More than three decades have passed since George F. Kennan convened a group of people at Princeton to think about the future of Soviet Studies. Out of that conference came the initative to establish a center of academic Russian studies in Washington. At a 14 December 2004 seminar commemorating the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Kennan Institute, Institute Director Blair A. Ruble, along with panelists Grace Kennan Warnecke, consultant, New York, and Member, Kennan Institute Advisory Council; James Billington, Librarian of Congress and former Director, Woodrow Wilson Center; S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Founding Director, Kennan Institute; and Thomas Simons, Director, Program on Eurasia in Transition, Davis Center, Harvard University, and Chairman, Kennan Institute Advisory Council, discussed the history of the Kennan Institute and speculated on possible directions for its future.
Billington indicated that he accepted the directorship of the Wilson Center with the understanding that he would initiate a major program in Russian and Soviet studies. He explained that the Kennan Institute was founded to enrich U.S understanding of, and foreign policy toward, Soviet Russia by promoting a deep understanding of all aspects of Russian and Soviet society. The early leaders of the Institute, like George Kennan himself, had an interest in the humanities and in the cultural—as well as the political and economic—aspects of Russian and Soviet studies. This became a distinguishing feature of the Kennan Institute. "The range of speculation, and of fruitful thinking for policymakers is always enriched by the cultural dimension," Billington contended.
Starr then asserted that "there were truly remarkable accomplishments over these 30 years at the Kennan Institute." He noted, however, than in any human endeavor, errors and oversights are inevitable. Starr discussed a number of mistakes that he believes were made by the Kennan Institute and the entire Russian studies field over the course of the Cold War. These mistakes included: a failure to devote enough attention to the historical development of the Russian state; a general lack of focus on the energy sector in the Soviet economy; not noticing the trend of Russian out-migration from the national republics that began in the 1970s; and romanticizing the Russian intelligentsia and ignoring their dependence on the Soviet state.
In the post-Cold War world, the Kennan Institute is facing declining interest in its region of study. Nevertheless, the panelists agreed that the Institute still has a vital role to play. According to Warnecke, media coverage of Russia and the surrounding states has decreased in the past decade and the coverage that exists is, in her view, often overly simplistic. This is especially true of countries such as Ukraine, which has frequently been overlooked by Russia-focused journalists. Americans know less about the region just as global phenomena such as HIV/AIDS, environmental degradation, and the Internet are making the world more interdependent and increasing the importance of mutual understanding. "We have to cooperate with each other, and to do so successfully, we have to know each other," she said. "In light of the common globe which we inhabit, and which George Kennan cared so much about, the work of the Kennan Institute in connecting academia and government is even more important today than during the Cold War."
Ruble added that one of the animating features of the Kennan Institute has been "a deep appreciation of the fact that you can't understand another part of the world unless you try to come to terms with it in its totality." At a time when Americans are sent into harm's way to protect national interests, he continued, it is vital to understand the history, culture, and society of the people that threaten those interests.
Simons gave three reasons that the Kennan Institute is uniquely equipped to tackle the task of defining emerging new global threats to international order and U.S. interests. First, despite the Institute's focus on Russia, its "mental culture" covers the whole post-Soviet space, and yet in that space Russia will be central to every important facet of life for years to come. Second, while both scholars and policymakers are working to capture the area's new diversity, Simons contended that the Institute remains one of the very few American institutions that gives the scholars it supports the license to analyze the new parts within a unified vision of the larger whole to which they belong. And third, "the Kennan Institute is not just one institution, but the only American institution with the vision and experience to bring scholarship and government together efficiently when it comes to Eurasia," he said.
Billinton concluded with an explanation of why Russia is still vital to the international system and U.S. interests. He argued that Russia's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction should remain an issue of serious concern to the entire world. In addition, Billington asserted that the realities of geopolitics will not allow the U.S. to ignore a major power in Eurasia. Whether or not Russia succeeds in its expiriment with democracy, he contended, will have a profound impact on how China and the Islamic world view democratization. "Russia ought to be a matter of common concern, if we're concerned about the stability and the future of what is still the world's dominant landmass," he said.