Un ambito di ricerca, quello dei c.d. "Area Studies", trascurato negli ultimi due decenni ma che riveste una notevole importanza per la formulazione delle politiche estere.
Fondamentali durante gli anni della Guerra Fredda, gli studi d'area si sono via via affievoliti dopo la caduta dell'Unione Sovietica. Recentemente, invece, anche negli Stati Uniti, si sta tornando a parlare dell'importanza degli studi accademici sulla Cina. Lo scrive Hal Brands su Bloomberg, commentando un progetto di legge, presentato alla Camera statunitense, volto all'istituzione di un centro, finanziato dal governo, per la traduzione e la divulgazione dei documenti cinesi:
A bipartisan group in the House of Representatives recently introduced a bill to create an Open Translation and Analysis Center focused on China. If enacted, the bill would revive one of the best traditions of Cold War statecraft — a federally funded effort, uniting government and academia, to understand a sometimes mysterious enemy.
The proposed initiative appears, at first glance, fairly pedestrian. OTAC would receive $80 million in annual funding to translate Chinese documents — everything from Xi Jinping’s speeches to reports by the People’s Liberation Army — and make them freely available online. This is similar to the work that the Foreign Broadcast Information Service once performed vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and other countries: Making a mass of translated material openly available for academic study.
It may seem odd that a global superpower doesn’t already have such a resource. Yet FBIS languished after the Soviet collapse in 1991, and the intelligence community has mostly stopped making translated, open-source (i.e., unclassified) material available to non-government analysts.
This has often left American observers dependent on Chinese government translations of major policy statements. That’s a problem, given the Chinese Communist Party’s tendency to only belatedly release, or even selectively edit, speeches and other documents that might be alarming to outside observers. It’s also indicative of a larger collapse in America’s intellectual capabilities for competition.
During the Cold War, America made a sustained, whole-of-society effort to understand its rival. An entire academic discipline called Sovietology emerged, dedicated — one State Department report explained — to examining the “operating characteristics” of Soviet society, “the psychological traits of Soviet man” and “the balance of social strengths and weaknesses.”
Academics and think-tankers studied the contours of the Soviet Union’s economy, the structure and doctrine of its military, the worldview of its leaders, and countless other facets of the country’s policy and society. The entire undertaking was lubricated with federal money (as well as support from prominent foundations), as part of the postwar marriage between government and academia.
Uncle Sam directly or indirectly funded entire libraries of research. The U.S. government arranged academic exchanges that took American scholars to the Soviet bloc; it enlisted academic experts as consultants and high-level officials.
By the 1970s, the Central Intelligence Agency had relationships with over 100 academic institutions. Not least, Washington helped provide the critical source material — small but valuable caches of Soviet government records, interviews with refugees and defectors, translations of the Soviet press and official statements — that made Sovietology go.
The result was hardly omniscience: One eminent scholar would claim, just months before the Soviet collapse, that such a breakdown was inconceivable. The great Harvard historian of Russia, Richard Pipes, was scathing in his retrospective assessment: “I do not believe that ever in history has so much money been lavished on the study of a foreign country with such appalling results.”
But Pipes was wrong: On balance, the investment delivered outsized results.