Full Reflection Post


Engaging with Authoritarian Regimes in Academic Spaces

Miles Kahler

The challenge:

  • Navigating whether and how to engage with authoritarian regimes in academic spaces
  • Lending support to voices situated in authoritarian regimes, without jeopardizing their work and safety

The background and policy setting:

Miles Kahler is a distinguished professor at American University in the fields of international politics and international political economy and Senior Fellow for global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. Throughout his career he has had opportunities to engage with authoritarian regimes: invited to interviews with media outlets, collaborating with scholars and researchers and lecturing at academic institutions. His teaching and research presentations have been both in person and virtual and have often meant interaction with societies for which he could not claim expertise.

These activities have led Kahler to repeatedly assess the costs, benefits, and risks associated with such engagement. One risk is the inadvertent legitimation of  a regime, whose values and policies are opposed to academic values of openness and free speech. Kahler notes that engaging with universities provides some distance from such regimes, and he has not viewed his type of collaboration as providing indirect support for governments.. He also maintains that in order to minimize risk, one must be aware of possible manipulation of engagement by those outside the immediate context of collaboration.

The engagement:

Kahler has been involved as an international relations scholar with  Chinese institutions since the 1980s, when he began short-term teaching visits in Shanghai and Beijing. He is not a China expert, an important attribute that has shaped his engagement with the Chinese academic community. He has taught, presented his research, and participated in with Chinese-led projects, but his  status as an IR scholar has meant that access to China for essential field research has not been an issue. Although he is not a country expert, Kahler has both learned from Chinese colleagues, and, in some limited way, lent support to those in China who are working to expand the space for academic values.

When teaching or presenting research in China he asks question regarding his activities:: Does my participation put colleagues at risk – of losing funding, of embarrassment, of having access to future international visitors restricted, or even more severe consequences? Do those concerns about risk I produce a form of quiet self-censorship? How do I  engage with students as a foreign professor? I would not have the occasion to comment on the plight of the Uighurs at an international political economy conference, but should I?

He reflects that in recent years, he has observed, fewer public interventions by Chinese scholars at conferences and other events. Kahler is also concerned that the international connections of those scholars may now create a liability for their careers.

Kahler considers Pakistan, a "hybrid" or "partly free" country in which the military plays a prominent role, as an ambiguous case in considering engagement with authoritarian regimes. He was invited to speak on a virtual panel at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, which was meant to resemble the Munich Security Conference.[1] He had no previous connection to the field of international security or to Pakistan. Normally, his first step upon receiving an invitation of this kind would be consultation with a Pakistan country expert, a step he has taken after  receiving interview an invitation from Russia Today (RT) and China's CCTV, in this case he did not seek out country expertise. The invitation Kahler received was from a division within the Cabinet Secretariat; a think tank associated with the military played an organizational role. Kahler was invited to participate in a panel on economic security. There were no restrictions on his remarks beforehand, and after the conference  his remarks were posted online in their entirety without censorship or editing. Kahler spoke about economic openness as a constituent of  economic security, and he was able to lend support at the conference to voices from Pakistan who took a similar position. to. He welcomed this opportunity to engage with a country with which he had had little contact, but his experience was shaped by his intervention on a topic--international political economy and global governance--that was not politically sensitive.

What were the implications of the engagement?

For Kahler, an iterative process of assessing costs and benefits is essential when  negotiating the “terms of engagement” with institutions and individuals in authoritarian regimes. In his experience, background research to separate institutions with a record of autonomy from those that are mouthpieces for the regime  is a necessary first step. This includes conferring with trusted colleagues who are country or area experts. He also recommends a careful review of the terms of participation before committing to participation to determine such details as editing future publications or any limits on the remarks that will be permitted. Kahler also notes the critical importance of discussing any engagement with local partners regarding the benefits they are likely to derive. In authoritarian contexts, one should navigate to avoid causing your local colleagues embarrassment or discomfort, while at the same time speaking freely as an academic and avoiding compromise of your own principles.

In the recent Pakistan case, it was clear to Kahler that the organizers sought to influence a larger, international conversation. He estimated that the worst-case scenario was a small risk of being manipulated, whereas the best-case scenario was lending support in a small way to internal voices advancing positive policies within Pakistan. On the other hand, Kahler reflects that he could not engage at present with Russia. Even before the Russian aggression in Ukraine, his identity as a gay man meant that he could not endorse a homophobic, repressive regime in any way.  Nor would  he enter a country in which the government might pose a threat to his own safety.

Russia also illuminated another, central element in cost-benefit analysis of engagement for Kahler is ongoing, massive human rights violations. He reflects that engagement in China has become much more difficult now as the costs and risks have gone up, and the benefits have been sharply reduced. There is little space for civil society or academic autonomy in China, and future engagement is likely to become even more limited. Thus, a one-time appearance at a conference comes to seem less beneficial for one’s individual academic interests and local partners and any benefits shift toward the reputation of the regime. As a result of these dilemmas, he has shifted to  maintaining long-term relationships with scholars in those societies during such periods of epistemic closure.

[1] Islamabad Security Dialogue. (n.d.). https://islamabaddialogue.com/

Munich Security Conference. (n.d). https://securityconference.org/en/msc/

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