Run-up to the crisis in Ukraine:
There was an element of sleep-walking into the Ukraine crisis, and EU institutions and Member States did not see it coming. The Committee found that the absence of political oversight was glaring.
Role of the UK:
The Committee found that the Foreign Office has lost expertise and analytical capacity on Russia and the region, and that the UK and other Member States were unable to read events on the ground and offer an authoritative response. The Government needs to reconsider how it can regain these skills.
EU-Russia Report on the Ukraine crisis, House of Lords, United Kingdom, 20 February 2015.
[the Committee] believes that the EU, and by implication the UK, was guilty of sleep-walking into this crisis. In our view EU Member States displayed a worrying lack of political oversight regarding the Commission’s negotiations with Ukraine on the Association Agreement. Having said that, Russia misread the Ukrainian appetite for a trade agreement with the EU. The combination led to the crisis we have today, which neither side saw coming.
The Committee is also concerned that the UK’s expertise within the Foreign Office has diminished significantly. The lack of robust analytical capacity, in both the UK and the EU, effectively led to a catastrophic misreading of the mood in the run-up to the crisis. Furthermore, as a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum, the UK had a particular responsibility towards Ukraine and it has not been as active or as visible as it could have been.
Lord Tugendhat, Committee Chairman, EU-Russia Report on the Ukraine crisis, House of Lords, United Kingdom, 20 February 2015.
But while the control of Crimea by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has brought America’s Russia experts in from the cold, the news media spotlight has also showed important shifts in how American academics and policy makers think about Russia, not to mention the quality and quantity of the people doing the thinking.
Among those experts, there is a belief that a dearth of talent in the field and ineffectual management from the White House have combined to create an unsophisticated and cartoonish view of a former superpower, and potential threat, that refuses to be relegated to the ash heap of history.
Jason Horowitz, Russia Experts See Thinning Ranks’ Effect on U.S. Policy, New York Times, 6 March 2014
In 2007, however, ESC Founder and CEO Ian Pryde had warned in a different context that if Russia were to push its divide and rule tactic too far, it would fact a consolidated West ranged against it.
This has now occurred.
But why was the West taken by surprise?
The Russia-Ukraine crisis which came to a head in February and March 2014, and led to Western sanctions against Moscow, highlighted the collapse in the West’s expertise on Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union which experts had been observing with concern since the very end of the Cold War.
In the early 1990s, programmes in area studies and regional languages were slashed or cancelled as surplus to requirements, a problem which was compounded by the general collapse in Western educational standards in languages, history and geography.
This has been further compounded by the failure to integrate expertise into policy:
History is not present enough in senior decision-making discussions. There is just not enough knowledge of history in the room. It’s not as if people are dismissive – frankly when people chime in, in my experience, at the highest level of government, with historical perspective, it is actually a breath of fresh air.
Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations 2013 to 2017, Senior Adviser to Senator Barack Obama until March 2008, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the National Security Council January 2009 to February 2013, first Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School 1998 to 2002, listed as the 41st most powerful woman in the world in 2016 by Forbes, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
Speaking at a presentation and discussion of the book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison at the Harvard Institute of Politics, Harvard Kennedy School.
Streamed live on Mar 22, 2017, available 23:00 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yghOc-lMIM
I had missed the crucial important in American foreign policy of the history deficit: the fact that key decision makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ past but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance. Worst of all, they know just enough history to have confidence but not enough to have understanding. Like the official who assured me in early 2003 that the future of a post-Saddam Iraq would closely resemble that of post-Communist Poland, too many highly accomplished Americans simply do not appreciate the value, but also the danger, of historical analogy.
Niall Ferguson, Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, p. 31
I think both Obama and his predecessor approached foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular with far too little historical knowledge. Putin’s recent successes are not the worst consequence of their historical ignorance. Both Bush and Obama gravely underestimated the potential for sectarian conflict to escalate. Both underestimated the fragility of states like Iraq and Syria. There was a naive belief that if we toppled the dictators a brave new era of Middle Eastern democracy would begin.
I wish it could be possible to make history a far more central part of the education of western leaders. We need to work much harder as historians to challenge the dominance of subjects like economics, political science and law in elite education.
Niall Ferguson, ‘Webchat,’ The Guardian, 12 October 2015.
Even as American universities boomed, those who actually knew about foreign cultures and foreign languages were marginalised, written off as mere area specialists… The result was an analytic over-superficiality and an intellectual rigidity in thinking about the world of which the Washington consensus might now stand as exhibit A…
Mark Mazower, Professor of History, Columbia University, 13 April 2015
Washington is host to the largest collection of think-tanks in the world. Yet they are notable nowadays for their lack of original thinking.
Edward Luce, Financial Times, 29 March 2015
A widely held sentiment inside the [Obama] White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, The Obama Doctrine. The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
The Atlantic, April 2016
The surprising upshot is that the West has precious few experts on many vital regions, a problem by no means confined to Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, but which extends to exotic languages and areas in general, such as Arabic and the Middle East, where, as the quote above makes clear, objectivity and impartiality can be at a premium.
And in so far as students still enroll for area studies and languages, the changed geopolitical situation means that Cold War careers as analysts, academics and diplomats working on the Soviet Union have given way to commercial careers focused on the likes of China and Brazil, or indeed to straight economics, business and finance degrees as university fees rise in both the US and the UK:
Looking back in a century’s time at the West today, and particularly at Europe, won’t historians express amazement at the poor quality of our decision-making elite – the lack of training, information, support, follow-through, hard analysis and proper policy debate? Too many clever people in financial services, too few serving the state? Too little long-termism, too few unpalatable shifts in direction confronted? And might they not decide that here China, for all her repressive and centralised structure, took a lead, at least for a while, as she stretched out for new agricultural and mineral land?
Andrew Marr, Financial Times, 26 February 2011, reviewing the book Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson