Assistant Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University
Simon Miles, Assistant Professor at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, was a panelist on the RSW's Critical Conversations in Russian Studies panel, "Soviet Foreign Relations and the Late Cold War." He was interviewed by PhD student John Stanko.
JOHN STANKO: Good morning, Dr. Miles. Thank you for joining me here. I know that you work with a lot of diplomatic history, especially in the Soviet Union, but you also have a contemporary view. How did you get into this particular field?
SIMON MILES: John, thanks for having me, it’s good to be here. I’m curious about that too from time to time! My family are from Eastern Europe, so I was interested in these cultures and immersed in them. I think if you're interested in what we would call Central and Eastern Europe, international relations and diplomatic history are kind of inescapable, right? When you're talking about countries that have been portioned off, annexed, and gobbled up, and about what it means to be Eastern European, you can’t not think about international relations and the great powers for whom Eastern Europe was a field of competition. So I think that has a large part to do with it. The other part is that I benefited from some really extraordinary mentors as an undergraduate. I was fortunate to learn from some really fantastic historians who steered me in that direction and then I just kept on learning — from even more historians — and continue to do so now.
JS: I find this area interesting especially with diplomatic history, particularly international relations between empires. Do you think that within international relations, diplomatic history is overlooked? What do we gain by bringing in a historical perspective?
SM: I make my professional home in a school of public policy and not in a history department, so bear that in mind in assessing my views on this. I see an enormous value in being among social scientists at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke because you see the different ways in which disciplines approach problems and provide solutions. I love, for example, co-teaching with political scientists who are interested in parsimony, in theories that have explanatory power, and who might gravitate towards monocausal explanations of phenomena, because then it's fun to get into those debates.
As a historian, we look for complexity. Historians are drawn often to irony and things like that, which doesn't negate the utility of a social science approach to international relations, the two in concert have a ton to offer. Diplomatic historians are omnipresent in political science work if you look at the footnotes. We are actually in conversation a great deal, and the whole of that conversation is greater than the sum of its parts.
JS: I understand that you are in charge of Duke’s American Grand Strategy: History and International Security Series. Have you enjoyed being in charge of that, of bringing people to Duke?
SM: I've loved it. It’s a really great way to meet people whose work you love and invite them to North Carolina. Of course, I could just assign their books to my students, but it’s easier said than done to assign an entire book's worth of reading for one session of a biweekly lecture. Whereas, in inviting them to have an informal conversation about their work, students really respond to it. And the guest speakers get a perspective on the wonderful student body with Duke.
JS: As someone who himself was in a PhD program not all that long ago, do you have any advice for current grad students? How do you advise grad students to get the most out of their grad school experience?
SM: This is a challenge in part because I think it's fair to say that the academic job market, especially in the humanities, is fundamentally broken. I will say that I look back really fondly on my five years at the University of Texas at Austin, where I was basically getting paid to learn. There’s probably never again going to be a time in your life when you get to draw a salary, however meager, to just read books that interest you and/or ought to interest you and ought to be relevant to what you want to do.
I did a lot of the research for my book Engaging the Evil Empire (Cornell University Press, 2020) in graduate school. I thought it would be interesting to go to the Czech archives and was able to go thanks to the folks at the Center for Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies (CREEES) at UT. It was a revelation. If you look through the footnotes in my book it's full of stuff that happened serendipitously. The story of my archival research trip to Ukraine is very similar: I had a hunch it would be interesting, I had some funding left, and it had enormous consequences for my work, not only in the book I already published but also in the work I'm doing now.
My advice: I would encourage people to try to get the most out of graduate school in a way that makes sense for them, whether that's reading really deeply and taking their time with that or seeing what they can do research-wise in an exploratory way—and not necessarily with absolute certainty that it's going to pay off. As long as you're spending someone else's money!
JS: As someone who has not yet had the pleasure of doing archival research, I'm curious if you have any interesting anecdotes, such as things that happened while you were doing research or things you came across in some documents, especially some of these declassified documents that you've used.
SM: The fun of writing that book was the varying archival experiences. The UK archives are a wonderful place to work—they have a phenomenal catalog and it’s a hyper-efficient system—but it doesn't make for very good stories. This is not always the case in some of the Eastern European archives where there's just less that you know about beforehand, so it’s more a process of discovery.
I did have some interesting timing. I was in Moscow around the start of the Russian air war in Syria. I was working at the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (РГАНИ) which was right by Red Square (they've moved since then). They had closed off Red Square for the visit of Bashar al-Assad, and I was just curious so I went out to see, and this motorcade ripped past me. Later I worked out that it was Assad. That was interesting because of the conversations it engendered with Russian folks I got to know at the time—conversations about foreign policy and the state of the world. And I didn't have any non-Russian channels at the Airbnb where I was staying, so I watched Rossiya 1 (Россия-1) and Pervyi kanal (Первый канал), which had, let's just say, a unique take on the current events in Syria—you know, lots of high production values, Top Gun-like shots of fighter-bombers screaming across the sky, and what I would describe as a very one-sided explanation of what they were there to do.
I also worked Kyiv in the Archives of the Ukrainian KGB, which is co-located with the current offices for the Ukrainian Security Services. This was after the Russian invasion and the Crimea annexation and it was still very much a hot situation because of Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. And even though we were in the archive section of the building, just getting to and from you could see that this was an agency that was in the throes of very active responses to what was going on. While I was sitting there reading through old KGB documents (fascinating, wonderful, more people should go to Ukraine!) their successors were very actively engaged in basically a fight against their former bosses.
I also spent some time with the Lithuanian KGB archives that are in the old KGB headquarters and at the Czech StB archives that are in an old StB building, which itself used to be the Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation.
JS: What have been your favorite places or archives?
SM: That's a tough one. I love Prague, not only because of the ease of archival work there and the wonderful holdings, but also it's just a truly wonderful city. I have a good amount of family there as well, so it's always nice to have a reunion with them. Kyiv is wonderful not only because of what you can get in the archives but because it's a vibrant, exciting city. It’s thrilling to be in a place with folks who really have a sense that their country is a work in progress and who are doing really hard work to realize the promise of the changes that began in 1991 and are continuing. I've learned a lot from East German archives in Berlin, which also happens to be a wonderful city. And I have extremely fond memories of Moscow, where I worked with RGANI, the State Archive of the Russian Federation GARF, the Gorbachev Foundation, and the Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
JS: I’d like to talk with you about the study of diplomatic history: I read Henry Kissinger's argument in The World Restored (1957) that Prince von Metternich essentially extended the life of the Austrian Empire by a century through skillful diplomatic maneuvering. As I read your piece on the 1956 Anglo-Soviet meeting (2013), I thought both about Metternich and about the way that the British diplomats carried themselves as they sort of put off Khrushchev, the result being that they were no longer viewed as one of the big guns. Obviously some things have changed in the contemporary world of diplomacy, but what are your thoughts on this subject, both historically and now? How much of an impact do you think that diplomats and departments of state have on the future trajectory of their respective home countries or empires?
SM: I think the impact is very significant. The first point is just to echo what you drew out from the piece I wrote about the 1956 Khrushchev/Bulganin visit, which is that people matter, diplomacy is a human endeavor, international relations are conducted by people, and people have feelings, resentments, insecurities, and what some would say are foibles. And there's a significant portion of my book on the early 1980s that also gets into the importance of the Reagan/Gorbachev meeting—not from a standpoint of deals or agreements that were reached, but rather just from the humanizing element. If we lose sight of the fact that this is all being done by human beings, then I think we're missing out on an important part of the story when it comes to the endeavor in which you and I are both engaged, which is understanding more about international relations.
Secondly, there is the relationship between foreign policy and the state as a whole. A big part of this is foreign trade. You can see, for example, in the Soviet case how problems in foreign trade had direct consequences on domestic politics, in particular in the implementation of major reforms in the late 1980s. It’s important to see foreign and domestic not as separate theaters but as related. A lot of diplomatic historians use the phrase “intermestic”—the international and domestic nexus—and I think it’s a really important element of our analysis to see them as mutually supporting and as interrelated as opposed to two separate elements.
JS: I have been really interested in the idea of foreign policy analysis, this idea of looking at the people who are actually making the decisions as not just automatons, but that these are people acting how they feel they should.
SM: That's part of the challenge, that you have individuals who are actively trying to resist, and that complicates the picture. Analyzing foreign policy requires us to take into account those kind of volatile components and not just assume away implementation problems. I teach a lot of strategy at Duke, and I teach Clausewitz, and this is the point that I always make to students: whether it's in fighting wars or doing anything in life, people are generators of friction, which confounds implementation.
JS: With your recent Able Archer article (2020) and it seems like with your book, I see a theme of overlooked sources. We have a limited narrative in Eastern Europe and Russia because of access, whether because they're locked behind state doors or because people haven't realized they're there yet. Could you speak to this situation of unreachable or unreached sources and how that impacts us as scholars?
SM: There are always missing sources, because if there weren't then books would be unmanageably long and unreadable, dull, and exhaustive. We always need to make choices about what we include and what we exclude, and you can make choices to exclude in perfectly good faith. I always encourage people just to be honest and upfront about what those choices are. The situation of Able Archer illustrates this really well: individuals who are relying almost exclusively on the American side of the story are advancing one narrative, while others—myself included—who are more focused on the Eastern Bloc side of the story are advancing another. So now the process of working through the areas of disagreement can happen through healthy and spirited debate.
The challenge for any historian is finding the right balance between being confident enough in your sources that you can make a strong claim, but also not being in a state of paralysis because you are just waiting for more and more. Sometimes you need to be realistic. I would love to get materials from the KGB archives in Moscow. I won't. Maybe at a much later stage in my life, but it's not happening now, so there's not much point in waiting because I'm confident in the body that I've got from elsewhere. Part of it is also perhaps finding creative ways to get around some of those challenges: I could get high-level intelligence, archival materials from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, even if I couldn't get equivalent documents in Moscow.
And then part of it is just that history is an iterative, collaborative process of learning more and adjusting our conclusions as we get new information.
JS: I’m curious about your thoughts on attention and citation metrics on publications, and debates about the importance of attention on social media versus the importance of citation metrics.
SM: I don't have Twitter, so I'm not really in the loop on a lot of that. If we look at news media I am not sure that the conflation of clicks with quality has been a good thing. One of the luxuries that we have in academia is a longer timeline. We should embrace that and acknowledge that it takes time to see the impact of a book or a scholarly article. And while it's exciting when things get buzz and people should celebrate that, I try instead to make big claims and strong arguments in a way that that engages everyone and hopefully leaves a lasting contribution.
We also know that the use of metrics is highly imperfect and that it introduces an enormous amount of bias. Some studies have shown that in the cases of comparable articles, male scholars are much more frequently cited than female scholars. That's not a good thing. That should cause us to question the use of citations as a proxy for quality. I don't think it's irrelevant, and certainly if there are huge numbers then that's probably indicative of something, but it’s important to trust ourselves to form our own opinions about quality and not just look to quantity.