In Defense of Regional Studies in a Globalized World

In Defense of Regional Studies in a Globalized World: Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies Twenty-Five Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

by Stephen E. Hanson, College of William and Mary

Stephen HansonThe following Presidential Address was given on November 22, 2014 at the 46th Annual ASEEES Convention.

What was supposed to be a time of celebration twenty-five years after the collapse of communism in East-Central Europe has instead turned out to be a year of deep geopolitical crisis and dark fears about the future of Europe, Eurasia, and the rest of the world. For those of us who have remained committed since 1989 to the study of the region once dominated by the Soviet bloc, a feeling of intense sadness at the recent turn of events is unavoidable. The great hopes kindled by the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire have given way to renewed bloodshed, immense social dislocation, and a new division of Europe that will be very hard to reverse in the near term.

Clearly now the need for interdisciplinary expertise in the field of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies has never been stronger. For policymakers who had become accustomed to thinking of Russia’s relations with its neighbors as a low foreign policy priority, finding trained analysts with deep historical and cultural understanding of the sources of conflict and cooperation in Europe and Eurasia is suddenly an urgent priority. Training a new generation of specialists with fluency not only in the Slavic languages, but also in non-Slavic languages of East-Central Europe, the Baltic region, the Caucasus and Central Asia, will become increasingly vital to U.S. national security. Educating the general public about the complexities and specificities of our region is as important as it has ever been.

Nor is the growing demand for regional expertise limited to Russian, East European and Eurasian affairs. At a recent conference at William & Mary on the future of internationalization in U.S. education, several research papers (including one authored by ASEEES member Laura Adams) demonstrated that the market for graduates with international and foreign language expertise is likely to grow dynamically in the years and decades ahead—in the corporate sector, the federal government, among NGOs, in the K-12 system, and within diverse institutions of higher learning.1 Despite the current atmosphere of geopolitical crisis, the dynamics of socioeconomic, technological, and cultural globalization continue to reshape policies, institutions and practices in every country, making global and regional competence imperative for success in most fields.

Yet paradoxically, the sources of support for the continuing supply of such expertise continue to dry up.  The Title VI programs of the U.S. Department of Education which have been crucial to the training of new generations of specialists on Russia, East Europe and Central Asia along with every other world region—including National Resource Centers (NRCs), Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships, Language Resource Centers, and Centers for International Business Education and Research, among other worthy programs—have been cut by nearly half since 2010.  In the most recent round of Title VI competition, our region was hit particularly hard. NRCs focusing on Russia, East Europe and Eurasia lost over 40.7% of their total funding as compared to 2010—the biggest cut to any region except for Western Europe, which lost 41.2%. More remarkably, our region lost 37.2% of its FLAS funding as compared to 2010, which was the deepest FLAS cut to any world area by a significant margin. Several longstanding NRCs devoted to the study of Russia, East Europe and Eurasia lost funding altogether, as did some previously-funded centers for the study of Russia and Europe.2 Meanwhile, despite some encouraging recent signs of progress on this issue in Congress, the Title VIII program in the U.S. Department of State that long supported language training and policy-relevant research on our region—including programs at the American Councils, the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, the Kennan Institute, the Social Science Research Council, IREX, Indiana University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Arizona State University—is as of this moment still zeroed out.3 At public universities that are already struggling to deal with enormous declines in state financial support, the negative effect of these cuts on programs for area studies research and education, and to programs on Russia, East Europe, and Eurasia in particular, has been especially difficult to manage.

Nor, by and large, has the philanthropic sector been able to fill the gap.  A courageous effort by the Mellon Foundation to help universities sustain programs undermined by budget reductions to Title VI was cut short after one year.  Other foundations that were previously extremely active in the Russian, East European and Eurasian field have either pulled out of the region altogether or are only sustaining a few current programs with no formal plans to launch new ones.

Somehow, in a world of increasing globalization where understanding the diverse histories, polities, economies, cultures, and languages of all world regions would seem to be increasingly vital to national security and economic competitiveness, the cause of what we once called “area studies” has not fared well. What explains this paradox?  And how can we find a way to articulate the importance of in-depth knowledge of world regions—and of associations such as ours—in a way that will attract public attention and renewed financial support?

To begin with, as Diane Koenker pointed out in her presidential address to ASEEES last year, it appears that the term “area studies” has fallen into probably irreversible disrepute. Decades of simultaneous attacks on area studies approaches from the left (accusing area studies of being too tied to U.S. foreign policy priorities of the Cold War), from the right (accusing area studies, on the contrary, of being dominated by radical critics of the United States and of Israel), and from ostensibly non-partisan social science theorists who painted area studies scholars as hopelessly particularistic and as obstacles to scientific progress, came together in a perfect storm that did its part to capsize the coalition of regional specialists, university administrators and bipartisan supporters in the U.S. congress that once reliably fought together for robust funding of regional studies centers.4

Never mind that in retrospect, the training provided in such centers—such as that received by a great number of us in this room—was arguably far ahead of the scholarly curve.  It is indeed ironic to hear, sometimes from the same people who once attacked the particularism of area studies, that the cutting edge of social science scholarship now involves the study of the long-term effect of inherited institutional legacies from old political regimes; the influence of dense spatial networks allowing the diffusion of people, capital, goods, and ideas across national borders within specific regions; and even the causal power of “cultures” in framing the assumptions that shape individual action in different social contexts.  Reading this current literature, one might well come to the conclusion that the best way to make scientific progress in understanding social change would be…let’s see…to group scholars from diverse disciplines in centers devoted to the intense study of specific geographical regions, within which the effects of history and culture might be traced in fine-grained empirical detail!  Meanwhile, surveys of policymakers conducted by scholars of international relations who are interested in bridging the gap between IR theory and foreign policy practice have discovered that practitioners of U.S. foreign policy today cite “area studies” research as the most useful and practical academic scholarship for their daily work.5  It’s tempting, then, to take the principled position that area studies is just fine as it is.

But standing pat rhetorically, given all the damaging trends outlined above, seems unwise.  Let us then grant that “area studies” is dead, and that we need a new moniker to describe the glorious study of diverse and intermingled regional histories, societies and cultures practiced by scholars in associations such as ASEEES.  Instead of “area studies,” I would propose that we call what we do “global and regional studies.”  In this way we can acknowledge that the dynamics of globalization do deserve a prominent place in our thinking about regional phenomena—not only in the 21st century, but in past eras as well.  World regions, after all, have never somehow existed in complete isolation from one another, disconnected from the influences of global trade, migration, and cultural diffusion.  At the same time, linking “global” and “regional” explicitly highlights the reality, often ignored by contemporary theorists and champions of globalization, that all global processes ultimately still unfold within specific regional contexts, with specific regional social effects.6  The major scholarly associations devoted to world areas, including ASEEES, can thus unite to promote the study of “global and regional studies” as part of a comprehensive effort to reinvigorate the study of international affairs in contemporary education, collaborating in a bipartisan effort with like-minded colleagues in government, business, philanthropy, and the broader citizenry to train the next generation of regional specialists.

Still, embracing a new name for what we do, while a crucial first step, is not enough.  Our advocacy of global and regional studies will not be successful unless we can explain more precisely what we do to skeptical public audiences.  So let me continue to build my case by making a no doubt controversial suggestion: robust research on global and regional studies can help us predict the future—and in a complex, increasingly interconnected world, that is a very helpful thing to be able to do.

To embrace such a bold claim would seem to violate the ethos of area studies as we know it, which has typically been appropriately skeptical of “grand theories” purporting to set out generalizable “laws” of social change, applicable across all times and places.  Area studies scholars have usually rejected the very idea of prediction, claiming that the best we can ever do is “explain” or “interpret” events after they occur.  But upon reflection, this can’t quite be what we really mean.  Take, for example, scholars of the Middle East who feel that had their knowledge of the specific features of Iraqi society had been taken into account, the U.S. invasion of Iraq might never have happened, or at least wouldn’t have been carried out so disastrously.  Surely such scholars are right!  If so, however, the whole point of their critique is that the failure of U.S. foreign policy toward Iraq over the past decade could have been predicted in advance by those with superior regional knowledge—that it simply wasn’t equally likely, ceteris paribus, that post-invasion Iraq would become a flourishing democracy and a beacon to states throughout the Middle East, or a weak state riven by corruption and sectarian divisions.  And while a few prominent Middle East specialists did incorrectly prophesize the former outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is fair to say that the vast preponderance of opinion among Middle East regional specialists tended correctly to predict the latter scenario.

So there is no reason for regional specialists to shy away from prediction as a test of understanding.  Indeed, we all make successful predictions about future social behavior all the time.  I spent many days composing these very remarks on the hypotheses (borne out in the end, I am happy to say) that hundreds of you would attend this lecture at 7 pm on Saturday, November 22nd, 2014, sit and listen politely for 45 minutes or so, and reflect on my commentary later on.  Of course, I might have been wrong: the storms predicted for this weekend in San Antonio might have knocked out the power making it too dark for us to continue, or my plane to Texas might have gone down in a ball of flame, or a nuclear war might have broken out between the U.S. and Russia yesterday.  Such objections only remind us that social prediction is nearly always probabilistic, rather than deterministic.  We plan our lives with some confidence despite such dire possibilities precisely because they are extremely unlikely—at least, under particular regional circumstances that we can learn to navigate with sufficient study.

Specifically, social prediction can be successful, it seems to me, under three conditions.  First, prediction of individual behavior is possible wherever strong institutions are reliably enforced, making it pretty much irrational to deviate from institutional rules and norms.  Strong institutions make it highly likely, for example, that regular presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in North America, Latin America, Western Europe, and most of East-Central Europe over the next few years; that an effort to bribe a police officer to avoid a speeding ticket in Denmark or New Zealand will not be successful, instead leading to severe consequences for the briber; or (to take an example from our own region) that joining the Komsomol during the Brezhnev era would help advance one’s future career.  Of course, the distribution of strong institutions is not regionally uniform.  Thus endemic social uncertainty and weakly-institutionalized electoral rules over much of Eurasia for much of the 1990s and 2000s made it quite difficult for analysts or citizens to predict the precise manner in which elections would be held, preventing democratic consolidation.7  Now that strong authoritarian institutions have been established in so many Eurasian countries, one can predict in many countries that (increasingly rare) instances of electoral opposition will typically be “managed” more or less effectively by the authorities.  Patterns of police bribery, too, depend significantly on regional context, as drivers in post-Soviet Georgia and Russia can attest.  The predictive effect of strong institutions is also temporally bounded: joining communist youth groups no longer does much for one’s future career prospects anywhere in East Europe or Eurasia.

Second, we can predict with reasonable accuracy that in periods of social upheaval and institutional breakdown, most people will abandon old institutional and cultural practices inherited from the past only slowly and reluctantly.  Habit, as Max Weber recognized long ago, remains a key driver of individual behavior.  This simple insight is remarkably difficult for Americans to accept, given our cultural tendency to privilege the “new” and “revolutionary” over the simple continuation of working institutions and practices.  Yet our failure to recognize the tenacity of habit accounts for many of the most egregious errors in American foreign policy, including sustained efforts in the 1990s to lecture post-Soviet elites on the need to leap immediately to a full-fledged market economy, despite the continuing enmeshment of the vast majority of people in the former Soviet bloc in economic institutions that, however dysfunctional and inefficient, had nevertheless provided their basic livelihood for many decades—and whose legacy was thus predictably bound to interfere with the realization of unfettered liberal capitalism of the American type.8  The long-term negative effect of years of such lectures by well-paid consultants with little or no understanding of post-Soviet conditions was also unfortunately predictable.

Third, even when institutions are weak and the effect of past historical legacies attenuated by the passage of time, we can predict the behavior of people who are themselves dogmatically confident that they know what the future will hold—deterministically, not probabilistically. Committed ideologues, it turns out, typically do just what they say they are going to do, for good or for ill.9  Hitler really did set about to create the genocidal thousand-year Reich he described in Mein Kampf; Nelson Mandela really did try to create an inclusive, democratic South Africa; and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi really is trying to create an Islamic caliphate in Iraq, Syria, and lands beyond.  Indeed, it is precisely the predictability of such charismatic leaders in times of general institutional breakdown that gives them such potentially immense social power.  Our own region has seen repeated cycles of institutional breakdown followed by the emergence of charismatic leadership of one sort or another.  Russia, East Europe and Eurasia after the fall of tsarism was indelibly shaped by the ideological commitments of Lenin and Stalin, and of their followers who were convinced that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union truly did have unique insight into the future of humanity.10  And the breakup of the USSR in 1991 would never have happened without the remarkable combination of Gorbachev’s sincere belief in the potential of a renewed form of Soviet socialism and Yeltsin’s sincere belief that a new “liberal” Russia, with himself as President, would rapidly reach Western European standards of living—however erroneous both men’s predictions turned out to be in fact.

The central point here is that all three of these forms of social prediction require extensive training in global and regional studies.  Without both global and regional knowledge, it is impossible to tell the difference between strong institutions that typically do constrain individual behavior and façade institutions that exist only on paper, masking pervasive informal, personalistic patterns of rule.  Without global and regional analysis, it is impossible to understand how existing social practices and identities will affect, and often block, the imposition of new institutional projects and reforms—in diverse ways in diverse localities.11  Without global and regional study, it is impossible to differentiate between ordinary pragmatic politicians whose rhetoric is purely instrumental (and therefore highly changeable), and “true believers” who are highly likely once in power to carry out the political, economic, and cultural schemes they have articulated while still in marginalized opposition groupings.  To get all of these forms of prediction right, scholars need expertise in history, the social sciences, literature, film, anthropology, gender studies, and linguistics.  They need fluency in one or more regional language.  They need to spend significant amounts of time living and working abroad.  In short, the best specialists in global and regional studies need the kind of training most valued by scholarly associations such as ours.

Of course, not every scholar in a regional studies association such as ASEEES needs to concern herself with prediction.  Scholarship is good for its own sake, sharpening our analytic capacities, bolstering tolerance for diverse points of view, and identifying enduring truths about the human condition.  And not every prediction by every well-trained regional scholar will necessarily be right: the possibility of falsification, after all, is what distinguishes scientific prediction from soothsaying.  Still, in a time when we are forced as never before to justify continued funding for the enterprise of global and regional studies, the fact that robust, interdisciplinary regional understanding can help us figure out more or less where things are headed in various parts of the world isn’t a bad selling point.

Given the thrust of my argument today, you will no doubt want me to conclude these remarks with my own prediction of the future of Russia, East Europe and Central Asia.  In the short term, I’m afraid, the long period of endemic institutional uncertainty in the postcommunist region has given way to a sharp division between two fairly strongly institutionalized forms of order—“rational-legal” democratic capitalism in most of East-Central Europe, and “traditional” forms of authoritarian rule in much of Eurasia.  Putin’s choice to annex Crimea in 2014 marked a decisive shift away from his past efforts to incorporate “plebiscitarian” forms of legitimation toward a more or less straightforward embrace of pure patrimonialism.12  Ukraine today finds itself most unfortunately at the intersection not only of competing geopolitical forces, but also of diametrically opposed understandings of “civilization” itself—which will make it exceedingly difficult for Moscow and Kyiv to reach any stable, negotiated settlement.  Yet this new division of Europe, quite unlike that emerging after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 or again after the defeat of Nazism in 1945, seems unlikely to last for decades.  Neither in the East nor in the West does one find strongly committed ideological leaderships of the sort typical of the 20th century.  The accelerating forces of globalization—technological, economic, and cultural—are now likely too powerful to reverse.  The resulting ongoing disruption of both institutions and habits in Europe, Eurasia and around the world is likely to inspire both ideologues and opportunists alike to probe the weak spots in the contemporary institutional orders of both the West and its competitors.  In such a world, finally, I can predict that specialists in global and regional studies who combine a grasp of broad international trends with what Weber called verstehen—interpretive understanding of the motivations of real human beings in specific historical, geographic, and cultural contexts—are likely to have plenty of work to do.