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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Ukraine crisis an opportunity for American dons

The New York Times this week was, unsurprisingly, focused on events in the Ukraine and the illegal Russian intervention there, bloodless though it appears to have been.

There are two main points that spring to mind worth considering.

First, the NYT could not appear to see previous US military interventions - far bloodier in lives lost than what occurred in Crimea - as worthy of serious comparison to Russia's behaviour in Crimea. Their response to events there, and Russia's unprincipled use of American precedents in illegal military and other interventions, was to print an article that seemed to be rather amused about the idea of US violations of international law. This echoed the US State Department's own rather cyncial dismissal of Russian claims of US double standards; the putative 'watchdog' acting as a 'lapdog', it would seem.

Greater coverage is instead devoted to the lack of Russia specialists in US universities since the Cold War's end saw massive cuts in the funding of 'area studies', including Soviet studies. 

Lamenting that loss of expertise is one thing; getting the analysis right is another. Russia specialists, commenting on the Ukraine, still seem to be getting it wrong. For instance, Princeton historians at a recent campus-based public meeting, which resembled an angry teach-in more than an academic forum, compared Ukraine 2014 to 1956 (Hungary), 1938 (Sudetenland), 1968 (Prague), and even 1914 (Belgium)! Their history might be a little problematic but their function is instructive: to add to the American administration's ire at Russian aggression, and lend it some intellectual authority.

It's clear that dons want more dons in their area and seem 'overjoyed' with the Ukraine intervention, seeing it as an opportunity to get more funds in future, grants, jobs.Yet, they seem merely to want to return to the good old days of the cold war when Soviet Studies was all the rage, in the universities, spy agencies and the White House.

Then, it was clear that knowledge and 'scholarship' was increasingly harnessed to the US cold war machine, frightening even President Eisenhower who, it must be said, embodied the very phenomenon not to mention the indelicate fact that he helped build the military-industrial-academic complex itself. Indeed he noted the threat to freedom of universities with large federal government grants being co-opted by the state, violating the cardinal principle of academic freedom. 

Eisenhower: "In this [postwar shift in our society, and the technological] revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

"Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity....
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded."

Of course Soviet specialists - in and out of the state - added a lot of very useful knowledge in waging the cold war. Soviet specialist George Kennan, for example, helped the world by coining the 'containment' strategy that led to largescale conflicts all over the world as the US sought to expand its realm against anticolonial nationalists in Asia and Africa.

But while they could speak into the ear of the Prince, did they get the big things right? Did they predict Hungary 1956 or, even more importantly, the very collapse of the USSR in 1989-1991? Did any of their dwindling band predict Ukraine 2014? [I suspect they must have done - even I thought the Russians would do that!].

Of course these questions are unfair - no one could have predicted precisely when such things might happen although Yale's doyen of Cold War studies, John Gaddis, claims he asked the question of the US military in 1988, hinting at his own prescience. His Yale colleague meanwhile had just published the death knell of the US and the rise of the Soviet Union in his otherwise magisterial Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

The truth is that Soviet and other area studies programmes played key roles in US foreign and national security policy making and implementation, and in bringing bright young things suitably trained into the universities, think tanks, media and government. But they were largely a means rather than the makers of strategy, always subordinated to the global expansionism inherent in American power since Woodrow Wilson's time if not before. They were in the army as it were but weren't the General Staff but their aides and liaisons and advisers; and trainers of new generations of clones; and shapers of elite opinion via outlets like the New York Times.

They miss the glow of power and hope Russia's illegal takeover of Crimea and partition of Ukraine will sweep them back to their rightful place, whispering into the ear of the Prince, serving the powers that be.

"The Ukrainian crisiswas big enough to 'capture the imagination'," as one of them said. 

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