Russia Studies in the U.S.: From academic ghetto to political mainstream

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Pavel Koshkin

After the victory of republican Donald Trump at the 2016 presidential election followed by the series of probes into the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the American domestic affairs, Russia turned into political mainstream in the U.S. However, the revived interest toward this country failed to translate into increasing funding of Russia Studies programs. And here is why.

With the rise of President Donald Trump in the U.S. and the probe into the Kremlin’s alleged meddling into the 2016 election, the interest toward Russia has increased both in academia, think tanks and among politicians. Currently, there are at least five investigations on “Russia dossier”, conducted by House and Senate Intelligence committees, other congressional committees and subcommittees and Special Council Robert Mueller.

The Committee to Investigate Russia, a non-profit organization, was created in September to “help Americans recognize and understand the gravity of Russia’s continuing attacks on our democracy.” Well-known actor Morgan Freeman supported this committee in a short video, in which he accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 election and declaring war against the U.S.

The key topic of the 2017 convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), which took place on Nov. 9-12 in Chicago, is also indicative: “Transgression,” it reads, implying that the Kremlin might have meddled into the 2016 election. The organizers of the convention overtly accuse Russia of violating international law and the territorial integrity of other countries as well as spreading aggressive propaganda and fake news.

“Interest in (even obsession with) Russia has been revived in the last year, not by Trump’s presidency itself but by the controversy over the alleged Russian meddling and the relentless liberal media campaign on that issue,” said David Foglesong, a professor of History at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“My Russian foreign policy course had the largest number of students it has had in several years, so there seems to be a bit more curiosity about Russia’s foreign policy,” said Nicolai Petro, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island specializing in Russia and post-Soviet space, in an interview to the author of this article.

Likewise, Andrei Tsygankov, a professor at San Francisco State University, points to the growing enrolment in Russia Studies classes among students. The interest toward Russia was reinvigorated even before Trump, adds Andrei Korobkov from Middle Tennessee State Universit. According to the professor, it started in 2012, with Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, the 2011-2012 street protests, the talks about color revolutions within the Kremlin, the Russian military buildup, and, the events in Ukraine in 2014.

“The current hysteria simply adds a sensational aspect to it and raises public interest. Russian studies are definitely benefiting from it, as interest grows,” Korobkov said. “However, this also leads to the growing negativity in the public perception of Russia.”

Academic ghetto

Regardless off the revived interest toward Russia in the U.S., academia has been persistently raising the alarm about the declining role of academic expertise on Russia and the post-soviet space in policymaking since the end of the cold war. Most importantly, this growth of concern with Russia hasn’t been so far translated into increasing funding for Russia Studies programs in academia, as indicated by the Nov. 30 discussion at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.

It brought together American experts on Russia and international relations, including Alexandra Vacroux, executive director at Harvard’s Davis Center and Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. They called for reinvigorating the regional studies in the U.S. and increasing its impact on the American policymaking process.

 “There is a strong problem with regional studies and it come primarily from the disciplines from social sciences,” admitted Alexandra Vacroux. Today the social sciences as the academic discipline within universities has been moving away from the deep regional expertise, which gives ones the ability to explain what’s happening in certain part of the world, to specialization in a theory or a type of methodology that can explain phenomena in lots of parts of the world. Today, it is not enough to know something about Russia, but one needs to be able to compare Russia to other states, including the former Soviet republics, China or other countries. Studying Russia (or having PhD in Russia Studies) means that one is hardly likely to get a job at a political science department, because this field has become a sort of the academic ghetto since the collapse of the Soviet Union, says Vacroux.

Yet it doesn’t mean that the regional studies is dead today, Russia Studies has been just moved in the regional centers at the American universities, which “are taking the places of departments as sustainers of regional studies”, added Vacroux. However, the key problem is about funding, which “has drastically been reduced”, according to her.

“When it comes to government funding, there is Department of Education funding for language studies for financial aid, but every four years we sit around wondering if it is going to be continued or slashed another 46 percent as it was last time,” said Varcroux, implying that such approach might affect the level of expertise on Russia.

Indeed, under the Title VI program, U.S. Department of Education decreased the three-years grants to support National Resource Centers (NRS) and the Foreign Language and Area Studies programs (FLAS) in American universities. For example, in 2010-2013 the American authorities allocated $4,4 million to support National Resources Centers, yet in 2014-2017 the funding decreased by 41% — to $2,6 million. Likewise, the budget to maintain FLAS programs was decreased by 38%.

From friendliness to hostility

Another reason of the decline of the role of academic expertise in policymaking is the fact that academics are “crowded out by thought leaders” or political experts, as Vacroux said. Such thought leaders usually promote the agenda of those who pay the money, according to Daniel Drezner, a professor of International Politics, at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, who also took the floor during the Nov. 30 discussion in Columbia.

In his view, bias results from the fact that billionaires or “plutocrats” create “their own intellectual salons”. “Speaking truth to power is really hard. If you think speaking truth to power is hard though, try speaking truth to money. It is almost impossible, because, basically, if you do that, you are essentially risking potentially your own feed train,” Drezner said. The last thing that plutocrats want to hear from experts is about “the way the world actually works,” he clarified.

“Partisans on both sides want their own house intellectuals and they don’t want to be told that they are wrong,” Drezner said adding that this is a big problem, which “poisons” the Russia debate in the U.S. “We’ve seen this on both sides where you have Trump partisans who refuse to believe in any possibility that Russia actually played a role in the 2016 election <…>. But at the same time, on the left there was a remarkable conviction that Russia was responsible for everything and if you even suggest the possibility that, maybe, there wasn’t an orchestrated conspiracy, that maybe Donald Trump did not knowingly actually do this, it’s actually going to be a problem. And as a result, persuasion becomes extremely difficult,” Drezner said.

Three factors — distrust toward the knowledge-based institutions and expertise, the rise of political partisanship and the dominance of one narrative in America’s policy (a distorted marker of ideas) — have affected the Russia debate in 2017, Drezner summed up. Yet Columbia University’s Stephen Sestanovich has a different take to explain this trend.

“The most interesting thing the way we think about Russia is not a structural transformation,” he said. “The big think tanks programs are still big, newspaper bureaus in Moscow are still big, embassy staffs are still enormous even post expulsions.” According to him, the government does need the penumbra institutions like think tanks, and that’s why such institutions “are still in place, thriving, creating expertise.” “What’s different is the orientation,” he highlights.

There has been a change in substance of views about Russia throughout the history of U.S.-Russia relations. From the 1980s to the 2000s hostility was replaced by friendliness and indifference. Yet in the 2010s hostility came back again.

“And that trend toward hostility is very pronounced. It reflects, to my mind, a very spectacular failure on the part of Russian government elites, establishment to cultivate friends among counterparts in the U.S., in the Western world or globally. There is not a real constituency, not a real market for the idea that Russia could be a valuable partner for Western countries, for United States, and that was starting to be true really well before 2016. <…> Donald Trump is a solitary exception,” concluded Sestanovich.

Wanted: Good Russia expertise

In response to the Committee to Investigate Russia’s video featuring Morgan Freeman, who raised the question about the Russian threat, Bloomberg’s columnist Leonid Bershidsky sounded the alarm about the deficit of good Russia experts in the U.S. “Wanted: Russia Experts: No Expertise Required,” reads the headline of his column. And his concerns are relevant because “thought leaders” seems to be overshadowing academics, who enjoy deep knowledge of the post-Soviet region and Russia.

My idea of “good Russia expertise” relies on a sympathetic reading of the country being studied in order to establish a harmonious framework for dialogue. Since adversarial rather than harmonious relations with Russia are currently the only priority in Washington, my type of expertise is in little demand, and has no impact on decision-making,” Nicolai Petro said.

David Foglesong agrees. “I have not seen any evidence that (academic) expertise on Russia is in demand or has had any significant influence on US policymaking. Quite the opposite,” he admitted.  Andrei Tsygankov echoes his view. Serious Russia expertise is not in demand today, because the interest toward the country is superficial and highly bias from the political standpoint, he said.

“Gradually poor expertise might transform into something serious, but one important condition should be observed: Russia should remain a great power and it should demonstrate its significance in the world politics,” he concluded.

Under the current conditions, people with no real expertise have a huge advantage, but they are willing to make unsubstantiated sensational statements, while serious experts are not welcomed, especially on the part of the mainstream media, said Korobkov. “Still if Trump survives and is able to implement his long term geopolitical plans, the demand for expertise might increase,” he predicts.

Pavel Koshkin is a fellow of The Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences. He has PnD from Lomonosov Moscow State University. He is the former editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, an analytical media outlet. 

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