Written by Kimberly Madsen, PhD student in SPEA
Dr. Celeste Wallander met with students of the Russian Studies Workshop on March 27 to give advice on careers and address challenges in US-Russia relations. Given her impressive background as President and CEO of the U.S.-Russian Foundation, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia/Eurasia on the National Security Council, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, and many other exciting positions, we were pleasantly surprised when she said that everything she had planned on for her career didn’t work out, and that all the rest was an accident. The key, she said, was being open to new opportunities as they came along. She encouraged us to invest in ourselves through gaining knowledge, expertise, and experience. She highlighted skills that are useful in any career path: working well with others, being the person others want to have on the team because you’re known as the problem-solver, and being open to “accidental opportunities.”
In addition to career advice, Dr. Wallander addressed challenges in US-Russia relations. She emphasized the role that universities can play in improving relations between the countries, noting that official relations are built on societal relations. Good relations take a long time to build, and we shouldn’t let the current situation erode what has been accomplished.
Dr. Wallander mentioned an idea that USRF is focused on is having visiting Russians travel to places other than Washington, D.C. so they can talk to “regular” Americans and see how town halls and discussions work in everyday cities. One of the goals of the US-Russia Foundation and their public diplomacy efforts is capacity building, and they measure their effectiveness based on several factors, including whether participants implement what they have learned back home and in other institutions, making the practicality of the projects an important consideration.
In addition to her Q&A with RSW students, Dr. Wallander visited Dr. Dina Spechler’s “Russia and Soviet Foreign Policy” class (REEI-R 500), an honors class for undergraduates and graduate students. She suggested that to understand foreign policy in democratic countries, we can look at national interests and expect underlying values to be reflected there. In contrast to this, Russia’s foreign policy has been captured by an interest group comprised of Russian President Putin and his inner circle; Putin depends on friends to whom he gave lucrative government contracts, and they support him to maintain power through continued access to and control over rents. Because the power of this group depends on corruption, values of the West, such as accountability, transparency, and anti-corruption undermine the system. While increased investment would be in the nation’s interest, foreign investors who call for transparency are pushed out. Resisting globalization and international norms, which are a threat to Putinism, ends up being main drivers of Russian foreign policy because it allows the current system to continue. Dr. Wallander noted that because average citizens are not able to hold the government accountable through elections, national interests are not set by the people, and they have little hope of changing the system. Instead, it is important to build their capacity, so that when the Putin regime eventually loses power, Russian citizens will have the skills and ability to build their country.
These and other insights are important for students as they strive to understand Russia’s foreign policy and pursue careers using their Russian language abilities.