Midwestern Crossings, Title VIII, and Ukraine

Another week, another book chapter re-edited and made (hopefully) more readable and more interesting. It’s almost the end of February, and the slog continues, taking the chapters that I line-edited in January and implementing the edits into the various chapters of Developing Powers. Cutting and editing day after day in Scrivener can prove grinding and repetitive, but it’s satisfying to see my word counts go down, and to see a sleeker, slimmer, more convincing argument emerge from the skeleton of the text.

The manuscript started as the dissertation of someone pretty committed to Soviet history, but since I made clear (around the time of finishing the Master’s Dissertation) that my real focus was less the Soviet Union than development in Afghanistan per se, I’ve been happy and energized to move my focus to sources more and more ecumenical: first interviews with former American and West German development workers, then work in the respective archives, and now, more and more engagement with non-governmental sources. Contacts with European NGOs helped me get my hands on material early on, and putative mini-research trips to New Haven (for the papers of former UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar), New York (for the papers of Jeri Laber of Helsinki Watch), Paris (Doctors Without Borders) and Stockholm (Swedish Afghanistan Committee) all beckon for the spring and summer.

With them comes not stretching my post-doc budget in some of the world’s most expensive cities but also the methodological challenge of writing about how Soviet authoritarian institutions interfaced (or didn’t) with other forms of internationalism: post-1989 UN development operations in Afghanistan, for example, or the panoply of NGOs that invaded Afghanistan from Peshawar throughout the decade. The more I dig, the more connections I have, but with a de facto word limit of around 140,000 words for the manuscript, it’s clear whatever gains I make in the manuscript will have to be the start of what I suspect will be an exciting conversation among younger international historians (especially those with a knowledge of Russian, or who work on the Second World) about the ways in which Moscow and its client states participated not only in “the diplomatic” (our more conventional histories of Kissinger running around and putting out fires) but also “the international” – international relations that went beyond the communications of one Foreign Minister to a Secretary of State. Upcoming travel to conferences at Miami University in Ohio and in Germany should provide a chance to test out some of my theories on smart anthropologists, historians, and legal scholars – and a chance to escape the prison of my office after virtual non-stop editing for the past month.

At those conferences, particularly the first (focused on the study of socialism and post-socialism) one of the topics, I’m sure, on everyone’s lips, will be the revolutionary events currently underway in Ukraine. As someone who’s never been to the Ukraine and has relatively little exposure to Ukrainian history (although a wonderful weekend crash course at Cambridge helped), I feel that I have little unique to say about events there. Yet what the crisis there – and the perplexed response of the Anglophone media to it (numerous articles on Eastern Ukraine vs. Western Ukraine, Europe vs. Russia, etc.) – does serve as a reminder of is the importance of fostering good scholarship and good expertise on those regions of the world that don’t normally merit many foreign bureaus of news services. That’s all the more so true at a time when pundits like Nicholas Kristof have slammed academics for being irrelevant, out-of-touch, or failing to provide policy-relevant commentary. Cases that prove Kristof wrong – Yale professor Timothy Snyder’s commentary in the New York Review of Books, German political scientist Andreas Umland (who teaches in Kiev), or David Marples at Open Democracy – are there, but the persistence of “Ukraine 101”-style articles in the American media proves the rule.

Unfortunately, in the last five years, scholars have seen the opposite of what you might expect given the momentous events taking place in Kiev. The US government administers funding to support research on Eastern and Southeastern Europe and Eurasia (a clunky geographical term for Central Asia and the Caucasus) through a program called Title VIII (more here). Title VIII funding was crucial for me in completing my dissertation research and pursuing the language training I needed to develop as a scholar of the former Soviet region. Funding administered through IREX, an international education NGO, supported me twice to go to Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to conduct interviews with former Soviet aid workers and to work in Soviet archives, while Title VIII dollars also helped to pay the (considerable) expenses associated with intensive Uzbek-language classes at Arizona State’s Critical Languages Institute this past summer. I’m nowhere near alone in having these kinds of stories. Scholarship programs like those that ASU ran for less-commonly studied languages helped lower-income students, or students at the vast majority of colleges that do not offer regular instruction in (for example) Tatar to pursue their education at a modest cost.

Some areas of the former socialist cosmos, like Armenia and Ukraine, have wealthy enough diasporas to finance scholarships for, say, Armenian or Ukrainian-language study. But in particular for those parts of Eurasia (Uzbekistan, say), that have either tiny or less wealthy North American diasporas, Title VIII funding is crucial to maintaining civilian academic and governmental expertise. Ditto for military funding: ROTC generously supported several dozen cadets studying Uzbek and Persian at CLI (including travel to Samarkand), but the quality of American commentary and scholarship goes down when language knowledge becomes confined to the military. If we compare Pashto and Uyghur, for example, while the former (spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan) has four times as many speakers as the latter, the near-monopoly of Pashto pedagogy by the US military and intelligence apparatus means that undergraduate and graduate offerings in language, culture, and history are weak. That means, in general, worse (or less) civilian commentary of the kind that Kristof calls for, and which is essential for a healthy scholarly or intellectual relationship between academia, government, and the military in any democracy.

Unfortunately, in the last ten years scholars have seen a significant disinvestment in precisely these programs. As Laura Adams notes in her 2013 briefing on Title VIII funding, the real absolute dollar value of Title VIII funding was already declining circa 2000 due to inflation and stagnant concomitant increases in funding. In 2011, following the politically manufactured debt ceiling crisis, funding to Title VIII was cut by roughly 30% (still small numbers for funding programs – from $4.5 million to $3 million, roughly the cost of maintaining two US soldiers in Afghanistan for a year). During appropriations for the current fiscal year, Title VIII did not receive an appropriation at all, leading to massive cuts or halts in several crucial programs for the study of Eastern Europe or Eurasia. That means more competition for funding a stable cohort of graduate students, fewer projects funded, and an inevitable dilution of the quality and diversity of expertise that American universities can host (or that foreign-based US citizens, like I was when I applied for IREX funding, can receive).

The response of US government officials to these funding cuts has not been helpful. Writes Adams in her 2013 brief:

At the 2012 Central Eurasian Studies Society annual meeting, I asked keynote speaker Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, what he thought we should be doing about the cuts to the programs that trained the specialists who worked for him. His reply was pessimistic and repeated a familiar but unhelpful slogan: the funding for these programs was not coming back and that perhaps private-public partnerships were the answer. University-based research centers and scholarly non-profits have long relied on philanthropists to supply the funds that provide the backbone to their programs, but I do not think it is realistic to expect that Exxon Mobil will be investing in Turkmen language study for U.S. scholars any time soon, let alone paying for the salary of the person who sifts through the applications for a dissertation research grant.

No one in or out of government seems to be against funding fellowships for students to learn languages that are important for national security, but it is a long-term problem that university administrations, governments, and foundations alike too often balk at paying a real salary and benefits to the people who teach those languages and administer those fellowships. Universities do need to take on these financial responsibilities for the infrastructure of programs like Title VI, but in turn the federal government funding for these programs needs to flow amply and predictably.

So here’s where we’re left at the moment – crises in countries of which we understand little at the same time as a systematic disinvestment in precisely the kind of expertise and university infrastructure you would expect to be developed to respond to these changes. Heritage-speaker journalists or commentators like Julia Ioffe at The New Republic or the “citizen journalism” of social media may help, some. But those kinds of outlets don’t replace the social mobility and long-term consideration of regional issues that academia uniquely affords. If we don’t want the study of a vast portion of the world to become the exclusive warren of upper-middle class (and primarily white) scholars – with all of the loss of perspective that might entail – programs like these are crucial. Events in Ukraine are probably only beginning, and yet the state of our commentary lags far behind, but Americans will be at even more of a loss to explain change in places like Kazakhstan, Bosnia, or Uzbekistan when they happen.


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