Not since the height of the Cold War has Russia so dominated the airwaves. The charge list against Moscow includes the occupation of Crimea, war crimes in Syria and probable interference in Western elections, including in the US, France and Germany. President Vladimir Putin’s strident, assertive Russia is center stage in the US, Europe and the Middle East.
What is extraordinary is how Russia has consistently caught the West napping. Has the West lost the expertise to understand Moscow? After all, who predicted the invasion and occupation of Crimea in 2014, the intervention in Syria and the fake-news plots to prop up far-right and far-left parties in Europe. Cyberattacks have been sophisticated and successful, not least the hack of the Democratic National Committee that US intelligence attributes to Russia.
Has there been a serious decline in our understanding of Russia, its aims and motives, and therefore the ability to determine the threats it may or may not pose? This was one of the findings of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee report into UK-Russian relations published last week. It urged the Foreign Office to “invest in the analytical capacity to understand Russian decision-making in order to develop effective and informed foreign policy.”
The decline of Russia studies in the UK is mirrored in the US and Germany. Funding for Russia programs has been cut and cut again, including fewer positions available at think tanks and analysts at key ministries.
All this feels remarkably familiar to Middle East hands. Prior to 9/11, the US and its allies were woefully under-resourced in understanding this region too. After the attacks, underused Soviet-era experts started making the transition to Middle East and Islamic studies, and generous funding streams opened up.
So no doubt funding for Russia and Eurasia studies will be rekindled, but after the horse has well and truly bolted. The point of understanding Russia is to help predict its moves rather than develop a strategy after the event. It is certainly too late for Syria and Crimea.
Yet expertise in international affairs cannot be switched on overnight. Proper understanding of differing areas of the world requires decades and in-depth immersion. More than 16 years after 9/11, the US might begin to reap the rewards of this investment in five to 10 years’ time. It was too early to assist on Iraq, Syria, the Arab Spring, Afghanistan or defeating Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
Even in 2009, the US State Department had one Syria desk official, yet within two years the US felt it had the know-how to bank on the downfall of the Syrian president and arm a coterie of largely unknown Syrian opposition groups. Just like Russia, the Middle East needs time to grasp and understand. I judder every time I hear the words “Middle East expert,” as if one can be an expert on this vast and diverse region of the planet — a specialist maybe.
In the social-media age, experts can be overnight creations. Anyone can be an ‘expert.’ Laptop commanders sitting at comfortable desks in Europe can cast judgment on whole areas of the world they have never visited.
In the social-media age, however, experts can be overnight creations. Anyone can be an “expert.” Laptop commanders sitting at comfortable desks in Europe can cast judgment on whole areas of the world they have never visited. To shape the debate in the media, experts are cast aside for those capable of sound bites and instant assessments.
Most importantly, expertise means nothing if leaders, policy-makers and decision-makers ignore or discard it when it does not suit their agenda. In 2003, nearly all the professional expert advice given to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair was that an intervention in Iraq would be calamitous. Rather than listen, he simply cast aside regional experts and Arabists, who were still derided as the camel corps, proving that ignoring experts is nothing new. US intelligence analysts started producing what the White House wanted to hear rather than should hear, just to keep a president happy.
But does the voting public listen to experts anymore? It is all too often derided as a form of elitism. During the Brexit debate in Britain, Michael Gove, one of the “leave” campaign’s leaders, claimed: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
This is the era of straight talking, where nuance, caveats, ifs and buts are ditched for bland certainties. Facts do not, it seems, need to be checked anymore. Experience is immaterial. After all, the US electorate was prepared to vote into office a man who had no experience in public office, the implication being that it simply is not necessary.
If anything, the world’s problems are even more complex. Proper, robust research methods and evidence-based assessment are not a luxury to be dispensed with. Developing a coherent strategy to handle Russia, challenging Daesh and Al-Qaeda ideologically, or finding solutions to climate-change cannot be played out on Twitter, and Google does not have all the answers.
As someone who relies day-to-day on experts, it is time to value once again credible expertise built over decades, not minutes, put to the service of the public good. If governments want proper strategies on major issues such as Russia, they need to invest in this and not ignore inconvenient results.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.