Education or Propaganda? Depends Who's Doing It!


Amid the growing controversy over the leak of thousands of emails hacked from servers at the Democratic National Committee, apparently by a group linked to the Russian government, comes this report in The Times of London:

President Putin has launched a secret propaganda assault on Britain from within its own borders, The Times can reveal. The Kremlin is spreading disinformation through . . . infiltrating elite universities by placing language and cultural centres on campuses. Analysts said that the push was part of Russia’s military doctrine, which specifies the use of “informational and other non-military measures” in conflicts.

As evidence, The Times reports that “the University of Edinburgh accepted £221,000 from the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation to host Britain’s first Moscow-sponsored language and cultural centre. The foundation has also opened centres at Durham University, which accepted £85,000, and St Antony’s College, Oxford.” According to The Times, “A NATO source accused Russia of ‘operationalising information’ from within Britain. ‘The Russian information effort is to muddy the waters, to create uncertainty,’ he said.”

The effort recalls the much more extensive and older Chinese program of sponsoring allegedly independent “Confucius Institutes” at colleges and universities world-wide, including in the United States.  In June 2014, AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued a statement, On Partnerships with Foreign Governments: The Case of Confucius Institutes.  The statement noted how expanding globalization has “meant that university administrators have welcomed involvement of foreign governments, corporations, foundations, and donors on campuses in North America. These relationships have often been beneficial. But occasionally university administrations have entered into partnerships that sacrificed the integrity of the university and its academic staff.  Exemplifying the latter are Confucius Institutes.”

“Allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities,” the statement continues.  The statement recommends that institutions cease their sponsorship of Confucius Institutes unless three conditions are met:

(1) the university has unilateral control, consistent with principles articulated in the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, over all academic matters, including recruitment of teachers, determination of curriculum, and choice of texts; (2) the university affords Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedom rights, as defined in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, that it affords all other faculty in the university; and (3) the university-Hanban agreement is made available to all members of the university community.

“More generally,” the statement adds, “these conditions should apply to any partnerships or collaborations with foreign governments or foreign government-related agencies.”

Now, I don’t know the terms under which the comparable Russian centers in Britain have been established and whether they meet these sorts of criteria or not.  But ironically (to put it mildly) it is neither China nor Russia but the United States that may be more likely to violate these norms.  For at least the Chinese and Russian efforts are open and public.  That’s not, however, what former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul would recommend.  In a piece published in Sunday’s New York Times, How to Counter the Putin Playbook,” McFaul writes:  “Just as the Kremlin has become more sophisticated at exporting its ideas and supporting its friends, so must we.  We should think of advancing democratic ideas abroad primarily as an educational project, almost never as a military campaign. Universities, books and websites are the best tools, not the 82nd Airborne.”

Okay, so far, so good.  Nothing wrong with promoting democratic ideas.  However, that’s not all, for in the very next paragraph we read:  “Direct financial assistance to democrats is problematic:  A check from an American embassy can taint its recipients.  America’s next president should privatize such aid and help seed new independent foundations.”

Actually, of course, the U.S. already has a quasi-public National Endowment for Democracy, but I suspect McFaul seeks something more vigorous — and more surreptitious.  Perhaps something operating along the lines pioneered in this country by the highly problematic Charles Koch Foundation.  Indeed, there is more than ample precedent for this sort of activity in the CIA’s clandestine and eventually much-discredited “Cultural Cold War” of the 1940s-60s, when the intelligence agency subsidized periodicals, performances, and professors in the service of U.S. foreign policy, often behind the backs of the recipients of the agency’s assistance.

Paul Robinson, a caustic critic of U.S. policy toward Russia, summed up the contradiction well, I think:

So, let me get this straight.  Russkii Mir openly provides money to the University of Edinburgh for the study of Russian language and culture.  That constitutes a “secret propaganda assault on Britain.”  Ambassador McFaul proposes giving money to Russian universities through disguised channels and for decidedly political purposes, and that is “advancing democratic ideas.”  ‘Nuff said!


3 thoughts on “Education or Propaganda? Depends Who's Doing It!

  1. Thanks Hank for this piece. I was startled by McFaul’s essay. We’ve been doing the ‘hearts and minds’ thing both openly and covertly for awhile now, as you point out, and for him to suggest that we need to get more savvy and stealthy about it is very strange. It is certainly alarming when autocratic countries like Russia and China get into the hearts-and-minds game but this is very much our new reality as alternative political ideologies begin to openly compete with democracy in a way they just didn’t have the support to do only a decade ago.

  2. My Truth, Your Truth or Their Truth : —
    Were the contents of hacked emails challenged by the Democratic Party?
    Shooting the messenger and character assassination hardly distracts from the truth.
    Some people resigned when the truth was revealed. Others were exonerated but not vindicated.
    Justice may yet be served.
    Motivations of whistle blowers are irrelevant to the facts.


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