This interview originally appeared in Russia Direct.

In an interview with Russia Direct, Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin discusses the key flaws of Russian and American foreign policy expertise, and the reasons why the Kremlin neglects outside expertise and believes in conspiracy theories.

After the presentation of the University of Pennsylvania’s global think tank index last week, Russia Direct sat down with Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin to discuss the core challenges facing Russian and American foreign policy experts, the reasons why Russia’s political elites believe in conspiracy theories and why outside expertise is out of favor with the Kremlin.

In addition, Trenin gives his take on the current information wars and the reasons why today they are much more difficult to conduct. He also explains why compromise between the White House and the Kremlin is unlikely now. 

Russia Direct: What are the challenges of American foreign policy expertise at the current time, given the great deal of confrontation between Russia and the United States?

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center from 2008 to early 2022.
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Dmitri Trenin: First of all, the challenge is to understand where the other country is coming from.  I think too many people are too sure that they know the answers to all those questions, so that the questions themselves don’t even have to be asked.

A lot of people are certain about what Mr. Putin wants and where he is coming from.  A lot of people think they know where the United States is coming from and what the United States wants to do with Russia. The challenge is go beyond the stereotypes that are very powerful and well represented in both countries.

The challenge to the U.S. is to be able to go beyond the ideological stereotypes, which are strong and which create a sort of condition [for] you to discuss things from a values point of view. This is very credible, very legitimate, but which is not the only way you can approach things. So, you should broaden your scope.

For the Russians, there is a clear need to do more serious research on the United States. The Soviet Union had a great capacity to study the United States — The Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies was the premier think tank in Soviet days — and I think we lost much of it now.

We sort of “know” what’s going on in the United States, because it is all on the TV screen. We sometimes travel there and we sometimes talk to [American] people.  But my impression is that we often lack the solid knowledge and that makes us less understanding and … .

RD: … aware?

D.T.: Well, aware not so much. I mean we often do not appreciate the importance of the various contributing factors as far as it concerns foreign policy. We often talk in very broad terms. In my view, there are enough details and nuances to the [Russian] analysis, which could be critical.

For the United States, as I said, this is the mostly ideological way that you approach Russia and this also leads you to conclusions that may be wrong and incomplete.

RD: Some prominent Russian journalists like Vladimir Pozner claim that they have experienced a great deal of hostility from their peers and experts in the West during the debates about Russia and its foreign policy, probably, due to ideological preferences or a values-based approach. Based on your experience, have you ever seen such animosity from your counterparts who don’t agree with you?

D.T.: I’ve never experienced hostility, but I can imagine a lot of irritation on both sides, when you come up with your view of, say, what happens in Ukraine and what should be the way forward in Ukraine. And those two views that are pretty well entrenched when they come together, there is no room for serious discussion, frankly.

You just lay out your views and when you see somebody else’s views and you see they are incompatible. In principles, you have to stand up, and walk away, having said: “Thank you very much. I understand what you want, but you are not going to get it.”

We also should understand that the format of a discussion is geared to be polemical. So, in polemics you have to sound very hostile. You may not be necessarily hostile after the show, when people are more relaxed and friendly. I find this part of the game. That its format makes you sound very hostile doesn’t mean that as human being you will be hostile.

RD: There is a lot of talk about the domination of conspiracy theories not only among Russian media, but also among Russian experts. In your view, where does the conspiracy theories approach come from in Russia?

D.T.: Well, conspiracy theories come from the lack of knowledge, the lack of understanding. It is the shortcut. People, instead of thinking through the enormous complexity of human behavior, including a nation’s behavior, they do a shortcut and come up with an explanation that sort of should explain it all. This is essentially based on intellectual laziness and a certain predilection for simple solutions for seeing the world in a simplistic way. And this is where it is coming from.

RD: Sometimes oversimplification might be a matter of political purpose. Some politicians purposely oversimplify and exploit conspiracy theories to mislead and promote their political goals while understanding that the world is more complicated than it seems to be. So, where is the fine line between purposeful oversimplification and the firm belief in conspiracy?

D.T.: It depends on [the situation]. Certainly, oversimplifying things is a tactic that people use in politics and political debate. I am less worried about that use of conspiracy theories. You know, there are certain tools that people use in politics: Some of them are dirty, some of them are crude; and yet they have been used for a long time and they’ll continue to be used as long as politics exists.

I am more worried about intellectual laziness [of the Russian political elites]. I am more worried about [their] closed minds. I am more worried about [their] structural inability to see the world for what it is.

RD: How to straddle between two extremes during a highly politically charged atmosphere?

D.T.: Straddling between the extremes? Well, you should be an honest researcher, you should be an honest intellectual; you should base conclusions on facts and facts should guide you, [even if] these facts contradict your theory. So, it is easier said than done, because intellectual freedom or independence is pretty difficult to get by in today’s world.

RD: Why do Russian political elites relegate outside political expertise to something secondary or even neglect it?

D.T.: First of all, I think that they actually treasure expertise, but expertise that comes from within the system. What they do not trust is expertise that comes outside the system for various reasons. One [of them] is if you don’t have access to some secret documents that circulate within the government, then, you are not well informed. And what you see outside has limited validity.

Secondly, people [in the Kremlin] believe that various outside sources of expertise actually work for somebody else and they want to pursue a certain agenda. And this agenda will be different from that of the government and sometimes inimical to the government, so you want to exclude that. There are many reasons for that. But there is a culture in this country that basically bases government decisions on government-provided information.

RD: So, what would you recommend as a way to deal with the problem?

D.T.: My view is that the elites in the country need to be far more sophisticated. The country demands a much higher degree of education from its elites. The country demands not only a higher quality education, but also a different attitude to a donation.

The elites can only justify their elevated position in society, if they serve the society. If they sit atop a society, rule over it and don’t really care about the society or do not treat that society as an equal, then they are doing disservice to their country. Russia has had a long tradition of serving elites. Today, for quarter century now, Russian elites have been, basically, serving themselves. And this is a bad thing and this cannot last very long without very serious problems for the country.

RD: Moreover, these elites launch informational wars against the West or, as they argue, respond to informational attacks from the Western mainstream media, to promote their angle and agenda and counterbalance what they call “the Western hegemony.” No wonder, in the West, there is a great deal of talk about “the cynicism, effectiveness and danger of the Russian propaganda.” But do you think there is a real information war? Maybe, it doesn’t exist at all, as some would argue. Or it might exist only for those who seek more government funding and shy away from intellectual honesty, responsibility, journalistic integrity and objectivity.

D.T.: I think that the information space is a battlefield and this will continue to be a battlefield. Since it is a major field, there are the differences between the Cold War and now. During the Cold War, there were two different informational spaces: One was within the Soviet Union and its satellite states and the other one was in the Western world and non-Communist world.

Today we — Russia and the West — live in a single information space, which makes the task of propaganda more difficult.  I think the Russian government propaganda is one of the best state propagandas in the world today. They are very persuasive on the domestic front. They are somewhat persuasive on the outside and this is what brings people in the West to start doing something to deal with the Russian propaganda.

But I don’t think this necessarily kills objectivity everywhere. It is a free choice to take part in information wars or to stay professional and objective and try to see things from the vantage point of professionalism, not professionalism in informational warfare, but professionalism in the study of international relations or other relevant policy subjects.

Again, it is a free choice of people. I don’t these things are mutually exclusive, but, of course, in today’s world propaganda - or whatever you counter with - has much more prominence and so much more in terms of resources than the objective study of the state of the world or the state of relationships.     

RD: The U.S. presidential campaign is in full swing, with a huge variety among candidates and some of them, like the Democrats’ Bernie Sanders and the Republicans’ Donald Trump, ready to reassess their approaches to Russia. Do you think the next American president will be able to change his/her policy toward Moscow or to impact the way that U.S. political elites think about the Kremlin?

D.T.: I do not expect a major change as a result of the U.S. presidential election as far as U.S. policy toward Russia is concerned. Russia challenged the U.S. seriously. The U.S cannot ignore that, whoever the president is. There may be different ways of dealing that challenge. But the challenge is there. Russia has broken out of the U.S. post-Cold-War dominated world order.

This is the fact. And if you accept the fact, you accept a certain role of Russia in the world. Or you may decide you cannot accept the fact and, instead, you continue to pressure Russia and change its policy. But then, after a while, you have to assess the effectiveness of your efforts and decide what you do about it.

You know, international relations are normally pretty pragmatic business. People talk in terms of ideology and values and stuff like that, but in reality most of foreign policy is made on the basis of national interests. It is only presented in a certain wrapping that may be value-based or ideological or — whatever you call it — spiritual.

RD: After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow last year, the Russian president claimed that he was ready to come up with compromise with the U.S. during his annual press conference. Does it mean that he is ready to change approaches to the U.S. and is he really able to come up with compromise given his mentality and professional background?

D.T.: Compromise is a very broad notion. There can be compromise on 90 percent your way and 10 percent the other guy’s way, or you are going to have the reverse: 10 percent your way and 90 percent the other guy’s way. I don’t think that Mr. Putin will accept the compromise that goes 50 or more percent the U.S. way. At best, his compromise is fifty-fifty, but to many people in the U.S., compromising with Putin is compromising one’s interest. And for many others, it is compromising one’s values and principles.

So, I think that Mr. Putin is more ready to compromise with the United States on his terms than the United States is. The U.S. is acting from the position of a superior strength and it would very much prefer Putin to behave himself to roll back his recent advances in a number of areas. This is something what Putin will certainly find unacceptable.

So, the idea is, as I see it, that from the Western perspective, the harsh economic realities [in Russia] will make Putin compromise on positions, which are much closer to what the West demands than to what Putin wants. Before there is any compromise accepted by all sides, there will be mighty intense competition between the U.S. and Russia. And the outcome is yet to be seen.