Fall Vestnik Interview with Matthew Rojansky (Issue #24)

Sep 13, 2013

Ekaterina Alexeeva: First of all, on behalf of the Editorial Board of Vestnik, allow me to congratulate you on becoming the director of the Kennan Institute. It would be interesting for our readers to learn more about you, your prior work experience, and professional interests.

Matthew Rojansky: I feel privileged to join the outstanding scholars and staff who have made the Kennan Institute and the Wilson Center world class institutions.  Blair Ruble’s impressive tenure as Director from 1989 to 2012 set a high bar for excellence in scholarship, capacity-building in the field of area studies, and contributions to peace and development across the region. It is truly an honor to have the opportunity to continue that vital work, but it is also a tremendous challenge.

I would invite any of your readers who are interested to visit the Kennan Institute and Kennan Moscow Project’s websites, where they will find my professional bio and links to my past writing, speeches and media commentary.  I have given several lectures recently at various institutions in Russia, which you can also find on Youtube.

What I really want to share about myself with readers of Vestnik is something that I think all of us who work with and support the Kennan Institute have in common: a deep and long-lasting passion for improving understanding of Russia and U.S.-Russia relations.  For me, it began with the study of Russia’s fascinating history, which was my undergraduate education at Harvard.  That informs my professional and personal perspective on contemporary Russia and U.S.-Russia relations today.  Simply put, there is no story in world history richer with human achievement in art, music, literature, science, grand geopolitics, or world exploration, than the history of Russia.  Yet at the same time, hardly can you find a story with more horrible and tragic human suffering.  This is a compelling and endlessly fascinating contrast, the unraveling of which is more than a life’s work for any scholar.

With the arrival of a new director, changes are likely to be expected. In Russia we have a saying: “A new broom sweeps differently.” What kind of changes do you envision and how do they correspond to the fundamental development trends at the Wilson Center?

In the most basic sense, my goal is to preserve and expand upon the great legacy of the Kennan Institute.  What this institution has contributed to American understanding of Russia, Ukraine and the surrounding states, and what it has done to support direct dialogue between high quality American experts and their counterparts from the region over the past four decades, can hardly be measured.  Yet entering our 40th anniversary year, we are also clearly facing several intersecting challenges for our work, ranging from major cuts to U.S. government and private funding for regional studies, to the apparent deterioration of U.S. relations with Russia, to the retirement of a large generation of influential experts in the field and the broader disengagement of the American political elite from the region.

We will need to think creatively about ways to address these challenges.  Yet our core strengths must continue to set the tone for our work.  We must preserve and even expand our program for supporting scholarly exchange between U.S., Russian, Ukrainian and other regional scholarly institutions, and we must make much more active use of our impressive alumni networks in all these countries, especially the U.S., Russia and Ukraine.  We are extremely fortunate to have such a strong and capable staff in Washington, Moscow and Kyiv, that I have no doubt we can increase our level of activity, visibility and positive impact on relations between the U.S. and the region.  Such an impact will help us convince government and private decision-makers to commit the resources needed to support our work going forward.

Clearly, the Kennan Institute’s central focus has been and will continue to be on U.S.-Russia relations and international security. I would like to ask you about the ‘hot spots’ and challenges in these areas.

First, let me emphasize what should be obvious to all of us in the field, but is not necessarily widely understood in the United States—that Russia is a vital partner for the U.S..  Russia is among a handful of influential global actors on almost every issue of vital national interest to the United States, from strategic nuclear stability and non-proliferation, to countering terrorism, responding to pandemic threats, and sustaining global economic growth based on free trade and energy security.  Russia may seem to be a difficult partner at times, yet it is far from America’s adversary or enemy today.  Tough talk and tit-for-tat posturing of the kind both sides have demonstrated in recent months are nothing compared to the potentially catastrophic results of real confrontation, which veterans of the Cold War worked tirelessly to avoid.  On the contrary, a broad range of mutual interests shared by Moscow and Washington has underpinned decades of successful joint initiatives in space, scientific research, cultural exchange, and conflict resolution, while the potential for U.S.-Russia cooperation in the future should be even greater.

Managing U.S.-Russia ties will never be easy or intuitive for either side.  Although many vital interests are shared, there are important areas of divergence, and the current imbalance of political, diplomatic and economic power, favoring the United States, inclines Russians towards particular sensitivity over any perception of bullying, undue meddling, or disrespect from Washington.  Successful engagement with Russia demands recognition of Russia’s distinct and legitimate national interests, even when they do not appear compatible with those of the United States.  While Americans may hope for accelerated progress toward liberal democracy and the rule of law in Russia, only the Russian people can decide the priorities and pace of their domestic development.  Respect for Russia’s independent interests and developmental course, with sustained attention and patience for official engagement, plus investment in the building blocks of the relationship such as trade promotion, ease of travel, and cultural and scholarly exchange, offers the best chance to produce big bilateral accomplishments over time.

As far as I understand, in relations with Russia, you favor focusing on concrete, rather than abstract, issues. Security, mutual commercial interests, the creation of a visa-free regime, etc. How do you respond to the opinion that in dealing with the Kremlin, the West frequently forgets about its own values and provides only weak support to democracy in Russia?

I don’t want to pick specific failures or successes, or even suggest a list of agenda items for the next year—in any case my remarks might already be “stale” by the time this interview is published.  I actually think that too much of U.S.-Russia relations over the past twenty years has been about mere list-making, and the danger of this is that when the list runs out, so does the interest in one another.  This tempts Americans towards disengagement and ignoring Russia, and tempts Russians towards provocation to remind Americans that they are important, and both temptations are equally unproductive. 

It is certainly always easier to throw stones from the outside than to take responsibility for the hard work of managing international relations inside of government.  But as an outsider who (on very rare occasions) has the opportunity to offer modest advice to those in government responsible for U.S.-Russia relations, I can share a few of the basic pillars of my own thinking in this area.

First, I would advise the Obama Administration to stay the course.  Renewing strained relations takes time.  The process that ended the Cold War division of Europe took many decades, and in some ways it continues today.  The U.S. Administration was lucky to reap fast and early rewards from "reset" button in 2009 and 2010, however the bigger rewards will come over time, with sustained political commitment.  There will be severe difficulties along the way, but these must not provoke indifference or retribution that will only deepen alienation.

Second, show humility and be conscious of difficult history.  This can be very difficult to do, especially for politicians who are used to focusing only on the problem of this moment and what to do in the next day or week.  Not only gestures but deep feelings of respect and humility toward the other side, particularly toward those who feel they have been wronged, are essential to create the conditions for reconciliation.  The US-Russia relationship is still badly in need of such sentiments, not only because of the Cold War but because of the 1990's and 2000's, when many Russians have felt ignored, manipulated, or demonized by the West, the United States first and foremost.

Finally, invest in institutions and individuals.  The costs of Western outreach to the former communist states of Eastern Europe, including the former Soviet states, can be counted in the billions of today's dollars.  But the rewards have been incalculably more valuable.  Today, the most troubling trend is the disappearance of American interest in and commitment to engagement with the region.  The U.S., even in a time of fiscal tightening, must put real resources into institutions and channels that connect people and keep the doors open between East and West.

Today, many people speak about the crisis of the "West" and "Western values". For some people in Russia, this is a justification for authoritarianism (they would say, “The West is not so pure itself, so we will choose our own path”), for others – it is a loss of hope and examples to follow. What are your thoughts on this?

I understand very well why many people perceive the political and economic systems that were developed largely by the United States and other Western powers after World War II to be in crisis.  It is true that the United States’ political system has become structurally and practically incapable of delivering resolutions to the most pressing national problems we face today: health and welfare for people, real national security with preservation of our civic freedoms, a positive role and image for America in the world, and a stable long-term solution to our debt addiction, to name just a few of these problems.  Europe has a different but still urgent set of problems, that are both structural and issue-specific.  And the old age and relative inflexibility of the basic institutions of global economic and political governance forged in the 1940’s are certainly a big part of the problem too.

Yet I believe the values that inspired these institutions in the first place are not the problem.  The values on which Western freedom and prosperity have been based—the dignity of the individual, protection of life and liberty, justice in the pursuit of self-development and happiness—are still relevant and inspiring today, even if the results are not always as convincing as they could be.  One of the biggest problems I have heard described is the increasingly dramatic gap between the world’s extremely rich and everyone else—this is not just a Western problem, but a global problem.  And it is not just about the unfairness that some people are rich and others are poor, but rather about whether modern democratic societies can actually secure for people the opportunities that are promised by the values we cherish, when the rules are written for the benefit of the very few. 

Yet none of this is a cause to lose hope.  I am confident that democracy and open society is a sufficiently flexible and resilient model of governance that societies can engage in debates about these questions and move forward toward gradual solutions.  No solution will be perfect, since all human societies evolve like biological organisms on the basis of what has come before.  That is one reason why scholarship, and especially international scholarly exchange, are of such vital importance.  Not only do Kennan scholars and alumni contribute to the expert debates in their home countries, but as intellectual ambassadors abroad, they can ask critical questions and propose new ideas that may have a lasting impact on international problem-solving and development.

Over the years, the Institute has provided grants to Russian researchers in a wide array of humanitarian studies. This tradition was established by George F. Kennan, who was sure that war, politics, and economics were not the only areas that could bring about collaboration between great societies. Our long list of alumni includes historians, philosophers, writers, cinematographers, movie critics, scholars of cultural and theater studies, and many other fields. Will such a broad academic approach to studying and understanding Russia be preserved?

George F. Kennan had the great privilege of being trained not only by some of the brightest minds of American academia but by the leading lights of a centuries-old European and Russian tradition of regional studies, and then in the practical application of these skills as a working diplomat in the region.  His personal career is a model for how deep scholarly knowledge can be applied to great benefit in practical international relations and challenges of domestic development.  I fully agree with Kennan that each of the diverse fields of intellectual inquiry which this Institute has traditionally supported makes a unique and vital contribution to American understanding of Russia, Ukraine and the surround states.  I also believe that direct exposure to the United States and the U.S. scholarly community is of great value for the regional scholars who spend time at this Institute and return to take part in the alumni communities in their home countries.

Many thanks for the interview.

Thank you for this opportunity to share a few modest thoughts with such an accomplished group of Kennan alumni and our friends and colleagues.  My door in Washington is always open, and I will continue to be a frequent visitor to our offices in Moscow and Kyiv, and to many other institutions in the region.  I can be reached by email at Matthew.Rojansky@wilsoncenter.org and I look forward to hearing from you. 

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