Bring the humanities back!


The EU's technocratic approach to Ukraine sleepwalked us into a crisis. We need popular culture to make foreign policy smart.


Vsevolod Samokhvalov
15 April 2015

In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, Germany launched a policy-oriented research centre focusing on Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood. This new research centre aims to develop our understanding of international relations in the post-Soviet space and inform European policymakers.

No doubt, there will be a number of opinions on what this centre should look like. But rather than outlining a concept of this new initiative, I propose to argue against one thing – what this centre should not look like. 

Learning from our mistakes

The main danger is that this new initiative could reproduce one of the most unfortunate intellectual biases of the current European policymaking community – an excessive focus on the institutional and legal aspects of Europe’s relations with its neighbours and Russia. This bias is matched by a distinct lack of interest in cultural and ethnographic understandings of how European societies are changing.

Among others, Mark Leonard has argued that the technocratic thinking, which dominates German and European policy debate, has seriously damaged the vision and credibility of the European project. The crisis in Ukraine has shown just how intellectually detrimental this approach was. 

In particular, this technocratic-institutionalist paradigm resulted in a situation whereby all EU policies toward Ukraine were focused on formal institutions (Ukrainian legislature and executive, leaders of the opposition) and international institutional arrangements, such as the Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). Excessive intellectual fixation on these institutions resulted in two policy failures, which might be said to have led to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. 

Technocratic thinking has seriously damaged the vision and credibility of the European project.


First, the EU chose not to see the growing resentment of Russia about Europe's 'creeping penetration into Russia's sphere of influence.' This is not to say that Europe is to blame for Russia’s geopolitical assertiveness. But the EU has obviously failed to realise that Russia’s rhetoric meant action. 

Although middle-rank European diplomats reporting from the region repeatedly stressed Russia’s growing militancy, top officials at the EU showed no interest in launching dialogue with Russia on its grievances. Instead of going to Moscow and talking to the Kremlin leadership (as was the case during the 'Big Bang' enlargement during the 2000s), EU High Representative Catherine Ashton chose instead to write an article in a Russian newspaper in January 2014 in which she stated that the EU does not think in terms of sphere of influences, and called on Russia to give up this type of thinking.

This self-centred approach and lack of interest in Russia’s interpretations led Moscow to start a trade war against Ukraine in August 2013, in order to induce Ukraine to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Some may describe this kind of behaviour as Russian paranoia, others could say Ukraine is a legitimate Russian interest. No matter who is right in this dilemma, the take away is that the EU's focus on the institutional and technocratic aspects of its relationship with Ukraine failed to foresee that the prospect of DCFTA would provoke an aggressive response from Russia. 

Subsequently, the European expert and policy community was caught by surprise when Russia decided to annex Crimea and launch a destabilisation operation in eastern Ukraine. These events demonstrate Europe’s lack of in-depth understanding of what is going on in the minds of Russian decision-makers and, consequently, properly assess the state of Russo-European relations.

Second, Brussels’ fixation on formal institutions in Ukraine lacked serious societal insight – the EU failed to predict the forthcoming wave of public protests. While EU diplomats in Kyiv and the mission led by Pat Cox and Aleksander Kwasniewski, prominent European politicians, did try to prevent selective justice against Yulia Tymoshenko and Yury Lutsenko, Europe still failed to see the obvious growing resentment of ‘uncivil society’.


Opposition supporters rally under the walls of the Verkhovna rada to stop ratification of Black Sea Fleet agreement, April 2010.

Likewise, Europe ignored the two waves of anti-government protests in 2010 and 2011, which were organised by retired army officers and small entrepreneurs. Fixated by formal institutions, EU diplomats and even leading experts on Ukraine treated early violent episodes of the Ukrainian revolution in 2013-2014 as provocations of pro-government ‘thugs' and/or 'minor radical groups'. 

In the end, Europe kept negotiating with President Yanukovych and parliamentary opposition leaders, giving minor consideration to broader popular and radical movements. Had the EU paid more attention to the prevailing winds within Ukrainian society, it would have seen a number of grass-roots organisations, anti-government artistic performances, informal radical movements, politically-minded clergymen, many of which could have become allies in securing peaceful transition out of the Yanukovych system.

The institutionalist and technocratic approach cannot answer the question why, despite all our efforts, Ukrainian society tolerates controversial and mutually exclusive modes of existence: to aspire for European values, but to ignore Europe's advice on how to build a European way of life; to accept Europe's technical assistance, while returning to authoritarian rule. To make sense of these contradictions, Europe needs an ethnographic insight into societies like Ukraine in order to understand what they value, what they dream of and how these and other conditions transform our policies in these regions.

Diagnosing our malaise 

Eastern Europe is not the only region where Europe’s intellectual bias has failed to pay dividends. Lack of such deep cultural insight and ethnographic perspective into North African societies resulted in Europe failing to anticipate the wave of revolutions in North Africa and the rise of ISIS in Syria.

Even closer to home, the consequences of substituting genuine cultural and political enquiry for general, superficial programmes has had a catastrophic impact on British politics as it gave birth to elites lacking deep societal knowledge and vision. Similarly, French experts failed to understand all the subtleties of cultural dynamics within the French-speaking Muslim communities and to understand why second and third generations of French and Belgian citizens suddenly decide to join ISIS in Syria or perpetrate terrorist acts in Paris.

Right now, Europe needs to develop the intellectual capacity to understand socio-cultural processes both inside Europe and out. European policymakers need to stop treating humanities and area studies as a secondary discipline and, instead, should take them back into the fold and give them a voice in the EU policy debates.

This suggestion is, in fact, far from new. Europe has successfully used the expertise of humanities several times in the recent past – in the fields of anthropology and ethnography. While ethnography is criticised by the left for its strong orientalising and civilising agendas, technocrats lament its inability to produce specific evidence-based indicators and outcomes.

The fact that these disciplines were instrumentalised to subjugate colonised societies is reprehensible, but one cannot deny that they produced insightful studies into the societies that, for instance, Britain and France had to deal with. Similarly, the Soviet ethnographic approach to Central Asia allowed the Communist Party to effectively control this extremely diverse region for over 70 years. Orientalism should serve as a reminder to exercise rational analysis and remain humble in our ability to understand other societies.

Humanities and anthropology have repeatedly proven their potential for European reconstruction efforts throughout the 20th century. Robert Cooper, a prominent European diplomat and strategist, aptly pointed out that Japan's post-war transformation was successful, to a great extent, because European and US policymakers ran exploratory anthropological studies of the country before laying out a programme of political and economic reform, compatible with the country's traditional culture. 

European policymakers need to stop treating humanities and area studies as a secondary discipline.

Bring the humanities back

Today, this knowledge should be called back to serve the expert community in Europe. Take a look at the staff pages of leading European think-tanks and one will find political scientists, economists, diplomats, lawyers, strategists, but hardly any scholars of literature, area studies specialists or anthropologists. This technocratic approach impairs Europe’s understanding of its periphery. 

These experts may have good language skills, but have no in-depth knowledge of the culture, literature and society of the country they deal with. Most of them would be able to give information about various aspects of the Russian political system, economy and military, but cannot tell you about the subtleties of Russian socio-cultural processes, popular movies, cinema and books.

European scholars have convincingly argued that understanding a state's foreign policy is possible only if one carefully analyses the prevailing culture within that society, and particularly the elites – the books the leaders read, the movies they watch. For instance, analysing the US foreign policy in the 1990s, Danish political scientist Lene Hansen showed that President Clinton’s policies during the Bosnian and Kosovo crises were informed by the travelogue-books he read at that point.

Putin's bedtime reading 

Although a humanities-based approach is unlikely to answer all the questions about Russia, it is still politically relevant. For instance, Russia and Eastern Europe policymakers could have approached the issue of Ukraine differently – had they known that Putin claimed a 2006 novel, The Third Empire, was his favourite book about Europe.

It is astonishing that this 62-year-old security agent, leader of a leading nuclear power, has a passion for a non-science fiction novel about the conflict of Russian and European civilisation taking place in the shared neighbourhood. Even hardcore realists have to accept this information.

Observers of contemporary Russia such as Ted Hopf and Peter Pomerantsev suggest that the country's propaganda machinery is based on a major instrument of post-modernist literaturethe deconstruction and relativisation of reality, which emerged in Russia during the 1990s through the grotesque writings of the popular novelist Viktor Pelevin on the 1990s.

On this basis, Angela Merkel's statement that Putin is 'out of touch with reality' begins to find even more ground. Indeed, Putin's statements about the sacred nature of the Black Sea region is strong evidence that the Russian leader lives in an imaginary world, created precisely out of his bedtime reading.

An excessive focus on technocratic and institutional issues did no favours for the European Union

Change or face irrelevance

A number of instances show that an excessive focus on technocratic and institutional issues did no favours for the European Union. Lacking serious societal insight, EU policies in Europe’s periphery were either uninformed or counterproductive. 

The cost of this mistake has continued to rise and will do so as Europe enters an era where it no longer enjoys a monopoly on military, economic, and intellectual power. In the view of these limitations, Europe should be more careful, effective and efficient. Europe's policy formulation is too serious a thing to be left solely in the hands of policymakers. Evidence-based policies should be coupled with deep insight into socio-cultural dynamics within these societies.

This insight can only be achieved if European policymakers and experts understand that contemporary Russian literature and culture is just as important as researching Russian military capabilities. The developmental policies and humanitarian assistance in Central Asia and Africa should consult both economists and anthropologists to understand how policies will be modified by realities on the ground, be they informal economic activities, or local codes of honour.

Unless we take these approaches into account, Europe risks losing its position as a leading international actor. Instead, it will turn into a wealthy, idealist ‘sleepwalker’.

Standfirst image: (c) Pakhnyushchy / Shutterstock. 

Image 1: Protest against Black Sea Fleet agreement, April 2010. (c) Iurii Zaika / Demotix.

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