|Victor Bogorad, The Moscow Times|
The theme of a decline in Russian expertise in the West (in language, economics, politics, and so on) has been around a while. Controversy swirled, for instance, around the defunding of the USA's "Title VIII" program of support for Russian studies last fall. And now this deficit of experts is blamed as a factor behind the USA's recent supposedly inept handling of relations with Russia.
Sean Guillory's Facebook page just posted a link to The Moscow Times's article "Getting Russia Wrong" by Peter Rutland. The article itself offers three purported examples of botched policy resulting from "shallow and schematic misunderstanding of Russian politics...." Comments on Sean's post, taken together, provide a compact review of the things area experts can and cannot provide. Given experts' fondness for "nuance" and lack of practical policy guidance, Mark Schrad confesses that he's "just a little cynical about the role of 'expert knowledge' these days and in these circumstances." Andrew Gentes responds, in part, "... But the idea that we have to have an all or nothing approach (either we really know what's in Putin's head or we're just playing a random guessing game) seems to be an expression of frustration with the realities of geopolitics. Oh, and I will continue to defend nuance over mere insight or (gasp!) Ultimate Truth."
What should we reasonably expect from experts?
- Facts and thoughtful interpretations of the past
- A professional vocabulary adequate to communicate the details and nuances of their field
- Concrete data about the correlation of forces in a given situation
- Balanced sampling of participants' voices in all the constituencies involved
- Linguistic and cultural context
- Honesty about sources and methodology
- Recommendations for action.
- Exact predictions
- Perfect ability to communicate their findings to nonspecialists
- Perfect objectivity
- Total honesty about past errors; complete disinterest in career advancement
- Fair descriptions of competing or opposing points of view.
- Respect experts and support their work; they're part of the team, perhaps not as important as they might think, but as essential as our own five senses
- Don't depend on just one expert, and take special care to identify contrasting viewpoints; discount snarky descriptions of rivals!
- Don't expect experts to reveal all their biases
- Make the effort to get an adequate command of their jargon, but don't be afraid to request plain English
- Take their recommendations into account, but don't allow or expect them to do your priority-setting work for you
- Ask whether they are at all invested in the well-being of the people they study (it's much easier to be glib about people and places you don't care about)
- Beware of fashions and trends in the field
- Be at least as honest as you expect your experts to be; don't feign certainty; don't hide behind your experts when you fail
- Above all, know your own enduring goals and values, and apply expertise accordingly.
Russian and Ukrainian Baptist leaders meet in Kiev on April 8.
Christian stewardship: Quaker "Options" (part one--excellent!) and Basil the Great, "Woe to the Rich."
"Faith for the Post-Christian Heart: A Conversation with Francis Spufford."
Irina Khrunova on the latest Pussy Riot court decision. Meanwhile, "Russia Pulls Voice of America Radio Off Air" and "American Councils Statement on NGO Status in Russia." (News story here.)
Today's antidote to the scourge of false-witness-bearing: Big Daddy Wilson pleads, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes."