Jack L. Snyder is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He is an alum of the Russian Institute.
Q: Thanks so much for participating in this project. As we discussed, I think you have a lot of interesting and relevant experience in this area, so I am looking forward to this interview.
So, as we discussed, I would love to just start with your early life and maybe some of your early intellectual influences—how you got interested in political science and the Soviet Union? It is a big question.
Snyder: I grew up in Pennsylvania and Delaware. I remember being glued to the television screen during the Cuban Missile Crisis and watching President [John F.] Kennedy explain to us that he was quarantining those missiles in Cuba. I was a kid who read the international news in the daily paper and in Time magazine religiously. I knew everything about politics and was very interested in international politics from an early age because those Russians had the missiles and they were pointed at us, and I figured we’d better understand them. So, I was following that from my earliest times.
My first trip to the Soviet Union came in 1969, just after I had graduated from high school. I had taken a beginning Russian class to prepare for that trip at the University of Delaware, which was in my hometown. I had some really half-baked little bit of Russian, just so that I could get around. And I traveled for a month by car to Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, Crimea. We were mostly camping, but it was urban camping so that we were seeing all these cities, traveling around with a Swedish exchange student “brother” of mine. We were in the Soviet Union when the American first walked on the moon, and the Russians were so impressed and congratulated me on America’s great achievement.
Then as an undergraduate at Harvard College [Harvard University], my specialty was Soviet foreign policy, Soviet military strategy. I wrote papers on Soviet strategic forces and how they thought about nuclear war. I worked with a graduate student, Benjamin [S.] Lambeth, who, after he got his PhD, went to work at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica [CA], where, later on when I was in graduate school, he brought me out there for summers to write about Soviet military strategy. And I also worked on an analysis of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 for my undergraduate thesis. Already at that stage that was my specialty. I took a little time off to work in Washington [D.C.] on international relations, but then came back to graduate school at Columbia starting in the fall of 1974, where my main mentor was Marshall [D.] Shulman who was the grand man who had essentially created the Russian Institute in its modern, full form, and also was the director for many years, and the guy who got the money from [W. Averell] Harriman to bump it up to even a higher level.
I also took class with Zbigniew [K.] Brzezinski while I was a graduate student, who was always smart as a whip but not very oriented towards disciplinary political science. He held up a copy of the American Political Science Review and made jokes about it, and said, “Don’t write like this.” That was my early formation into the business.
Q: And I am curious to know just what you—what your goals were at that point. Did you want to influence policy? Did you think you were going to help shape American policy working at RAND and doing all these—seeing how that was working?
Snyder: Yes. At various points I considered journalistic writing about international affairs. I considered government work or think-tank work on foreign policy or military policy topics, hence the RAND Corporation. But then the more I had experience with those alternatives, I realized that I was, by cast of mind, more like a theorist and a scholar and decided to go that route. Except for those early days where I worked on Capitol Hill and at the RAND Corporation, I have not done very much work in or with the government or the think tanks, although lots of my students have. I like to write for Foreign Affairs magazine when I can, not just for political science journals. I consider that kind of policy work part of the payoff of my academic work, but not my main job.
Q: And I’m just curious if you remember what your first impressions were of the Soviet Union when you were there. The late ’60s, that’s such an early time. Do you remember what you thought about the country? You were in so many cities.
Snyder: I was struck by how backward the Soviet Union was, which was true in 1969, and it was still true when I went there in the late ’70s for my doctoral dissertation research, which was on military strategy of Russia, France and Germany before World War I. I wrote about how all these countries had developed offensive military strategies for the purpose of self-defense, but ironically these strategies had made everybody feel insecure and helped to cause the war. But then the offensive strategies did not work because nobody could win the war and the defenses made things slog down into the trench warfare. I thought that there were lessons that could be applied to contemporary military issues in East-West relations. That’s why I wanted to study World War I.
I was also struck by the differences in the way the Russian people had social relations between people that were strangers to them and who were their friends. They were very warm and would do anything for people who counted as inside the circle of personal friendship, but in public settings I was struck by how brutal and selfish and uncaring, high-handed, they could be. The same people. Those were some of my impressions from those early trips.
Q: So you got your certificate from the Russian Institute in 1978, then you stayed to do your PhD and then you stayed at Columbia, and you pretty much had Columbia as your base for your whole career. So, I am curious about that. What made you decide that you wanted to stay here, and yes, why don’t we start there?
Snyder: Yes, I was very lucky because that was a period of time where graduate programs like Harvard’s and Columbia’s were shifting from a system where they would hire their own graduate students to be assistant professors, and then almost none of them would get tenure. So being an assistant professor was kind of like a continuation of indentured servitude of graduate school. And they did not worry that that would cause inbreeding because they knew you were not going to get tenure. They would just kick you out and you would have to go somewhere else. At this time, places like Harvard and Columbia were shifting from that model to a model of not hiring their own people, but only hiring assistant professors from the outside and putting them on a tenure track where the hope was that they would get tenure. So I got to have it both ways. I got hired by my own PhD institution, but then got to get tenure on the tenure track, which was great for me because I love New York. I’m a big culture vulture, and like the music, the art, everything about New York and exploit it very fully.
So I was delighted to stay in New York. Columbia was good for me because New York is a very international city, Columbia has always had strong programs in international relations and in Russian area studies. It was perfect for me.
Q: And so, it seems that you have stayed very close to the Harriman Institute for your whole career, and I know you were acting director in 2006-7. We actually found some old memos that you wrote in 1994.
Snyder: Oh my god. [laughter]
Q: I am wondering if you remember them. They were about fundraising. And one of them was about coming up with some ideas for fundraising, different courses you could teach, different— and you were sort of talking in the memo about some of the money you would raised for yourself for research and maybe you could—others could do similar things. The other memo I thought was really interesting, it was about creating a clearing house for area studies expertise that might be used by business. And you thought it was—it could be a potential goldmine. So I was wondering if you remember the context in which you wrote these memos—if you remember them—and if you could tell me a little bit about what that time was like.
Snyder: One of the things that was very much weighing on my mind in that time period was the financial difficulties of our graduate students, particularly the PhD students. We had a very large PhD program in political science and in many other PhD programs at Columbia, where only a few of the students were on full financial aid, and many were self-paying PhD students, if you can imagine. So we were kind of desperate to find ways to get financial support for these graduate students, not only in Russian studies, but just more generally. And I was, for a time, all consumed with, oh my god, how are we going to keep these people from starving? We brought them here and we need to take care of them. So, the concerns in those memos probably reflected that.
Fortunately, at that time Columbia was realizing that the self-paying PhD model was a train wreck, and they switched to developing master’s degree-only programs, including in the social sciences, as well as the MA in Regional Studies for Russia and Eastern Europe, which is still a terminal MA program that the Harriman runs. Elise Giuliano is now a great adviser and mainstay of that program. In the mid ’90s, there was a period of time where they were innovating the development of those MA programs and moving towards smaller but more fully funded PhD programs, so that recently I haven’t had to be so desperate in thinking of, How can we sell ourselves to businessmen or whoever to make ends meet.
Q: Right. So I am curious to know whether that clearing house idea was tried. Whether anyone did anything with it.
Snyder: Yes. I was really not very involved in the later development of that because Economics is not my field, but Tim [Timothy M.] Frye and I am not sure who else, they were involved with seminars or contacts with businessmen. I think for a while they had something like a business forum. But you should talk to other people about that.
Q: Got it. Okay. So this was less—your memos had less to do with funding generally for Harriman than for the specific idea that you had that graduate students were kind of suffering through and barely maintaining a living by being here.
Snyder: Yes. I don’t remember those particular memos specifically, but I definitely remember that that was something that was very much on my mind at the time. Harriman was not only well-funded because of the Harriman endowment, but Harriman had the potential to attract funding because it had strong connections to the real world of affairs and could be a way to generate outreach, funding, connections to the broader world in a way that some other activities at a university—like social science—don’t have that kind of impact and funding potential.
Q: And did you feel at the time that Harriman was in a better position to do fund raising that say, Saltzman or SIPA [School of International and Public Affairs] generally, or did you think it was about the same?
Snyder: Harriman had long been very policy-oriented and plugged into the real world. I mean, Zbig Brzezinski, Marshall Shulman, Seweryn Bialer, these people were, like, running the real world, and kibitzing with the people who were running the real world. They had connections in government, business, media, and so, they were naturally oriented in that direction. Whereas the Saltzman Institute, formerly the plain old Institute of War and Peace Studies, was more academic. It had people that were interested in policy, but who were mostly academics writing social science. They would consult with intelligence or foreign affairs agencies from time to time, but it was a more strictly scholarly organization that did not really have the burning desire to become an empire of relevance the way Harriman always has.
Q: Got it. So I am wondering if you could just talk about some of your colleagues at Harriman. I know you have done quite a bit of co-authorship and work with some of your Harriman colleagues. Can you tell me what it is like to work in the Harriman? You know, is there healthy debate? What is that like?
Snyder: Starting back in the old days, the end of the Cold War, the Harriman Institute was an extremely vibrant place to be, where it was staffed by world-class experts on every angle and aspect of the Soviet experience. Historians, like Leo [Leopold] Haimson who could tell you everything about the Russian Revolution and were at the cutting edge of research on that, and their PhD students who are now luminaries in the field. John [N.] Hazard, who had been in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, surviving on peanut butter in his dormitory and learning about the Soviet central planning system, which was just being invented at that time. I took a class from him as a graduate student on Soviet public administration.
But then you also had the high-flying luminaries like Seweryn Bialer. At the peak of the early Gorbachev years of perestroika and glasnost, Bialer was flying to Moscow once a month for long, detailed discussions with Gorbachev’s right-hand man who was planning the reforms: Alexander [N.] Yakovlev. Bialer would step off the plane from Moscow and report back on what he had learned—sometimes a big speech on the fifteenth floor of this building, sometimes a small seminar just to the Harriman faculty or the faculty of the Research Institute of International Change, which was the old Brzezinski-Bialer institute. It was like being at the right hand of Gorbachev because he would tell you exactly what everybody was thinking, what the analysis was behind it, where this was heading. And it was extremely important for me as a young assistant professor who had many interests, not just Russia. I was writing a book on the over- expansion of empires, where the Soviet Union was one chapter in it. I could not have written that chapter if it had not been for the Harriman intellectual environment and guys like Bialer, who knew everything that was going on and gave me a kind of a leg up, a pipeline to the future, in a way.
And Bob Legvold was there at the same time. He knew all of the new thinkers in the institutes and had been following their thinking for a long time, not to mention Shulman, and even Brzezinski had come back to Columbia for a little while after his stint as the National Security Advisor. I wouldn’t say there were intense debates, but it was more, Whoa, what is going on? How should we think about this? It was not like there were perestroika skeptics and perestroika promoters, but it was more just analyzing what was happening, and it was hugely important for my own research.
Q: And how did that change over time? You know, after 1990 there was no more Soviet Union. Some of these guys, after the Marshall Shulman years, you know, Bob Legvold was director around that time and, you know, things changed quite a bit. There was no more Soviet Union, so did you find that the Institute was still as vibrant after that?
Snyder: There was a lot going on in the field and a lot going on at the Institute, but it was definitely an adjustment. I had a number of PhD students who had been specializing in Soviet foreign policy: Ted [Theodore G.] Hopf was one. He has made a great mark in the field, both in international relations theory in general and Russian foreign policy studies. But for people like him, it was a real adjustment because their country had gone away. The country that they had studied had suddenly gotten a lot smaller and a lot less seemingly relevant to our everyday security and survival. But at the same time, it was in a lot of ways more interesting because it was a huge social science experiment. How do you take a country that had been one thing and that is transitioning to something that looked like it was going to be quite different, and how do you study that process?
What was going on in the field was that you got general social scientists—economists, sociologists, theorists of comparative politics—that suddenly were really interested in studying the former Soviet Union, with all of their usual conceptual tools, but a lot of them didn’t know Russian, didn’t know anything much about the social historical cultural context of the region. And so you got this weird moment where you had a lot of traditional area studies experts who were only beginning to be well-trained in their discipline, but who had fabulous training in multidisciplinary area studies that were sometimes teaming up with disciplinary scholars who lacked the area background and working together. Sometimes they would just be a resource for the disciplinary scholars, who would say “Tell me what’s going on there so that I can apply my theory to it.”
This was an adjustment for people who had the old training because, on the one hand, everybody wanted to know what they knew because it was a hot topic, but nobody was quite sure that they wanted to hire them because they didn’t have the disciplinary training. And people were not hiring old-fashioned area studies people. What is happened in the field is that people studying the former Soviet area nowadays have fabulous area training, language, culture, history, but they also have fabulous disciplinary training in theory and methodology. So, the bar became incredibly high, but a lot of people, like say, the Tim Frye generation, made that transition and are just fabulously good both as area scholars in a well-rounded way, but also disciplinary scholars. The early ’90s was when we were working out that adjustment.
Q: Yes. Well that—your article, “Richness, Rigor, and Relevance [in the Study of Soviet Foreign Policy],” seems right on point with that time period. So, did you write that article based on what you were seeing? That you had these area specialists who didn’t have the theoretical knowledge, and then you had these other people. And you did say in the article you weren’t pushing away from area studies, but you were saying that those two need to be combined and they need to work together. Is that how—can you describe how that—
Snyder: The article came out of my whole intellectual orientation because I had always been strongly anchored in political science and international relations scholarship of a general type, but I had always also been anchored in Russia studies, and these were obviously very different cultures. And at a certain point in the 1980s, they were cultures that were diverging rather than converging and there was a tension in working in both of these fields at the same time. I was in a place where I understood both of those cultures really well and I personally saw no contradiction between richness of area studies and rigor of disciplinary scholarship. So I just wanted to work in both ways simultaneously, and I thought they were compatible.
That particular article came out of a conversation with Marshall Shulman. We were at some cocktail party, and I had just started teaching as a brand new assistant professor. My wife and I had just had our first child, and I was telling Marshall how I was always covered with baby spit- up and what my life was like that month. He said, “Oh. It’s very important for you to spend a lot of time with your newborn. One of my regrets in life is that I was so busy when my first child was born that I didn’t have as much time to devote to this wonderful moment in life. So definitely make sure you spend a lot of time with your newborn.” And then he says, “Oh, by the way, in six weeks we’re going to hold a conference where there’s going to be a panel on methodology in Soviet studies, and I want you to write a paper for that panel about social science in area studies. Do you think you can do that?” [laughs] “Well I’m writing new lectures and have a new baby, but whatever you say, Marshall.” So I did, and that was where that paper came from.
I remember Steve [Stephen F.] Cohen was my discussant on the panel. I had known Steve for a long time; he had taught me in graduate school and we were kind of pals. But I remember how much Steve hated my paper and he said, “Oh, this disciplinary stuff is complete nonsense and the old fashioned area studies is the ticket.” So that was the origins of that paper.
Q: Wow. So was Steve Cohen’s reaction to that article a widespread reaction, or how was it received?
Snyder: It was a very well received article among people who were of the graduate student generation. Like me, they were in a situation where they were cross-pressured between disciplinary demands for general theory and comparative, universally applicable methodologies, and the area studies’ demands for language, cultural and historical immersion, multidisciplinary rather than monodisciplinary approaches. They liked the article because it said we can have richness, rigor, and also policy relevance, and explained how to do all those things at the same time. So, with that bunch it was very popular. And the more old school people who were not going to change, you know, it kind of rolled off their back like, So what?
Q: So just thinking about that article and what you said that scholars today have sort of raised the bar and they sort of have both. So, is it your view then that area studies is still relevant?
Snyder: Oh absolutely. I think that there is no way that general knowledge of universally truistic if-then statements about politics can be just read off and applied to complicated contexts where there are so many factors interacting, where the subjectivity of the actors is specific to their institutional environment, their culture, the historically distinctive understandings. You need to apply general disciplinary knowledge, but also verify general disciplinary knowledge by this kind of contextualized knowledge. You need area studies. But you also need to be able to step back and make broader sense of it. So, for me, all of these things go together in a holistic way of understanding the political world. And it is no more and no less true in 2016 than it was in 1985.
Q: And so, do you think—just taking this all back to Harriman now—how do you feel that Harriman has sort of responded to all of the changes in the region, and do you still think that it has its place in creating these experts for tomorrow?
Snyder: Yes, I think that Harriman has done really well. I think there were transition pains for some years when Harriman was not performing at quite its earlier level. Partly that had to do with just the numbers of people. Back in the old days, the Harriman Institute had a whole handful of political scientists, a whole handful of world-class historians. We had people doing domestic politics, foreign policy, military policy. Although everybody was appointed in some department, a lot of those were understood to be area studies specialty appointments, which would always be in that Russian or Soviet area. But then, partly because of the collapse of the Soviet Union but also because of the shift in what it meant to be in a social science discipline, some of the disciplinary departments, most notably economics, just didn’t want to have anything to do with area studies. They wanted to have people who did formal models with mathematical symbols, and that has its place, but there was not much taste in the economics department to be hiring people with area expertise after a certain point.
So the Harriman wound up with a smaller core of faculty, somewhat more slanted towards humanities and somewhat less slanted towards social science and policy studies. Some aspects of what the Russian Institute and Harriman Institute had been great at just went into decline, partly because of the fewer numbers, partly because of the passing of the giants.
There was a period when I was acting director when there was a kind of loss of energy for participating in Harriman activities, even among core Harriman faculty. It was not clear what was the glue holding the Harriman research community together. Back in the ’70s, the early ’80s, we knew what the glue was, and Harriman activities were of interest to people across all the fields that were represented at the Harriman. That became less true by, say, the end of the ’80s. We thought hard about how we were going to jump start faculty interest in the Harriman. How could we make the Harriman Institute, rather than just their disciplinary department, the place they think of as the key lynchpin of their intellectual life and their energies?
And so, the year I was the acting director we started to have an annual theme research project. Every year we would allocate something like a hundred thousand dollars and a couple of post- docs to a particular topic, whether it was democratic transition or, in the case of the project that [Alexander A.] Cooley and I later did, human rights. The combination of this effort to reach out to the faculty and give them resources to do exactly what they wanted to do in a wide-angle way coincided with the arrival of a new generation of people like Tim Frye, Kim [Kimberly] Marten, Alex Cooley. They came to see the Harriman as not their only intellectual home at Columbia the Harriman is kind of an equal intellectual home for them. And they have been so active and they are such good scholars and they know the former Soviet Union really well.
I think that in some ways we are now at another golden age for the Harriman. Maybe a silver age, as they say in Russian historical periodization. We had the old golden age of the giants who were changing the world and ending the Cold War, then we had a kind of an adjustment period that you could think of as a trough, but I think of it more as building a new model which we are now implementing with our mid-career faculty and really strong cohort of graduate students. And in some ways, the new model is better than the old model at scholarship because it has richness, rigor, and relevance whereas the old model had richness, relevance, and occasionally rigor, but it was a more haphazard kind of rigor.
Q: So do you think that the Harriman still has the same policy influence that it did, or how has that changed, maybe, from the old days—the Marshall Shulman/Zbigniew Brzezinski days—to now?
Snyder: The Harriman certainly does not have anything like the policy impact and relevance that it did in the late Cold War period. I mean, how could it? Brzezinski was a great scholar of communism, and technically he had his own institute, but he was part of our intellectual community. So, if you count Brzezinski, we had the National Security Advisor in the [James E.] Carter Administration, we had the interdepartmental coordinator Shulman, while back home at Columbia we had Bialer, who was just cranking out books, articles, TV appearances, Foreign Affairs magazine articles like, “The Harsh Decade[: Soviet Policies in the 1980s],” which was basically defining public discourse on the late Soviet Union for the world. Bob Legvold, too. That was a special moment in time and we had a special group of people as contributing to that discourse. We don’t have anything quite like that now, but how could we?
Q: But it seems like you have done work—I saw an article in The Atlantic about your participating on a committee about the Ukraine and a ceasefire there and what should be included. So, there are still, it seems, luminaries at the Harriman who still have their foot in the policy arena. Would you agree with that?
Snyder: Yes. Frye, Cooley, Marten, less so myself, but occasionally, and others at the Institute are writing for Foreign Affairs magazine just like Seweryn Bialer, Marshall Shulman, and Bob Legvold did when they were here, although none of us have had major government jobs. We talk to government people all the time, we brief the National Intelligence Council on these issues, and participate in public debate, so we are still doing all that stuff. Also, Steve [Stephen] Sestanovich, who we think of as part of the Harriman community even though he is institutionally not directly Harriman, is a very prominent commentator on Russian stuff. So, we are still doing it, it’s just that—you know, it’s like comparing Obama to Thomas Jefferson. Obama, very good. Maybe not quite Thomas Jefferson. That’s how I feel about the silver age as opposed to the golden age people of academic-based policy relevance. I think we are better at the academics than the old guys were, but not as full of impact in terms of the relevance. But we are trying.
Q: So, you were—you mentioned you were acting director for 2006 to 2007, and it sounds like you filled the role of director; you weren’t just there for a year sitting around. Can you tell me about some of the other things you did during that time?
Snyder: My strategy that year was to do one thing and one thing only. In recent years I have had only one foot in Russian and post-Soviet studies, so I was not going to be the best person to take lots of dramatic, substantive initiatives at the Institute. And also, being there just one year, I decided, I would not have the time or energy to take on a thousand things.
And so, the main thing that I tried to do was set up incentives for faculty who were the real hard core area experts, you know, more than I was, to make the Harriman their central place on campus. We set up mechanisms to fund their work in flexible ways that were what they really wanted to be doing, so that they would be intrinsically motivated in addition to being given the resources to carry it out, and also to lead them in the direction of research projects that would be wide-angle and that would cross geographical as well as disciplinary boundaries. There was still at that time the question of, Are we a Russia studies institute? Are we also an institute for any country that used to be communist? Or, are we even more wide-angle than that, and are we an institute that studies topics like human rights, where there is a lot going on in our traditional region but where it’s plugged into a much more general phenomenon. Because we have the money and the staff and the desire, we can study human rights processes in general, while making sure that we study them at least in large part through stuff that is going on in our region. Mark Mazower did an annual theme project on Russian-Turkish, Russian-Ottoman relations in history, involving Harriman Institute people, but also MEALAC [Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures]—now MESAAS [Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies]— people. I wanted to help that kind of activity happen as my main priority.
My other priority was working on the staff organization and having the kind of staff that could sustain that kind of faculty involvement. I did a fair amount of thinking about that, but not actual implementation. Fortunately Tim Frye did a lot of good work on staff organization as a follow- on to my year.
Q: And so, did you feel that, at the end of your year, were you sort of like, Okay, that was a nice year and I am going back to what I was doing before, or did you ever—
Snyder: Ever since that year I have stayed involved with the Harriman. I haven’t wanted to administer the Harriman because I have realized that, Wait, the Harriman has Tim Frye, has Kim Marten, has Alex Cooley. They don’t need me because these people are more area studies- focused experts in addition to being great disciplinary experts. It is better that they run it. Also, they are younger, they are more ambitious, more dynamic. They have better contacts. So, I didn’t really want to meddle in day-to-day. But I was always on the executive committee, kibitzing with everything that went on, and I participated in the annual theme project twice.
The first time was the human rights, where I had realized that here we are in New York City, headquarters of Human Rights Watch, the UN, and several other human rights and international justice NGOs, but that community should be more connected to the Columbia human rights community. Many downtown practitioners know very little of academic, social science scholarship on human rights, and we have a lot to tell them that they ought to know. So, I got Beth [A.] Simmons from Harvard to come speak and arranged to have Ken [Kenneth] Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, as the discussant for her presentation so that he would actually have to read her work. And similarly, Kathryn Sikkink from Harvard presented her work on transitional justice, and I got the head transitional justice guy at Human Rights Watch to be her discussant. I really wanted to make this dialogue between the scholars and the practitioners work.
And then we followed it up a couple of years later when Alex Cooley and I—it was 99 percent Alex to be perfectly honest—did a project on ratings and rankings of global governance, which included democracy, economic indicators and reforms, and human rights. We thought this would be a general social science topic that was highly relevant to the real world, where we could study it partly but not exclusively through issues having to do with Russia and the former Soviet Union. The project was a great success and a real model for what I think of as the new Harriman: general, highly relevant topic; approached in a rigorous, conceptual, methodologically smart way; critiquing an important social phenomenon that is worldwide, but using the concrete area knowledge of how things work in Russia, Georgia, and elsewhere in the Eurasian region to illuminate this general phenomenon.
The book based on guest speakers’ papers was a hit, and the Foreign Affairs article that Alex wrote almost all of won a prize for one of the best political economy articles of the year. I see this as the new area studies model coming to fruition. Using the vehicle of the annual theme project, Harriman spent some money, attracted some of its faculty to really roll up their sleeves and work on a project, and it paid off really well. Alex did a great job with it, as he continues to do a great job as Institute director.
Q: Yes, it received so much attention. Yes. So these projects, like the human rights project, do you think that’s an area where Harriman can really do a lot of—continue to do a lot of good work? Is that relationship that you sort of forged between the two organizations—Harriman and the Human Rights Watch—has that grown into something significant?
Snyder: Yes, that tie remains strong at the working level. The winner of the Harriman’s alumni award last year was one of our former PhD students, Rachel Denber, the Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, and a long time Caucasus expert for them. Alex is very well connected downtown with these kinds of organizations. The connections that we tried to make are still going strong.
Beth Simmons, even though she has written the best academic book on human rights, had never met Ken Roth before the event that we invited them to. I noticed some months ago that she was on some panel at Human Rights Watch where once again Ken Roth was her discussant, and this had nothing to do with us. It is a self-sustaining connection now.
The Columbia political science department and Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights recently hired one of our former PhD students, Lara [J.] Nettlefield, as a lecturer in the human rights program and one of the people who will co-direct student programs for the master’s degree in human rights. It’s not directly a Harriman thing, but she’s a Harriman grad. She’s written two outstanding books on human rights and international justice in Bosnia. Earlier she had been a TA for the Columbia College undergraduate human rights intro class, and she knows all those people downtown. So, these connections are now well-institutionalized.
Q: Great. So maybe we can move on to talking about your other—your work [“Democratization and the Dangers of War”] on democratization and the idea that—again, I am not a political scientist—but you talk about how democracies may not fight wars with each other, but countries that are moving towards democracy or in that process, tend to enter into conflict much more often. You know, that work is so interesting because it touches on—as you said, you are not just a Soviet expert—but it touches on lots of areas of the world in addition to the former Soviet Union. And you know, I guess as part of one of the reasons you mentioned that they do enter into war is that these traditional elites sort of trying to maintain their power grab onto the idea of nationalism. And I know you have taught classes—George [Gavrilis] has told me that you have taught classes on nationalism that he has taken. So I am wondering if you can talk about that topic a bit.
Snyder: Yes. The most direct tie-in of that research with the Harriman Institute and the phenomenon of post-communism is that the Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milošević was one of the two poster children for that argument. Milošević was a communist apparatchik in a country that was rapidly undergoing political change. He saw that Yugoslavia in general and Serbia in particular were heading for competitive electoral politics, and how was a guy like him going to survive? Oh, I know, let’s play the ethnic card and we will rally Serbs around me by dividing them against the other Yugoslav ethnic groups like the Albanians in Kosovo, the Croatians, and I will become known as the great protector of the Serbs, who otherwise would suffer genocide at the hands of the Kosovar Albanians, and I better do it quick because elections are coming. And lo and behold he does this, and within a couple of months of the first elections, which have been ethnically divisive, Yugoslavia is at war. QED [quod erat demonstrandum].
But the other question is, why did that happen in Yugoslavia and why didn’t it happen in some other places in the post-communist world, most notably Russia? Mike [Michael A.] McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia, wrote an article back in the late ’90s that asked the question, Why are [Edward D.] Mansfield and Snyder wrong about Russia? Many people were saying in the early 1990s, it’s Weimar Russia. It’s going to be just like Weimar Germany. Russia didn’t lose an actual war, but they lost the Cold War. Their economy is in a shambles just like the economy of Weimar Germany was in a shambles during much of the 1920s. It was a breeding ground for Hitler, and so, McFaul says, Mansfield and Snyder’s theory ought to be that this should lead to crazy, rabid Russian nationalism and that Russia should go on the warpath to reclaim their empire. But it wasn’t happening. Boris [N.] Yeltsin, whatever his faults, was not doing that thing at all. And so, why not?
And then McFaul said, let’s look at what Mansfield and Snyder say about how the elites react, and why the elites want to play the ethnic nationalist card and how it leads to war. McFaul says, in Russia you have kleptocratic oligarchs that control the news media of the country—the television stations—and the political elite that have their grasp on power are using the media in various corrupt and manipulative tactics to stay in power and to amass wealth. Those are people who inherited those jobs from the Gorbachev era of perestroika, and their whole claim to political legitimacy relies on the idea that Russia can become part of the West, Russia is pals with the West, and Russia is getting money from the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. And so, McFaul’s argument was that Mansfield and Snyder’s theory makes a wrong prediction about the outcome in Russia, but if you trace the logic of their theory you can explain why the things are functioning differently in Russia because of the different incentives that the elites face than they faced in, you know, the Milošević case, or Weimar. I thought that was a really good article, which I always assign even though it explained why we had been wrong.
But then along comes Putin, and Putin’s been doing pretty much exactly what we said in our theory: first of all he used Russian nationalism and the war in Chechnya to win his first presidential election and he’s basically stuck with some variation of that strategy. Now, in recent times as the economy turns down and the relationship with the West sours, he has been doubling down more on playing the nationalist card as a way of gaining popularity to keep winning elections and to legitimate his regime. So, the post-communist and Russian case has been a fascinating one for me to think about in the context of those arguments.
Q: So, I’m curious to know what you think about, sort of as you see Russia evolving, the way Putin is behaving, the Ukraine and Crimea, are these things that you, having written these articles and being somewhat an area specialist as well as a political scientist, did you see these things— did you think that they would happen? Are you kind of looking at it from hindsight now that it has happened, or do you sort of see other danger zones that might be coming down the pike?
Snyder: Lately I have been thinking about the question of the BRICS and the semi-BRICS, like Turkey—these rising, middle-income powers that ten or fifteen years ago were starting to take off on rapid economic development and now—some of them at least, taking off in a path towards democratization, but now most of them are running into economic hard times. Also many of them are veering away from democratization towards new forms of autocracy at the same time as many of them are in the hands of leaders that are playing the nationalist card. This is been true of Russia, China, Turkey. India has the Hindu nationalist party in power. Brazil is a special case. It’s in the same mess; it’s just responding to that mess a little differently, without playing the nationalist card.
So you have—in all of these countries you have this interesting combination of the middle- income trap, where there was a tremendous spurt of economic development and growth, but where corruption and a state role in the economy remains strong. In these countries there has been difficulty in making the shift from the extensive model of economic development, like the Soviet first five year plan, where underutilized labor and resources were forced into industrial use, to what is called the intensive model of economic development, based on efficient markets, the rule of law, and the sanctity of contracts.
All these countries are stuck in a middle-income trap where they’re failing to really institutionalize modern rule of law, liberal market economy. Instead, they are sticking with a semi-authoritarian, populist strategy based on patronage economics that favors certain elites and privileged middle classes, but leaves out of the benefits of economic development some of the poorer classes in society. They justify this with a kind of nationalist mentality: circle the wagons around a culturally conservative ruling class with nationalism as its legitimating ideology.
I see this happening in Russia, Turkey, China, to some extent India. I recognize the differences across these countries, but also think there is a common taproot. Russia is not exactly like China but it is facing some of the same problems and it is responding with some of the same neoliberal, nationalist, authoritarian, cultural conservatism. It’s a syndrome.
Now, some people can say, wait. Isn’t that populist nationalism also the same as Brexit and Donald [J.] Trump and [Viktor M.] Orbán? Aren’t they that same thing, too?
Q: Yes. I have to say that when I read your article I did think, Isn’t that Brexit and Donald Trump?
Snyder: Yes. You know, one way to think of it is that in Turkey and Russia and China, that formula is the only game in town. In London and the United States and Italy under [Silvio] Berlusconi it was one game in town, but fortunately there are other games in town that will probably prevail. So, I think it actually does connect to some of the same dynamics.
Q: So, do you think it is—you know, you are thinking about all these areas. Do you think it is part of your role as a scholar to try to predict outcomes or to try to warn of outcomes? Warn policy advisors, warn the world at large, those people reading your articles? Like, “Here are these hot zones. We should be paying attention.”
Snyder: Yes. I have always wanted to write on big, general topics of timeless social science, whether it was the causes of war or civil military relations or why empires get over extended but when is it that they don’t, how do they learn from their mistakes. Big general topics like that. But I have usually been motivated to take up those topics because there is some contemporary instance of that particular problem that I want to shed light on because it matters now, but also because it is predictably going to matter in the future because these are problems that recur.
So, all of my work typically grapples with a general problem that is both timeless and timely. I try to make a theoretical conjecture about the causal mechanism that is at the root of the problem, and then look at history—sometimes fairly long ago history but sometimes fairly recent history, or both—to try to test the general argument. And then, the so-what part: if I am right, what have we learned that helps us think about the problem that we are facing? For me, the so-what is not so much like, Do this rather than that tomorrow, but it’s more, Here is a way to think more clearly about the problem that will affect which option you choose tomorrow.
Q: Right. And so in terms of nationalism and ethnic studies, I know that Harriman has expanded to have some more Ukrainian studies and so on. Do you think this is the right way to go about looking at area studies? To have people focused on the different regions, and I guess—well, why don’t we start there and then I have a question about how other institutes may be approaching things.
Snyder: It’s certainly true that the expertise of the Harriman Institute is now relatively more focused on the former Soviet periphery and relatively somewhat less focused on the former Soviet Russian core, which you know, is good for two reasons: one is that there is a lot of interesting stuff out there that we can learn a lot by studying and that the former Soviet periphery has been a really interesting social science experiment for the last three decades and it’s great that Harriman scholars—like Alex Cooley studying Central Asia—are looking at that. But it’s also great because a lot of the scholarly interests in the disciplines is on these new topics of ties between the imperial core and the imperial periphery, ethnic relations, state formations, comparing regime transitions and economic transitions in different cultural environments. And so, you know, it’s just intellectually a rich mother lode of material to study what’s been going on in recent history in places like Central Asia, Ukraine, the Baltics. And so, it’s great that Harriman has stepped up to do that.
One of the really huge successes of the Harriman has been its sponsorship of the ASN conference, the Association for the Study of Nationalism [Nationalities], which started as very focused on the post-communist world, but has now become just one of the most dynamic, popular, annual conventions in social science. And it is so exciting to see that happening. And it is almost unique in bringing so many people from around the world, especially the post- communist world. Young scholars from the region and experts in the region are connecting with scholars of nationalism and ethnic politics who are theorists and generalizers and comparativist people. It is just a really exciting convention, and the fact that it happens at Columbia and was basically a creation of the Harriman Institute and its folks is just a really great contribution to have seen that unfold.
However, it is also good that the Harriman has—and the departments that it works with have— invested in maintaining good work on the Russian core subjects. So, Tim Frye, Russian politics guy of the new generation. Professor [Catherine] Evtuhov, who’s coming to the history department this year, specialist in Nizhny Novgorod in the nineteenth century, like core Russian historical issues. And you know, the great people in the Slavic Department: Cathy Popkin just published her Norton Critical Edition of Chekhov. Russia is one of the great civilizations on the planet that is important to what we are as human beings, in addition to just being politically of significance. It i’s really important for the Harriman to maintain that Russian core, in addition to exploring these new post-communist type of topics in the so-called periphery.
Q: So, nationalism and ethnic studies seems—as you said, ASN has become this great new organization. Can you just talk about why the boom in this area now?
Snyder: Nationalism and ethnic conflict is what happened when communism collapsed, but beyond that, it wasn’t just a phenomenon of post-communism; it was a post-Cold War phenomenon. So, even in Africa in the early ’90s, once the Soviet Union was no longer there to support its pseudo-Marxist dictators, the U.S. and the European allies withdrew financial aid from its dictators, and told them well, you guys are going to have to have some kind of elections because we are not going to just write you a blank check anymore. The Cold War is over. And once that happened, electoral politics became ethnically divisive and you had ethnic conflict, ethnic patronage, and you got a whole new type of sociology of politics, even in places like Africa that were far away from Moscow and the communist world, per se. So, there was tremendous interest in this.
In my field of studies of international security and war and peace, people retooled—almost entirely—people who had studied the Cold War, people who had studied about preparations for nuclear holocaust, people who had studied big, conventional wars with tanks driving across borders between two countries, noticed that, Oh, those kinds of wars are not happening very much anymore. The new wars are civil wars, ethnic conflicts, terrorist struggles, counter- terrorism, counter-insurgency, often involving ethnic or religious sectarian groups and organizations. So people in my field kind of stopped what they were studying after 1991 and started to ramp up to be able to write about nationalism and ethnic conflicts, then later sectarianism and terrorism because, you know, wherever the blood is flowing we will go in that direction. So that had an impact on many fields and helped to jumpstart interest in ASN.
Q: So, do you think that’s sort of the way that, you know, area studies has kind of—when you say “area” now, it has kind of gotten smaller? That, really when you say that people used to study the Soviet Union, and that was like this giant land mass, now people are studying the Caucasus and the Ukraine and, I don’t know, smaller areas of the Middle East and it is not such a big region anymore. So, is “area studies” becoming really more nationality studies now? Do you think?
Snyder: There certainly are more people who are studying nationalism, ethnic politics, nationalities, but the vast majority of those people are studying it as a general topic of comparative politics, not studying it as the nationalism of my country that I care about. You can’t really make much of a career as a narrow expert on Kyrgyz nationalism. You can make a career as an expert in nationalism with field experience in Central Asia, but also with the ability to bring to bear general theories of ethnic politics or ethnic patronage, or clientelism on Central Asia, especially if you are also capable of teaching and writing more broad synthetic pieces that will compare Central Asia to Africa, or will compare clan politics in the Balkans to clan politics in the Caucasus. It is more that sort of thing that people are doing now. So no, I don’t see it as narrowing at all.
I mean, it is certainly true that quite a few of the people that come to the ASN are people from like, region X of country Y who are studying their own nationalism and come to the ASN. But the fact that they’re coming to the ASN means that they’ve read the book by Michael Hechter or David Laitin, some general treatise on nationalism or ethnic politics and they want to look at it in this wide-angle comparative way.
Q: And so, Harriman, has—as you have said—not just people who are experts on Russia, but Central Asia, Alex Cooley, and other areas of the former Soviet Union. How do you contrast that with other places that may be considered competitors of Harriman?
Snyder: You know, in recent times I have not very closely followed the various area studies of the different institutes. I tend to look at things less as competing institutes as just part of one big integrated kind of modern regional studies of Eurasia community. So that the younger generation—which ranges from people just a little bit younger than me to quite a bit younger than me—have grown up with PONARS [Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia], this Carnegie Corporation [of New York] funded network that is not an institute, but it’s a network of scholars in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in the world, including most of the major institutions in the U.S., that meet periodically in their medium-sized group and they write short papers of mutual interest and they cross fertilize theory, methods, topics, policy analysis. I don’t know, when I think about the Eurasian studies community, I think of it as more a national and increasingly international community of scholars where various institutes are contributing their expertise. But it’s not like the Yankees versus the Red Sox.
Q: Fair enough. [laughs] So, I guess I am curious to know what you think about—I mean, you say that Harriman is in its silver age, which is quite a compliment, I think, and I am sort of wondering how you see Harriman moving forward from here. Where do you think it can make the biggest impact?
Snyder: So, one of the issues that the Harriman has faced, you know, for a long time—perhaps from the very earliest days—is the relationship of the social science work at the Institute to the humanities work. And, the old area studies of the ’50s, the ’60, the ’70s, helped maintain a cohesive intellectual life that cut across these social science and humanities disciplines, partly because the people had training in history, in culture. They knew the literature, they knew the language well, and they understood politics and society. Of course what they didn’t have was the opportunity to actually go to the Soviet Union very often, if ever, and study the animal up close. But they did have this broad disciplinary view. Also, because the Soviet Union was in some ways the most important political problem facing America for decades running, you couldn’t help but be interested in the politics of it. So, the historians and the literature people and the political scientists, you know, were all like big deals in their own fields, but they were also interacting a fair amount as a result of their natural interests and their intellectual training.
The post-Soviet model is more connections with your own academic discipline, rather than connections with people in a different academic discipline who study your own region of the world. And, this has led to the question of, how does the Harriman stay a multidisciplinary institute? Does it do that by trying to have events where the professor of nineteenth century literature is equally engaged as the professor who studies party politics in Russia, or should we actually admit that we are not going to have that many events that are multidisciplinary inclusive in that way. What we are going to do is make sure that there are balanced opportunities for people in every discipline to do whatever it is that they want to do, and that could be to have an historian of Russia collaborate with historians of some other region that is relevant to his work. Or should that be historians collaborating with literary scholars who work in the same region and time period, but not try to include the statistics geek political scientist whose analyzing some election returns or public attitude surveys on the latest reform? That is endemic, but it is not a problem. It is just a question of how to do it the right way so that we remain multidisciplinary, but also let people do what they really want to be doing.
Another issue is that economists generally do not want to have much interest in hiring people with a strong area studies focus. What is the solution to that? Is it to make sure that we hire political scientists who do political economy? And then draw in the pure economists into the projects just because the projects are really interesting, even if they are not Harriman people? Anyhow, that is one of the ongoing challenges that every generation faced, and the right answer I think is kind of evolving.
Q: And so, do you still think that these projects—like the projects that you implemented in 2006- 7—that idea is where you could really have a lot of impact still because you're really drawing on people’s own interests and their own work, but kind of bringing it in to Harriman? Do you think that is still an important focus?
Snyder: We have had annual projects that had general interest, like the human rights one; everybody spoke very well of it. The ratings and rankings one—not everybody at Harriman cared about that, to be honest, but lots of people elsewhere cared about it, and so that was fine. Sometimes we have had very specialized annual projects that were really interesting to the people who did them and not so interesting to other people, but you know, that is fine, too. Anything that you do to sustain faculty interest and loyalty to the Harriman is good. Even though the model of the annual project is generic, it can be implemented in different ways. And we also support lots of faculty research and activities, conferences and seminars in teaching, just with smaller amounts of money that are just doled out in a more haphazard but really effective way. I think the system works well, and Tim and Alex have been just such good directors that, you know, we’re in good hands.
Q: So you agree with, it sounds like, the idea of this very broad interdisciplinary institute, where someone is studying literature on the one hand and someone is studying geeky statistical economics on the other. And, you think that works?
Snyder: It’s working now. And you know, I think there’s a kind of nice equilibrium at least at the moment where there’s a kind of live and let live; you do your thing, we do our thing. Sometimes they overlap a little bit, sometimes they don’t overlap very much, but it’s all Eurasian studies and we are good. Everybody is happy and we can cooperate when we need to or we can just do our own thing when we need to. But I think there is also—you know, there’s got to be some events, activities, topics of common interest or just events like honoring the past alum, where we all get together. So, I think that that system is working really well. I think given the present realities it is the way things have to work, and I suspect that to a large extent, even back in the old days of the old area studies, things pretty much worked in that kind of live and let live, I am doing my thing, you are doing your thing, you know, for most times, most days, most projects. It is working well.
Q: Great. Well, I think I've sort of gone through most of the questions that I had, and I’m wondering whether there’s anything that I’ve missed or that you wanted to touch upon that we haven’t talked about yet.
Snyder: I think everything that I’ve been burning to get off my chest has come up.
Q: Well that makes me—
Snyder: You asked the right questions.
[END OF SESSION]
Interviewee: Jack Snyder Interviewer: Christina Pae
Location: New York, NY Date: January 21, 2017
Q: So we are here as a follow-up to our first session, and we are going to cover some topics that we might have touched upon in the first session, and then maybe a couple of new topics.
So I would like to just begin by asking about some of the students that you have had during your time at the Harriman, and where they have ended up, and I guess your views on the Harriman student body generally, and if they—you know, where they end up and, sort of, what impact they have on this academic area.
Snyder: It is a treat to be able to reminisce about some of our wonderful students over the decades since I’ve been teaching here, and there are just really fabulous ones. There’s Ted Hopf, who was one of my first students, who started back in the mid-1980s and he’s a specialist on— well first, Soviet and then later Russian—foreign policy, and he grew intellectually throughout his entire career. He had not only great Russian Institute/Harriman Institute type of training in area studies, but he was always very interested in basic social science and political science theory. A lot of students from that era faced a kind of crisis with their career when the Soviet Union collapsed and they had been trained, not just in that country, but in a particular set of institutions and ideology. And all of that had become an historical subject. So, for the best of the students, like Ted, this was not a crisis, it was an opportunity to widen his angle of vision. And he’s, over the decades, established himself as one of the leading voices in international relations theory, especially associated with constructivist international relations theory; the idea that reality is a social construction through ideas and discourse. And it’s interesting—his ideas are interesting about theory in themselves, but it’s also interesting that, uncharacteristically of that approach, he has married that to a continuing interest in area studies research, and some of his great theoretical contributions have been anchored in the history of Soviet and Russian foreign policy. And he taught at Ohio State [University] as a senior professor for many years, and not too long ago moved to Singapore, where he is now like the leading guru at the [National] University of Singapore.
Q: So do you feel like he—he seems to embody, actually, your article, “Richness, Rigor, and Relevance.” He seems to have had all three. Do you think that was the key to his being able to kind of overcome the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Snyder: Yes, but he went beyond the kind of thing that I was advocating for in that article, because that article was very conventional social science; it was just taking normal political science procedure, and saying, Hey, area studies guys, get with the program. And Ted actually— although he was very good at doing that type of analysis, he in a way leapfrogged over that conventional type of political science, and developed theory-based but more discursive interpretive methodologies, which were every bit as rigorous as normal political science methods, but had actually a lot in common with some of the virtues of traditional area studies in studying the discourse, the language, the mindsets of the actors themselves. Whereas, often, behavioral traditional political science would be at a kind of arm’s length distance from the subjectivity of the people and institutions being studied, Ted wanted to be rigorous but get inside the heads and the discourses of the Russians, the Soviets.
So he was, in a way, very advanced in social science. So advanced that he wound up drawing on the traditional virtues of Soviet studies and had real connections to guys like Robert Legvold, who had, in spades, those old area studies virtues that were being taught at the Russian and Harriman Institute when Ted came in the early, mid-’80s.
So, I can talk about these great students like forever. Just—stop me when I get to one who is particularly interesting.
Snyder: So, somewhat later generation is Tim Frye, who is like the quintessential political scientist and also quintessential area studies guy: has the language, has the history, knows Russian literature. He wrote—the [Tom] Stoppard play, The Coast of Utopia, that is based on Russian philosophers of the nineteenth century. They got Tim Frye to go to all those plays and write a review. So he is like the full package of area studies Renaissance man, but he is also the full package of political science, statistically armed scholar, rigorous data collection, does surveys, and he is now the chair of the political science department, as well as having been a past director of the Harriman Institute. So he’s an example of the Silver Age phenomenon; all the virtues of the Golden Age, but modern social science disciplinary rigor added on top of it.
From that same cohort, there is Joel [S.] Hellman, who worked with Seweryn Bialer in comparative politics of the Soviet Union just as it was collapsing, and wrote wonderful stuff analyzing the post-Soviet reform process. He has an article that everybody still assigns from the mid-1990s called “Winner[s] Take All[: The Politics of Partial Reform]”, where he analyzes the partial reform equilibrium, and the process where, people who were economic managers or pretty high party officials in the late Soviet Union, privatized stuff right into their own pockets, or set themselves up with a backscratching, crony capitalist relationships between the state sector and the emerging private sector, where they would steal from the State in order to feather the nest of their private businesses. Stuff that is still completely normal in China, and stuff that is of course still the way things are done in Russia. And so, he understood that this was a partial reform equilibrium that this new power elite of semi-privatized wealth was very happy with. And so they stopped the reforms at this partial equilibrium.
As I say, this applies not just to Russia, but this is like one of the single best articles that you could read now to understand the problems that China is facing with its middle-income trap and its partially reformed, partially market, partially state-owned economy. So Joel took a—although he wrote this fabulous academic work—took a different turn, went to work for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which was the—it was like the World Bank regional sort of development bank for post-communist Europe, where he was for a number of years. And so, he has had a very distinguished career in the kind of international organization policy world.
So those are some people that were mainly focused on Russia, but we’ve had plenty of people that were distinguished scholars of the post-Soviet periphery. So, not just Alex Cooley doing Central Asia, but Erika Weinthal, whose dissertation was on the ecological crisis of water management in Central Asia, and how state building in Central Asia was shaped in part by these water management bureaucracies and networks. She has taught for a little while in Israel, then went to Duke [University], to the public policy school where she’s a real expert in both the environment and post-Soviet state making.
From a somewhat later cohort, there is Arman Grigorya, who teaches at Lehigh [University] on the Caucasus. Again, he has this theoretical topical interest in ethnic conflict, where he has been one of the main people theorizing about what happens when outside powers provide guarantees to ethnic groups which writes them a blank check to confront their states, and how humanitarian intervention, or the promise of humanitarian support, can actually cause conflict in the same way that giving people flood insurance encourages them to build their house in a flood plain. So he has written that really important theoretical stuff, but he grounds it in research on ethnic politics in the Caucasus.
Then we have people that have personal background, language or family ties with the Baltics. I’m remembering Riina Kionka, who was an Estonian-American who grew up in the Estonian community in Detroit, and then when the Soviet Union collapsed, she went back and became the head of policy planning in the foreign affairs ministry of the newly independent Estonia. We always called her the George [F.] Kennan of Estonia.
Then, more recent generation, Ilze Brands, later Ilze Brands Kehris, who has actually been around the Harriman quite a bit the last couple of years. Had a very distinguished career with the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where she was very much involved with relations between states and ethnic minorities in the Balkans and elsewhere.
So, our graduates cover the waterfront. They do fabulous academic work, but also this applied work, and I think they have just been great contributors in all these ways.
Q: Yes. It sounds like people are all over the map, not just in terms of the areas they cover, but also geographically. So, I mean, people ending up in Israel and Singapore, Europe, Estonia.
Snyder: Yes. Oh, you wanted me to mention Lara Nettelfield, who was one of my students working on a topic where I had done work as well, on transitional and post-conflict justice. It was kind of fun supervising her dissertation on the impact of the Hague Tribunal on the development of democracy and ideas of justice in Bosnia in the wake of the Bosnian war. I had been a big skeptic of transitional justice and criticized transitional justice for its ineffectiveness, but also for its kind of legalistic inattention to political realities: the need for bargaining and coalition-making, rather than just rule following through the courts.
And Lara, while engaging with those kind of arguments, wrote what I consider to be the best book, making a more positive case for the impact of the Hague Tribunal on political and legal developments in the former Yugoslavia. And she did really, you know, rich but also rigorous work on surveying attitudes of citizens, the military, the mothers of victims of the war, and showed some of the more subtle ways that the Hague Tribunal had paved the way for democracy and rule of law. Even if it produced some backlash on these issues—like, the Serbs had a very dim view of the Hague Tribunal that mostly put Serbs in jail and convicted them—but she had a very subtle argument that it put the issues of justice and rule of law on the table. It became, for the first time, a serious part of the political discussion in Bosnia.
And so, you don’t go from zero to sixty all at once. You consider it a success to just go from zero to getting the car in motion at all. I really like her book on that subject. So yes, still—and she has taught in Canada and in the UK [United Kingdom], and now she is back here teaching in the human rights MA program, and a real dynamo.
Q: So do you keep in touch with a lot of your students who are here?
Snyder: Yes. One of the great things about having had lots of good students who work on lots of different topics in lots of different parts of the world, is that you don’t really have to do research. You can just call up or email one of your former students and ask them, What is the latest and best thing to read on politics in Armenia? Or, Is it true that this argument that I read? And they’re always very happy to give you the bibliographic dump, or to read the latest paragraph that you’ve written on their country, that of course completely misunderstands things, so they set you straight. Because, after all, I have written them a million letters of recommendation over the years, so it is about time for payback.
Q: Sure! Well it is interesting to me that you keep in such good touch with probably many, many people. Do you think the Harriman Institute generally is good at keeping in touch with their alums?
Snyder: So, as an institution, is Harriman good at keeping in touch with its alums?
Q: Building networks.
Snyder: The Harriman people are very good at keeping in touch with their networks. One thing that the Harriman does that is a facilitator of keeping in touch is the ASN conference, which draws people from all sorts of different disciplines and increasingly from different area studies realms, not just people who study Eurasia and the former Soviet Union, but the original core of the ASN was people studying nationalities and ethnicities in the post-communist Eurasian world, and that’s still the core. So all these old Harriman types and their friends and their friends of friends come to the ASN once a year and, you know, cross pollinate their ideas and reforge the old ties. So that happens. Whether the Harriman Institute as a bureaucracy is actually good at having the address of every alum, sometimes they try but sometimes that is hard. You’d have to ask Alex Cooley whether he has got that list.
Q: Right, yes.
Snyder: There used to be more of an effort to do alumni events, alumni conferences. Sometimes that happens, sometimes that falls into desuetude. I am not sure where that one is right now. We did have a discussion about it recently, whether it would be a good idea to prioritize that. So again, ask Alex.
Q: Where were you in that? Do you think that is a useful exercise to have?
Snyder: Yes. Well, keeping in touch with your alums is a no-brainer for the university as a whole and for its subunits because your alums are likely to be donors. Of course, academic alums are likely to be small donors [laughs], unless they went to Columbia College and then did something less academic with their life. No, I am sure—I know that the networks are strong individually, in a decentralized way, and intellectually that’s the thing that counts the most.
Q: Right, right. And so, would you say that in terms of students—I mean, obviously you are teaching graduate students. So, would you say that the majority of graduate students go on to do academic scholarly work, or do you think it’s—I mean, you’ve mentioned people doing all sorts of things, but—
Snyder: Well, the Harriman Institute, before that the Russian Institute, always had a mix of constituencies; it had PhD students in political science, PhD students in history and in literature, smatterings in other fields. A long time ago, Columbia had huge PhD programs that had many self-paying PhDs, and it was actually a way to finance the university. It was a dumb way to finance the university, and in the mid ’90s or early to mid-’90s, Columbia switched over to a model of paying MA students, rather than paying PhD students, and dramatically reduced the size of PhD programs certainly in political science, but also in other fields. And so, at that point we started having fewer PhD students, especially in political science, at the Harriman Institute. But as [Vladimir I.] Lenin said, “Fewer but better, comrades!” [Laughs]
But we have always had School of International and Public Affairs, where there is a regional concentration in the international affairs MA, where there were people doing the Harriman certificate, or in later years, often not doing the certificate but taking Harriman-related courses. So, we get a mix of all kinds of students, but a somewhat changing mix over time with just fewer raw numbers of PhD students now than when I originally came. But you know, still plenty of good ones.
Q: Right, right. So I guess people come here to do their PhD in a department, right?
Q: And then they take courses with the Harriman, so it is sort of an overlap.
Q: So, you talked about Lara Nettelfield, so maybe we could use that as a transition to talk about faculty since she was a student and is now on the faculty. You know, in terms of young faculty coming and aligning themselves with the Harriman, can you talk about that and where you think that is going?
Snyder: So in general, the young faculty in political science have now become, you know, mid- career, older, full professor faculty: Alex Cooley was a Harriman PhD who was hired by Barnard [College, Columbia University] and now is full professor and our director. Tim Frye, you know, went through Ohio State and Rutgers[, The State University of New Jersey] and came back to Columbia after being well vetted and laundered [laughs]. So, we have a rule that we cannot hire our own. Barnard can, but we cannot. But once they have become incredibly eminent, then we can hire them back. And so, the pipeline of young people coming up has worked, but in political science, we have like a wealth of people at the moment, and you know, have not been hiring new people in that area.
The other fields, I am less familiar with the young faculty, although there is the problem in Slavic that, you know, just the overall size of the Slavic department had been, at one point, I guess twelve people, including Columbia and Barnard, and lots of people have retired and it seems like Barnard College is making a decision to phase out Slavic and Russian language and literature, and just rely on Columbia to provide that. I don’t know whether that is a decision that is taken, but it seems like things are heading rapidly in that direction. And even the Columbia department is not replacing anywhere near the bulk of the people who have recently retired or otherwise left the department rolls.
So, there is a problem of just enough people to teach [Fyodor M.] Dostoevsky to the masses of undergraduates who love that sort of thing, and they are hiring new people, they have searches, but small number.
Q: Why do you think—what is the cause, do you think? Is it a funding issue or is it an interest issue?
Snyder: Well, in general, in American academe, humanities and literature have been on a kind of gradual downward glide path in recent decades and years. Columbia is actually one of the places where humanities remain strong, but even at Columbia there’s a slight downward glide path in the humanities. But with the small departments, like Slavic, there’s a tendency to have, sometimes, big enrollments, in like glamorous courses but where people are taking them for enrichment and out of love, but relatively smaller numbers of majors. And so, this may make the deans and the people who are trying to balance the budget in times of austerity at Columbia agonize over—on the one hand the Slavic department is a jewel in the crown, had always been one of the top or two top departments of Slavic in the country, and don’t we want to reinforce success?
But on the other hand, small number of majors and is this our priority? So, when a lot of the money at Columbia is going to the construction of the new campus at Manhattanville, and the belts are very tight at [the Graduate School of] Arts and Sciences, you know, there are a lot of programs that come under pressure and Slavic has recently been one of them. And so, from the standpoint of young professors, when the number of slots overall is dropping, it just makes it kind of a small cohort for hiring new folks. Economics basically got out of the area studies business entirely and I don’t think we can expect them to be hiring an area studies focused economics professor at any level of rank. So, there is—there is an issue of the new blood, especially in some of the departments that are undergoing these contractions.
Q: Right. I mean, it is interesting that that comes at a time when, in fact, the Harriman Institute has become a Eurasian studies institute, not just a Russian studies institute. So it’s in fact expanded the number of topics it covers, but there’s more pressure on the number of faculty. So that has got to be tough from a coverage standpoint.
Snyder: Yes. I mean, we had—for Russian history, where in the old days we had a whole basketful of senior faculty, for a while we just didn’t have anyone doing Russia per se. We had people doing the periphery, but now with Evtuhov as a terrific historian of Russia, we are back in business—
Q: You have crossed that bridge?
Snyder: Yes. [Laughs] But, yes it is still—I mean, the quality of the faculty is very high and in some ways the faculty is better trained scholars, more diversely trained scholars, than even in the Golden Age, so it is not like we have any horrible crisis, but it is—the consequences of belt-tightening and downsizing of area studies affect the coverage, and make retirements and departures more agonizing because you don’t have the number of people to fall back on. And so, you can have a situation where, Wait, our last Russian historian retired and the people that we want are not available, and so what are we going to do?
So you know, these are challenges that are largely external constraints on the Harriman, that even with its big endowment, and even given its willingness occasionally to chip in extra funding to facilitate some peripheral aspects of these hiring packages, you know, we can’t just like decide to hire a full professor and pay for it. And it is not a matter of the money; it’s that that is against the rules. So, there are external constraints that the Harriman has been living within, but I think adapting really well and creatively to these various changes. The changing student constituency, the changing place of area studies and disciplines. The Harriman is adapting well, but you know, needs to keep running, to stay abreast of the times.
Q: Right. Speaking of the times, some people say that the interest of area studies—of Russian area studies—rises and falls with how insecure we feel about Russia at any given—or the Soviet Union—at any given time. And so, do you think that the interest in Russian studies may rise again, given where we are with the world and Putin and what he has been up to?
Snyder: Yes. So, what seems to happen with Russian studies, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and since the end of the Cold War-era funding model for area studies in general, especially the Soviet Union, what has been happening is that when Russia is a problem or Russia is somehow interesting because they are democratizing or they are marketizing, or they are having ethnic conflict, Oh, this is fascinating, we need to study them. People will—they will want to publish your article, they will want to interview you, they will want to pick your brain. It’s great to go to cocktail parties because people will ask you about the latest way in which Russia is a problem. And so that was true at the end of the Cold War when my students that had Soviet studies training were having a hard time getting a job, but where every news organization wanted to interview them. So, they were in demand but nobody really necessarily wanted to hire someone with old-fashioned Soviet area studies training.
The problem is different now. So now what’s going on is that people in the Russia/Eurasia/post- Soviet field have very good disciplinary training, have up to date scholarly credentials. They don't have a hard time getting a job because they are contributing to their discipline in addition to being good area scholars. So their day job is steady and fine, and it’s normal for academe in the twenty-first century. But then you also have these spikes of interest, when Putin does something that endangers the peace of the world, or when Trump seems to be colluding with the Russians to win the election, then everybody wants to talk to you. And when Russia settles down and becomes more boring for a while, then fewer people want to talk to you but you continue to do your academic work and you recharge your intellectual capital.
So I think, yes, it is kind of a stable, normal thing for area studies people to be like, plugging ahead with their work until a crisis hits, and then all of a sudden they are on CNN [Cable News Network]. And then six months later, after the crisis is over, they go back to the archives and nobody cares about them again.
Q: Right. So do you think though that there are more students who are becoming interested in becoming—they are political scientists but they want to be focused on Russia, than maybe say ten or fifteen years ago when it was sort of at its trough?
Snyder: I am seeing a shift in basic student interest in the direction of China, partly because they think that China is going to be setting the pace for the world. It’s the thing that you have to know about, it’s the thing you will always have to know about, is China, and they are investing in area studies courses and language courses. This is happening for China.
What I am seeing for Russia is I think not that, but more paper topic pupil dilation, where when something horrible is happening between Russia and Ukraine, you will get a flurry where half the people in the class will want to do term papers on that topic, and then six months later after it is settled into some frozen conflict tedious equilibrium, then nobody wants to do a term paper on that. I suspect that that’s where things are at in Russia interests.
Q: Right, right. So I am curious in your own work whether you have been writing about what has happened. The last time we spoke it was August and we talked about Trump a little bit, but you know, I for one certainly didn’t expect him to actually make it all the way to the presidency. So I am wondering whether you are talking about, writing at all about where we are with Trump and Putin, how the two may or may not work together.
Snyder: The answer is yes, I have been writing about that. But as is often the case for my writing, the Russia piece kind of looks small, but actually hasn’t been small in my thinking. So I have an article coming out in the Journal of Democracy in April. Journal of Democracy is the journal of the National Endowment for Democracy, which is a US-government kind of spin-off, independent organization, that—some parts of it do democracy promotion, like the NDI, the National Democratic Institute, and the IRI, the International Republican Institute. The Journal of Democracy is the journal part, which is a journal that is, you know, read by scholars, but also read by, to some extent, broader public or inside the beltway policy types.
So I have a piece on illiberal modernity and populist nationalism, that covers both the rising powers or the increasingly assertive powers; so, the BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India, China. But also, with the encouragement of the editors of the journal, includes rising populism in the advanced democracies.
The argument of the piece is that there is a single taproot—well, that the world is converging around a single main competitor to liberal democracy, and it is populist nationalism of one variant or another, that this is happening in both the advanced democracies and the increasingly assertive, rising, usually illiberal powers such as Russia and China, and that this stems from the same taproot, which is a mismatch between markets which are in our present era, increasingly unregulated by politics, and the political institutions that create the governing space in which the markets operate. And so I’m writing about what that looks like in China, Russia and the rising BRICs, but also in Trump’s America and Brexit, and Europe with the mismatch between the bureaucratic EU and the democratic nation states, and arguing that the creative destruction of the market is a field in which you get rising populism because the people are hurt by ungoverned market business cycles and capital mobility, and they are making demands through populist voice, that governments and international organizations listen to them.
The Russia part of this is small, but it is an important variant in the model that—the kind of fake, top-down manipulative populism of Putin’s nationalism in using the Great Russia trope, and the seizure of Crimea, and rallying support around the frozen conflicts to defend the interests of Great Russia is kind of a typical variant of the populous theme that we’re seeing everywhere. So, this was kind of fun for me to do. It was one of those, This-is-the-world-according-to-Jack articles, where Jack explains everything. And even though the Russia part is not a lot of pages in it, it played an important role in my original thinking of what this phenomenon is.
Of course, now, by the time the piece appears, this will be just conventional wisdom for everybody. The world has kind of caught up to my paper. Anyhow, so that’s my Trump paper. I also have a piece published on buffer zones in history and lessons for Ukraine, and whether Ukraine can be a stabilizing buffer zone between Russia and the West. That is co-authored with Tom [Thomas] Graham, who was a [George W.] Bush administration, National Security Council Russia guy, and who works for Kissinger Associates, [Inc.] and also Raj [Rajan] Menon, who is an old Soviet studies hand who teaches at City College [of the City University of New York]. We’ve been doing a big project where we visited Ukraine and Central Asia, thinking about the borderlands of Russia’s Eurasian periphery. So that is my Russia related research.
Q: That sounds fascinating. So, in terms of this populist movement that we have going on everywhere, where do you think—do you think this is just a blip? When people look back at this twenty years from now, it is just going to be, like, a moment? Or do you think this is going to lead somewhere, create a more lasting effect?
Snyder: For the advanced democracies, I think that what is most likely to happen is that the strong, participatory and legal—and economic for that matter—institutions of the advanced democracy will hold firm, and that the effect of populism will be to push the elites that are running these institutions to be more responsive to the concerns of people who have been ignored by the elites, and that there will be pressure to make markets more accountable to politics, and that—there are basically two ways to do this: one is nationalist, protectionist, exclusionary, chip-on-your-shoulder policies, both in economics and in the security and alliance area.
And the other way to do it is to go back to the welfare state that’s well institutionalized through Keynesian economics and countercyclical political interventions in the market to even out the business cycle and to create a social safety net so that people are not crushed by market forces, and also to reinvigorate the liberal institutions, to regulate capital flows and labor markets globally so that there is some political grown up in charge of the random destructiveness of markets, which produce growth but also a lot of pain. And I suspect that for the advanced democracies, there will be some mix of reinvigorating the welfare state and this kind of more protectionist, chip-on-your-shoulder, exclude-the-foreigners, nationalism. I think that is the way this will likely go with the advanced democracies, because after all, we do have strong institutions and at least some of the population is deeply, irrevocably, committed to liberal values.
In the rising illiberal great powers, the Chinas, the Russias, I see populism as more dangerous, a more dangerous detour. Economic development theory shows that where you hit the middle- income trap, you need to become a liberal democratic rule of law state, or else you don’t get to really high per capita income and efficient markets. You just don’t. You veer off to the side, you double down on populist nationalism to stay in power with your crony capitalist illiberal system, and it leads to economic stagnation and trouble with other countries, where your nationalism and their nationalism butt heads. So, I am actually more worried about the Chinas, the Russias, in this scenario. Even though right now it looks like populist nationalism is more of a news item for the advanced democracies. But we will see.
Q: Yes, we will see. Well just to take it back to the Harriman, I guess I would like to ask you about what you think are the Harriman’s greatest achievements since the collapse of the Soviet Union. How do you think it is done in that time?
Snyder: I think that the Harriman has done a very good job of adapting its intellectual style to the new realities in the evolution beyond the old area studies model in integrating basic, disciplinary, academic work with strong area studies values. I think that this was a transition that was really hard for many area studies fields, and in some ways especially hard for the Soviet field because it was the field that was most specific and peculiar, yet also most hypertrophied, because this was the big enemy. It was not only the guys that had the nuclear weapons, but it was the social system that was like a modern social system, but despite that, the most different from the normal American or Western social system. And so, studying the Soviet Union—and also because it was so secretive and Kremlinology and it was like, it was a weird field that was a good field. It was a strong field.
It was doing what you needed to do at that time, but it was a wrenching transition for people whose intellectual formation had been like that. And, I think it was just a really impressive achievement that the Harriman, and the field more generally, adapted to the requirements of the new era—both the requirements of fitting into the university environment, which it has done I think quite successfully, and also continuing to play an important role in the national life by training scholars, by training practitioners who go to SIPA, by doing solid academic work so that we really do understand what the heck is going on in Russia, and adapting to the field work reality where you actually now go to Russia and you talk with people who are academics at a high level of professionalism in Russia, especially in fields like economics.
So we have adapted really well to that, and I think that one mark of how well the Harriman is doing is that I think that the Harriman is actually doing better in being a viable contemporary model of twenty-first century area studies than some other area studies institutes covering other regions of the world, including ones that have pretty good endowments and faculty lines. I think the Harriman has embraced the new reality in a creative way that is a real achievement.
So, in terms of the impact as judged by kind of the old yardstick of Zbig Brzezinski, Marshall Shulman, people who were making American foreign policy and leading interpreters of East/West relations for the country and for the world. You know, we are not quite like that. We are definitely in the game in that Cooley, Marten, Frye and others are engaged in that kind of interpretation of their expertise for a policy audience and for a wider public audience, but, you know, we don’t have a Zbig, we don’t have a Bialer, we don’t have a Shulman, at that level of stature and impact at the moment, but we have the kind of people who could easily become that if they want to, or if they get a lucky break or, depending on how you look at it, get an unlucky break. [Laughter]
Q: Right. So, looking back then, it sounds like you think that the Harriman has done a good job. Is there anything they could have done better? And of course, we are now sitting in 2017 looking back a couple of decades, and maybe it is easy to say something with the benefit of hindsight, but do you think there are areas that they could have done better?
Snyder: I think there were periods of time where faculty engagement and morale at the Institute were kind of in a trough, before the dynamic generation of Frye/Marten/Cooley were able to devote full—well, were either not here yet or just feathering their own nest of tenure and not able to devote full time and energy to the Harriman the way they do now. I think there was a little bit of a trough of energy at the Institute where we had to plan specifically on how to reengage faculty, how to generate excitement, how to open up the Institute to constituencies that were not just the old, hardcore area-studies-scholars-there-to-get-the-certificate kind of constituency. So there was a moment where [it] was not sure which way things weren’t going to go, but that was fortunately a passing moment and things got reenergized, and I don’t think there was any lasting harm of this, sort of, doldrums-during-the-adjustment process.
The thing that bothers me the most is the kind of missing-in-action disciplines. So, economics not being part of the game anymore, and we have been talking about how to remedy that. One proposal is to try to have a flow of visiting professors who are experts on Russian or Eurasian economics, including really good people in Russia who are often on the outs with the regime and happy to come here and get off the hot seat for a year. So we might be able to solve the AWOL [Absent Without Official Leave] economics discipline that way. Half of what I do is history, so I have felt a real absence of historical expertise at the Institute, compared to what it was when I was an assistant professor and it was just around you all the time. Even the political scientists were very steeped in history; Marshall Shulman was like a historian of the Cold War.
Q: When you talk about that era, are you talking about the Raeff, Haimson—
Snyder: Yes, those guys.
Snyder: Yes. For the reconstitution of the Russia strength of the Harriman Institute and the history department it is great that we finally have Evtuhov. The rebuilding of history is still kind of a work in progress, and we need at least just a little bit more to get back to the level of the glory days. Whether that is realistic given budgets, given the shift away from the old area studies model and priorities, we will see, but I think it is something that the Institute still needs to work on. I wouldn’t call it like a missed opportunity or a failing; it is just something on the to-do list, at least for me still.
Q: Yes. So, do you think that the Harriman Institute has any—is there any fear that it might lose its standing as one of the places to study Russia area studies?
Snyder: No. I don’t think so. You know, we just had an external review from people who are from a national organization, and we were talking about our failure to get renewed for our Title VI grant, which is not great. We rely on it for the FLAS [Foreign Language and Area Studies] language scholarships. So, it is not like we are broke without that money, but you don’t like to not get something that you have been accustomed to getting for a long time. We talked to the visiting committee about that, why we didn’t get it, and everybody agreed, Yes, you know, it is kind of a shrinking pie for the Title VI grants, decision to reward the more up and coming or less well-endowed programs, rather than the Harriman. So we were punished because we are too rich, we are too well established. Nothing major is wrong.
And then they got to talking about how, Oh, and the proposal of some other university was so good, that they had really creative ideas of how to bring together area studies and disciplinary training in the training of their PhD students in the Russian and Eurasian area, and we are like, We have been doing this for fifteen or twenty years. You better give them money so the are at least playing on the board.
So, I am not that worried about the Harriman sinking into the third tier of area studies. It seems like we are still ahead of most of the pack. I am not saying that we are like the one and only best, but we are definitely doing a good job. We are, in my view, the equivalent of any program. Things are heading on a solid pathway.
Q: Great. Well that basically covers the questions I had. Is there anything that you would like to add that we have not discussed?
Snyder: No, I think we have covered it. I’m sure—I am very upset that I didn’t tell you all about the hundred other students that I have had.
Q: I know, and you know, it would be great to hear about them. What I love is the excitement that you have in talking about them. So, you know, it is great that the Harriman has produced so many amazing scholars and other practitioners. That’s really what it was created for, it seems.
Snyder: Yes, we are doing okay. The new generation keeps coming in through the door every year. We cannot stop them.
Q: [Laughs] That is great. That is the way you want it to be. Well thanks again, very much, for spending some time with me today, and for participating in the project. We really are grateful and it’s been really fun to sit down with you.
Snyder: My pleasure. Yay Harriman!
[END OF INTERVIEW]