby apartment in a Leningrad working-class neighborhood, his father's stories about the Great Patriotic War against the Germans, his role as an outsider in school -- and his desire to be accepted into the KGB community.

Putin was 15 when then Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in response to a "plea for help" from Communist Party leaders, sent tanks to mow down the reform movement in Prague. He was 37 and a major in the KGB when he was forced to defend himself against angry demonstrators in Dresden, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wearing civilian clothing, he went to the gate of the KGB villa and appeased the crowd by saying: "This is a property of the Soviet military, and I am the interpreter." In reality, as Putin would later relate, he had been burning secret documents inside the villa "until the furnace almost broke."

The Soviet withdrawal from East Germany was a humiliating moment for Putin. Beginning in 1989, the superpower he had served and in which he had believed was disintegrating everywhere. Soviet republics from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia were declaring independence. For Putin, it was especially painful to see Ukraine -- whose "Kievan Rus" had become the historic cradle of the later Russian Empire after the 9th century -- separating itself from Moscow.

He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Since then, he has made it his mission to save -- or recapture -- whatever he can. To add insult to injury, in Putin's eyes, the West has flouted its commitment not to send NATO troops up to Russia's borders. Putin refuses to give up the dream of making Russia a superpower once again and the aspiration to make it an empire.

Limited Influence
He has experimented with cooperation with the West. After Sept. 11, 2001, Putin hoped that by supplying arms for the campaign against the Taliban, he would secure a modicum of control over the former Soviet republics, expanding Russia's sphere of influence from the Kirghiz steps to Crimea. But the West had no intention of granting him his wish, especially now that countries like Georgia and Ukraine were demanding more autonomy and turning to the West.

At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin struck back, accusing the United States of having "overstepped" borders, partly through the "expansion of force." In 2008, the Russian army intervened in Georgia when Georgian troops, provoked by Moscow, launched a regional war of aggression on the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

After five days, Putin had President Dmitry Medvedev declare the two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as protectorates. Although only a handful of countries besides Russia recognize them as independent nations, the West accepts Moscow's control. Are they a potential model for Crimea?

Heir to the Russian Empire
When addressing the global public, Putin likes to portray himself as a champion of international law and the territorial integrity of countries. Again and again, most recently in the Syrian conflict, Moscow has used its veto to obstruct outside intervention in cases involving human rights violations. Putin does not accept the United Nations view of its "responsibility to protect" a threatened civilian population -- unless Russians are involved and he can determine whether they are being threatened, as he now claims is the case in Ukraine, allowing him to personally "rescue" them.

Russia's strong man only offers insights into what truly worries him when speaking to small groups. In October 2012, for example, activists with the pro-Kremlin People's Front for Russia met with Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. Referring to the appearance of an employee of the state-owned television station known for his strident polemics, he said: "I like this superpower way of thinking." This shows that Putin sees himself as the heir of the Russian Empire.

In 2013, Forbes named him the most powerful man in the world, ahead of the presidents of the United States and China. And it must have stroked his ego when everyone in the West claimed that without him, there could be no solution in the Syrian civil war and in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

 Putin's Weaknesses

In reality, his influence in these countries is limited. China outstripped Russia long ago in Central Asia and Africa. No one would hit upon the idea of referring to a "Russian model" worth imitating. And even Putinists often resignedly quote Russian national poet Fyodor Dostoevsky, who said: "In Europe we are mere Tatars." By Tatars, he meant provincial.

Russia's population has stopped growing. With its 143 million people, the world's largest country ranks ninth in population, behind Nigeria and Bangladesh. And the economy grew by a paltry 1.4 percent last year, despite the world's largest natural gas reserves, massive oil production and many natural resources, from nickel to gold.

Russia has little to offer other than its mineral resources, so Putin needs markets in the West. The oft-proclaimed diversification of Russian industry has never happened. In addition, Russia is ranked 127th in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, only 17 spots ahead of Ukraine, which Putin has just accused of being plagued with "unimaginable corruption."

Uncertain Future for Gas
There is also no guarantee that Russia's oil and gas revenues will remain strong. Given the recent emergence of fracking and oil shales, global market prices for these commodities will likely decline significantly in the future. If that happens, it has the potential to open up an enormous hole in the Russian treasury. If events unfold as many observers believe they will, then Putin will soon no longer be able to afford the kind of inflated and inefficient military he has today. He will be forced to freeze pensions and will no longer be able to offer the new middle class a better standard of living.

It's no surprise that Putin is seeking a breakthrough in foreign policy that would lead to a prestigious alliance of nations under his leadership. Ukraine was intended to be a key, perhaps even the most important, member of his planned Eurasian Customs Union.

But ever since Kiev began orienting itself toward Western Europe, Putin has seen his expansion plans in jeopardy. With only Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and possibly Moldova on board, Putin won't be creating much of an empire.

It is hard to explain why the leading politicians in the West failed to recognize, or perhaps were unwilling to see, the fact that the Russian president would not simply allow Ukraine to turn to the West.

An Imperial Twitch from a Shrunken Russia
Putin's decline began at the moment of his greatest triumph. The Russian president, who invested billions in Sochi, could no longer enjoy the magnificent Winter Olympics. And the next prestigious event in the city, the G-8 summit of the world's leading industrialized nations, is on the verge of being cancelled because of Russia's forceful actions in Crimea. Western sanctions would further decimate Putin's range of options, possibly even threatening his power. Travel bans imposed on a previously pro-Putin elite accustomed to Western luxury could trigger considerable resentment.

From his standpoint, the president has only one good card to play: He needs a successful operation in Crimea.

It is a high-stakes gamble, but perhaps the odds are better than in a game of Russian roulette. And in taking his current approach, Putin enjoys broad support among a largely nationalist public, with even liberal intellectuals celebrating the annexation. Hardly anyone is troubled by the highly dubious attempt to justify Russian intervention as "brotherly aid," and few believe that Putin also intends to march into eastern Ukraine for the same reason.

Still, merely the threat that the Russians could possibly come to the "aid" of ethnic Russians in Kharkiv and Donetsk is probably enough to prevent any Ukrainian government from becoming too cozy with the EU and NATO.

Putin's aggressive approach in Crimea and his actions, clearly in violation of international law, may remind Hillary Clinton of the Nazis' "Anschluss" of the Sudetenland. But Putin is no gambler, nor is he looking for excuses to raze cities to the ground.

And even though he is playing a high-stakes game of poker, he also isn't putting everything on the line. Instead, it seems highly likely that Putin will stop when he faces the threat of a major war. In this respect, he has not lost touch with reality in the way the German chancellor believes. Instead, he is ruthlessly exploiting all his options, taking things to a limit which he knows very well.

He is not doing so out of strength but out of weakness. In fact, this Crimean campaign could be the last imperial twitch of a Russia that has shrunk to the point of being a medium-sized power.

Germany Takes a Key Role to Little Effect
Germany is playing a key role in the Ukraine crisis. The chancellor has spoken with the Russian president by phone three times in the last few days, and the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has met three times with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in addition to almost daily telephone conversations. Last Monday, Steinmeier even made a trip to Geneva to speak with Lavrov in person and to keep the conversation going.

This is in keeping with the new, more active German foreign policy Steinmeier announced in January. At the same time, the German government is also clearly feeling the limits of this policy. "I don't know if we are prepared for this type of foreign policy," says a senior official in Berlin. He is referring to the mixture of the geostrategic Great Game of the 19th century and the intelligence methods of the 21st century, with which Putin is trying to protect his interests, and which stands in contrast with the Germans' more gentle diplomacy.

Merkel spoke with Putin by phone on the Friday before last, after pro-Russian militias had taken over government buildings in Crimea. Putin denied that Moscow was involved, and he would do so more frequently in the coming days. The German government's position was clear early on: An international contact group was needed as a forum for talks with the Russians.

A Familiar Relationship
In her phone conversations with Putin, Merkel repeatedly pointed out that if Russia hoped to avoid sanctions, it would have to agree to a contact group. But Putin proved to be unwieldy. He said he was not opposed to a contact group, but that the current Ukrainian government could not be represented, because it consists of fascists and is not democratically elected. Merkel replied that the government was elected by the Ukrainian parliament, and that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk had even appointed two members of the Jewish faith to his government.

The tone in Merkel's and Putin's conversation has been calm but clear. Officials in Berlin are convinced that Putin does not speak as openly with any other Western leader as he does with Merkel. He usually speaks German, only switching to Russian when important details are at issue. His words are then translated, even though Merkel understands Russian.

After years of interaction, the chancellor knows Putin well enough that she can readily draw a picture of his character and his motives. It is an image of a highly intelligent man interested in the world, but also a man with complexes and self-doubts. According to Merkel, Putin knows very well that he cannot modernize his country without Western investment. He also knows that under purely economic criteria, Russia would have no business being part of the group of the eight most important industrialized nations.

A Mood of Resignation in Berlin
In their telephone conversations, the chancellor and Putin have been unable to agree on any of the central issues, from events in Crimea to the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government. Putin is also offering no concrete commitments. During a conversation last Wednesday, however, he did indicate that he could perhaps agree to a contact group that would include the Ukrainian government.

So far, though, German efforts have not been truly helpful, leading to a mood of resignation in Berlin. Even cabinet ministers are saying "Crimea is gone," and that the West should now focus on preventing the Russian president from creating more precedents in eastern Ukraine. They warn that if Putin were to stir up separatist sentiments there, too, it would be a "game changer." Keeping eastern and western Ukraine together is currently Merkel's most important goal.

The planned G-8 summit in Sochi could be an opportunity to teach Putin a lesson. If there is indeed an independence referendum in Crimea next Sunday, Merkel will have no choice but to cancel her attendance. That, at least, is the current assessment of the situation within Merkel's cabinet and at the Chancellery.

Putin Prefers Risk of Sanctions
When German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel met with Putin in Moscow last week, he told the Kremlin leader that Russian would suffer considerably under sanctions. He also tried appealing to the Russian president on a personal level, saying it was now up to him, Putin, to prevent Europe from sliding into a new Cold War. But the Russian leader remained impassive.

On the previous day, the foreign ministers had met for several hours, but emerged from the meeting without having agreed on the format, the principles or the goals of a contact group. During the meeting, Lavrov left the negotiating table several times to speak with Putin by phone. In the end, it was clear that Putin would rather accept the risk of sanctions than make any concessions. This is why the German government believes Washington's push for a quick, tough reaction against Russia is the wrong approach.

When the EU leaders consult each other about sanctions against Russia, the association agreement with Ukraine, which triggered the crisis in the first place, is also back on the table. The interim government in Kiev is eager to sign the agreement as soon as possible.

Important Lessons
The history of the agreement is a lesson in what happens when modern economic policy and classic power politics clash. Officials in Berlin already had their doubts when negotiations on the agreement began in 2009. Some argued that Ukraine was too fragile to be forced to choose between Russia and the West. But that concern never reached the department in Brussels in charge of European enlargement and neighborhood policy, whose officials negotiated the treaty. No one even hit upon the idea that Moscow might assert its influence in Ukraine as aggressively as it did, and yet there were warning signs.

At the very latest, officials in Brussels ought to have been paying closer attention after February of last year, when EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle visited the White House in Moscow, the seat of the Russian government. Füle raved about the progress being made in Ukraine. At that point, the EU's association agreement with the government in Kiev was practically in the bag. The official signing was to take place at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Lithuania in November. Füle spoke with great enthusiasm about Ukraine's efforts.

His audience in Moscow, the assembled Russian government, headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, was not nearly as enthusiastic. What effects, it asked pointedly, would such an agreement have on the planned Eurasian economic union, which Moscow was assembling with countries like Kazakhstan and Belarus, and possibly Ukraine?

"Looking back," says a senior official at the European Commission, "we could have sensed at that moment what was threatening to happen. But that would be against our nature. We EU representatives are always a little naïve and believe that our mission is bound to succeed, because we are fighting for the right values. We never plan for the worst case."

A Changed Man
After Füle's meeting in Moscow, Alexey Miller, the head of Russian energy giant Gazprom, suddenly noticed that Ukraine was behind in paying for its gas deliveries, and that the government in Kiev still owed the company $882 million. As a result, Miller said, Gazprom had to insist that Ukraine pay its debts on time. Then Russia's consumer protection agency suddenly claimed that the products of Ukraine's largest confectionary company contained carcinogenic substances, and its trucks were ordered to turn around at the border.

On Nov. 19, 10 days before the official signing of the agreement, Füle traveled to Kiev once again. He had already met with then President Yanukovych three times that year. The Europeans always had the feeling that the president, who was fond of telling stories from his childhood, was being completely open with them.

But on that day Füle felt that he was facing a changed man, someone who seemed to be acting on instructions. Indeed, Yanukovich had met with Putin in Sochi for hours before meeting Füle. When the EU negotiators met with Yanukovich in Kiev, the foreign minister, a glaring apparatchik, was sitting next to him, and they knew that this meeting would have a different outcome.

Suddenly Yanukovich was talking about "problems" and "costs." He said that a Russian expert had explained to him how high the price would be for turning toward Europe, noting that Ukraine would be losing $15 or $16 billion a year. Füle was speechless and switched from English to Russian, hoping to reach Yanukovich. But he merely held onto a piece of paper from which he was stubbornly rattling off figures indicating how far trade with Russia had already declined.

The meeting was over after an hour. The EU commissioner planned to make another trip to Kiev on Nov. 21, but the visit never took place. Füle was about to board his flight in Brussels when the Ukrainian government announced that it was unfortunately unable to sign the planned association agreement.

"They didn't even call us first," says Füle. When he met with Yanukovich again in late January, the meeting lasted only 30 minutes. The Ukrainian president spent 29 of those minutes speaking.

Heroes and Scoundrels in Crimea 
The armed Russian and Ukrainian "brothers" will continue to face off until at least next Sunday, the day of the planned Crimea referendum. This is especially true in the Severnaya, or northern bay of Sevastopol, where the Black Sea fleet was divided up between the two newly created countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and where the Russian and Ukrainian navies have been docked, practically ship's side to ship's side, ever since.

From a forward observation post above the harbor, Oleg, a Russian elite soldier, has the officers of the Slavutych, a Ukrainian warship, within the range of his Kalashnikov. He can see that they have hung mattresses over the side of the ship to protect themselves against grappling hooks, and that they are using ropes to inconspicuously pull food on board. This is how the Ukrainians intend to hold out, as they have refused to submit to Russian demands to surrender.

Oleg calmly watches the spectacle below. Only his brown eyes are visible underneath a ski mask pulled down over his nose, and he speaks Russian. The soldier says he's from the area near Rostov-on-Don, but he refuses to provide any information about his unit. He has the muscular body of one of the elite fighters who were reportedly transferred directly to Crimea after the Olympics in Sochi.

Oleg and a dozen of his fellow soldiers are manning their posts to "help Crimea," as he calls it. "We will stay here at least until the referendum," he says. In early February, only 40 percent of Crimeans were in favor of joining Russia, even though ethnic Russians make up the majority on the peninsula. In the current mood, however, the vote is likely to shift much more clearly in Putin's favor.

When asked what will happen to the Ukrainians down below -- the ones he has in his sights -- he says, "If they want to get out of here, then no problem. But they'll have to leave their ships behind."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


President Barack Obama Weekly Address March 15, 2014 (Video/Trascript )

President Barack Obama Weekly Address The White House March 15, 2014

Hi, everybody.  In this year of action, I’m doing everything I can, with or without Congress, to expand opportunity for more Americans.  This week, I ordered a review of our nation’s overtime rules, to give more Americans the chance to earn the overtime pay they’ve worked for.

Here’s why this matters.  Our businesses have created 8.7 million new jobs over the past four years.  But in many ways, the trends that have battered the middle class for decades have grown even starker.  While those at the top are doing better than ever, average wages have barely budged.  Too many Americans are working harder than ever just to keep up.

We’ve got to build an economy that works for everybody, not just a fortunate few.  We know from our history that our economy grows best from the middle out, when growth is more widely shared.  So we’ve got to restore opportunity for all – the idea that with hard work and responsibility, you can get ahead.

Now, for more than 75 years, the 40-hour workweek and the overtime protections that come with it have helped countless workers climb the ladder of success.  But today, an overtime exception originally meant for highly-paid employees now applies to workers who earn as little as $23,660 a year.  It doesn’t matter if you do mostly physical labor, or if you work 50, 60, even 70 hours a week.  Your employer may not have to pay you a single extra dime.  

In some cases, this rule makes it possible for workers earning a salary to actually be paid less than the minimum wage.  And it means that business owners who treat their employees fairly can be undercut by competitors who don’t.  That’s not right.  So we’re going to update those overtime rules to restore that basic principle that if you have to work more, you should be able to earn more.  And we’ll do it by consulting workers and businesses, and simplifying the system so it’s easier for everyone.

Americans have spent too long working more and getting less in return.  So wherever and whenever I can make sure that our economy rewards hard work and responsibility, that’s what I’m going to do.  Because what every American wants is a paycheck that lets them support their families, know a little economic security, and pass down some hope and optimism to their kids.  That’s something worth fighting for.  And I’ll keep fighting for it as long as I’m President.

Thanks, and have a great weekend.

Education groups battle teachers unions in state races

Billionaire-backed groups spend big pushing charter schools and vouchers


Three weeks before Tennessee’s August 2012 primary election, state Rep. John DeBerry Jr.’s Memphis-area district was flooded with $52,000 worth of get-out-the-vote efforts supporting the then-nine-term incumbent. Six days later, another $52,000 in materials appeared.

By Election Day, the Tennessee affiliate of StudentsFirst, the education-focused organization behind the influx of support, had spent more than $109,000 backing DeBerry, a rare Democrat who supports voucher programs and charter schools. The state branch of the American Federation for Children, another education group, spent another $33,000.

DeBerry faced another Democrat, state Rep. Jeanne Richardson, whose district was eliminated through redistricting.

DeBerry won.

“I couldn’t counter it,” Richardson said of the funds StudentsFirst introduced late in the race. “I had to raise money by calling people. There wasn’t enough time left.”

StudentsFirst — created by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee — is leading a new wave of “education reform” organizations, funded largely by wealthy donors, that are challenging teachers’ unions and supporting mostly conservative candidates up and down the ticket in dozens of states.

These groups promote charter schools, voucher programs and weakening of employment safeguards like teacher tenure, all ideas bitterly opposed by unions.

StudentsFirst flooded at least $3 million in outside spending into state elections in 2012, putting the group roughly on par with the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, across 38 states examined by the Center for Public Integrity and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The Sacramento, Calif.-based group is far from the only education reform organization that has gained prominence in the aftermath of the 2010 Supreme Court decision that made it easier for corporations to fund political campaigns.

Among the biggest spenders: the American Federation for Children, 50CAN, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform . The organizations flooded states across the country with independent advertising and canvassing efforts in the run-up to the 2012 primary and general election.

They have been funded by a slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. However, the full list of funders opening their checkbooks for the education reformers remains a mystery since StudentsFirst and many of the other groups are so-called social welfare nonprofit organizations, which fall under section 501(c)4 of the U.S. tax code.

Where education titans spent

StudentsFirst is a rising power in state political spending, but it didn’t come close to matching the National Education Association’s influence in 2012. That year, the National Education Association and its local and state affiliates accounted for roughly $15.7 million in independent spending, nearly five times what relative newcomer StudentsFirst spent.

Since 2012, the funding onslaught by these groups and their backers has shown no signs of slowing.
Spending has reached unheard of heights, even at the school board level.
The race for Los Angeles school board in May 2013 attracted nearly $4 million in spending on reform-minded candidates. Major supporters of the pro-reform committee include Bloomberg, StudentsFirst and Broad, a Los Angeles resident. The organization was countered by roughly $2 million from labor groups.
The American Federation for Children spent $110,000 in outside spending supporting three candidates for the Wisconsin State Assembly in the run-up to an election on Nov. 19, 2013.
Great Seattle Schools, an education reform-focused political action committee, spent just shy of $62,000 in outside spending in the months leading up to the city’s November 2013 school board election.
Democrats for Education Reform was among the committee’s backers, as were local wealthy figures like Chris Larson, a former Microsoft executive who owns a minor stake in the Seattle Mariners , and venture capitalist Nicholas Hanauer.
At the helm of this movement, StudentsFirst has dominated campaigns for state legislators and ballot initiatives that often seem outside the group’s education-focused mission statement. As StudentsFirst faces off with labor groups and labor-backed candidates, the group’s considerable financial heft may be shaping more than education policy.

Battling the unions

Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington’s public school system, established StudentsFirst not long after resigning her post in 2010. The new organization’s goal, she said, would be to provide some much-needed opposition to the teachers unions’ political power.

“The problem to date has been that you’ve had these incredibly powerful teachers unions that have lots of resources, and they use those resources to have influence on the political process,” Rhee said last year during an interview at the Commonwealth Club of California.

Rhee said StudentsFirst is the first education-oriented national interest group to seriously challenge the unions.

Since leaving Washington, Rhee has backed legislation curbing collective bargaining rights in several states. In the 18 states where the group is active, StudentsFirst has fought to eliminate “last in, first out” provisions in teachers’ contracts and to increase the role that quantitative evaluations play in teachers’ job security.

Accordingly, StudentsFirst tends to oppose candidates who align with unions.
Among these union-supported candidates in 2012 was Michigan state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, an incumbent who ran against fellow incumbent Rep. Maureen Stapleton in the Democratic primary as a result of statewide redistricting.

Though Stapleton was a former teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, Tlaib received the endorsements of the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Federation of Teachers. Stapleton, on the other hand, backed charter schools and linking teacher salaries to performance, both key components of StudentsFirst’s mission.
Between July 20 and the Aug. 7 primary, StudentsFirst poured $195,000 in outside spending supporting Stapleton. Meanwhile, the Michigan Federation of Teachers, the Michigan Education Association and several other labor groups contributed directly to Tlaib’s campaign.

“You almost never see a state house race in the city of Detroit go over $30,000, so when StudentsFirst put $190,000 into that, that was an extraordinary amount of money for a Democratic primary,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

A couple months earlier, voters in Whittier, Calif., saw a similar phenomenon. The teachers unions supported Democrat Rudy Bermudez  to represent the overwhelmingly Democratic district in the state assembly. But StudentsFirst backed a different Democrat, Ian Calderon.

A then-26-year-old surfing champion who had never held public office, Calderon’s dad is former state Sen. Charles Calderon and his uncle is state Sen. Ron Calderon.
According to Al Jazeera America, Rhee’s representatives met in February 2012 with former Assemblyman-turned-lobbyist Thomas Calderon, brother of Ron and Charles, to gain support for a bill that would eliminate the last-in-first-out clause of California teachers’ contracts. The next day, Ron introduced the bill.

Rhee’s group then spent more than $378,000 backing Calderon in the 11 days before the primary election on June 5, most of which paid for broadcast advertising, campaign finance records show.

Calderon defeated Bermudez by 337 votes in the primary before handily defeating Republican Noel Jaimes in the general election.

A new player in the game
Historically teachers unions have been the major voices in education politics with little education-specific opposition.

“In the old days, it was all the service-provider organizations — so all the unions — or the consumers,” said Kenneth Wong , an expert in education policy and education reform at Brown University. “We are seeing the broadening in terms of the type of actors who get involved in campaign issues in education.”

Even parents, who in the past often took a backseat to the unions when it comes to politics, are becoming more engaged in campaigns surrounding education issues, he said. The result is a highly competitive, highly expensive environment in which the still-powerful teachers unions face coalitions of traditional conservative, anti-union players aligned with education reform activists.

Politics aren’t new to education. For example, the American Federation for Children has been around, though under a different name, and has been fighting the teachers’ unions for more than 15 years.

What’s new is the unprecedented level of education-focused political spending at state and local levels.

“They’re the recipients of money from Wall Street and Silicon Valley and some of the wealthiest people in America,” American Federation of Teachers spokesman Michael Powell said of StudentsFirst. “And they’ve raised it at a fairly high clip, and it makes them more competitive in these races around the country, there’s no doubt about it.”
Karen White, national political director for the National Education Association, traced the new dynamic to the aftermath of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that invited corporate spending into the political process.

White said, she sees no distinction between Rhee’s StudentsFirst and the other corporate-backed special interest groups the union has begun to face in recent years.
“We’re going to get outspent,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can to fight back and be strategic with our spending, but we are never going to be able to compete with the folks who are trying to corporatize education … It’s clearly a national battle that they’ve taken on all across the country.”

Despite White’s concerns, the NEA’s outside spending in 2012 state races was at least $6.4 million, more than double the amount spent by StudentsFirst in the states examined by the Center for Public Integrity.
Any comparison between education reform groups and the NEA is “really a David and Goliath situation,” said Matt Frendewey, spokesman for the American Federation for Children.
“They are one of the largest unions in the country. Period,” he said. “They carry a tremendous amount of clout, especially in relation to how many members they have, and they have a tremendous influence.”

‘Education reform’ or just ‘reform’?

The unions demonstrated their strength in numerous races across the country.
Brian Johnson, who lost the 2012 primary race for a seat in the California Assembly, was the beneficiary of outside spending by StudentsFirst and other education reform advocates.

Before running for office, Johnson was the executive director of Los Angeles’ Larchmont Schools, a network of charter schools, and before that he was the executive director of Teach for America in Los Angeles. He now works for the Teach for America-affiliated Leadership for Educational Equity.

So it’s unsurprising that Johnson benefited from $1.5 million in outside spending by education reform advocates, including $419,000 from StudentsFirst. Most of Johnson’s support came from political action committees whose major donors included Broad, Hastings and Walmart founder Sam Walton’s granddaughter Carrie Walton Penner.
Bloomberg, Hastings and the California Charter Schools Association — which received 52 percent of its funds from Hastings — also gave directly to Johnson’s campaign.
Meanwhile, the California Teachers Association, the California branch of the National Education Association, spent nearly $467,000 opposing Johnson, and the campaign of Adrin Nazarian, Johnson’s top opponent, was funded largely by labor groups.

In other races, the education connection was less apparent.

In Michigan, StudentsFirst spent nearly $187,000 in independent expenditures to back then-state Rep. Deb Shaughnessy in what was ultimately a losing bid for re-election.
StudentsFirst was just one of many groups supporting Shaughnessy’s bid for re-election. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Republican Party, the National Rifle Association, Business Leaders for Michigan and Right to Life Michigan all funded outside spending campaigns either supporting Shaughnessy or opposing her labor-backed opponent, Theresa Abed. More than half of the contributions to Shaughnessy’s campaign came from the House Republican Campaign Committee.
And neither Shaughnessy’s background, nor the issues at the forefront of her campaign emphasized education.

Lawmakers like Shaughnessy have become targets of education spending thanks to an ongoing national debate surrounding the new federally endorsed Common Core curriculum in public schools and the role charter schools should play in public education, Powell said. State legislators will have leading roles in deciding these issues.
Federal government gridlock in Washington also means political action committees and political nonprofits are increasingly turning to state lawmakers as the country’s primary policy makers.

“Nothing’s really happening in Washington,” Powell said, “so anything that’s happening is happening in the states.”

The influence web

StudentsFirst is made up of a coalition of nonprofit organizations and affiliated political action committees in a handful of states, a structure that’s common among political groups.

There’s StudentsFirst, the main “social welfare” nonprofit or 501(c)(4), and the Great New England Public Schools Alliance, another 501(c)(4) nonprofit that operates mostly in Connecticut. There’s also the StudentsFirst Institute, which is not allowed to participate in elections since it falls under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code. Together these groups spend millions on lobbying, direct campaign contributions and outside spending.
Since 2011, the StudentsFirst Institute received $9 million in grants from the Walton Family Foundation, $7 million from billionaire philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, and $1 million from billionaire hedge fund manager Steven Cohen and his wife Alexandra.

The StudentsFirst Institute reported spending just shy of $1 million on lobbying between Aug. 1, 2011 and July 31, 2012, the most recent fiscal year whose tax reports are available. The group also gave $1 million in that period to the affiliated Great New England Public Schools Alliance, or GNEPSA.

GNEPSA, in turn, made just shy of $158,000 in independent expenditures in Connecticut legislative races in 2012 and received contributions from Bloomberg and venture capitalist Nick Beim, campaign finance records show.

StudentsFirst, the 501(c)(4), spent another $346,000 on lobbying during the 2012 fiscal year. State records suggest the group far exceeded this number in the following fiscal year, between Aug. 1, 2012 and July 31, 2013, though the group’s tax filing isn’t yet available for that time period.

Because StudentsFirst is not required to disclose its donors, it’s impossible to know where most of the group’s funds come from, a point that detractors use as a reason to question the group’s motives.

Those donors whose names appear on the occasional lobbying disclosure report or tax filing include high-profile figures in political, financial and technological industries.
For example, StudentsFirst spokesman Francisco Castillo indicated a 2012 Huffington Post story that named billionaire New Jersey hedge fund manager David Tepper, a major Mitt Romney supporter, among StudentsFirst’s funders. The article also named the Broad and Arnold families.

Castillo declined to further detail the group’s donors, citing organization policy.
Many other education reform groups are more open about who’s providing the means to their methods. As a result, they offer a small window into the rolls of donors injecting cash into the education reform movement as a whole.

An example of this is the Coalition for School Reform, which spent nearly $4 million on school board races in Los Angeles last year. The group received $1.4 million from Bloomberg, $500,000 from Broad and $250,000 from former Univision owner Jerry Perenchio, according to city campaign finance records.

Other donors included StudentsFirst, Hastings, the Arnold family, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, former New York School Chancellor Joel Klein and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The high-profile donors help give prominence to the groups and their causes, according to Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School who serves on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

But above all, these donors have money to spare — a lot of money to spare.

“It’s clear that these groups are funded by people who seem to have an endless supply of corporate money,” said Tenoch Flores, spokesman for the California Democratic Party.

Motives vary

Why the groups and their donors have chosen to support charter schools and voucher programs is sometimes less clear.

The American Federation for Children chooses which races to back based on where the group feels it can help increase educational options available to parents, according to Frendewey.

StudentsFirst’s Castillo echoed these sentiments.

“Our organization supports candidates that will be important partners in our ongoing push to ensure that every student attends a great school and is taught by a great teacher, and that's the reason we're pleased to support local and state reform-minded candidates,” he said in a written statement.

Rhee’s group and many other education reform organizations believe that privatizing education will prove beneficial for the country’s students, explained Michael Apple, who specializes in education policy at the University of Wisconsin. The same is true of the groups’ donors.

“If you look at Broad, Bloomberg, they’re in favor of strong mayoral control of education,” he said. “Some of it is also this belief that the corporate sector is the last remaining set of institutions that form the engine of our society.”

But changing the way public education functions also opens windows for private corporations and individuals to make a profit, which is likely a factor in at least some donors’ decisions to open their wallets, he said. He compared education to healthcare, “meaning the sources of profit are immense.”

The education reform agenda creates opportunities for companies that operate online learning programs and computerized testing, said White, of the NEA. The agenda also places a heavier emphasis on standardized testing, offering potential financial benefits to companies that offer those services.

In the past, K-12 education has been a “sluggish,” highly regulated market that investors were wary of jumping into, said Patricia Burch , an education professor at the University of Southern California. Not so anymore.

The technology schools use to administer tests and supplement coursework has emerged as a multibillion-dollar industry, according to Burch’s research, slated to be published in May in her new book, “Equal Scrutiny: Privatization and Accountability in Digital Education.”

In 2002, the education sector spent an estimated $146 million on technology. By 2011, that number was estimated at $429 million, according to Burch.

Burch’s book points to recent transactions and mergers as signs of the potential windfalls this market can offer.

In 2011, textbook giant Pearson purchased SchoolNet, a tool that helps districts track students’ achievement on standardized tests, for $230 million. Providence Equity Partners bought online educational platform Blackboard Inc. for $1.6 billion. For the low price of $13 million, K12 Inc. acquired Kaplan Virtual Education, which offers computer-based learning for public and private schools in nine states.

In 2012, Apple also partnered with Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to offer digital textbooks for the iPad.

“It’s in the early stages. We know that there’s potentially tons of revenue to be generated,” Burch said.

Campaign costs spiral

Though few elections occurred in 2013 around the country, the education reform movement continued to inject an historic volume of funds into local and state races.
The most expensive was the race for school board in Los Angeles that attracted more than $6 million in outside spending.

In the month leading up to the May mayoral and city council election in Jersey City, N.J., the Better Education for New Jersey Kids, Inc., PAC dumped more than $342,000 into advertising and mailers. The PAC is associated with the nonprofit Better Education for Kids, which is not required to disclose its donors but lists Tepper among its trustees.
A special legislative election in Wisconsin and a school board race in Seattle proved ripe battlegrounds for political spending arms races between education reformers and their opponents.

In Denver County, Colo., a committee whose largest donors were Bloomberg and the political arm of education reform nonprofit Education Reform Now spent $103,000 on a school board race.

In nearby Douglas County, Colo., the labor-backed Committee for Better Schools Now spent $935,000 on a school board race. That spending was countered by the Colorado chapter of Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which claims to have spent $350,000 on campaign efforts . No public records exist of the group’s spending.

Each of these races suggests that education reform spending is going to continue on an upward trajectory, at least for the near future.

“Historically we haven’t seen that kind of spending on school board races here [in Los Angeles], but it’s likely to become a lot more commonplace in the future,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who is running for California secretary of state. “My guess is in five years, we’ll be looking back at the relatively restrained fundraising levels of 2013 with some nostalgia.”