The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia


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Timothy J. Colton, Timothy Frye, and Robert Legvold
U.S. Policy Toward Russia

Timothy Colton, Timothy Frye, and Robert Legvold


During the Cold War—and never more than in its first decades—scholars studying the Soviet Union and American policy-makers were so tightly linked that the boundaries between the two communities often blurred.1 Each needed the other as they struggled to understand how the Soviet system worked, what motivated the regime’s behavior at home and abroad, and which trends were most likely to shape the country’s further evolution. For both groups, the Soviet Union stood at the center of their concerns: for some academics because the Soviet Union was, other than the United States, the key country in the international system they studied; for others because the USSR was governed by a single-party regime that was the prototype for many others; and for policy-makers because the Soviet Union dominated the U.S. foreign policy agenda. With the fall of the Soviet Union, academics and policy-makers at first were equally at sea and turned to each other for counsel. But gradually over the last decade-and-a-half, the two communities have drifted away from one another.

In part the distance between the two has grown because much of the current scholarly work on Russia and former Soviet countries addresses disciplinary rather than policy questions. At the same time, the demise of Communism has removed the puzzle that lay at the heart of Soviet studies and that gave the field unusual weight in the social sciences. But it is also because policy-makers reserve less of their attention for Russia and Eurasia, and, when they do design strategies for the region, they have a widening array of groups and institutions beyond the university to turn to for insight. In the broadest sense, academics still contribute to the marketplace of ideas relevant to public policy through their research and by educating future government officials. However, scholars devote much less time to writing about policy than in the past, while policy-makers and their staffs spend much less time reading academic work. Compounding the problem, there is a larger gap in style, methods, and topics of interest than existed before.

Some scholars have embraced the dissociation between their work and the policy process as a small price to pay for encouraging academics to look beyond short-term policy issues and to focus on fundamental questions. No one would want to return to the research priorities and politically charged debates of the Cold War years; still, academics could contribute more to deliberation over policy than they currently do, using the best tools of social science in the process. At a minimum, an opportunity to foster a more productive relationship between scholars and policy-makers is being squandered.

Unfortunately, the large and increasing distance between the academic and policy-making communities limits our collective capacity to understand complex international issues, such as U.S.-Russia relations. It diminishes the quality of debate on U.S.-Russia relations by depriving the discourse of nuanced and sophisticated analyses of both U.S. and Russian foreign policy. In addition, there is a growing dearth of scholars studying the foreign policy of Russia and the other states of Eurasia, a shortage especially pronounced in the younger generation. Academics trained after 1989 have focused primarily—almost exclusively, in fact—on the domestic and comparative politics of the former Soviet states and have paid far less attention to foreign policy and international relations. As a result, the number of academics working on security and other foreign policy issues in the region is too small to generate the knowledge base required by the policy community.


The essays that follow are not intended simply to shed light on different aspects of U.S. policy toward Russia. They were inspired by a desire to grapple directly with the problem raised by academia’s increasing distance from the policy world. Hence, we invited academics—in this case, the younger among them—to address the broad basic foreign policy tasks that policy-makers face. Their work falls into three categories: assessing the essential nature of the challenge contemporary Russia poses for U.S. policy; designing an effective U.S. response to this challenge; and dealing with the practical bureaucratic and political obstacles in the formation and implementation of U.S. policy toward Russia. The three topic areas in turn provide an organizational structure for this volume. We carefully selected eight scholars from the ranks of Russia specialists and the general field of international relations theory and asked each to take one of the three major topics. By drawing on what they saw as the insights from the discipline, they were urged to analyze an aspect of the problem in ways that would be useful to a policy-maker.

Originally, the contributors presented their work at a seminar held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on January 29, 2010, attended by leading academic figures in Russian and international relations studies. To launch the discussion, we asked three experienced policy-makers to respond to what they had read and heard. The responses from two of the three—Thomas Graham, the senior Russia advisor to President George W. Bush, and Stephen Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and senior official in the Clinton administration—make up the other contributions to this volume. (The third policy-maker, Celeste Wallander, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Obama administration, spoke off the record.)


The January 29 seminar had two purposes: first, we wanted to encourage a provocative and substantive discussion on issues affecting U.S.-Russia relations. From nuclear nonproliferation to energy security, from human rights to frozen conflicts near Russia’s borders, the agenda facing decision-makers in Moscow and Washington is extensive and complex. The seminar took place at a pivotal moment in U.S.-Russia relations. A month before the signing of a new strategic arms-control agreement, many felt that the Obama administration’s efforts to recast the U.S.-Russia relationship had slowed. Some observers were impatient because the “reset” button appeared not to have produced a meaningful change in relations with Russia; others suggested that Russian recalcitrance meant that any improvements in relations would be marginal at best. Both the academics and policy-makers weighed in on this issue, but for the most part, their essays and commentary focus on broader and longer term trends in the relationship.

The second purpose for the seminar was more novel. Beyond the substantive discussion, we also hoped to explore strategies for strengthening ties between policy-makers and academics. Identifying barriers to dialogue between the academy and policy-makers, we feel, constitutes the first step toward finding innovative ways to overcome them.

What stands in the way of a more productive relationship between the academic and policy-making communities? Several factors are often suggested, none of which would seem insuperable. They begin with the nature of academic research: many argue that the social sciences in the last two decades have become too technical, too abstract, and too insensitive to context to provide guidance on the immediate policy issues of the day. This is a sweeping accusation—almost certainly too much so—because the field is diverse. Still, it deserves thought. In the last twenty years, the social sciences have come to rely more heavily on statistical analyses of varying degrees of sophistication, which some see as one source of the increasing distance between academics and policy-makers. But economics, a more technical and abstract discipline than political science, has had far greater impact on policy-making than has political science. Policy-makers such as Ben Bernanke, current chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Lawrence Summers, current director of the National Economic Council, have strong academic credentials and have moved with relative ease between the academy and the policy-making world. Moreover, the legions of economists working at the various branches of the Federal Reserve Bank are able to use their academic knowledge to gain a voice in policy-making that has no parallel in political science. Whatever humility should be attached to the effect of academic economics on economic policy, given the failed regulatory policies that contributed to the global financial crisis, the technical nature of scholarly work has clearly not been a barrier to collaboration.2

Much contemporary academic writing in the other social sciences, including political science, however, is simply not aimed at policy-makers. Indeed, academics can be criticized for writing solely for each other’s benefit. On the other hand, we dare suggest that the policy community also plays a role in walling itself off from academia by not bothering to consult research as it has grown more technical. Thus, one possible avenue of cooperation would be to find ways to distill technically framed research into more accessible formats.

Yet the problem resides not so much in the technical nature of most academic research as it does in the choice of topics—decisions largely driven by disciplinary and theoretical concerns rather than policy concerns. This problem is particularly acute for scholars early in their careers who face strong incentives to publish in general journals of political science and to devote less time to policy-related research. To advance in their fields, younger scholars not only must develop a teaching portfolio and gain regional expertise, but also must stay on top of their ever increasing disciplinary demands. Although this is less a problem for senior scholars who are more insulated from disciplinary pressures, even here the incentives within academia to devote considerable time and effort to writing about public policy are weak.

We believe, nonetheless, that it may be possible to find a middle ground between pure academic research and applied policy work. Much academic research has policy implications, but scholars rarely have the time or the incentives to spell them out in a fashion easily accessible to policy-makers. The issue then becomes how incentives might be changed to induce academics to devote more time to studying policy issues or translating their scholarship with potential policy implications into forms that speak to the policy-making community.

The natural follow-on question is how to integrate policy-relevant work produced in the universities into the policy-making process. Should scholars focus on writing about public policy issues and let others advance their ideas within the policy-making community? Is writing op-eds enough? Do scholars need to take time off from the academy and enter government in order to share their insights directly with policy-makers? Would seminars or other regular encounters between academics and policy-makers be useful? More generally, how can an infrastructure be created to enable a steady flow of information and feedback between the academic and policy-making communities?

A second reason for the widening gulf between the two worlds shifts the attention to the policy-making community. Many would argue that the nature of policy-making in Washington has curtailed the role that academics play. The proliferation of foreign-policy think tanks, the rise of interest groups with stakes in issues such as those related to U.S.-Russia relations, and the expansion of the business community as a source of information tend to elbow academics to the margins of the policy-making process. Prior to 1989, academics were the people who generated data, gathered evidence, and monopolized the research agenda. Now many nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and business organizations not only sponsor extensive research programs, but conduct research that is policy driven and usually comes complete with policy prescriptions.

On balance, this is a healthy development. Introducing more voices into the marketplace of ideas intended to influence policy can only be welcomed. Policy-makers should by all means hear a range of views—but academic research should be an important thread in this conversation. After all, academics continue to have certain comparative advantages over other knowledge providers, such as a greater ability to conduct original research over longer periods of time and to address the overarching issues that require lengthy investigation. Academic freedom and, with it, the immunity from political pressures that other players do not always enjoy allow academics to question conventional wisdom and offer unorthodox interpretations. Moreover, the last fifteen years have given academics new opportunities to engage in fieldwork, conduct surveys, and collaborate with colleagues from the region that were largely unavailable to previous generations of scholars studying the Soviet Union. The proliferation of voices in policy-making toward Russia that has arisen since the end of the Cold War has indeed changed the relationship between academia and the policy-making community. But this shift will be unfortunate if it ends by eclipsing the academic community’s contributions to sound policy.

In the end, the problem may be less the cacophony of voices seeking to influence policy than the difficulty of finding ways to gain the attention of busy policy-makers and ensuring that scholars’ analytical work is easily accessible to them. How can policy-makers and their staffs engage with the most cutting-edge academic research? Should academics focus their efforts on getting the latest research into the policy debates by creating new forums for disseminating research? Or is it more productive to devise the equivalent of refresher courses to bring policy-makers and their staffs up to speed on the latest relevant research? Whatever the answer, we believe that academia and the policy-making community alike would benefit from institutional mechanisms that would increase communication and cross-pollination between the two.

All this said, in many areas the contributions of academic social science to public policy are substantial and growing: think of international finance, climate change, and poverty reduction. One hopes that the same could again be true in the realm of foreign policy, including the design of U.S. policy toward Russia and the important countries surrounding it. By focusing on this issue, raising the questions we have, and, in particular, sponsoring the essays that follow, we hope that our three institutions have modestly helped move the two worlds in this direction. In the meantime, we are heartened by Thomas Graham’s post-conference reflection:

The state of the academy’s influence on the policy world is not as bleak as [some pessimists] would suggest; indeed, it is not bleak at all. There is substantial positive interaction between the academic and policy worlds. At times, academics exercise the initiative in reaching out to policy-makers, during [presidential] campaigns, for example; more often, policy-makers turn to academics because they need help on a specific issue, but they want that help on their time. Policy-makers, as we like to think, are busy people, and they want to use their time wisely. This does not mean that academics need to be brief, but it does mean that they need to be relevant to the policy-maker’s concerns. The charge Secretary of State [George] Marshall gave to George Kennan as he assumed the position of first director of the Department’s Policy Planning Staff some sixty years ago remains good advice today: “Avoid trivia.”


1. David Engerman, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

2. For a recent effort to link economic research to policy-making, see Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New York: Penguin Press, 2009).