The U.S. State Department’s recent decision to end funding for Title VIII, which supports area studies related to Russia, Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union, will weaken America’s ability to think strategically about a critical part of the world.

Сurrent U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul (right) was a Title VIII recipient. Photo: Official White House/Pete Souza

The Uzbeks have a saying: Don’t tear down your old house before you have built a new one. For nearly 30 years, a State Department program has been funding the research and language training of the people who teach college students about strategically important places like Russia, Central Asia, and the Balkans. These professors have trained thousands of future diplomats, businessmen, aid workers, and scholars to understand the region. However, the State Department announced in October that the program would not be funded this year, with no word yet on what - if anything - will be done with the program in the future.

This program is known as Title VIII, or the Program for Research and Training for Eastern Europe and the New Independent States of the Former Soviet Union. The purpose of Title VIII funding is to support U.S. citizens in pursuing language training and policy-relevant research in the social sciences and humanities. In 2002 the program’s budget was $4.5 million ($5.8 million in 2012 dollars), but it was cut to $3.3 million in 2012 and to $0 in 2013.

The State Department is tightening its belt and a lot of programs are being squeezed, so this budget cut should not be taken as some sort of diplomatic signal to Russia. Still, given the importance of Russia and its neighbors to U.S. strategic interests, as well as the growing roadblocks to American soft power in the region, this was the wrong program to cut.

Title VIII is an inexpensive yet highly effective program that has had a large impact on the cultural competence of U.S. college graduates and its funding should be restored to pre-2011 levels. In fact, it should be expanded to include other regions of the world. Title VIII can serve as a model for funders in the U.S. and abroad who want to invest in the next generation’s ability to navigate a globalizing future.

Here’s why Title VIII works and why it should be expanded to other world regions: Title VIII programs directly benefit individual scholars, but these benefits are further multiplied at the university where these scholars then use their expertise to contribute to research centers that are awarded money from private donors and foundations. These research centers then train more scholars, analysts, diplomats and entrepreneurs who have an in-depth understanding of the history, culture, and politics of the region.

Recent survey research has shown that policymakers and analysts highly value just this kind of area studies research in their work. Critics of U.S. foreign policy, both inside the government and out, acknowledge that our recent foreign policy mistakes have in part been due to insufficient expertise in the history and sociology of the areas targeted by these policies. We need more programs like Title VIII where a little money goes a long way to providing this kind of expertise.

Nearly every U.S. professor working on Russia, Eastern/Central Europe and Eurasia has benefited directly from Title VIII funding in some aspect of their language training or dissertation research. Quite a few diplomats (such as the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) were also Title VIII recipients.

Condoleezza Rice, Title VIII recepient, speaks during commencement ceremony at Boston College. Photo: Reuters

Title VIII programs have given an incentive to economists, historians, linguists, political scientists, sociologists, and others to take their interests off the beaten path – to Georgia, to Kyrgyzstan, to Serbia. Thanks to Title VIII, the field of Slavic and Eurasian studies has exploded over the last 30 years into a vibrant community of scholars who combine the sophisticated research methods of their own disciplines with deep knowledge of an under-studied part of the world.

In the 1990s as a Ph.D. student in sociology, I considered abandoning my interest in the former Soviet Union in order to study a more standard sociological topic related to the United States. There was no one in my university, let alone my department, who knew much about Central Asia or the Caucasus and could advise me on the areas I wanted to pursue. However, with Title VIII funding as an incentive (and with the availability of Foreign Language and Area Studies funding from the Department of Education to support my language training in Russian and Uzbek), I found the support I needed to head off that beaten path and study culture and politics in Uzbekistan.

The $16,000 investment in my dissertation research that I received in 1996 has produced strong returns: an award-winning book and multiple articles, public presentations to citizens and policy makers, and dozens of students who now work in national security, intelligence, journalism, business, and the non-profit sector. And I am far from alone in generating such a legacy: now there are dozens of universities in the country that have at least one faculty member who can advise a student with a budding interest in Central Asia.

Thus, the problem with eliminating Title VIII funds is not just the impact it will have on the current cohort of graduate students who have been counting on Title VIII support, or on the faculty whose plans for a second book or a research article have to be put indefinitely on hold. The problem that should concern everyone is the ripple effect on the college graduates of the future who will be asked to make decisions based on their knowledge of this region, or lack thereof. Business decisions, policy decisions, and military decisions – they all depend on an ability to put information about a particular situation into its relevant cultural and historical context.

So if Title VIII is this productive and cost-effective, why would it be cut? Critics of the program argue that it is a Cold War relic and no longer relevant to today’s world, but this argument is spurious: U.S. interests in the region did not end with the Cold War. We are talking about rapidly changing, resource-rich countries that border areas vital to U.S. interests such as China, Afghanistan, and Iran. The research funded by this program ensures that we won’t be left in the dark should some part of this vast region suddenly veer into crisis.

Other critics suggest that this program should be replaced with a broader initiative that brings the successes of Title VIII to other strategically important world regions. Indeed! This program is exemplary and should be a model for other funders to follow: small grants administered by non-governmental organizations awarded on a competitive basis. This program has made a significant contribution to our understanding of Russia and Eurasia, so why shouldn’t funders follow a similar model to promote research on this region as well as others?

Five million dollars a year is a good investment if it means the difference between U.S. leaders knowing what to do and not knowing what to do the next time a crisis emerges in the region.  Title VIII works. We should be expanding it, not ending it.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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