Will We Ever Understand Each Other? Area Studies and Western Policy toward Russia

As tensions between Russia and the West reach increase, the Harriman Institute asks: “What role does the academy play in our current attempts to understand each other?”

Joelle Theubet
June 15, 2018

With the probability of Russia having meddled in the 2016 elections dominating the American news cycle, the question of what the future holds for U.S. - Russia relations is on everyone’s mind. The Harriman Institute addressed this topic, among others, at the Paris Center during a recent presentation of its new oral history website, which documents the Institute's historic role in regional studies and its influence on shaping U.S. foreign policy toward the post-Soviet region.

Featuring panelists Peter Charow, Julie Newton and Ronald Suny, and moderated by Harriman Director Alexander Cooley, the event shed light on how we found ourselves in this unprecedented situation and the role of regional experts in “digging us out.”

“I’ve been been [working with Russia] for 35 years and I’ve never lived through a period that has been this difficult.” remarked Charow, vice president of BP Russia, who lived and worked in the country through the pivotal 1990s when the former Soviet union sought to replace its communist past with a new political and economic model borrowed from the West.

He went on to analyze the elements that have led to the divide between the West and Russia, including the deception and betrayal that Russians felt in being relegated from a global power to a regional one. To combat its loss of status, Russia developed “asymmetrical means” to be able to compete with the U.S. – such as influencing foreign elections via social media and other means – that have led us to a crisis of democracy in the West today.

For her part, Newton, who is principal investigator for University Consortium, linked the decline of area studies and regional experts in the 1990s and 2000s to the growth of competing, and often false, narratives of Russia in the U.S. and vice versa. This in turn resulted in a lack of introspection on the part of both nations to their respective roles in the deterioration of relations.

“Context is critical for understanding how countries and peoples think,” said Newton as she argued for the need for a more evidence-based, critical regard by the academy and regional experts toward Russia.

The Harriman Institute, all agreed, still has an important role to play in providing nuanced historical and cultural understanding of Russia, and in building bridges with academic and professional counterparts in Russia and former Soviet states.

Watch the full discussion: