Decline in US Expertise on Russia

By Lynda Park, Executive Director, ASEEES

With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the US media and a growing number of senior government, policy and academic experts are raising concerns about the decline in US expertise on Russia. While the media reports have focused on Russia experts, the concerns apply equally to experts on others parts of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. 

The discussion began with Jason Horowitz’ New York Times article, “Russia Experts See Thinning Ranks’ Effect on U.S. Policy” (March 7), which noted a precipitous drop-off in the US expert pool in the last twenty years.  He wrote that since the breakup of the Soviet Union and with the ostensible thawing of relations with Russia, “the national security enthusiasts melted away.” Academia’s interest in training Russia scholars dimmed, and the upper echelons of the US government utilized fewer experts, which some critics have argued led to an “unsophisticated” view of US-Russian relations. Horowitz noted that last year the State Department even ended the one critical grant program (Title VIII) intended for Russian and Eurasian research that benefited people like Michael McFaul (former US Ambassador to Russia who stepped down in February and returned to Stanford) as a young Russia scholar, to which McFaul remarked, “That looks shortsighted, considering what we are looking at lately.” Angela Stent (Georgetown U) lamented, “When we’ve all retired, 10, 20 years down the road, I don’t know how many people will be left with this area of expertise.”

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ASEEES President Stephen Hanson (College of William and Mary) and Henry Hale (George Washington U) penned a response letter to the New York Times, “Training Russia Specialists” (March 11), and pronounced a clear need for more trained experts on Russia as well as Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus in coming decades. Hanson and Hale remarked that the situation would be much worse without the State Department’s Title VIII program and the Department of Education's Title VI program, both of which have seen drastic funding cuts lately.  They called for a renewed investment in these international training programs "that contribute so much to our security, economic competitiveness and cultural understanding."

On March 14, the Washington Post published an essay by Angela Stent, "Why America Doesn’t Understand Putin," in which she remarked: “the need for a dedicated and deep understanding of Russia — especially the motives and machinations emanating from the Kremlin — is as critical as ever. Otherwise the United States is doomed to repeat cycles of ‘resets,’ great expectations of better relations with Russia followed by serial disappointments.”  She takes academia, particularly the field of political science, to task: “political science has been taken over by number-crunching and abstract models that bear little relationship to ­real-world politics and foreign policy. Only a very brave or dedicated doctoral student would today become a Russia expert if she or he wants to find academic employment."  However, she remained hopeful that “we have the opportunity to train a new generation of scholars who can develop in-depth knowledge of contemporary Russia, in ways that were not possible when [her generation] were first studying it.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education picked up the issue in the article, “Attention on Crimea Highlights Flux in Russia Studies” (March 24), which also described the 20-year decline in Russian expertise, but it also highlighted some positive, albeit unintended, outcome of the “waning interest of the 1990s.”  Steve Hanson stated it forced him and others to become creative, which in the end benefited the field: "We became early specialists in globalization… We became a group of people who were quite innovative in understanding the legacies of the past." He raised that the biggest concern now is funding.  He noted that his early career depended very much on federal funding. “A Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, through the Education Department’s Title VI program, paid for his first trip to what was then Leningrad. He received a Title VIII grant from the State Department as a junior faculty member to help finish his first book. And he ran the Title VI-supported Herbert J. Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington.” Hanson remarked that because we did have twenty years of sustained commitment, we had fared better than expected at the time of declining interest; we do have a cohort of experts, albeit smaller in number. But, as mentioned in previous articles, the Title VIII program was not funded this year and the Title VI program was cut by over 40 percent in 2011. "What will this next generation of scholars have to support them?" he asked, because to develop a deep understanding of the region it "takes 20 years."

Even the piece on US-Russian exchange program in Inside Higher Education (“Russian Exchange Continues,” March 31) noted that the main issue of US-Russian exchanges isn’t so much the geopolitical tensions, but the loss of federal funding for Russian studies, noting the cut to the Title VI program and  the Title VIII program. Matthew Rojansky (Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center) remarked, “You can do exchanges no matter how inimically opposed your political views are. But you can’t do exchanges if you can’t pay for them.”

The latest article on the issue was Michael Hirsh’s “Rethinking Putin’s Russia” (April 3) in The Atlantic. While the focus of the piece was on the US policy towards Russia in the last twenty years, the article again raised concerns about the thinning ranks of Russia experts with the kind of deep knowledge necessary to develop effective policies.  Both Michael McFaul and Angela Stent commented that academia is hiring and training fewer Russia specialists, which means, as McFaul noted, “we are not feeding in people with interests in Russia into the U.S. government,” and this has serious implications for the future of US foreign policy.