A Brief Note…

from our internal discussions. I recently remarked to Edward that for much of the US government’s foreign policy apparatus, Russia is still Not Europe. This view is a legacy (still) of the Cold War period in which most of the decision-makers and working-level staff were trained and gained experience. It shapes basic reflexes toward Europe and the post-Soviet space, and knowing the background may at some level help outsiders understand this or that about official US approaches. (There are of course many levels of complexity, not least Congressional politics, commercial interests and ethnically based politicking, but this is meant to be a brief note.)

Back in the day, the State Department had one bureau for democratic Western Europe and one for communist Eastern Europe. After 1989, and particularly after 1991, this setup made less sense. Change was slow, and contested. Putting, say, Poland into the Western Europe bureau reflected the changes there, but knowledge of conditions during the communist period was (and is) essential to understanding the country’s politics today. And commonalities among the post-communist countries are still significant enough to justify some policy attention.

Several shifts were made during the Clinton administration, but no truly satisfactory approach emerged. With Strobe Talbott, a genuine expert on the USSR, close to the president and a strong career ambassador in Moscow, the bureaucratic uncertainty was less troublesome.

Now, the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs covers the whole shebang. The title is a euphemism for “Europe plus the former Soviet Union” and means that Iceland to Kamchatka and, in terms of wealth, Switzerland to Kyrgyzstan fall under the same part of the State Department. So what you have now are people with something like specialization in communist or post-communist states coexisting with people who have come up through the ranks dealing with EU-type problems.

Incidentally, the peculiarity is likely to persist. The academic attention given to the Soviet Union means that there are a fair number of tenured faculty in the field, and that university departments tend to reproduce the former division of Europe. Russia continues to be studied out of proportion to its importance; Central Europe is often an odd off-shoot, uneasily coexisting in places where it is clear it used to be a subset of Soviet studies but now ought to be more affiliated with Western Europe/EU studies.

5 thoughts on “A Brief Note…

  1. I suppose from about 1989 – 1998 the theory that Russia should have been treated much like Europe was more valid than not. But these days Russia is certainly Not Europe. I’d put forth the argument that Russia has never been Europe. Russia is… Russia.

  2. Not that I agree with it, but this is actually changing. The only public mention I’m aware of so far has been an offhand remark by Rice in a speech a few weeks back, but I heard about it back in November. Central Asia’s being moved out of the Europe and Eurasia region to the South Asia bureau. I guess that makes Europe and Eurasia a little more the “Europe and that one country that straddles both” bureau, but whether or not formerly Soviet Turkestan exactly belongs in the South Asia bureau is open to vehement debate. (As a Central Asianist, I of course find this absurd.) I think it would make much more sense to have a Eurasia Bureau that covers Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

    Everyone will be reassured to hear that the reason this decision was made was not because it makes sense, but because the Europe and Eurasia bureau was just too big. (Rice mentioned it has to do with uniting the areas around Afghanistan or some such nonsense.)

  3. Nathan, the bureau you suggest would be better titled the former Soviet bureau. Abstract questions of fitness aside, I don’t think that is a political signal that the US government is ever going to send. Second, South Asia (as I read it) has been the bureau for India&Pakistan. That’s an awfully binary setup, and I can imagine that it has cause problems, with people lining up — or being thought of as lining up — on one side or the other. Bringing Central Asia into this area of discussion might (a) un-stick things a bit, just by making the discussion multipolar; and (b) emphasize to the Russian government that the USG does not see Central Asia as a “backyard” where whatever Moscow says goes. It may also flatter the Indian government by emphasizing its regional concerns, another way of limiting the Kremlin’s influence.

    If the move means that people who know beans about the post-Soviet condition get lost in the shuffle, then there will be some losses in how particular issues are handled. On the other hand, if Central Asia is handled in a context that’s not Moscow-centered, it could make for better policy. (At least starting in 2009. I think there’s very little that the present administration is getting right.)

    (Parenthetically, glad to have you commenting here. Registan is a valuable contribution.)

  4. Surely Russian culture is at least partly European? Wouldn’t Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc be considered European writers (playwrights)?

    What about the Orthodox tradition of viewing Moscow as the “Third Rome” (after Rome and Byzantium)?

    Clearly the powers that be in Russia see themselves as apart from Europe, but what about young Russians? Surely many of them would want to be part of Europe (as some Russians have since at least Peter the Great)?

    (Not disagreeing that Russia has separate geopolitical and strategic interests to Europe, just pointing out that identity is multi-faceted and multi-layered.)

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