Monday, November 20, 2017

The Case of Stephen Cohen

How, if you are working for the thought  police, do you force people to adhere to your views? One way is to silence the opposition, to shut them down, to force them out of their jobs and to ban them from the national conversation.

But, what happens when someone is so famous that you cannot silence him? What happens when he breaks through the barriers to free expression and states heretical views in major media outlets?

Surely, you want to limit the risk that any lesser intellectual light will take him as a role model, will take his views into account, will consider them seriously. So, you attack him. You especially attack his motives, painting him as a traitor to the cause, someone who is in it for his own personal self-aggrandizement, and whose views must be discounted and ignored. Anyone who does not have academic tenure or emeritus status will think long and hard before expressing similar opinions.

Such is apparently the case with Russia scholar Stephen Cohen. As it happens I have occasionally presented Cohen’s analysis of the Trump administration Putin policy. Clearly, he is an outlier. He favors détente and cooperation between the United States and Russia. He does not believe that Vladimir Putin is the Devil incarnate.

You might agree. You might not. But Cohen knows Russia and he knows Russian history. Being an outlier is not necessarily a bad thing. If everyone has agreed to a consensus view, that view is most likely to be incorrect.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has set forth the reaction to Cohen’s views. It has mostly come from the progressive and radical left. No surprise there:

Writing in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called Cohen "Putin’s American apologist." Jonathan Chait in New York magazine labeled him a "dupe" and "a septuagenarian, old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism." Cathy Young in Slate said Cohen was "repeating Russian misinformation" and "recycling this propaganda." And there are many others who share those views, even at the magazine his wife [Katrina Vanden Heuvel] runs [The Nation]….

But the attacks in the media have stung. Vanden Heuvel can recite the worst of them. And they have also started to come from inside The Nation, where editors and reporters wonder if Cohen’s influence is responsible for the country’s leading left-wing magazine taking the side of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on U.S.-Russia policy.

One might ask which of these critics—and there are many, many more—has Cohen’s depth of understanding about Russia. One would reply that none of them does. And one would reply that they are not offering a reasoned response. They are engaging in ad hominem attacks, because that is all that they know how to do.

The message has reached those that it was supposed to reach: those with less power and less influence and more at risk:

Cohen thinks that young scholars are afraid to voice views similar to his. He says he gets email to that effect. "They’re going to be careful. And you can’t be a good scholar and be careful."

For those who have missed the debate the Chronicle sets out some of Cohen’s views:

On the show, Cohen unleashes the opinions that have turned him into one of the least popular Russia experts in America. Speaking about the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to Russia’s invasion, he asks: "If you’re sitting in the Kremlin, and you see this as surreptitious NATO expansion, and Ukraine, which is virtually a kinship of Russia, do you do nothing?" Putin "is reacting. … He had few alternatives." He continues: "If we’re going to ask who undermined Ukrainian democracy, it wasn’t Putin." It was Western leaders….

He similarly blames America for panicking about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. "Why did America embrace what is clearly, or seems to be, a fiction for which there is no evidence?" He speculates on the answers: Putin was an obstacle to global American hegemony. Another scenario: "Sinister forces, greedy forces, high in our political system and in our economy, need Russia as an enemy because it’s exceedingly profitable." U.S.-Russian relations "didn’t go wrong in Moscow." They "went wrong in Washington."

Naturally, we want to know about Cohen’s track record as a prognosticator. In truth, the Chronicle explains, it is fairly good. And it has often run counter to the conventional wisdom. If you believe that the conventional wisdom contains grains of truth, you should have a serious rethink.

But even those who think Cohen is wrong now have to acknowledge that he has been right about a lot in the past. In addition to his views in the 1970s on the possibilities of Soviet reforms, he was proved correct in his assessment in the late 1980s that Gorbachev was a genuine democrat, in contrast to those who, like Richard Pipes, believed he was merely a kinder, gentler Soviet apparatchik. In the 1990s, Cohen was among the first to identify Boris Yeltsin as someone doing deep damage to Russia through his corruption. "Much of the academy were pro-Yeltsin," recalls Suny. And Cohen was prescient in observing that post-Cold War NATO expansion would revive Russian nationalism.

Cohen has reached a point where he is one of the few prominent intellectuals who can get away with such heresy. He said:

"I’m emeritus at two universities. That means I’m old and I got a lot of health care. What are they going to do to me?"

They cannot do anything to Cohen... but they can make of him a cautionary tale for anyone who would be tempted to respect his views.


Ares Olympus said...

It might be good to write "Stephen F. Cohen" for clarity, with at least 5 scholars by that name on Wikipedia, but easy enough to identify from the disambiguation page, as "American scholar, specializing in Russian studies."

What can they do indeed? Opinions are free, and I can imagine why various self-declared experts wish to dismiss his expert opinions, but obviously it would be better to express their concerns respectfully.

It makes sense a professor of Russian Studies may have some skill at imagining how Russia sees the world, and so he apparently has internalized Putin's motivates as rational from a Russian perspective. But if he was a true scholar I'd also hope he questions his own conclusions. Or just because he can imagine reasons for why Putin acts as his does, that doesn't mean he really knows.

Perhaps while Cohen is waiting for more people to say mean things about him, he should strike up a conversation with Bill Browder, who also has first hand experience with Russia, and they could see what common ground they could find.

trigger warning said...

AO: "What can they do indeed?"

Ask Nicholas Christakis. Or Paul Griffiths.

Sam L. said...

Progressives are HELL on those who do not agree with them.

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ares Olympus said...

TW, I see:
Griffiths resigned from Duke Divinity School in May 2017 after being reprimanded by Duke Divinity School administration for his strongly worded opposition to diversity training.

It sounds like he's a good candidate for Jonathan Haidt's group:
In fact they referenced the case:

It looks like the world needs our "grumpy old men" to keep resisting in many domains, although not resigning would certainly be bolder.

James said...

"They are engaging in ad hominem attacks, because that is all that they know how to do."
Bingo Stuart! I'll add not only is it all that they know to do, but they must do it. They have no choice.

sestamibi said...

One of the Russia experts with the most street cred is former SoS Condoleezza Rice, who did her Ph.D on the subject, so it would be interesting to hear her take on the issue.

On the other hand, she just might be content in her new career as a concert pianist and prefer to avoid the controversy.

Anonymous said...

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1850s or so: "The 2 Great Powers of the future will be America and Russia".

Napoleon: "China is a sleeping giant. Let him sleep. For when he wakes, the world will tremble".

I think Cohen is right. Russia has an awakened China on its border, many Muslim enemies, a moribund economy, average male life span of 56, a demoralized Europe.

It's still Russia. But America as friend makes strategic "realpolitik" sense.

Most US Elites loathe realpolitik. Moralism, humanitarianism should reign. Phooey. The world is a jungle.

Has Condi Ever written Anything of substance? For Bush II in "Foreign Affairs", she posited pullback & disengagement. -- Rich Lara